“The Rise And The Fall Of The Dinosaurs” by Steve Brusatte (2018)

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“A few hours before light broke on a cold November morning in 2014, I got out of a taxi and pushed my way into Beijing’s central railway station.”

Like many kids, I spent much of my youth with a fascination for dinosaurs. Children of all stripes seem to become obsessed by them, the real monsters and dragons of myths and legends, separated from us by millions of years. Because of the inherent awesomeness of them, children are able to trot out words like Brachiosaurus, Coelophysis and Ankylosaurus without any difficulty, long before they may reach more traditional and common words in the language. Ever since we dug up the first fossils, as a culture we have been entranced.

Steve Brusatte is one of those people whose obsession didn’t wane as he grew up. Now one of the world’s leading palaeontologists, he brings together all he’s learnt in his fascinating book. Charting the Age of the Dinosaurs from their small beginnings to their complete domination of the planet and sudden demise, he brings together all the latest research, some of the most intriguing discoveries and a sheer passion for his subject.

What we know about dinosaurs is ever-changing, as there is very little we can know for sure about beasts that lived so long ago. It is important to remember when watching films like Jurassic Park or documentaries like that still brilliant Walking with Dinosaurs, that a lot of the behaviour we see is purely speculative. Working out what they ate and how they moved is easy, but we’ll probably never know how they saw the world, what their parenting skills were like, or what they sounded like. Brusatte points out many of these changes in the book. Dinosaurs were once seen as scaly cold-blooded beasts, but these days it is widely accepted that they were probably warm-blooded, and almost all of them had feathers of some kind or another. We even have confirmation on some of their colours, which was something thought impossible just a few years ago.

Again, it is Brusatte’s passion for the subject that really shines through. He talks lovingly about fossils he has seen, the people he has met, and the creatures that he clearly longs to meet. Starting with their humble beginnings as vertebrates conquered the land, he guides us through the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, exploring how they came to diversify and dominate. A whole chapter is given over to Tyrannosaurus Rex, the most famous dinosaur of them all. Although not the biggest predator ever, and subject to recent speculation that it was actually more of a large, scavenging chicken than a walking nightmare, Brusatte corrects some of the myths and shows that actually, it was probably even more formidable than we’ve been led to believe and may even have hunted in packs. Fittingly, the book ends by exploring the death of the dinosaurs, showing how while an asteroid impact certainly played a part, it may not have been the only reason.

Dinosaurs will continue to fascinate and the more we learn about them, the more assured I am that we’ll never tire of them. And it’s pleasant to remember that some of them survived in the form of birds. This is one of the most engaging, accessible popular science books I’ve read in ages, and I would thrust it on anyone who wants to know just what palaeontology is up to these days.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“Remarkable Creatures” by Tracy Chevalier (2009)

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“Lightning struck me all my life.”

History, as we all know, has given women a rough ride of it. One could read through numerous history books and believe that, aside from the occasional queen or witch, women hadn’t appeared until the 1920s. This inequality is the reason that Watson and Crick are considered the discoverers of DNA leaving out Rosalind Franklin who did most of the preliminary research, or why Charles Babbage is hailed as the first computer scientist, leaving Ada Lovelace often ignored. Fortunately, we are now righting these wrongs, and one of the women who, after her death, achieved great notoriety is the fossil hunter Mary Anning, whose discoveries shook the scientific community to its core. Tracy Chevalier explores her life in this novel.

Anning shares the duty of narration with Elizabeth Philpot, another fossil hunter who specialises in fossil fish (and was also a real person, but whose story has been eclipsed by that of Anning). When Elizabeth’s brother marries, she and her sisters Louise and Margaret are sent to live in Lyme Regis, a quiet coastal town, because that’s what happened in the early 1800s. There, Elizabeth discovers she has a love for finding fossils on the beach, but her skills are nothing compared to that of young Mary Anning who, despite the age gap of twenty years, she strikes up a curious friendship with.

