“Ah, eventually you DO plan to TALK ABOUT dinosaurs on this dinosaur podcast, right? Hello? Yes?” - Ian Malcolm about this episode.
This week’s guest is professional dinosaur hunter Steve Brusatte, paleontology professor at the University of Edinburgh and author of The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World.
Beyond being a totally awesome – and more importantly, FRESH – take on the Mesozoic Era that weaves vital updates from the last twenty years of discovery into the official story, this book also paints a rich and lively portrait of the human beings who actually do dinosaur science. Their stories moved me as much as the story of how the dinosaurs evolved, came to dominate the landscape, and then disappeared. The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs offers more than the “what” of prehistory; it also offers us the “who” and “how” and “where” and “why,” and it will be a spiritual experience for anyone as into dinosaurs OR science OR science writing as I am.
Plus, Steve’s great fun to talk to. He’s totally contagious.
• How we’re living through a worldwide renaissance of paleontology, a “Golden Age of Dinosaur Science” – and how it is related to deeper historical and economic trends – such as the opening of new international trade routes, increasing access to science education, and accelerating global development (the movement of wealth discovers dragons);
• How the technology and methods of dinosaur science have advanced dramatically over the last few decades – but it’s still “a discovery science” that requires people out in the field, opening the ground and looking for new fossils;
• Steve’s legendary globetrotting professors Paul Sereno and Mark Norell, and how their generous mentorship launched his career;
• How paleontology remains one of the most awesome lifestyles for anyone with the spirit of an adventurer;
• The role of landscape in stimulating the imagination – especially for bored Midwestern children whose imaginations fill the empty space with visions of lost worlds;
• What it’s like to BE a paleontologist and to know about the history of the land where you are, to have insights into the Deep Time Big Story and how it relates you to the ground on which you walk;
• How time perception changes when you’re in the badlands doing paleontological field research;
• Michael’s childhood mentor and role model, rockstar revolutionary “heretical” paleontologist Robert T. Bakker, who had a habit of weaving Bible scripture and Broadway musical numbers into his energetic and engaging dinosaur ecology talks;
• The major role that contingency plays in mass extinctions and the rise and fall of groups that otherwise seem dominant (like dinosaurs, and humans) – ie, “How do you become dominant? How do you rise up from nothing and become a BRONTOSAURUS?”
• And the major role that MYSTERY plays in our understanding of the ancient world;
• Oh, and we also talk about dinosaurs! For like half an hour. About Tyrannosauroidea, specifically, and how T. rex rose to greatness. And how to survive a mass extinction. But you’ll just have to listen for the rest.
“I’m always thinking about, ‘Where is this area, where was it during the Mesozoic Era, what was it like when Pangaea was still around, what kind of environments were there, what kind of dinosaurs were living there?’ Just having this perspective, when you travel around on the Earth, of looking at landscapes and being able to see the looooooong history of those landscapes. Being able to see in the shapes of hills, and the types of rocks that are exposed, and the colors of those rocks, being able to see deep distant pasts, reconstructing vanished worlds. And I think that’s part of the magic of sciences like paleontology and geology…and probably nobody that’s not a paleontologist or geologist thinks like that. I’m sure we just think really strangely.”
- Steve Brusatte
“Nobody in science ever does anything alone. MAYBE in mathematics you can be a lone genius and figure out some great proof just sitting alone in your boxers in the dark, or whatever, but MOST science is NOT LIKE THAT. It’s collaborative, you work with teams, you NEED teams, and you need good mentorship when you’re student. So now that I run my own lab, I just hope I can provide for my own students what my mentors did to me.”
- Steve Brusatte
“There’s something just indescribable about that feeling of finding and holding and appreciating fossil objects. And that never gets old. A new fossil discovery never gets old.”
- Steve Brusatte
“Studying dinosaurs isn’t going to save the world, of course…BUT…”