In Whitley Strieber’s 1997 memoir of his childhood with the ‘visitors,’ the Secret School (now out of print) he writes that he was taught that a comet impacted the earth 250 million years ago, and that its effects, plus a massive subsequent outbreak of volcanism, caused the Permian extinction, which destroyed over 90% of all living things on earth.

He claims in the book that he was taught this via the use of a ‘virtual reality helmet’ in 1954. The story was published five years ago, in 1997.

On Febuary 23, 2001, a NASA-funded research team, led by Dr. Luann Becker of the University of Washington (UW), Seattle, announced its finding that “that Earth’s most severe mass extinction — an event 250 million years ago that wiped out 90 percent of the life on Earth — was triggered by a collision with a comet or asteroid,” according to NASA’s news service.

The scientists went on to say that the comet only began the process of extinction. The NASA press release went on to say, “The collision wasn’t directly responsible for the extinction, but rather triggered a series of events, such as massive volcanism and changes in ocean oxygen, sea level and climate.”

The scientific team found particles called Fullerines in deposits from the end of the Permian, and were able to use them as a marker of a cometary impact. However, the land masses of the planet have changed so radically since then, that it is unlikely that the impact point itself will ever be located.

For NASA’s story click here.

These are the relevant passages from the Secret School:

Excerpts from the Secret School by Whitley Strieber Copyright (c) 1997, Walker & Collier, Inc.

From Lesson Six: The Secret of the Comets

The moon raced up the sky, a huge body going so fast that it made me feel as if I was moving instead. Trailing it, I saw another object, a silver moonlet, star-shining.

Brushing bugs off me, I put my arms out, attempting to gain some comfort, but there was nobody. This all seemed so real that it was hard to believe that I would ever be anywhere else. I can’t remember anything about the fauna and flora, except that the place was abundantly alive. Because of the appalling event that was about to unfold, though, I can surmise that this was intended to be the late Permian, a quarter of a billion years in the past.

The loneliness was horrible. Even if this was some sort of optical illusion, I believed it completely. As far as I was concerned, I was there.

Terror grew, it grew into a titanic storm inside me, it burned my soul, it made me twist as if in physical agony, it made me shriek in my high boy’s voice.

Just as I was beginning to panic completely and run off in any crazy direction, I found myself drawn up out of the jungle. I didn’t have a chance to cry out my relief before I saw that I was floating in the dark of space. The awful machine was pressing against my head. I ran in the emptiness, my feet treading nothing.

“One day you’ll thank me for this,” the Sister of Mercy said, her gravelly voice startlingly close to my ear.

I do thank her now, in humility and in awe, for the enormous lesson that came my way that night.

Immediately I was on a surface, but not the surface of the earth. There was no loam, there was no jungle. Thankfully, there were no insects.

The sky was most remarkably changed. The moon was even larger, this time so vast that I felt as if I could step out and walk on it. I reached up, I spoke, hearing the old song again, “I see the moon, the moon sees me…”

But if I could see the moon and wasn’t on earth, where was I? It was a strange little place with very cozy horizons. I seemed to be in a tiny, featureless valley. I glanced up, and when I did saw the most appalling thing that I had ever witnessed. Because it was so obviously huge, it was far more terrifying than the comet hitting the gas cloud had been.

What I saw was that the whole firmament was filled by a wall of dark blue. For a moment I did not know what to make of it. I thought that I was in a huge room-but then realized that the “wall” was composed of water, because I could see long wrinkled lines of waves.

Then I realized that I was also seeing low, green-brown land areas, and understood that I was above a planet. There were no familiar geographic features, but it must have been earth, because the moon was easily recognizable.

I got the sense that I was falling from a great height. I concluded that I must be on a meteor. I assumed that it was the small silver object I had seen near the moon when I’d looked up.

So I had been transported from the surface of the earth to the surface of a small asteroid that was floating between earth and moon.

Realization blasted through me: the asteroid was crashing, and I was on it. I remember just groaning inside at the idea that a nightmare could turn into an even worse nightmare.

Like so many incidents from that night, the vision of the dark ocean seen from a great height has remained in me ever since, unattached until now to anything outside of itself. Many, many times I have seen that water in my mind’s eye, dark and dangerous in the moonlight.

