When we as a people, or, maybe more accurately, as a species were most concerned with nuclear annihilation, the K-T extinction event was discussed in terms of kilotons, megatons. Death from above. The asteroid that killed the dinosaurs impacted the earth with the force of a hundred million megaton bomb, the textbooks said. (Fat Man, the bomb that reduced Nagasaki to a radioactive crater, was only 22 kilotons, for those of you keeping score at home.) All the tyrannosaurs, the ceratopsians, the sauropods: up in smoke. It could happen to you. Duck and cover, baby.

We know better today than we did then. The textbooks now tell us that it was gradual climate change or some festering disease that felled our saurian friends. Instant, blinding death is much too Cold War for modern students. A quaint apocalypse. You might as well tell them that it was the Soviets. People today seem to want to savor their deaths, the slow fading of this life into the next or, more likely, into nothing.

The doctor called a few weeks ago. He gave it to me straight. The doctor told me I’m dying. I should be grateful, really. Every little boy grows up thinking he’ll grow up and make a living as a paleontologist; precious few actually get to die as one.

The fact of my own imminent death has imbued my lectures with an air of almost priestly authority. The students are more attentive than ever. Who better to speak on the dead than the dying? Every Tuesday and Thursday, I enact a one man danse macabre in the basement of the geology building, pontificating on the virtues of various theories of evolution and extinction while the tumors devour my body from the inside. Here’s the truth, I tell them. The fossil record is little more than a geological Rorschach test. Cancer killed the dinosaurs.