martedì 16 aprile 2013

My Beloved Brontosaurus: an Interview with Brian Switek about memories, dinosaurs and the depth of time

The amazing artwork by Mark Stutzman displayed on the cover of Brian Switek’s latest book, My Beloved Brontosaur: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite DinosaursNew York: Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux,  2013. Image from here; this image is copyrighted, and used with permission.
Thanks to the kindness of Brian Switek and the efficiency of his editorial publicist at FSG, I have recently had the chance to read Switek’s last adventure in the realms of history of science and paleontology, My Beloved Brontosaurus, which is officially available in bookstores (both traditional and digital) starting from today.
Brian has accepted once more to share some thoughts about the long-awaited sequel to Written in Stones; thus, in order to celebrate the book launch, I am delighted to present Switek’s new interview! (the old interview is available here).
Happy reading!


1. Dinosaur exhibitions on display worldwide in natural history museums often motivate lifelong interest and curiosity in young spectators. In a few cases, this fascination may lead to a career in paleontology or science communication.
Even now, I can recall the magic sense of wonder felt more than twenty years ago during the local temporary exhibition which featured the grandeur of the skeletons of Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis and Tsintaosaurus spinorhinus, arising from the depths of time in front of me. Despite their colossal size, dimension was not a key feature to me: a year earlier, in a very cold winter afternoon, I was amazed by a tiny Hypsilophodon foxii cast on display in a central square of my hometown. The transition from something known as a book illustration to something three-dimensional was simply an astounding experience.
This is the stuff which My Beloved Brontosaurus is made of: you took all the dreams and inspiration drawn from childhood’s memories and you paid homage to every bewitched child standing in awe in front of a dinosaur, with a clear prose and a skeptic eye never obfuscated by your enthusiasm. As an act of love, from the title until the very last word, your book is indeed a very personal narration, packed with a lot of autobiographical recollections (not to mention your decision to live in Utah, to be closer to dinosaur rich geological formations and institutions).
Could you please summarize here your first childhood encounters with dinosaurs and fossils?

Brian Switek: I wish I could remember more. My parents tell me that my fascination with dinosaurs started quite early, but I don’t have many memories of them until I was about five years old. During my first day of nursery school, I scribbled a drawing of a whale and a pterosaur (not a dinosaur, but similar enough!). Almost any big, imposing, or weird animal sparked my imagination. I played with toys of prehistoric creatures, watched documentaries, read books about them, and spent hours doodling dinosaurs on construction paper.
But what really crystallized my love of dinosaurs was my first visit to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. This was in 1988, I think, and was still about a decade before the renovation of the museum’s great fossil halls. The Jurassic Dinosaur Hall was gloomy and dusty, and the old “Brontosaurus” mount stood in the middle of it all. The sauropod’s tail drooped, and the wrong skull tipped the end of the dinosaur’s low slung neck. “Brontosaurus” was magnificent, principally because I didn’t know the dinosaur was so wrong. So many of the books I had were outdated titles that showed dinosaurs just like this, and here I was in the presence of the actual bones. The “Brontosaurus” skeleton was just so big, and so lovely in detail. I couldn’t resist trying to imagine what the dinosaur must have sounded like. To see restorations or play with sauropod models in the sandbox was one thing. To be in the presence of the dinosaur’s bones itself solidified my passion for dinosaurs, and I’ll never forget how it felt to walk beneath the great bones of my favourite childhood dinosaur. 

Fig. 1. The 1992 exhibition which featured some of the most amazing original Chinese dinosaur skeletons known at that time (“Dinosaurs: Il mondo dei dinosauri: Italia 1991/1993” – in collaborazione con Natural History Museum, Shangai; Museo Tridentino di Scienze Naturali, Trento; Museo Friulano di Storia Naturale di Udine, Udine; Presidenza della Facoltà di Scienze Matematiche, Fisiche e Naturali dell’Università “La Sapienza” di Roma).

2. «Knowledge begins with wonder» and, as K.M. Parsons put it, «when we think about dinosaurs, therefore, imagination must always supplement fact» (2001: 175). From the tangled story behind the restoration of the headless “Brontosaurus” (not to mention the sauropods’ trunk restoration), to W.D. Matthew’s idea of dinosaurs capable of live birth, from the (supposed) missing clavicles advocated by paleoartist G. Heilmann to the underwater lambeosaurines of old, the intertwined history of dinosaur restorations, paleobiological theories and bizarre hypothesis is just as fascinating as the mainstream paleontological studies recorded in the more traditional textbooks of evolutionary biology or paleontology. Many imaginative proposals, more or less successful, falsified or still contentious, can be found in your book.
What is your personal favourite “heretic” paleontologist and/or paleobiological ideas?

