With a background in paleobiology, Christopher McGowan is adept at asking deceptively simple but actually very awkward questions of the "Well, we've dug up this fossil skeleton, now how on God's earth did it ever fly?" variety.
McGowan looks at the way the scale and shape of animals relates to their behaviour, diet and life span. Why, in other words, tortoises live far longer than guinea-pigs, but aren't nearly as much fun.
This line of argument leads to some seriously counter-intuitive physics as McGowan explains how animals of different scales handle and exploit the physical constants by which they are bound. Discussions of drag, inertia and viscosity are particularly well-handled.
Especially refreshing and entertaining is McGowan's happy willingness to admit that millions of years of evolution are smarter than he is. Sometimes, animals just make no sense at all. Consider Quetzalcoatlus, a pterosaur with a 40-foot wingspan and a long, serpentine neck. How did it get off the ground? Its neck suggests it may have been a carrion feeder. Did it climb laboriously to the peak of some vast saurian carcass and hitch a passing thermal? "This entire scenario," McGowan admits, with delicious understatement, "strikes me as fanciful".
While Diatoms to Dinosaurs is marketed very much at adults, there is an infectious enthusiasm about McGowan's writing that suggests a gifted teacher sharing sophisticated just-so stories with a spellbound class. --Simon Ings