PositiveThe AtlanticRandall brings alive that swashbuckling time at the turn of the 20th century, when dinosaurs were still a relatively new concept, and the science of paleontology a weapon as America’s wealthiest men and institutions jostled for power in the waning days of the Gilded Age. Randall combines his journalist’s eye for details with a storyteller’s flair for spectacle. His tale is as rollicking as a Western—and in many senses, it is one. It tells of an age when paleontology was woven into the fabric of the American frontier, scientists reached the field by stagecoach and Pullman car, and literal cowboys collected dinosaur bones from the badlands, in service of the East Coast gentry. Along the way, Randall grapples with a profound question: Should fossils be treated as commodities? ... Randall wrestles with these questions, but here, his book is already slightly outdated. In late March 2022, it was announced that one of the world’s premier T. rex skeletons, nicknamed Stan, would be the centerpiece of a new museum being constructed in Abu Dhabi. A couple of years earlier, the fossil was auctioned for a staggering $31.8 million—the largest sum ever for a dinosaur—to an unknown bidder, leaving paleontologists like me aghast. Many of us are reassured that the skeleton has found its way to a museum, although the way it happened leaves me uneasy. Are we entering another age when museums can access dinosaurs only through murky connections with unholy amounts of private capital?
Samira Leakey, with Meave Leakey
PositiveNew York Times Book ReviewIn a field of celebrity scientists, nobody shines brighter than Meave Leakey ... Meave Leakey tells her extraordinary life story in The Sediments of Time: My Lifelong Search for the Past. Co-written with her youngest daughter, Samira, this inspirational autobiography stands among the finest scientist memoirs. Its genial tone contrasts with the grittier air of Pattison’s book, but the two complement each other beautifully — the way a tall glass of water refreshes after a double shot of whiskey.
PositiveNew York Times Book Review... White is the star of Pattison’s book. He’s portrayed as a brilliant antihero, Indiana Jones meets Tony Soprano. Obsessed with the tiniest bumps on ancient bones, and peeved at anyone who interprets those bumps differently, he’s ruthless in his quest to find new fossils, no matter what war zone or swarm of poisonous pests might be in the way. Often vulgar, but charming and funny, he commands an army of loyal friends against tides of intellectual enemies ... In places, Fossil Men seems more reality television show than a work of popular science, as we follow an outrageous cast of White’s supporting characters ... The story lines border on the insane: There are civil wars, gunfights, at least one grenade rolling around the feet of the scientists as they drive into the desert and, sadly, a violent death ... Despite ample opportunity, Fossil Men never devolves into gonzo journalism. This is a function of Pattison’s uncanny ability to write evocatively about science. In this, he is every bit as good as the best scientist-writers. He describes the intricacies of the human wrist and foot with the skill of a poet. He breezes through the biomechanics of how chimps clamber and humans walk. And to my amazement, he explains in clear and compelling prose how scientists build family trees of ancient species.