B.S.: There are so many to choose from! Paleontology is where science and imagination meet, and some degree of speculation is always intertwined with science. We’re always pushing at the edges of what we know into how dinosaurs might have actually lived. So it’s really not surprising that there’s no shortage or more or less fanciful ideas about dinosaur lives. 
If I have to pick just one example, I think the aquatic Parasaurolophus of my childhood has to be it. When I first met dinosaurs, hadrosaurs were almost always presented paddling around lakes or sifting algae from swamps. This made sense given their popular name – these were the “duckbilled” dinosaurs. (I think “shovel-beaked” is a far more apt term, but I haven’t seen much acceptance of the new term despite pushing for it in the book and on my blogs.) And as John Ostrom pointed out in the 60s, hadrosaurs didn’t have any obvious defensive weapons such as horns or spikes. During a time when tyrannosaurs ruled, the only chance the hadrosaurs had was to escape into the water. Or so the argument went, anyway.
And the crests of some hadrosaurs played into this imagery. Within an aquatic setting, the long, hollow crest of Parasaurolophus looked like an air tank or some kind of anchor for a trunk that could reach above the water. The unfounded belief that hadrosaurs must have been amphibious dinosaurs led the form of interpretations. It was really only when paleontologists started considering the crest alone that other possibilities became apparent – display, and perhaps sound. By the 80s, the idea that the crest had more to do with signalling – visually or acoustically – had superseded the other explanations, even though I still saw swimming Parasaurolophus in books and films. Thankfully, I think that imagery is now long gone, but it took quite a long time to root out.
The case is a good representation of the puzzles that bizarre dinosaur features present to paleontologists. Weird crests, arrays of horns, rows of armor, and the like don’t just pop up for no reason. They have to evolve. But determining the function of such structures is fraught when we can’t observe the living animals, and even figuring out the function of a structure doesn’t necessarily tell us how that feature evolved. I can only imagine how the ideas we have about bizarre dinosaur features are going to change as paleontologists continue to investigate those features.

Fig. 2. A trio of underwater grazing Parasaurolophus. The original caption emphasized the «almost extraterrestrial aspect of  this dinosaur, with its webbed fingers  and, above all, its strange, hollow crest». From the Panini sticker album Animali preistorici, by R. D’Ami & C. Porciani, p. 12. © Riproduzioni Editoriali D’Ami, 1992 (first edition 1974); printed by Panini.

3. My Beloved Brontosaurus underscores the undeniable value of dinosaur paleontology in the understanding of life history on Earth – and for the theory of evolution as well. The history of dinosaur paleontology is an ever-changing field, filled with unpredictable discoveries. Today, the pace of research has dramatically increased since technical studies are being published nearly on a daily basis. And this is what makes this field intriguing and still fascinating.
Now, if you were to name and summarize the three major accomplishments of what T.H. Holtz Jr. labelled as the current Dinosaur Enlightenment, and the three most difficult tasks still unresolved (but hopefully answered in the nearest future), what would you pick?

B.S: The accomplishments of the Dinosaur Enlightenment have primarily been in terms of applying new techniques to paleontology in order to test ideas and develop new hypotheses. The Dinosaur Renaissance spurring an image shift based on gross anatomy and considering dinosaurs as animals (rather than just piles of old bones), but it still took a number of years for paleontologists to develop the tools necessary to really start testing the ideas of the Dinosaur Renaissance. For example, the increased accessibility and power of computer software has allowed paleontologists to virtually put dinosaurs through their paces to examine running speed and range of motion, to see just how speedy and agile they truly were. And there have been some unexpected boons, as well, such as the realization that melanosomes in dinosaur feathers can be compared to those of modern birds to reconstruct ancient color. Paleontologists are applying new techniques and technologies in the subfields of geochemistry, histology, finite element analysis, biomechanics, 3D imagery, and others to draw more information from old bones than ever before, and these new lines of evidence help generate new questions. Really, the success of the Dinosaur Enlightenment is a combination of paleontologists running with the renewed interest in dinosaurs as real animals that the Dinosaur Renaissance spurred, and using that enthusiasm to approach questions that we never thought we’d be able to answer.
Of course, a great deal about dinosaur biology remains unanswered. We still don’t really know what the physiology of dinosaurs was like. The weight of the evidence suggests that, in general, dinosaurs were highly active animals that maintained high body temperatures and were more like birds and mammals than reptiles, but beyond that very general level there is much we still don’t know. The key question at the heart of the Dinosaur Renaissance has yet to be fully answered. Whether or not dinosaurs exhibited sexual dimorphism is another prickly problem. Differences between the dinosaur sexes has been proposed multiple times, but never in a truly compelling case. Is this because dinosaurs were not sexually dimorphic, or because there are flaws in our samples and techniques? Perhaps the biggest question of all is why the non-avian dinosaurs went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous. What wiped them out, along with other forms of life, but allowed avian dinosaurs to survive? Everyone agrees on the major players of the end-Cretaceous extinction – volcanic eruptions, climate change, and asteroid impact – but we still don’t know how those pressures translated into extinction. Some of the classic dinosaur mysteries persist even now. 

