Thursday, September 10, 2015

Jeff’s Books to Open Your Mind: The Dinosaur Heresies

A more accurate title for this review would be “books that previously opened Jeff’s mind a little too late,” since most of the key mind opening bits have become common knowledge now.

Or maybe "Dinosaurs and Me: A Love Story"

I was a dinosaur kid.

No, scratch that.

I was THE dinosaur kid.

The only location that can compete with the Bronx Zoo to make me say, “I was practically raised there,” is the fourth floor of New York’s American Museum of Natural History.

Relatives and other grown-ups would regularly ask me about dinosaurs, just to hear me rattle off all the names.

I worked my way through the Riverview library’s entire pre-history section in my first few years in grammar school.

During that time, I also read every paleontology book in the kid’s section of the Denville library, and amassed a decent sized collection of my own.

As part of a pilot G&T program, in third grade I was given an extra set of spelling words pulled out of one of my dinosaur books.  Looking back, this makes virtually no sense as:
1) Spelling is one of the least creative and most repetition based subjects, which tends to be the antithesis of what G&T programs try to achieve.
2) My spelling was, and remained, attroshus.

Also in third grade, I was sent to give a fifth grade class a “talk” on dinosaurs. 

(My third and later to be fifth grade teachers were good friends. They both had my first grade teacher; it was that kind of town.)

I don’t remember there being any kind of preparation on my part for this endeavor.  No slides, no note cards, no prepared speech…
Just, “Go upstairs and talk about dinosaurs.”
I did that, and amazingly, it went well anyway because they were kind of clueless.
One girl asked me what kind of dinosaur her eraser was…
It was rhinoceros head with the horns pulled off.

I knew them all, knew their name derivations and could (and did) talk about them endlessly. My little plastic dinosaurs were all active and wild, and the images I formed in coloring books had insane amounts of color.

The initial planning for our family’s first vacation to Washington DC came about, not out of any civic interest, but because I found a specimen in a book that wasn’t in New York but was in the Smithsonian. I proceeded to notice it across the exhibit hall, in spite of the fact that it was labeled with a different name than in the book.

Unfortunately, things started to slip when trying to expand my knowledge as I advanced in years, and noticed the town library didn’t have much in the way of dinosaur books in their grown-up section.  The Valleyview Middle School library was similarly bare.

Worse than that was the fact that the concepts presented in all the books I’d inhaled, and even the AMNH itself, were based around the idea that these wondrous creatures were a stupid, lethargic, evolutionary dead end. 

The evidence of their failure was piled high:

Brains too small to run a whole body, leading to the need of a “butt brain.” 

Oversized giants that couldn’t support their own weight out of the water, with ill designed teeth forcing them to eat mushy swamp plants constantly throughout their stupor like waking hours.

Sinister egg thieves that preyed on the unprotected unborn young of their fellow creatures.

Non-adaptive Decoration showing a “Evolutionary senility” - an outmoded concept stating all the amazing differences in later dinosaur shapes were basically due to the forces of nature losing their grip on reality.

Sure they were big and cool looking, but clearly, they were not worthy of mature pursuits.

My interest shifted to a more mechanical bent, with the “terrible lizards” left in my past with the few childish things I chose to abandon.  Even my beloved Fourth Floor shut down for years of renovation as I was sliding into engineering.  There was also a shutdown of the parking garage for similar reasons that kept me from learning how exciting the renovations would be.

At one point during college, something happened.  That something was mostly Jurassic Park. The book and lead up to the subsequent film brought dinosaurs to the forefront of media for the first time in years, but this time with more modern, and thoughtfully applied, research. They were no longer portrayed as forgotten back alley monsters of a failed chapter of life on earth, but as successful and diverse animals who ruled the planet for a hundred and twenty million years- well over a hundred times the human race’s current record.

One paleontologist who stood out to me in the flurry of documentaries that arrived was Doctor Robert Bakker.  This bearded, wild haired, New Jersey born cowboy always seemed prepared to find the evidence for theories to make the dinosaurs as cool as I believed them to be when I first discovered them.  I think it was on one of my trips to the temporarily Favorite Floorless Museum that I found his work, The Dinosaur Heresies.

Sure, now warm blooded, socially complex, fast moving, brightly colored, dinosaurs with excellent parenting skills are the norm in textbooks and children’s books. 

Yes, excellent parenting skills, those Oviraptors ("Egg Thieves") were GUARDING their own nests, not preying on the unwatched eggs of others.  The other reasons there were "failures" vanished in similar puffs of biology and behavioral based logic. Bone and footprint analysis show more self supporting postures, gastroliths explain the ability to digest tough plant matter, odd head shapes (like the rest of nature) used for display and sound generation, and the "butt brain" only exists in the occasional Godzilla film.  It’s also almost universally accepted that birds are dinosaurs.

