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.
When seeing the world through a deep-time lens, no landscape feature is permanent. The Sahara, for example, “only” came into existence some 7 million years ago. In that time, it has not always been the parched desert it is now but has been green and verdant numerous times, crisscrossed by rivers and home to hippos, turtles, fish and other animals and plants typical of wetter climes. In this book, retired earth scientist Martin Williams draws on a long lifetime of research and desert expeditions to give a very accessible introduction to the surprisingly complex geography of the Sahara, answering some very basic questions.
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.
8-minute read keywords: geology, history of science, paleontology
The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs are probably one of London’s better-kept secrets. This unlikely collection of life-size outdoor sculptures of some 30 prehistoric creatures—including dinosaurs, marine reptiles, and extinct mammals—has survived in the city’s southeast for almost 170 years. They have been lampooned for being terribly outdated in light of what we know today. But that does them no justice. In this gorgeously illustrated book, palaeontologist and palaeoartist Mark Witton has teamed up with Ellinor Michel, an evolutionary biologist and chair and co-founder of the Friends of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs charity. Together, they chart the full story of the inception, planning, construction, reception, and survival of the sculptures. Foremost, it shows how cutting-edge they were back then, why they still matter today, and why they need our help.
Greenland’s name might be considered one of history’s great ironies, apparently part of a cunning plan to attract Viking settlers. The locals simply called it Kalaallit Nunaat or “land of the Kalaallit”, after their people. However, once upon a time, Greenland was green. Tropical Arctic is the fruit of an 18-year collaboration between two palaeobotanists and an artist to bring to life the plant fossils found in East Greenland. In three paintings, it provides a glimpse of Greenland during a 10-million-year window at the Triassic–Jurassic boundary, some 200 million years ago. Much more than a coffee table book, it details the research that goes into producing scientifically accurate artwork, making it a rare treat for readers interested in botany and palaeontology.
Take a look at the geological time scale*. Thanks to the dinosaurs, we have all heard of the Cretaceous, Jurassic, and Triassic. However, going back in time from the Triassic, the Phanerozoic Eon in which we live today stretches another 289 million years into the past; from the Permian that ended ~252 million years ago, through the Carboniferous, Devonian, Silurian, Ordovician, to the Cambrian that started ~539 million years ago. In The Greywacke, amateur geologist Nick Davidson tells the story of how those geological periods got their names and transports the reader back to the heydays of Victorian geology when three men would make Britain’s rocks the centre of international attention. In so doing, he unlocks for a general audience an episode in the history of geology that was so far consigned to more technical literature.
If volcanoes make you giddy, then this is the book for you. Robin George Andrews is that rare hybrid of the scientist–journalist: a volcanologist who decided to focus on science communication after completing his PhD. Super Volcanoes combines scientific exactitude with engaging writing and is a tour of some exceptional volcanoes on Earth and elsewhere in the Solar System. Andrews starts it with an unabashedly enthusiastic mission statement: “I want you to feel unbridled glee as these stories sink in and an indelible grin flashes across your face as you think: holy crap, that’s crazy!” (p. xxi). For me, he nailed it and I found this an incredibly satisfying read.
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.
When I ask you to think of a palaeontologist, what comes to mind? Admit it, you likely thought of someone digging up dinosaur fossils. And that someone was probably a white man. Grounded in the past, and endlessly repeated in the present, this is of course a very narrow picture of what palaeontology is like. In Explorers of Deep Time, Roy Plotnick, a palaeontologist and emeritus professor in earth and environmental sciences, challenges this and other stereotypes. Pardon the excruciating pun, but he leaves no rock unturned in the process of showing the many faces of modern palaeontology.
Deep time is, to me, one of the most awe-inspiring concepts to come out of the earth sciences. Getting to grips with the incomprehensibly vast stretches of time over which geological processes play out is not easy. We are, in the words of geologist Marcia Bjornerud, naturally chronophobic. In Notes from Deep Time, author Helen Gordon presents a diverse and fascinating collection of essay-length chapters that give 16 different answers to the question: “What do we talk about when we talk about deep time?” This is one of those books whose title is very appropriate.