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Essential, personal, modern review of dinosaur science.
on 15 May 2013
Brian Switek is not only one of the best living science writers, period, he is also the science writer who knows dinosaurs best, period. And he loves them; his passion comes hurtling through the chapters like a Yucatan-bound meteorite (but a meteorite that brings dinosaurs to life rather than brings them doom). You don't move from New Jersey to Utah to be closer to the coolest dinosaur dig sites and museums if you don't truly have a burning zeal for dinosaur research. His street cred is thoroughly established by that alone.
This is a very personal story of how one man's love of dinosaurs has stayed with him, has shaped his life, and how his perception and enjoyment of dinosaurs have changed along with the science. It's a book for dinosaur fans of ages roughly 12 and upwards. Switek writes extremely accessibly but intelligently- he does not dumb things down but makes them interesting, fun and even novel to an expert (like myself; I'm a professor who does dinosaur research and I learned a few things I'd missed out on!). And he doesn't make it lame, cheesy or nerdy- he stands up for good science and for dinosaurs as more than just kitsch. I loved phrases like "You can't get blood from a stone, but if you know where to look, you might find dinosaur colour."
The highlights of the book for me, first, include his vivid, firsthand experiences of what it's like- not just in terms of a sensory experience but in terms of a profound personal experience- to be in the field digging up or hunting for dinosaur fossils. His accounts of driving around the USA to visit various museums, field sites or researchers left me nostalgic for my own similar trips back in the 1990s. This is a part of Americana that not that many people experience, but it is immensely pleasing and educational, adding colour to American history and geography. Switek's writing brings the excitement of living in Utah; near the heart of American "dinosaur country"; to life.
And then Switek's reviews of the history of dinosaur research; the bulk of the book but organized thematically more than chronologically; are excellent. For example, why did Brontosaurus's name change and how has our understanding of that animal (Apatosaurus) changed over the past 2 centuries? He gives this question, often covered in other books (e.g. Gould's "Bully for Brontosaurus", which I've loved for ages), new vibrancy. And for once, the large meat-eating dinosaur Allosaurus gets its due, not as a wimpier cousin of T. rex but as a fascinating and fearsome animal in its own right. Switek's discussion of the sounds that dinosaurs made is very well informed and insightful, and his balanced treatment of how/why dinosaurs went extinct is refreshing and spot-on-target. There's much more than that in the book, but those are some parts that stuck with me.
All of these highlights are made possible by three things: Switek writes brilliantly, is deeply passionate about the subject (this is the #1 book he was born to write, I'd say), and truly knows the science. He goes to the conferences to keep up on what scientists are doing before it is published, he reads the original papers and knows what they mean and how to sort out B.S. or hype from good research, and he even regularly does the actual fieldwork with the top scientists. Switek IS a palaeontologist; not just some random journalist; but also he is one who can bring the science to life like perhaps no one else living today. He doesn't just write about it; he has lived it. He picks the right discoveries to emphasize because he knows the field's history and can think critically well enough to make his own assessments of what the modern view is or where the resolution to persistent controversies might lie. The book is modern (papers coming from ~2012 are discussed) because Switek has modern knowledge. He is quite aware of what the cutting edge research is and he personally knows many if not most of the researchers involved.
If you're going to read one general book about why dinosaur science is fun, still important and relevant in the modern age, and dynamically changing (indeed, improving amidst a new renaissance that has been sustained for at least 20 years!), read this. If in 20 years I want to look back on my career, close to my retirement, and reflect how the field has changed since today, I'd use this book as one first milestone for where dinosaur palaeontology was in 2013.
I bought the >6hr audiobook .mp3 version for my commuting. Switek reads it himself, and this adds to the personal touch. I highly recommend that. It is well edited, clear, nicely paced and has an interview at the end that was a nice surprise bonus.