Time Traveler , by Michael Novacek

Classification : Science Memoirs - Dinosaur Fossils - Paleontology - Geology


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Time Traveler by Michael Novacek
Hardcover - 352 pages
First Edition, February 2002
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN 1-374-27880-6 / 0374278806

Time Traveler by paleontologist Michael Novacek is the memoir of a lifetime of developing interest, beginning when the author was ten years old and watched a movie in which King Kong fought a Tyrannosaurus rex. [pages 4-5] Besides, "I liked crawling in the dirt." [4]

Time Traveler by Michael Novacek

It wasn't before long that he was spending hours at the La Brea tar pits, just waiting in vain for a small animal to get stuck, and imagining that the creature would eventually form a fossil. [8] He sat for a long time at the edge of the Grand Canyon, visualizing that if he were falling off the cliff, and while falling looking at the layers as he passes them, he would be travelling backward in time. [16] We are here treated to diagrams and discussions of the geological cross section of the Grand Canyon [16] and the geological time scale (the epochs, eras, and periods, all the names and dates of which this prodigious child memorized) [20] In youth, Michael J. Novacek had become a "dinosaur dreamer." [chapter title]

Novacek is an big fan of the fact that birds descended from dinosaurs, or, should I say, that dinosaurs evolved into birds. We may be taking too much liberty with the language, but let's say that dinosaurs aren't really extinct -- it's just that they're now birds. Perhaps we shouldn't call dinosaurs "dinosaurs", so Novacek calls them the "nonbird dinosaurs." [22]

The author goes to college at UCLA before the end of Chapter 3, and he's still a dinosaur dreamer. It's the "'So Cal' culture" [30] of the 1960s. One has to make time for protesting, playing in a band, and the other essentials of college student life. But the priority items on the agenda are always the trips in a friend's Volkswagen (or -- don't tell anybody -- borrowing some wheels from the college motor pool) [37] to look for buried old bones. And no driver's license (procrastination). [37-38] Some of this chapter, at a moment of danger when the lanterns go out while excavating, is written as a dialogue. [31-33]

Table of Contents
Time Traveler , by Michael Novacek

1. Dinosaur Dreamer3
2. The Canyon of Time12
3. Early Expeditions25
4. The Plateau of the Dragons35
5. The Rookies51
6. Journey of Death57
7. The Paleontological Chain Gang66
8. Red Rocks82
9. Back to the Bones89
10. The Pits95
11. The Age of Mammals Revisited104
12. Cut Roads and Fossil Vermin113
13. Badlands, Bones, and Bone Humters123
14. Hell Creek is for Dinosaurs136
15. The Curious Beast of Old Baja152
16. Baking Below the Buttes164
17. Whales on Mountaintops182
18. A Man and His Horse196
19. Pampa Castillo211
20. Bone Hunters in Patagonia224
21. Above the Clouds and the Condors234
22. The Land of Sheba250
23. To the Foot of the Flaming Cliffs278
24. The Cretaceous Cornucopia293
25. Last Chance Canyon314
Acknowledgements323
Notes327
Selected Reading List351
Index355
Illustration Credits367

The title of Chapter 4, "The Plateau of the Dragons", refers to the Colorado Plateau, "a lofty, inert, and exquisitely sculpted land of mystery." [47] I'm surprised to learn that the Dimetrodon (the dragon-like thing with one large, rounded fin on its back) wasn't a dinosaur, that this Permian creature disappeared "at least 50 million years before the dinosaurs appeared in the next time interval, the Triassic Period." [39] (But if you see a bird out your kitchen window, now there's a dinosaur.) I take another look at the diagram of the skeleton of the Dimetrodon, adjacent to that of the Edaphosaurus, to see if I can get the point [37]. But's it's really the diagram of the evolutionary path of the vertebrates [40] that clarified the issue for me -- we mammals have a relatively close common ancestor with the Dimetrodon, closer, that is, than our common ancestry with any of the reptiles.

In the context of another trip to the La Brea tar pits, there is a brief but well-written discussion of carbon 14 dating [97-98] as it relates to the origins of various species. This flows into a comparison between the skulls of the wolf and the saber-toothed cat. [99] The diagrams are black line drawings, which are much better than photographs for pointing out structural details. Some light is shed on the entire age of mammals. Among other differences, we placental mammals have different jaw and tooth designs than the marsupial mammals, from whom, in the lines of vertebrate ancestry, we had split off during the Cretaceous period, roughly 100 million years ago. [107-109]

Once out of college, Dr. Novacek has opportunities to travel the world. In 1989, in Yemen, the author is delighted to find frog skeletons in slabs of ancient volcanic ash that he has sliced out of the earth. [278]