The reorganization of the New York Museum displays all these new theories now, and has little disclaimers mentioning they’d been wrong before, and may learn new changes yet. (Which is fortunate considering the latest Brontosaurus discoveries.) But back then his ideas were revolutionary, against the grain of everything I’d seen in my entire life, and brought excitement and amazement back to the Mesozoic. 

The introduction to his book, where he described his experience of being driven by his mother over the George Washington Bridge to be awestruck at the dinosaurs on the fourth floor of the museum could have been written by me.

In a bit of cruel irony, my knowledge of the author’s name was due to the release of a story that led to a film that (along with Terminator 2) appeared to be killing the mechanical effects business, squashing the direction I had planned my engineering knowledge to take me.
Yet, if I had found the book on my own in high school, rather than after engineering graduate school, there is a HUGE chance it would have pushed me over the edge into a career in paleontology. 

Needless to say, the first thing I bought when I had a “real engineering job” after graduation was a set of Carnegie Collection dinosaurs, which I continue to add to whenever possible.

I'd like to take this opportunity to publically thank my cousin Mark for a tiny plastic milkman he gave me with some hand me down toys- when we were kids shortly after the Cretaceous period.  I have no idea what the little dude was for or where he came from, but he's the only human figure I've ever seen that's the proper size to show a person in scale with the Carnegie dinos.

Dr. Bakker described dinosaurs, with sound scientific evidence backing it up, behaving far more like I make my small plastic ones act, rather than their near motionless depiction in my old Golden and How and Why books.  He also presented evidence for them looking, if not like my deranged rainbow coloring book creatures, very much unlike the drab grays and browns showed in those books.

He, and likeminded researchers, made dinosaurs awesome again, by simply treating them logically and scientifically as animals who thrived and flourished in every evolutionary niche for millions of years.

His book Raptor Red carried this further.  It’s a story of dinosaurs, but told like the old style Disney nature shows about animals. It truly gives one an imaginative glimpse into the possibilities of what prehistoric life could have been like for these amazing creatures.

Why no one has optioned Raptor Red for a film is beyond me.

Besides returning the wonder to visits to the AMNH, this knowledge also greatly enhanced my enjoyment of later visits to Denver, where dinosaurs stick out of the ground.  This came partially through them sticking out at Dinosaur Ridge, and partially in their Museum of Nature And Science and its story of the local area history, plus a few other places.  However, it was much greater when visiting the Morrison Natural History Museum, an actual working Paleontology center.  There, my daughter got to do some, brief, hands on work on one of only seven Apatosaurus skulls in the world, and we got to see, and touch (since the small, but information filled location is far more hands on than larger institutions) the first stegosaurus bones and the smallest dinosaur footprints ever found.

On one visit, I was delighted to learn “Doctor Bob” occasionally worked out of the place when I noticed his books in the gift shop, and told those working there to pass along my enthusiastic support when he returned.

This past summer when my wife and daughter were out in Colorado while I was working, they stopped in to visit that museum.  While there they were taught the skull that was slowly being revealed played an important part in the above mentioned Brontosaurus/Apatosaurus revelations.  My wife phoned to let me know there were autographed books available, and ask if one would make a good souvenir?  When she told me it was “Something Bakker” who had signed them, I nearly exploded with excitement and praise. That was nothing compared to a picture text with my daughter standing next to a bearded scientist I received moments later with the title, “Guess who’s here?” My sister-in-law had heard someone being asked to sign more books in the back room and said, “I think that’s the guy.” 

My daughter, who is also a giant dinosaur buff, got to meet Doctor Robert Bakker. Woo!  He explained to them that he was also from New Jersey, and was touched when they told him he was my favorite paleontologist. On the advice of one of the brilliant and enthusiastic volunteers there (they're all like that, the place is awesome, it's like my five year old, dinosaur filled brain created a museum), my family asked him to personalize one of his books, a new and far more accurate version of the Golden Book of dinosaurs, to her and me which he gladly did.

After taking to them a while, he went back to work.  However, he returned shortly thereafter with a newer released Safari Limited (took over for, or is the parent company for, or has some other strange relation to, the Carnegie Collection) duckbill he "thought I'd like" to show them.  It's a Gryposaurus,  similar to the Hadrosaur found in New Jersey (and “stolen” by Philadelphia he explained) that was the first dinosaur found in the US.  My wonderful wife bought it for me, so now I have a plastic scale model of a prehistoric creature hand selected by “Dinosaur Bob” himself  YAY!!!!

The most amazing part of the whole experience was my family met a scientist and author I thought I had the highest possible opinion of.

The one thing my daughter kept repeating about the encounter was:

“He was such a nice and friendly guy!”

My opinion of him has gone infinitely higher.

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