Though there are many books about the subjects of paleontological study (who doesn’t love dinosaurs?), there are comparatively far fewer covering the actual paleontologists and the work they do. In this, Explorers of Deep Time: Paleontologists and the History of Life, by paleontologist and University of Illinois Chicago professor emeritus Roy Plotnick, stands out. Explorers of Deep Time chronicles not just Plotnick’s own journey in paleontology, but looks at the lives and careers of a number of paleontologists (AIPT’s own Jim Lehane is featured).
Plotnick begins the book by introducing the prehistoric past of Chicago, highlighting how paleontological knowledge allows one to imagine a world that feels familiar yet alien. (A minor criticism here is that the images are displayed in black and white, which somewhat muddies them.) From there, Explorers of Deep Time expands its viewpoint. Plotnick takes readers through a combination of scientific history, career options, and controversies.
That may sound scattered in quick summary, but Plotnick’s writing is adroit, entertaining, and never confusing. He covers various advances in technology and the way they’ve shaped the field, as well as academic and financial concerns for current and prospective paleontologists. But perhaps what makes the book feel so alive is the way that Plotnick allows other paleontologists to speak on their experiences.
In Explorers of Deep Time¸ Plotnick regularly interweaves the words of his peers, allowing for some interesting peeks into the lives and careers of those in the paleontology community. Some of these add flourishes to the points Plotnick is trying to drive home, such as a quote from University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Peter Wagner, “analytical paleontology ‘let us become full-fledged hypothesis testers for large questions … it gave us the ‘null hypothesis.’’” Others are more personal, such as Lucy Edwards discussing the realities of job hunting for the professional couple, “‘It’s still difficult for a couple to find jobs for both in a reasonable commuting area. If one has a better opportunity at a different location, it’s hard for the other to accommodate.’”
By including voices beyond his own and beyond the words of paleontologists long gone, Plotnick gives Explorers of Deep Time a much more comprehensive feel than it might otherwise have had. He also doesn’t shy away from some of the real-world controversies of the field, covering things from the lack of diversity both within the profession and in the academic pipeline, as well as matters of the commercial fossil trade and international theft and smuggling.
Explorers of Deep Time is a fascinating look at paleontology as a whole, and is a must-have for anyone looking to better understand the field and the people within it. Every aspiring paleontologist should have a copy, as it gives an honest look at the joys, challenges, and opportunities that the science provides.
AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.
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