The Whitman College Magazine Online
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Famous Dinosaurs, Former Worlds

by Professor Patrick Spencer, Geology

* Tyrannosaurus Sue by Steve Fiffer (Henry Holt & Co., 2001) is a lively description of the case of the most famous dinosaur ever uncovered, named “Sue” for the person who found it. Only the 11th T. rex yet found, Sue is by far the most complete, with about 90 percent of the bones recovered. The book recounts the lengthy legal battle over ownership of Sue, the federal prosecution of the Black Hills Institute and their employees for illegal collecting on government land, and the auction of Sue for over $8 million; in the process we learn some of the history of dinosaur hunting in North America. The book raises important issues related to fossil hunting: Should commercial enterprises be stifled? What is the role of amateur collectors in paleontology? Should academics have a corner on the fossil market? If paleontology should be regulated, how and by whom? Has the marketing of Sue promoted fossil piracy, with landowners raiding sites opened by academic institutions? The effects of Sue on how we care for our fossil heritage will be felt far into the future.

Annals of the Former World by John McPhee (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1999) is a compilation of four shorter books in which McPhee documents his travels across North America with four renowned geologists. He takes the reader on a trip through time using roadcuts on Interstate 80 as windows into the geologic past.

In the process, McPhee recounts the development of plate tectonic theory (in its infancy when he started) as seen through the eyes of the four scientists; their careers are vividly chronicled. We find that not all geologists buy into the theory, or that they only buy into parts; other aspects simply do not fit. The geologic evolution of North America comes to life through vivid descriptions of mountains rising, cresting, and breaking, spreading their debris across the landscape; of seas rising, flooding the entire continent, and draining, leaving thick deposits of fossil-bearing sediment in the mid-section of the continent. Western North America is portrayed as a fractured and confused jumble of rock representing a broad zone of tectonic plate interaction stretching from the Wasatch Mountains of Utah to the Pacific Coast.

Geologic landscapes become understandable, while the reader is reminded that even the professionals don’t understand it all. The tetralogy takes us from Earth’s earliest history, to the 600 million year old Appalachian Mountains, where geologists first began to understand North American geology, to the assembly of California from bits and pieces of islands and ocean floor that formed in another place and another time. A thoroughly enjoyable journey.

Patrick Spencer, Professor of Geology














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