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Life Begins For Fortey
on 11 January 2009
Richard Fortey is brave to include the word "Dry" in the title of this scientific ramble, since "dry" is exactly what a prospective reader could think when confronted with a book about the inner workings of a museum. However, enough gossipy anecdotes are included in with the facts and figures to ensure that a light tone is sustained throughout this long and affectionate look at a major British institution.
The author's love of his subject, London's famous Natural History Museum, shines through this book, and it is no surprise when he informs us that he, like many other scientists in the museum who he has described in this book, after his retirement continues to work there "for nothing."
This may seem like a rather chaotic, even random, book; Fortey makes this point himself saying "It does not pretend to be a comprehensive account...It is just my own collection-projects that caught my eye..."(p317.) However, it is saved from being merely a description of unconnected work and personalities of the Museum by the fact that the author does have a strong, personal message to impart.
Fortey argues forcefully, particularly in the last chapter, for the importance of taxonomy, the naming of names, the identification of species as part of a natural history museum's remit. He contrasts "This fundamental if...unglamorous science" with more easily funded areas of research, more "hypothesis testing" than pure investigations into the organisms themselves. This is an area of conflict the general reader is unlikely to be even remotely aware of, but Fortey explains the clash and argues very clearly for pure taxonomy to be the basis of future funded work.
Reading this book, the reader gets the impression that for our fossil loving author, and many of the eccentric colleagues he describes, their work is a deeply held vocation. It is easy to admire and even envy them, working in such a fantastic and magical place.