There is something magical about dinosaurs. They are unique in their ability to capture our imaginations and transport us, albeit briefly, to a time when we puny hominids were not even a twinkle in Mother Nature’s eye. How many of us weren’t captivated by them as children, and how many of us, as adults have marveled at some precocious paleophile, not yet old enough to cross the street or write in cursive, who can rattle off names like Parasaurlophous, Deinonychus and Pachycephalosaurus with gleeful abandon. Acclaimed science writer Brian Switek lacks none of that glee, and is more than willing and able to share it with the rest of us.
He takes us back and begins his story, as all great stories must begin, to the time he first laid eyes upon his true love. It was in New York. His parents had brought the young Brian to the American Museum of Natural History, and he recounts the intimate encounter he had amongst the museum’s skeletal behemoths.
Way back then, in the forbidding gloom of the hall, my imagination gave the bones a thin cast of vitality, the skeletons felt less like perished monuments to paleontology and more like bony scaffolding waiting to be connected by sinew and wrapped in scaly hides. My young mind didn’t see dead dinosaurs, but the osteological architecture of creatures that might walk again.
That’s how he began his journey to discover all he could about dinosaurs, from the suburban New Jersey of his youth where he started his first dig, much to his parents’ dismay, to his dusty explorations and excavations in his new home, Utah. As he explains the reason for the move, “With apologies to Horace Greeley, my rationale for coming to Utah was ‘Go West, young man, and grow up with the dinosaurs.’”
Aside from the sheer joy Switek shares when recounting these dinosaur tales, he also gives the reader an unparalleled look at evolution, not just the evolution of the dinosaurs and how they came to be the mightiest creatures to ever walk the Earth, but the evolution of paleontology itself and how our views of dinosaurs have changed. Take for example the beloved Brontosaurus of the title. It was first discovered in 1879 by legendary paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh, who thought he’d found an entirely new species, similar to, but distinct from an earlier long-necked dinosaur named Apatosaurus that he’d discovered two years earlier. He dubbed his new find Brontosaurus. Unfortunately, he was wrong. The Apatosaurus and the Brontosaurus were one and the same, and since the Apatosaurus name came first, Brontosaurus technically never existed. The error was caught a few years later, but it was too late. In the popular imagination the name Brontosaurus stuck.
What’s worse, as Switek explains, this was just one of a number of major blunders and misinterpretations about dinosaurs. In the early days, scientists thought of dinosaurs as slow moving brutes with large appetites and small brains, an image reinforced for the public by portrayals of dinosaurs in movies. Countless cold-blooded T-rexes stomped across screens, dragging their tails and devouring everything in their path, while their long-necked prey lumbered half submerged through primordial swamps.
Fortunately, this started to change during the last decades of the twentieth century, during what many have called the Dinosaur Renaissance. Switek tells how, bit by bit, the scaly, lumbering sluggards were transformed into the warm-blooded, agile, gregarious creatures, adorned with brightly colored feathers, that we’re more familiar with today. That type of metamorphosis is rarely swift and never smooth, and Switek does a good job or describing every bump and scuffle. Along the way, he introduces us to a who’s who of some of the world’s finest paleontologists, and does a yeoman’s job of teaching us why they care so deeply for these long gone beasts. He treats dinosaurs, not as a synonym for extinction, but as a symbol of our continuing quest to learn about the world around us, both past and present.
Although the book is populated with scientific names and the occasional bit of esoteric terminology, Switek manages to integrate it all into an endearing narrative that should hold the interest of the laymen as well as the experience dino enthusiast. With humor and passion he transports us back, and for a time turns us all back into one of those kids that fell in love with dinosaurs.