The planet below began to get much larger. Because of a movie I had seen, When Worlds Collide, I was well aware of the meaning of this phenomenon. This was a cosmic collision, just like what was happening on a more massive scale in the colliding galaxies. It was the end of the world, I decided.

I was transfixed by the rapidly approaching ocean surface. It was so real, it was impossible for me to believe that I wasn’t about to get smashed to bits.

It still hadn’t occurred to me that the event I was seeing was eons in the past. I cried out, trying to warn my family to get into the basement. I had to save Candy and my hamsters and our canary. I had to save my mother and father and sister and all my relatives.

Wind began screaming, the rock glowing red, now yellow. I had no feeling of physical sensation, but was pressed back against the stones. The sea spread before me, getting closer fast. Then everything became white fury.

I was on the bench again. My temples hurt, my chin hurt. “We’re adjusting your pilot hat,” the Sister of Mercy said.

Then I saw the scene from an outside observer’s perspective. Flaring and burning, the asteroid shot downward, then hit with a blistering white glare.

An immense shock wave raced out toward the ends of the ocean. Out of the fiery haze at the center something like a giant pillar studded with lightning came gushing up. It began spreading in the moonlight, and I thought that it looked like the biggest Christmas tree in the world.

The planet shuddered, then actually rolled, and the pillar of sparkling fire went off across the horizon. Land came into view-land that was cracking opened, revealing fissures that spat molten stone so high that I could see the smoking, rolling boulders as they crested their arcs just below me.

The whole world was rolling like a gigantic ball in the firmament, turning and turning, hopping…and throwing off huge pieces of itself that went tumbling outward, went screaming and rushing up out of the mantle of air, briefly leaving gouges full of steam and rocks that oozed like molten plastic, rocks of unimaginable immensity, the raw edges of a tremendous hole into which the sea was pouring like white lace.

I screamed until my throat popped, screamed until I became my screaming, and heard around me equal screaming.

The helmets were impacting our unprepared minds with visions that we took to be actual events. We could not distinguish a vivid multimedia presentation from reality. In 1954, such things were completely unheard of. These ordinary objects-now available in any game store for a few hundred dollars-carried us screaming into the unknown on an electronic raft.

Who could do this in 1954 I do not know. What I do know is that their show was not over. We were struggling to escape, our helmets tossed here and there. Our little bodies squirmed and fought to get away and the place echoed with shrieks as dramas of terror were played out in the brush-a girl racing toward the giant old tree, only to be set upon and dragged back by the scruff of her neck, a boy throwing himself off the edge of the bluff, to be caught and returned to his place on the bench.

For years, I discounted all of this as a series of fever dreams, but I do not think so now, not now that I have discerned the overall structure that was hidden not only within each lesson, but in the whole syllabus of the school.

No, I am describing a message that was planted in us, that is scientifically valid and might be of extraordinary importance.

The Sister of Mercy addressed me. “Do you want to come back to us?”

“I’d like to go home now, please, sister,” I replied.

She thrust me along from behind, rushing me down a path to where we’d left our bicycles. But…hadn’t I gone to Mrs. Carter’s? Wherever this was, it was out in the middle of the brush.

I looked down, amazed to see my bike here. I remember reaching down, touching the familiar handlebars…

From the Commentary on the Sixth Lesson: A Theory of Creation

The structure of the second vision, of the cataclysm that closed the Permian era many millions of years before the first dinosaur so much as grunted, also fits recent scientific thinking to a compelling degree.

That anything survived the unspeakable hell I witnessed is a miracle. The earth rolled around on its axis. It burst open, and lava poured out of the side opposite the impact.

I cannot express the effect of this memory, although I can certainly see why it was buried in amnesia, with its terrible power and the sense of vulnerability that it conveyed.

Let me draw a picture of the late Permian, as science has reconstructed it. Life had existed for about three hundred million years. Mostly, the Earth was covered with water. There were, however, some large land masses, and living things had come up from the sea about a hundred million years before. The great radiation of species onto dry land that had taken place over that time knows no subsequent parallel, no more than does the absolutely stunning totality with which the Permian world was extinguished.

