on 31 July 2001
This book is superb. If you are at all interested in fossils, evolution or geology then buy it and read it without hesitation. It has rekindled my interest in all these subjects. The english used by the author is beautifully crafted and very witty. The photographs are stunning and the science is expressed in terms that are very easy for a layman to follow. Don't be put off by the early chapter which parallels Fortey's experiences in Cornwall with a character in one of Hardy's novels. Once you get through this and on to trilobites proper, you'll not be able to put the book down.
on 8 March 2002
It is hard not to share Richard Fortey's enthusiasm for Trilobites after reading this book. I found that, unlike with most science books, I read every word and didn't just skim for interesting snippets. I now know more about trilobites than I did after completing a 3-year gelology-oriented degree because interesting and enthusiastic writing sticks in the memory.
on 21 December 2003
I've never really been a reader of science books, but the reviews of this were so good that i bought it to read on a long car journey, and it kept me entertained and interested the whole way there! Fortey's enthusiasm for trilobites is utterly infectious as he charts an exploration of their history and the history of those who study them, including himself. The book is packed with wonderful details on the structure of trilobite eyes, the protocol for naming fossils, anecdotes from Fortey's own life (being stung by a hornet in China!) and some groan-inducing puns (plans for a movie about rampaging trilobites called 'Thoraic Park'!). There is a wealth of scholarly and scientific detail in the book, but it never gets bogged down or becomes boring, and Fortey comes across as an engaging, obssessed, fascinating and fascinated man who can teach you the history of a fossil you may never have heard of and make you laugh at the same time. Highly recommended
on 10 July 2004
What interesting creatures. I feel I've learned a bit and would like to know more. I did read S J Gould's "Wonderful Life", about the fossilised creatures discovered in the Burgess Shale, a few years ago. That was fascinating too, but I found the author's gushing enthusiasm and sometimes over-imaginative speculation a bit of an impediment to my enjoyment. Now I try not to let style and presentation get in the way because quite a few popular science books seem to go in for this 'author centred story' sort of style and it would be a shame to miss out because of it. Style isn't everything and if a book is interesting, you can forgive the author's foibles. I think most of the interesting trilobite facts could have been covered in about 50 pages. This book is over 250 pages long because it covers the personal journey of the author from his first trilobite through the interesting people he met and worked with and whose work he admires (or not) and some interesting snatches of the history of palaeontology and the literature of Thomas Hardy and so on. It's not just a trilobite text book. There's lots of 'human interest' stuff here. Some people like that sort of thing and others can learn to relax and enjoy it. I tried to enjoy the personal four fifths of the book and didn't do too badly but the really interesting stuff for me was the information about trilobites.
It wasn't difficult to startle and amaze me with trilobite facts as I knew almost nothing about them. Here are some of the things that surprised and delighted me:
there were thousands and thousands of different species (a bit like beetles today); they had very peculiar and remarkable eyes (those that weren't blind); they could be as big as a very large lobster or as small as a gnat; they could only live in sea water - not fresh water; most of the fossilised remains found are old carapaces that were cast off to allow growth, rather than whole dead trilobites; trilobites were around for about 300 million years; and so on - and plenty more. There are lots of photographs and diagrams. Trilobites are absolutely beautiful - some of them are absolutely fabulously beautiful. It seems a shame that we'll never be able to see them alive.
So, a very worthwhile read.
on 10 March 2001
This is one for those who like Stephen Jay Gould's books. It shows us where there is controvery over the interpretation of observations of the fossil record, shows us how supposedly "primitive" creatures may have surprisingly complex structures and how dry seeming lists of creatures can unlock the secrets of ancient geography. Above all, this is a book about these long extinct creatures written by someone who has had a love affair with them since his teens. Indeed, the author states that he became fascinated with trilobites about the time his friends started to notice girls. Of course, those friends of his lost the chance to name a trilobite (an unusually beautiful one, Fortey says) after their wives. A good read, which brings to life a subject which could so easily be as dry as the fossil remains it describes. As an undergraduate studying geology in Cambridge about the time that Fortey was studying there, I can vouch for the accuracy of several of his pen portraits!
on 30 April 2001
Who would have thought that trilobites could be so interesting? Funny little creatures, they tell us about evolution, the past, and about human life today, through the window of those who study them. The style is always engaging, there are some wonderful photographs, and there is far more of interest here than you could probably imagine. Only towards the very end did I find that the pace flagged a bit. Maybe in ten years time there could be a new edition, and it would tell me, among other things, what was the purpose of the trident sticking out of the unnamed and newly-found trilobite's head?
Fortey's writing talent is capable and captivating. Whether describing the cliffs of Cornwall or his journeys in search of fossils, he keeps your attention in thrall. He is even able to lead us into the realm of arcane terminology. In an early section in this book we are carefully introduced to the physical structure of long-extinct creatures. With graceful descriptions, he demonstrates how to painlessly add eight new words to our personal lexicons. He has much to tell us and he relates his story and his science with evocative skill. The exclamation mark of the title certainly reflects his enthusiasm for the topic. With his ability to communicate that zeal, it becomes infectious.
Trilobites, he continually reminds us, lasted far longer than the dinosaurs - nearly 300 million years, compared to the saurians' 120 million. Their persistence, Fortey explains, is due to their adaptability. They were so efficient at finding and filling ecological niches they are sometimes referred to as "the beetles of the Paleozoic". Fortey shows how various species inhabited deep oceans, shallow seas or glided through the mid-depths of the seas. The only niche left uninvaded, Fortey ponders ruefully, was fresh water streams and lakes. Had they done so, he muses, they might have persisted to modern times. Whether that step might have precluded our evolution, Fortey sets aside for others to consider.