On a boat expedition trip around Chile, he feels a bit like another fossil hunter, Charles Darwin , who in the 1830s cruised around South and Central America in the Beagle [185]. Novacek also tells the tale of John Bell Hatcher , who in the 1890s led a Princeton University boat expedition to the Patagonian Andes near the coast of Argentina, in search of the fossils of sloths and armadillos. [185-186]

Time Traveler is among the few science memoirs that retain the child-in-us everything-is-magic charm while being considerably educational. Most authors, at least momentarily, have to drop the rigorous science teaching when they want to turn on the human interest. Novacek is brilliant enought never to have separated the two. I recommend the book to every enthusiast of the earth sciences and life sciences.

The complete title of the book is Time Traveler : In Search of Dinosaurs and Ancient Mammals from Montana to Mongolia. 11-page 2-column index. 24 pages of notes includes quotations and bibliographic references. The selected reading list has 55 entries.

Reviewed by Mike Lepore for crimsonbird.com

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Time Traveler , by Michael Novacek   --   ISBN 1-374-27880-6 / 0374278806

Book Description from the Publisher

Michael Novacek, a world-renowned paleontologist who has discovered important fossils on virtually every continent, is an authority on patterns of evolution and on the relationships between extinct and extant organisms.

Part memoir, part adventure story, part natural history, Time Traveler is his captivating account of how his boyhood enthusiasm for dinosaurs became a lifelong commitment to vanguard science. The book traces the progress of his passion for paleontology, from his beginnings as a young dinosaur addict discovering fossils in his own Los Angeles backyard, through his trials as a rookie doing his first fieldwork, to his eventual development into a leader of expeditions to some of the world's most important fossil fields. It is a journey in space as well as time, filled with adventures at the La Brea Tar Pits and the fossil- rich road cuts of Southern California, in the empty Baja peninsula of Mexico, atop the high Andes of Chile and the black volcanic mountains of Yemen, and in the promised land of dinosaur hunters, the incredibly rich fossil badlands of the Gobi Desert.

Wherever Novacek goes he searches for undiscovered evidence of what life was like on Earth millions of years ago. He vividly describes the unique thrill of discovery, of being the first to find a pristine, ancient fossil, and of working to establish just exactly what it represents. He has learned that fieldwork is not just a matter of expertise and adventure, but requires a tolerance, even an appetite, for heat, sandstorms, snakes, bandits, flash floods, bucking horses, boredom, loneliness, and disappointment. And he also knows that great discovery is eerily dependent on luck and, less romantically, on effective management of the bureaucracy and political intrigue accompanying any major expedition. Despite all these hardships, though, his devotion to the science has never wavered.

Time Traveler illuminates some of the most exciting issues in current paleontology -- dinosaur and mammal evolution, continental drift, mass extinctions, and new methods for understanding ancient environments and the geologic time scale. By revisiting our planet's past and his own, Novacek teaches us how to understand the prospects for the future not only of paleontology but of our global ecosystem.

About the Author

Michael Novacek is Curator of Paleontology, as well as Senior Vice President and Provost of Science, at the American Museum of Natural History. His last book, Dinosaurs of the Flaming Cliffs , was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He is also coeditor of the book Extinction and Phylogeny , author of numerous scholarly articles, and a contributor to Natural History and Scientific American . His research has been widely covered by The New York Times and National Geographic , among other publications, and has been the subject of television documentaries aired on PBSs Nova and the BBC. He holds a Ph.D. in paleontology from the University of California at Berkeley. He lives in New York City.


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Book review reprinted with permission from Amazon.com

All books by Michael Novacek

If you're of a certain age, you likely went through a dinosaur phase as a kid, perhaps even dreaming of turning up the bones of stegosauruses, tyrannosauruses, and other famed creatures of the Age of Reptiles. In this affectionate memoir of "a life in the field," paleontologist Michael Novacek writes of his early years entertaining such dreams and of his ongoing education in the ways of the "terrible lizards."

Now curator of paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, Novacek has traveled the world on the trail of fossils and ancient bones, collecting thousands on thousands of specimens. Often, we gather from his pages, his expeditions have been fraught with danger, whether in the form of some exotic disease or some incautious driver on a faraway road. No matter : for Novacek, the thrill of the hunt is reason enough to shrug off peril, and he shares charming anecdotes drawn from his decades of fieldwork, as well as his understanding of what such research can teach us about the past and present alike.

Armchair travelers and paleontologists in training, to say nothing of readers going through a dinosaur phase of their own, will take much pleasure in Novacek's journeys into his -- and the planet's -- past.

-- Gregory McNamee

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