The close of the Permian took place two hundred and forty-five million years ago. No extinction since has come close to equaling it. For over three hundred million years, complex living creatures had been evolving on the earth, thriving in its broad, warm seas and then upon the shoulders of the land. They spread up from the beaches and the lagoons, a march preceded by primitive plants like the pteridosperms, palm-like relatives of modern ferns. Slowly, as first the Cambrian passed, then the Ordovician, then the Silurian, creatures struggled in the seas until they were teeming. In the Devonian, about four hundred million years ago, primitive lagoon dwelling creatures began to seek space by going into the shallows. Through unimaginable gulfs of time they did this, often getting trapped beneath the sun, often dying. But not always.

By the end of the Devonian, vertebrates were swarming out onto the land, following the plants and the insects. This was followed by the Carboniferous, when the first winged insects appeared, and the first reptiles.

Then came the Permian, that most remarkable of eras, for it is among the creatures of the Permian that the great extinction that I saw in my vision would take place, and it is out of the suffering few who survived-a shattered band of reptiles and proto-mammals-that the whole future emerged.

All during the Permian, there was a steady decline of species on earth. Plankton died back at one point, just as it is doing now, causing food shortages so acute that whole schools of fossil fish are sometimes found from this period, which apparently starved and died together.

Evolution, after all, is both alpha and omega, the beginning and the end. The omega moment for one species is the alpha point for another. Ancient lines bow down to death, new ones take their place.

The close of the Permian was, on a larger scale, similar to the much more recent end of the Cretaceous that destroyed the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago.

Like the end of the Permian, the end of the dinosaur era took place when a long period of decline was terminated by a violent catastrophe.

In 1994, the beginning of a dieback of plankton was noted off the California coast. As in the Permian, this dieback is occurring during a general decline of species. In our case, the dieback did not start as recently as we assume. It has actually been underway for at least twenty thousand years, and probably longer, so belching factories are not the only problem.

Camels, giant ground sloths and numerous other large mammals disappeared from North America thousands of years ago. Mammoths and mastodons were eradicated across the entire planet by ten thousand BC. And this was just the beginning. The process has continued without surcease into the present era. By 1995, the decline of species has become dramatic, with whole genuses, such as the amphibians, apparently beginning to come under general threat.

We do not know exactly what caused the long decline that culminated in the Permian catastrophe, but we think that the present environmental decline is due to a mechanism similar in part to the one that we know was under way before the dinosaurs were destroyed. At that time, also, the proliferation of a single species had overburdened the environment. Today, the species playing the role of the dinosaur is us.

Our population explosion has been so aggressive in the past fifty years that the kind of large-scale management that would be necessary to reverse the wholesale extinctions of other species that are taking place all around us is no longer possible. We were unable to develop science that was sufficiently correct or social institutions powerful enough to manage our own growth, so the evolutionary crisis of the present era is going to happen according to the laws of nature, not of man.

What might this mean?

Again, the vision comes into play, and the vision, it turns out, is surprisingly suggestive.

After the object impacted the ocean, huge fissures opened up on the other side of the planet, and white-hot lava spewed out in miles-high geysers.

It turns out that this fits a recently proposed explanation for the massive upwellings of magma that have characterized Earth’s geologic history. Lava fields from over a hundred such events have been found, the largest in Siberia and India. When active, these lava fields have given off millions of tons of gasses and set massive fires, causing planet-wide devastation and upheaval lasting for thousands of years.

What causes the lava fields? Interestingly, the dream showed a possible process clearly. An astral body hit the planet, delivering a shock so terrific that it bounced on its axis, rolling about like a billiard ball as it did so. Then, on the opposite side of the Earth from the impact, lava began gushing out. This obviously suggests that the shock caused the lava to emerge.

Modern science is beginning to corroborate this radical view. In the August 13, 1993 issue of Science, a remarkable discovery was detailed by Dr. Asish R. Basu. What he and his colleagues discovered was that these lava fields contain quantities of helium-3, a primordial gas associated with magma from very deep in the Earth. “We are proving definitively that it’s from the core-mantle boundary,” Dr. Basu said.

