THE RISE AND FALL OF THE DINOSAURS: A New History of a Lost World
[William Morrow, 416 pages]
Kids love dinosaurs, especially the Tyrannosaurus rex, or T. rex to its friends. Its sheer lethality—embodied by those massive teeth, those overly muscled jaws and its overall transcendent badness—was irresistible to most kids who had any exposure to drawings and other depictions of this prehistoric beast.
Nobody dreamed of being any of the duck-billed dinosaurs or herbivores that were its prey, spending their lives munching on grass and shrubs while trying to avoid becoming lunch for the always-hungry T. rex. Bring on the king, the terrible lizard with the all-conquering teeth!
Steve Brusatte’s passion for paleo
As we grew up, most of us came to believe that, since they’re so long dead, there was no point in maintaining an overarching interest in dinosaurs. Not so for Steve Brusatte. He never gave up his all-consuming passion for fossils. If anything, it grew as the years went on.
In his 2018 book, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World, he leads us—in fact, grabs us by the hand—as we’re introduced to his fellow paleontologists from China, Romania, Italy and other points around the globe.
He tells us (in his self-aware, yet cheerful way) how he stalked those whom he worshipped from afar, eventually earning a spot as a resident and helping with the projects of Paul Sereno, one of the subjects of his obsession. This relationship was the one that formed his career.
Before Brusatte was born, another dinosaur fan named Paul Olsen wrote letters to Richard Nixon during his presidential term, pleading with him to preserve a certain site that was rich in dinosaur tracks, which the boy had heard of near his home in New Jersey.
He almost won an interview with Nixon, until the idea was sandbagged by John Ehrlichman, one of the heavies in the Watergate scandal. But the site was preserved, and Olsen went on to earn a Ph.D. in paleontology, along with several other accomplishments. He, like Brusatte, never released his passion. Or, it never released him.
A book that’s full of life
Aside from his passion for dinosaurs, Brusatte loves life, too. In The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, there’s a reference to a party in Argentina, arranged by the government, that leaves normal academic fetes in the shade.
Brusatte tells of meat portions the size of telephone books [see Author’s Note], along with copious bottles of wine, whiskey and some unnamed liquor, and the party doesn’t end until dawn’s early light. Throughout the book, there are other mentions of beer and wine, too. The author enjoys the good things in life; that much is clear!
Then there’s the supporting cast, such as the gunslingers—yes, you read that correctly—who’d disappear into the emptiness of Arizona, or Dakota in the mid-winter, to bring back a bounty of fossils. To read about these characters is to understand that the cinema character Indiana Jones was barely, if at all, removed from true life.
And life is what suffuses this book, in regard to both its human characters and its subject. The author and his cohort couldn’t imagine following any other pursuit. For them, life is about exploring and discovering, and expanding their knowledge of their field.
In fact, money, marketing and mundane, day-to-day details are mentioned nowhere in The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs.
The “Dinosaur Dance floor”
Steve Brusatte has always been in love with his chosen field. He and his colleagues live for the field trip: hiking to some remote bit of turf, scanning for the right geological strata (or where fossils have been found before) or just looking for fossils in plain sight.
Luck plays a significant part in this game, as was the case in Ganzhou, China, when a major fossil site was unearthed by a backhoe operator who was preparing the ground for a construction project.
In one memorable scene, Brusatte and his confrere are looking for fossils in Scotland, and slowly realize that they’re in a field of circular depressions. In fact, they’re standing in one! These are actually long-ago formed footprints of the massive brontosaurus.
Brusatte calls this field the Dinosaur Dance floor, and one can imagine a cinema shot of the two of them as they slowly come to understand exactly where they’re standing.
One form of reward
There is just one form of reward mentioned in the book.
If Brusatte or any other paleontologist discovers a new species, then that branch of creation may be named after them, if they so choose. This is the ultimate gift, a chance at immortality.
For that is how societies reward those who’ve added to the sum total of human knowledge or have helped its cause in a significant way:
- The Salk vaccine that defeated polio.
- The Watt or the Joule as a measure of energy.
- Fahrenheit and Celsius for temperature.
- Gerard Mercator, who developed the Meridian system known as the Mercator projection that allowed a three-dimensional, spherical world to be accurately projected on a two-dimensional map.
Even in the fiction book Fahrenheit 451, the rebels against the authoritarian regime are assigned books to memorize, and we meet two of these rebels, who introduce each other in this way: “My brother is Pride and Prejudice, Volume I,” and “My brother is Pride and Prejudice, Volume II.”
They gave their entire lives, even their identity, to a work of literature or art. And they’d be remembered with it.
In fact, in the Jewish tradition, the author of a sacred book that becomes widely read is then known by its title. Many people would be hard-pressed to remember the author`s family name.
These people, those who helped humanity understand the universe and themselves more clearly, will always be remembered and will live on as long as humans populate this Earth.
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