It has always fascinated us that some people "grow out" of loving dinosaurs. They're only a group of terrifyingly beautiful monsters who ruled the Earth for eons before being wiped out by a space rock. How could a subject possibly be more fascinating than that? Are we dinophiles really the weird ones? We think not. Even so, most popular dinosaur books are tailored for children despite the huge interest in paleontology from young-at-heart grown-ups. Until now!
If you are itching to learn more about dinosaurs than just the bare bones, so to speak, then Brian Switek's My Beloved Brontosaurus is a must-read. Switek digs deep (sorry, I can't help it) into tantalizing hypotheticals like what dinosaurs might have sounded like, how scientists are ingeniously unlocking the secret of their colors, and why they enjoyed such unrivaled evolutionary success. He even includes a salacious chapter about the ins-and-outs of dinosaur sex, appropriately titled, "Big Bang Theory."
In addition to being packed with fresh research, this book is just flat-out fun to read. Switek's road trips to important fossil beds and museums lead into ruminative insights about the history of paleontology. There's an intriguing running theme about the relationship between the popular conception of dinosaurs compared to the scientific facts. Indeed, the tension between the public and the paleontologists is what inspired the title of the book: "By now, we know that Apatosaurus is the dinosaur's proper name," Switek writes. "But you can't keep a brontosaur down." Switek compares the public possessiveness over the Brontosaurus to the outcry over Pluto's demotion to a crummy dwarf planet, and the book has many illuminating passages about the pop culture mythology around dinosaurs versus the picture that science paints.
Perhaps Switek's greatest triumph with My Beloved Brontosaurus is proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that dinosaurs are not some esoteric, irrelevant subject, but are deeply connected to our own human story. Dinosaurs profoundly shaped mammals during their millions of years reigning over the planet, and their extinction was our ancestors' great opportunity. In fact, dinosaurs still occupy a central role our lives: we rely on their only living descendants — birds — for food, companionship, and inspiration.
These incredible animals are inexorably intwined with our evolutionary history, and their story is our story. As Switek elegantly writes, "The fossil record has taught us powerful lessons that we ignore at our own peril. Pick any dinosaur you like, and that ancient creature is undeniable proof that our planet has a history so deep we can barely comprehend it, that life has changed dramatically over time, and that extinction is the ultimate fate of all species. Nothing so majestically encapsulates these simple, powerful truths of nature quite like a dinosaur."
My Beloved Brontosaurus was published by SciAm/FSG on April 16. You can follow Brian Switek's highly entertaining National Geographic blog "Laelaps" here. Dinophilia forever!