This involved bombarding samples with neutrons in a small nuclear reactor and carefully counting the gamma rays that were emitted; it was extremely finicky work. Previously Asaro had used the technique to analyze pieces of pottery, but Alvarez reasoned that if they measured the amount of one of the exotic elements in his son's soil samples and compared that with its annual rate of deposition, they would know how long it had taken the samples to form. On an October afternoon in 1977, Luis and Walter Alvarez dropped in on Asaro and asked him if he would run the necessary tests for them.
It was really quite a presumptuous request. They were asking Asaro to devote months to making the most painstaking measurements of geological samples merely to confirm what seemed entirely self-evident to begin with—that the thin layer of clay had been formed as quickly as its thinness suggested. Certainly no one expected his survey to yield any dramatic breakthroughs.