For the love of dinosaurs

My Beloved Brontosaurus - Brian SwitekMany of us remember a childhood obsession with dinosaurs. Sooner or later, most of us grow out of it – but some never do. Something for which the rest of us should be grateful, because amazing discoveries have been made for the love of dinosaurs. "My Beloved Brontosaurus" follows paleontologist Brian Switek's personal history as a dinosaur geek turned scientist, and paints a thorough picture of how the scientific view of what dinosaurs were – and are – has changed both during his own lifetime and the more than 150 years that have passed since some fossilized bones were baptized as the extinct animal group Dinosauria. It's a story about birds, bones, and feathers that almost ends with death from above. But not quite. No, dinosaurs are still around.

Excellent science writing can be like the Total Perspective Vortex in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – placing your own humble existence in the perspective of the vastness of the known universe. In Brian Switeks book, the reader must grapple with the barely comprehensible lengths of time passed since dinosaurs first walked the land. Just contemplate this fact:  the time passed between the extinction of Tyrannosaurus rex until today is less than half as long as the stretch of time that dinosaurs roamed the earth.

Birds are dinosaurs, and the discovery of fossil feathers completely changed dinosaur science. In the last decade, it has been shown that the "first bird" was in fact likely to have been one kind of dinosaur. If that is hard to comprehend, imagine a large tree. Now imagine you had a chainsaw and cut off all branches but one at breast height. Birds are the leaves on that remaining branch of the last surviving dinosaurs, whereas all other dinosaurs have gone extinct, just like the imaginary branches you cut off. But that's not all – most if not all non-bird dinosaurs also had feathers. This is true for both Tyrannosaurus rex as well as the vicious Velociraptors famous from the movie Jurassic Park – the real animals all had feathers. But they did not use them for flying, they were far too heavy. Instead, the feathers served as insulation, or were a fancy way of showing-off between mates, just as peacocks and ostriches do today.

Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature  - Brian Switek

You gotta love geeks like Brian Switek. His first book, Written In Stone, offered a broader view of fossil science – paleontology – but My Beloved Brontosaurus provides much more heart and passion. True, that enthusiasm could have benefitted from more stringent editing – parts of the book are rather repetitions – but the love of his subject simply pours off the page. I would like to thank Brian Switek for sharing his love with us.