We learn the anatomy of these lost arthropods, how the structure of the legs was discovered, how they grow from minuscule diatomic forms to more than lobster-sized. The most engaging aspect of trilobites was the variety and form of the eyes. Unlike the squishy, liquid-filled sensitive orbs we carry, trilobites "learned" enough chemistry to form eyes of calcite crystals. These are arranged in a wide variety of patterns and structures, reflecting the animals' diversity. Some lacked them altogether, having never developed vision, or losing it as successive generations migrated to the stygian depths.
Fortey has traveled the globe in search of these mysterious creatures. From misty Newfoundland through snake infested Queensland to an Arabian site infested with scorpions. He insists the risks are ignored when a new fossil emerges from the rocks. You feel that every new find should have a champagne celebration to accompany it. Fortey, however, is content with beer - sometimes just a bit of cool water suffices. Every page of this book dispels the mistaken image of the unfeeling, austere, white-coated academic. His contribution to the science is inestimable - he's named 150 species. Yet those accomplishments pale against his love for the science and the creatures he studies.
In explaining the diversity of his treasured trilobites, Fortey takes us through the mechanics of plate tectonics. Geology is the science that birthed paleontology, and the two sciences have been intimately entwined for generations. In explaining why different types of trilobites evolved, Fortey traces the movements of continents over the millennia. East Coast Newfoundlanders may be pleased to read how their part of the island was once joined to the European continent to later merge with the western segment. The key to discovering this phenomenon was, of course, trilobite species differences. This kind of information Fortey offers within a framework of why these lost life forms are important for an understanding of who we are in nature. A fine addition to any bookshelf. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
on 11 October 2009
I read this book when I was 13, and thought it an easy, but intresting read. At first I found it fascinating learning about the Trilobites, but as it progressed into talking about the different species, it got, in my opinion, gradually less brilliant, but at no point did it become boring. The illustrations in the book are wonderful, and really help to bring the book to life, especially if, like me, you hadn't seen many trilobites, besides the common phacops. I didn't have much knoledge of this period of geological history, or paelentology itself before reading it, but I don't think it hindered me at all.
One of the negative things I would say was that you heard a lot about the Author's life history, which, for me was boring, as I would have prefered just to learn about trilobites, but it does show the author's enthusiasm for the subject.
It was an excelent read, and I would reccomend it to anyone, whether they are a geology geek, or just gernerally intrested in science.
on 4 October 2002
I was astounded by how quickly i became totally absorbed by this book. No real science background needed to appreciate this witty distillation of hundreds of millions of years of trilobite history into a slim volume. The pace is excellent and you hardly notice that what you are reading is full of what, in any other book, could be seen as dry facts. I especially liked the explanation of crystal eyes. My only suggestion would be an appendix with photos / diagrams of every trilobite discussed in detail.
on 12 March 2007
On the face of it, trilobites seem a very dead subject (pun intended). That which lived such a long time ago cannot tell us a great deal about how life existed then, or indeed now, can it? If you prejudge a book by its title, cover or subject matter, you risk missing something, or disappointing yourself, depending upon whether you are pessimistic, or optimistic.
Richard Fortey is a very enthusiastic narrator, and he starts by describing the anatomy of a "standard" or typical trilobite (tri-lob-ite: three lobes, or parts). As the book progresses, you become aware that these creatures have incredible variety, just as individual humans are different, but more so. If palaeontological evidence is to be believed, these "beetles of the Palaeozoic" lived over hundreds of millions of years, and were spread over the whole earth. Their habitat was not uniform, but a whole variety. Fortey is a passionate advocate and a champion for his cause, and clearly knows his subject.
For me, I would have benefited from more diagrams. Periods of geological time, and the neo-classical names of individual trilobite species or genus are hard to put into perspective as just NAMES. Others reading this book could be very familiar with the subject matter. However, a diagram of geological time and another of rock formations, perhaps, or basic geology would have helped me. It would have perhaps been controversial, but also a tree diagram of how one species is thought to have been a successor of another. That would have helped this reader, for the subject matter, rather than being confined to the trilobites encased in stone, covers lots of other areas
I don't agree with all the inferences drawn, but if I only read what I agreed with, my diet of books would be pretty poor. What I did find is a book well written, with very good use of English prose. Read the book with a pen and paper handy, and you may find some good one-liners - certainly ones that I had not come across before, and ones that spark the imagination. Here are some: "If you wish to snare a butterfly, it is no use using a blunderbuss and a suitcase" page 48; "There is no final truth in palaeontology" page 63 and "All questions in real science are journeys towards the right answer" page 149.
The book introduces some interesting areas of current thought on how species develop, and demise. As Fortey rightly indicates, life is changing, and you cannot study life without contemplating how individual life begins and ends, and how species begin and end. Dinosaurs have fed the imagination of generations of children, but were not around for very long in comparison to the over 300 millions years of the trilobites. In talking of time, Fortey points out that it is only approximate: "In time, precision is relative" page 232. So we are introduced to Punctuated Equilibrium as a way of bridging some of the evolutionary missing links that seem evident, and the ideas for the unification of knowledge - consilience.
Fortey examines a dead subject, and brings plenty of life from it. The end chapter is rather speculative, and is not to my choice, but that said, the overall impression is very favourable. I will look more closely at remains of these tri-partite creatures that I may un-earth, or more likely see in an exhibition. However, my passion would not extent to distinguishing one genus from another, or name the body parts.
Peter Morgan, Bath, UK (firstname.lastname@example.org)