As the two women grow, they make more discoveries and when Mary’s brother encounters a fossil of a creature unlike anything anyone has ever seen, it becomes the talk of the world and centuries of religious doctrine begin to look a little shaky. Is it possible that animals can go extinct? Did God make some creatures only to kill them off? Is it possible that God made a mistake? The ideas are sacrilege to many, but Elizabeth and Mary are determined that the world should see their fossils and hear the theories. Unfortunately, they’re women, but their passion and loyalty to the fossils ensure that the truth will out.

As they grow, they find much more than just fossils, learning about their places in the world, the meaning of heartbreak and how friendships can be as brittle as any of their findings.

I knew a little of Mary Anning before beginning the book – her face and her fossils are all over the Natural History Museum – but Elizabeth Philpot unfortunately was new to me, although no less interesting. Neither she or Mary ever married, and instead dedicated their lives to their fossil hunting even though, because of their sex, they would never be welcomed into the Royal Society or be allowed to write scientific papers. Philpot, in fact, discovered fossilised ink sacs inside belemnite fossils and even worked out how to revive the ink for use. Anning had the harder life, arguably, being from a very poor background and losing her father at a young age. She however became the first person to find skeletons of both ichthyosaur and plesiosaur skeletons, and the first pterosaur skeleton in Britain. Her legacy is one that should be heralded for what it did to science and the advancement of knowledge.

The story itself adds much colour to both ladies, as well as the scientific men around them, and Chevalier freely admits that she has embellished much of what happened in their private lives, but that’s not a fault, as it just gives the women more depth. Parts of the story do drag a little, I can’t deny that, but in general it’s an interesting read featuring two remarkable women. Chevalier has a good eye for metaphor and the two narrators are wonderfully distinct in their styles.

A fascinating and thoughtful look at some figures many may not have heard of, but should have.

“All Yesterdays” by John Conway et al (2013)

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All my troubles seemed to far away...

All my troubles seemed so far away…

“What images come to mind when you hear the word ‘dinosaur’?”

Few things are as exciting to discover when you’re a child than the existence of dinosaurs, and nothing is more tragic than the follow up lesson that tells you none of them are around anymore. Children seem naturally drawn to dinosaurs – they have been given the role of actual monsters, the closest things to aliens that we have. And it isn’t just children, because secretly I think that every adult is also still obsessed with them.

This book, therefore, isn’t really a children’s book, but rather a picture book for adults based on modern scientific findings. It’s a short book and contains illustrations and short pieces on the appearance and behaviour of dinosaurs, suggesting that we’ve got it all wrong. It points out that not only will things like colour, behaviour and sound never be fossilised, neither will skin, feathers, cartilage or fur. Who’s to say that the sauropods didn’t have huge flaps of skin around their necks? What if that isn’t a sail on Dimetrodon‘s back, but rather a hump? Did Carnatosaurus‘s tiny arms act as a way to attract a mate? It’s entirely based on speculation, but with a firm grounding in the appearance and behaviour of current species, allowing us to see an alternate history to the one we’re used to.

BUT then halfway through the book things take a turn for the even more bizarre and we are shown reconstructions by future archaeologists of creatures that live in our time. How wrong may they get it? What mistakes will they make? By showing familiar animals in a new light that can only be inferred from the remaining bones, it highlights everything that’s been shown in the book’s first half. The illustrations are all beautiful and in this section we see such animals as the lithe cow (its large fat reserves would never fossilise), the hippopotamus (mistaken as an epex predator, given its teeth), the swan (wings mistaken for spear-like forelimbs) and the python (assumed to have legs, but none have yet been discovered). Even the elephant is displayed here, although lacks a trunk, given that it has no bones and therefore is unlikely to survive, and whales and hummingbirds are both completely twisted and displayed in new ways.

It’s an interesting and engaging book. Although just shy of 100 pages, I could happily sit and devour 1000 pages of this stuff. A very clever, beautiful and thoughtful look at one of the most interesting topics I can think of.