Dinosaurs, Former Worlds
by Professor Patrick Spencer, Geology
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.
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 dont understand it all. The tetralogy
takes us from Earths 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