4. Judging from the terrific amount of information you collected during all these years of scientific blogging, I suppose that you have put a considerable effort in the preliminary choice of materials for My Beloved Brontosaurus.
Is there a particular topic that you feel you left untouched in the final draft of your book?

B.S.: There’s always more to say about dinosaurs than can fit in any one book. I really wanted to spend more time on relatively new dinosaur discoveries – the spinosaurs, rebbachisaurids, and the like – but I felt that I should focus on classic dinosaurs in order to give readers a firmer grounding for the concepts I wanted to discuss. And I wanted to spend more time discussing dinosaur physiology, but the chapter did not come together in quite the way that I hoped. That chapter was going to mention polar dinosaurs, which I regret leaving out. I love imagining fluffy dinosaurs in the snow. But I knew going in that I wouldn’t be able to cover all the topics I wanted to. I wanted to pick specific examples that demonstrated how far our understanding of dinosaurs has come in the past 25 years, and I think the book meets that goal.

5. «We need dinosaurs» is the most important message of your book. We need them at least for two important reasons: the crucial point at stake here concerns the historiography of evolution, for dinosaurs were scarcely considered at the High Table of Life History, until a short time ago (and largely excluded from evolution textbooks, dominated by invertebrates and mammals as protagonists of the most important evolutionary studies). Nevertheless, as Padian and Burton (2012) recently wrote, dinosaurs were key factors and important case studies in the making of macroevolutionary thought during the 19th century (as they were favoured by heterodox supporters of paradigms which involved directed, degenerated or teleological evolution, subsequently falsified). We cannot understand those periods without a profound and updated knowledge of dinosaurs.
In the second place, as S.D. Sampson (2009) wrote, people involved in science communicators should take advantage of dinosaur fame (as you do) «to reinsert ourselves into the fabric of time, deriving meaning from our past and contemplating our responsibility for future generations» (Sampson 2009: 277), to teach the «Great Story» of life history (276-277) as well as the basic concepts of our evolutionary background on Earth.
Now that your work about dinosaurs is done (at least for the moment), what chapters of life history do you think you will cover in your next literary enterprise in order to put into context our evolutionary history, both unpredictable and amazing?

B.S.: Dinosaurs are an important anchor for our understanding of the past. The numbers are so big that we can’t even fully understand what they mean, but saying that dinosaurs evolved 245 million years ago and the non-avian forms went extinct 66 million years ago helps puts the paltry 6 million year run of humans into context. When discussing prehistory, it’s a common trope for writers to say that a particular creature lived before or after the reign of the dinosaurs – we’re always using dinosaurs to gauge history. 
I wouldn’t say that I’m done with dinosaurs, but I want to use the conclusion of My Beloved Brontosaurus as a jumping-off point for one of my new projects. The fossil record is a rich source of information about how organisms have reacted to climate change and other fluctuations that are still going on today. Rather than simply documenting the past, fossils might give us some clues about the future shape of life. If estimates of future global warming are correct, for example, we’re approaching a greenhouse climate last seen 55 million years ago during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (about 10 million years after the last non-avian dinosaurs disappeared). By studying how insects, mammals, plants, and other organisms reacted to this warm period, maybe scientists can outline how today’s organisms will react to human-driven climate change and therefore inform conservation plans. Clues about the future may very well be locked in the past.


Padian, K., & Burton, E.K. 2012
Dinosaurs and Evolutionary Theory, 1057-1072. In Brett-Surman, M.K., Holtz, Thomas R., Jr. & Farlow, J.O. (2012). (eds.). The Complete Dinosaur. Second Edition. Bloomington-Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Parsons, K.M. 2001
Drawing Out Leviathan: Dinosaurs and the Science Wars. Bloomington-Indianapolis: Indiana University.

Sampson, S.D. 2009
Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life. Berkeley-Los Angeles-London: University of California Press.

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