The gap between the popular "Dinosaur" and the scientific constructs of the animals called dinosaurs - an increasingly awkward classification, as Matt Martyniuk has pointed out - has been fertile material for this and other blogs. The natural world is not made of discrete, clean containers of organisms, but rather a messy, interconnected, continually evolving web of life reaching back into the obscurity of deep time. We humans like our toy boxes, though, organizing the components of the natural world in a way that makes us comfortable. That tension is at the heart of Brian Switek's recently published My Beloved Brontosaurus, in which he deftly brings the concerns of dinosaur fanatics regarding the dinosaurian public image to the popular culture.
Coming in at a little over 200 pages, Switek's second popular science book is a breezy read, accessible to an audience who may enjoy Radiolab and Science Friday, but doesn't follow all of the latest paleontology news on a regular basis. It's a beautifully designed book, with a dust cover folding out to a large double-sided poster by Mark Stutzman. On the front, Switek presents an Apatosaurus - deliberately outsized for dramatic purposes, Switek has explained - with a bouquet of flowers. On the back, he crouches before a mount of the same animal. Even the case binding is beautiful, with illustrated typography rendered as if revealed between layers of Lagerstätten. The illustrators whose work populates the book will be familiar to the on-line paleo community, too. Switek had the good taste to choose work from Mike Keesey, Jeff Martz, and our very own Niroot.
My Beloved Brontosaurus is loosely structured as a road trip, couching topics such as dinosaur origins, size, social life, bird ancestry, and sex in Switek's visits to museums and field sites. You can feel the exhilaration of stepping out into the clarity of the desert or peeking behind the curtains to see the inner workings of natural history museum collections. The way scientists explain ancient life accompany the popular stories of the same. He presents himself as a relentless searcher rather than an authority, with curiosity as his most essential tool.
For the die-hard paleontology fan, there won't be a lot of material that is brand-new, but it's still a refreshing read to travel along with a writer who clearly appreciates how lucky he is to be able to embark on these travels. And of course, it's always a treat to read someone so captivated by the romance of natural history. As he writes in his chapter about the end-Cretaceous extinction,
Turning over the Triceratops tooth in my hand... I envision an old, solitary dinosaur standing the Cretaceous twilight. One of her horns is broken, and her face is scarred with signs of a hard life in the land of tyrannosaurs. The terminal member of her species, she holds a lonely vigil as the horizon swallows the sun, and the Cretaceous closes.Additionally, My Beloved Brontosaurus serves as an object lesson in how to communicate paleontological research, engaging less informed readers with the insights of creative researchers. In his chapter on the sensory life of dinosaurs, Switek recounts the way David Evans, Ryan Ridgely, and Larry Witmer spin research into dinosaur hearing to consider what it says about vocal ranges. For those whose only image of paleontolgy in practice is Grant and Sattler dusting off Velociraptor bones in the badlands, the creativity of modern paleontologists will be eye-opening.
It's more than simply a dinosaur book for adults, though: throughout, Switek subtly makes the case for science as a way to understand the world and, to that effect, the continual dialogue of science. It's an antidote to cartoonish headlines which give the impression that science keeps changing its mind. The way an answer blossoms into a field of new questions, the way scientists accept uncertainty and relish mystery is all in here. It's not a hard pitch, which makes it all the more effective. Switek's message is that dinosaurs are a relevant, vital field of study because the illumination extends to broader issues of evolution and the fate of our world. In the same way, My Beloved Brontosaurus uses the engaging topic of dinosaur lives as a way to celebrate the ongoing exploration of science at large.