I can even say precisely which eruption I witnessed. It was the largest of them all, the Siberian basalt flood that took place 245 million years ago, and was part of the great evolutionary engine that closed the Permian and almost ended life on Earth altogether. This tremendous eruption sent out enough molten rock to cover the entire surface of the planet to a depth of ten feet. Although the eruption was more localized than that, and there were surface areas left untouched, the destruction was on a scale that is completely unimaginable.

What, then, would cause such an eruption? My dream was clear: it followed the impact. On August 22, 1995, the New York Times stated, “recently, scientists have proposed that a speeding asteroid or comet, colliding with Earth and exploding with the force of millions of hydrogen bombs, might have shot gargantuan shock waves through the globe.” The waves would have concentrated on the opposite side of the planet, causing the crust to shatter. There would have been vast outpourings of lava. The Times goes on to say that this theory-antipodal volcanism-is not yet widely accepted, but is intriguing to many scientists as a line of research.

More is known about the end of the dinosaur era, since Luis Alvarez found convincing evidence in 1979 that this particular mass extinction was caused by a cometary impact. The evidence reveals that the Yucatan was the epicenter of the impact, and an area of massive magma outflow on the Indian subcontinent known as the Deccan Traps also dates from the period. Geographically, the lava tide apparently did not occur opposite the Yucatan impact, but it happened at the same general time and may well imply the presence of an as-yet undiscovered impact elsewhere.

When a tremendous impact takes place, a huge jet of material pours upward into the stratosphere while devastating shock waves radiate out from the target point. This material, consisting of white-hot rock, drops down across a vast area of the planet, setting everything on fire. Added to this are earthquakes, massive lava flows, and possibly polar shifts caused by the planet’s gyrations.

In other words, this quiet, stable home of ours, with its clockwork-perfect days and precise seasons, can be completely overturned in an instant, without warning. A given day changes radically and nothing is ever the same again.

Are we looking, here, at a great mechanism of destruction that is also the key to evolution?

David Raup of the University of Chicago has identified a 30-million year cycle in mass extinctions that is apparently associated with an extraterrestrial cause, possibly impact-related. Such a long cycle could even be related to the movement of the solar system around the galaxy, and Mineo Kumazawa of Nagoya University in Japan suggests that the mathematics of chaos may reveal a nonlinear determinism in these seemingly random events that may cause them to play a surprisingly structured evolutionary role.

This sounds impossible, but other research being done by physicists William Ditto, Yuri Braiman and John F. Lindner, as reported in the November 30, 1995 Nature, suggests that introducing random variables into chaotic systems causes them to become organized, rather than more disordered as common sense would tell us that they should. Maybe random impacts smashing into a planet’s chaotic evolutionary process actually cause large-scale organization to emerge.

Certainly, on a grand time scale, things look extremely well organized. Life on earth has moved from single-cell organisms to man without a single era during which simpler creatures than those of the era before dominated.

I have wondered, in fact, if the declines themselves may not provide what chaos theorists refer to as a strange attractor, a factor which adds structure to apparently random events. In this sense, the declines and the impacts could be in some arcane way related: the one could attract the other.

In any case, evolution is a very strange process, and its laws are at best poorly understood. For example, why don’t the same species that were nearly killed off slowly regenerate in their old forms? Obviously, this is to some extent because their living environment disappears and does not return after the planet becomes stable again. But that is not always the case. It wasn’t even the case at the end of the Cretaceous. There were dinosaur species living in all sorts of climates on every land mass on the planet. Some of them were as small as the mammals that survived, and used the same parts of the food chain.

We know what devastated the planet, but not precisely why dinosaurs and only dinosaurs were completely extinguished. It was useful, though, because it left room for species with more potential to evolve.

This suggests another very strange thing about evolution. There is no reason why these catastrophes would lead to evolutionary progress, and yet they always seem to.

At least ninety-seven percent of species were destroyed at the end of the Permian. Chance would have dictated that a mix of more primitive creatures would have survived along with the more modern ones. But this is not what happened. In fact, every impact shows the same aftermath: even though they are not necessarily the most robust, the creatures most capable of evolving are the ones that seem to survive.

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