Most scholarly attempts at comedy, including this one, make for a painful experience, but readers who can tolerate the...

DINOSAURS WITHOUT BONES

DINOSAUR LIVES REVEALED BY THEIR TRACE FOSSILS

Paleontologist Martin (Environmental Sciences/Emory Univ.; Life Traces of the Georgia Coast: Revealing the Unseen Lives of Plants and Animals, 2013, etc.) has written textbooks, but this is his first work for a popular audience, and his choice to use humor as an educational tool meets with mixed results.

Everyone has seen their bones, but it turns out that dinosaurs also left behind nests, tracks, trails, burrows, tooth marks, feces, skin and intestinal contents. These have become valuable enough to produce ichnology, a subspecialty of paleontology that studies trace—i.e., not bone or teeth—fossils. A pioneer in the field, Martin delivers an expert, if overly effervescent, account of what trace fossils reveal about their environment as well as dinosaur social behavior, movement, quarrels, sex lives and care of their young. Their tracks are everywhere. Any ichnologist worth his salt can use a single footprint to identify the dinosaur, while a collection of prints reveals its height, weight, stride length, speed and perhaps tells a story. A famous site in Australia seems to show a herd of small dinosaurs fleeing a predator. Experts agree that reptiles in the Mesozoic used the same survival strategies as they do today. They built nests and laid eggs in them; dozens of both have been turning up for decades. They dug burrows whose first example was discovered only in 2007, complete with its fossilized inhabitants. An impressive amount of behavioral and dietary information is revealed in their abundant coprolites (fossilized feces), not-so-abundant stomach contents, and the rare preserved vomit and urinary deposits.

Most scholarly attempts at comedy, including this one, make for a painful experience, but readers who can tolerate the relentlessly glib, jokey prose will learn a great deal about these fascinating, long-dead creatures.

Pub Date: March 12, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-60598-499-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Pegasus

Review Posted Online: Jan. 19, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2014

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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Whether you call this a personal story or nature writing, it’s poignant, thoughtful and moving—and likely to become a...

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H IS FOR HAWK

An inspired, beautiful and absorbing account of a woman battling grief—with a goshawk.

Following the sudden death of her father, Macdonald (History and Philosophy/Cambridge Univ.; Falcon, 2006, etc.) tried staving off deep depression with a unique form of personal therapy: the purchase and training of an English goshawk, which she named Mabel. Although a trained falconer, the author chose a raptor both unfamiliar and unpredictable, a creature of mad confidence that became a means of working against madness. “The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life,” she writes. As a devotee of birds of prey since girlhood, Macdonald knew the legends and the literature, particularly the cautionary example of The Once and Future King author T.H. White, whose 1951 book The Goshawk details his own painful battle to master his title subject. Macdonald dramatically parallels her own story with White’s, achieving a remarkable imaginative sympathy with the writer, a lonely, tormented homosexual fighting his own sadomasochistic demons. Even as she was learning from White’s mistakes, she found herself very much in his shoes, watching her life fall apart as the painfully slow bonding process with Mabel took over. Just how much do animals and humans have in common? The more Macdonald got to know her, the more Mabel confounded her notions about what the species was supposed to represent. Is a hawk a symbol of might or independence, or is that just our attempt to remake the animal world in our own image? Writing with breathless urgency that only rarely skirts the melodramatic, Macdonald broadens her scope well beyond herself to focus on the antagonism between people and the environment.

Whether you call this a personal story or nature writing, it’s poignant, thoughtful and moving—and likely to become a classic in either genre.

Pub Date: March 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0802123411

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2014

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