REVIEW: Explorers of Deep Time by Roy Plotnick
Paleontology is one of the most visible yet most misunderstood fields of science. Children dream of becoming paleontologists when they grow up. Museum visitors flock to exhibits on dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. The media reports on fossil discoveries and new clues to mass extinctions. Nonetheless, misconceptions abound: paleontologists are assumed only to be interested in dinosaurs and they are all too often pictured as bearded white men in battered cowboy hats.
Roy Plotnick provides a behind-the-scenes look at paleontology as it exists today in all its complexity. He explores the field’s aims, methods, and possibilities, with an emphasis on the compelling personal stories of the scientists who have made it a career. Paleontologists study the entire history of life on Earth; they do not only use hammers and chisels to unearth fossils but are just as likely to work with cutting-edge computing technology. Plotnick presents the big questions about life’s history that drive paleontological research and shows why knowledge of Earth’s past is essential to understanding present-day environmental crises. He introduces readers to the diverse group of people of all genders, races, and international backgrounds who make up the twenty-first-century paleontology community, foregrounding their perspectives and firsthand narratives. He also frankly discusses the many challenges that face the profession, with key takeaways for aspiring scientists. Candid and comprehensive, Explorers of Deep Time is essential reading for anyone curious about the everyday work of real-life paleontologists.
“I believe a fuller understanding of the past is instrumental to our ability to solve the problems we face today.”
This is an excellent book for those who might be interested in pursuing paleontology for a career. And don’t think that because you haven’t longed to be a paleontologist since you were six or have grown up collecting fossils that this won’t mean you. Dr. Plotnick includes little bios on many of his colleagues and it’s amazing how many of them initially had plans for other careers – and not necessarily in science fields. I will confess that my freshman year in college I took the “Rocks for Jocks” class (reputed to be an easy A but that semester there was a change and it was actually a bit challenging) and was fascinated. It got me reading a couple more books by Stephen Jay Gould but it didn’t make me change my major.
There’s lots of information about aspects of paleontology that might be a surprise including how many discoveries come from studying fossils already in collections around the world vs recently discovered ones from the field, how paleontologists are more likely to be using sophisticated lab equipment rather than chisels and hammers (though a good, well balanced hammer is essential in one’s field kit), how much the discoveries of amateur/avocational paleontologists have added to knowledge in the field, how artists are helping change the public perception of what extinct animals looked like, and that the dream of discovering dino DNA is just that though mammoth DNA has been reconstructed. They also get to ask all kinds of cool questions about past life on Earth.
I will fess up and admit that some chapters didn’t hold my attention as I don’t plan on returning to college so have little interest in choosing a program or mentor in the field nor do I plan on reviewing scientific papers. It was heartening to read about how paleontology is reaching out to increase minority interest in the subject and encourage more historically disadvantaged students to consider a career in it. More care is being taken with specimen collecting and more specimens are being returned to countries from which they were illegally removed. But while decreasing funding and changing university priorities is making traditional tenured teaching careers more precarious, many other employment paths are opening up.
Dr. Plotnick is an entertaining writer and while not obviously dumbing down the material makes the subject interesting and accessible for the casual reader. But the book is more the field of paleontology rather than any specific discoveries – though those are, of course, mentioned. Still the ways and means by which paleontologists and the many and varied other scientists with whom they work are discovering new and amazing things about life thousands to millions to billions of years ago is fascinating in and of itself. But wait, there’s more. Some people in the field are contributing information, based on what already has happened during major extinctions and past climate events, about what the Earth might face in the coming centuries. B
To paraphrase one of the paleontologists:
“… fossils [are] not just things but [are] data that allowed us to answer big questions in the history of life …”
Interested in learning more?
https://timescavengers.blog/ – “Scavenging the fossil record for clues to earth’s climate and life.”
https://www.idigbio.org/ – “Making data and images of millions of biological specimens available on the web.”
Two recommended documentaries – “Making North America” and “Prehistoric Road Trip.”