Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Dinosaur Odyssey: A Review

If you haven't noticed, feathered dinosaurs are one of the hottest topics in paleontology right now. There's so much juicy stuff there, from arguments over the origin of birds to using modern technology to answer questions past generations couldn't imagine resolving. Recently at his blog Whirlpool of Life, Scott Sampson broke down this flood of new research, viewing it with his favored macroscopic perspective.

This perspective will be familiar to readers of Sampson's recent book Dinosaur Odyssey (University of California Press). Largely avoiding the many opportunities to get lost in minutia, Sampson places dinosaurs within the larger context of the Earth's natural history. He boldly declares that the study of dinosaurs is no dead end, but rather of vital importance to the future of the human race.

Sampson introduces the reader to the life of a paleontologist through personal anecdotes from his time in Madagascar and Utah. There's almost a Spielbergian feel to the scene in which a massive specimen of Gryposaurus is airlifted out of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It's not all spectacle, though. Sampson gives credit to the local guides who help scientists negotiate unfamiliar terrain and the preparators whose labor we have to thank for the fossils we gawk at in museums. There isn't the level of personal detail you find in the work of say, Richard Fortey. But that's not the point here.

The point is always the big picture. As any dinosaur book for a popular audience should, and must, Dinosaur Odyssey provides solid introductions to the disparate disciplines that converge in the study of ancient life. Besides explaining evolution clearly and enthusiastically, Sampson lays out basic concepts of geology, climatology, thermodynamics, and botany. We meet gymnosperms, angiosperms, fungi, and bacteria. There is no facet of dinosaur life that isn't placed in its larger context. He makes clear comparisons between modern ecosystems, such as Africa's Serengeti-Mara, with those of the Mesozoic. The world around the dinosaurs is given life. This isn't a diorama.

Sampson is clearly aiming for a Sagan-like position as a popularizer of science, and his prose owes a definite debt to the revered astronomer There are stylistic debts, such as the phrase "in a very real sense," the very real meaning of which I don't know. More importantly, he seems to have been influenced by Sagan's efforts to help his fellow Earthlings understand their precarious place in this huge universe. There is no Dawkinsish acidity here, no baiting of anti-science pundits. The image presented is positive and accessible, tying in with his job as host of the PBS kids cartoon Dinosaur Train. One of the great revelations in my life was that what's happening under my feet is as interesting as what's happening around me. Dinosaur Odyssey, with its easily understood illustrations of the networks that make ecosystems work, has the potential to open plenty of eyes to that reality. This book should be in schools.

Indeed, reading Dinosaur Odyssey, I couldn't help but think that if I had a precocious kid or a science-minded teenager in my life, it would be the perfect gift for them. I remembered reading Stephen Jay Gould's essays in Natural History Magazine or Robert Bakker's Dinosaur Heresies when I was younger - readings that gave me a definite head-start in college science courses (a proud moment in my 100-level anthropology class was describing punctuated equilibrium to the group, receiving, I hope, some small measure of respect from the professor). It's too bad that Dinosaur Odyssey was just a bit early to incorporate the new breakthroughs in the study of feathered dinosaurs. But I imagine this isn't Sampson's last book.

I feel pretty lucky to be living at a time that we've got the experience and the technology to develop such a rich idea of how dinosaurs lived. Fifty years ago, they were fodder for B-movies. Now, they're a vehicle for delivering critical thinking skills, knowledge of the scientific process, and the wonder of nature to anyone willing to open their minds to the possibilities. And like Scott Sampson, I agree that these things are the true keys to our survival in an uncertain future.

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