4-minute read keywords: paleontology, popular science
When it comes to popular science books, some of the books I admire most are the smallest ones. It takes great skill to capture the essence of a subject into a short book, steer clear of well-trodden ground, and contribute something novel that will educate and enthuse your reader. Palaeontologist and science communicator Dean Lomax here collects ten short essays on dinosaurs, convincingly showing that good things come in small packages.
In preparation for Andy Secher’s new book Travels with Trilobites I decided to first reach back in time to read Richard Fortey’s 1999 book Trilobite! as a warm-up exercise. Why? For no other reason than that Fortey’s autobiography A Curious Boy impressed me so much that I bought several of his earlier books and I need an excuse to read them. This, then, is the first of a two-part dive into the world of that most enigmatic extinct creature: the trilobite.
This is the second of a two-part dive into the world of pterosaurs, following on from my review of Mark Witton’s 2013 book Pterosaurs. Almost a decade later, the well-known independent palaeontologist and palaeoartist Gregory S. Paul has written and illustrated The Princeton Field Guide to Pterosaurs. Admittedly, a field guide to extinct creatures sounds contradictory. Really, this is an illustrated guide for the palaeo-enthusiast in which Paul’s signature skeletal reconstructions take centre stage.
The downside of starting a review blog is that certain books will have missed the cut, having been published sometime before you started. And with the constant churn of exciting new titles, it is hard to make time for them. Sometimes a new book on a certain topic is just the prompt you need though. Thus, with Princeton University Press having recently published Gregory S. Paul’s The Princeton Field Guide to Pterosaurs, I decided to finally take Mark Witton’s 2013 book Pterosaurs off the shelf and read them back-to-back. This, then, is the first of a two-part dive into the world of these extinct flying reptiles.
When considering environmental issues, the usual rallying cry is that of “saving the planet”. Rarely do people acknowledge that, rather, it is us who need saving from ourselves. We have appropriated ever-larger parts of Earth for our use while trying to separate ourselves from it, ensconced in cities. But we cannot keep the forces of life at bay forever. In A Natural History of the Future, ecologist and evolutionary biologist Rob Dunn considers some of the rules and laws that underlie biology to ask what is in store for us as a species, and how we might survive without destroying the very fabric on which we depend.
6-minute read keywords: paleontology, popular science
I have previously jokingly called the “Earth biography” a rite of passage for science writers; many authors try their hand at it at some point. Fortunately, the Earth is big and time is deep, so there are numerous ways to tell this story. Here, it is palaeontologist Elsa Panciroli’s turn. Next to many unusual examples by which to tell the story of life’s evolution, her writing stands out for correcting common misconceptions and for its inspired language.
Imagine being a successful dinosaur palaeontologist and landing a professorship before you are 40, authoring a leading dinosaur textbook and a New York Times bestseller on dinosaurs. Imagine achieving all that and then saying: “You know what really floats my boat? Mammals.” After the runaway success of his 2018 book The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, palaeontologist Stephen Brusatte shifted his attention and now presents you with the follow-up, The Rise and Reign of the Mammals. Taking in the full sweep of mammal evolution from the late Carboniferous some 325 million years ago to today, this book is as epic in scope as it is majestic in execution.
Before reading this book, I admit that my knowledge of Madagascar was shamefully rudimentary: I knew its location on the world map, the name of its capital city, and that lemurs are part of its endemic fauna. Fortunately for me, anthropologist Alison Richard, backed by her five decades of research experience, has written a natural history book in the broadest sense of the word, encompassing geology, (palaeo)climatology, botany, zoology, conservation, and much else besides. She skillfully dismantles simplistic dichotomies and is particularly passionate about challenging the dominant conservation narrative that Madagascar was a forested paradise until humans arrived. The Sloth Lemur’s Song is revelatory in more than one way and I came away with a much deeper understanding of this remarkable island.
Our planet has been many different worlds over its 4.5-billion-year history. Imagining what they were like is hard—with our limited lifespan, deep time eludes us by its very nature. Otherlands, the debut of Scottish palaeontologist Thomas Halliday, presents you with a series of past worlds. Though this is a non-fiction book thoroughly grounded in fact, it is the quality of the narrative that stands out. Beyond imaginative metaphors to describe extinct lifeforms, some of his reflections on deep time, taxonomy, and evolution are simply spine-tingling.
Scottish geologist Charles Lyell quipped that the present is the key to the past. To say that the reverse also holds is more than just circular reasoning. Felisa Smith, a professor in ecology and evolutionary biology, studies extinct mammals and applies this knowledge to the present. This book is a neatly crafted package that gives the reader all the required background knowledge, while its case studies make for fascinating reading. (Spoiler alert: packrat middens are my new favourite discovery.)