Science Book a Day Interviews Brian Switek

brian-switekSpecial thanks to Brian Switek for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs

Brian Switek is a freelance science writer, blogger, and author of the critically-acclaimed book Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature. His new book – My Beloved Brontosaurus:On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs – has just been published by Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. – From Brian’s Homepage

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#1 – What was the impetus for this book?

Even though “Brontosaurus” is my mascot, a kerfuffle involving Triceratops was what inspired me to write the book. In the summer of 2010 paleontologists John Scannella and Jack Horner published a paper suggesting that a pair of three-horned dinosaurs named Nedoceratops and Torosaurus were really the adult stages of ol’ “three-horned face”, Triceratops. If Scannella and Horner were right, both those names would be sunk and all those specimens would be called Triceratops. But some journalists got the conclusion backwards and said Triceratops didn’t exist. The public response was furious, highlighting how difficult it can be to keep up with the ever-changing findings of paleontology and the way we like to hold on to images of dinosaurs we learn in our childhood. “Brontosaurus” was an even more famous case, so that’s how Triceratops led me to use the discarded “thunder lizard” as a totem of how science changes our impressions of prehistoric life.

#2 – Where did your obvious passion for dinosaurs come from?

I’ve loved dinosaurs for as long as I could remember. To my childhood self, at least, they were real monsters that I could visit in museums. Even better, I could bring them to life in my imagination. So much was unknown about them that I had the chance to picture myself as a junior scientist, exploring what they looked like, how they ate, and other aspects of their lives. That intersection of science and speculation has kept me on the trail of dinosaurs ever since.

#3 – I loved Brontosauruses when I was growing up. Why has their history/origin been revised?

The funny thing about “Brontosaurus” is that the dinosaur became a museum zombie. Way back in 1903, just a few decades after the dinosaur was named, paleontologist Elmer Riggs realized that the dinosaur named “Brontosaurus” was the same as one previously named Apatosaurus. Since Apatosaurus was named first, that name had priority. But when museums in New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and elsewhere put up skeletons of this dinosaur, they kept calling it “Brontosaurus” for some unknown reason. It wasn’t until the late 1970s, when researchers finally found the long-lost skull of the dinosaur, that the personality and popular perception of the dinosaur started to change. And even now, I think more people know the name “Brontosaurus” than Apatosaurus. The memory of the dinosaur is very strong.

But that’s really just backstory for what’s happening in paleontology now. Even with the proper name and all the bones in place, we’re just getting to know Apatosaurus. Through new finds and new technologies, paleontologists are figuring out aspects of dinosaur lives that were thought to be forever lost, from colors to sounds to their sex lives. We’re finally getting acquainted with the realApatosaurus.

#4 – How has our understanding of dinosaurs changed over time?

Megalosaurus was the first dinosaur to be officially named. If you put images of this dinosaur from 1824, 1842, 1877, 1970, and 2014 side-by-side, you’d see wildly different animals, ranging from an overgrown lizard to a huge, sharp-toothed, bipedal predator that may have been covered in fine dinofuzz. You could do the same comparison for any other classic dinosaur.

The bones of these animals have stayed the same, of course, but the way paleontologists study and interpret dinosaur fossils has changed significantly. Dinosaurs have gone from gigantic lizards to totally unique animals that are still around today in the form of birds. That’s a huge shift that took over a century and a half of science. Like any science, this comes through the interplay of fact and theory – the constant quest to explain natural phenomena and test those ideas against new discoveries. I think we’re closer than ever before to understanding what dinosaurs were really like, at least in broad strokes, but I have no doubt that their image will continue to change as paleontologists discover more.

#5 – Are you working on any new books/projects that you can tell us about?

Everything’s still in the early stages, but I’ve got a few new projects in the works. I’ve just been asked to write a special issue of National Geographic about the Age of Dinosaurs. That’s a dream come true. I’m also hoping to get started on a new book about the hidden lives of bones. Rather than totems of death, I want to show them as symbols of ever-changing life. On top of that, I’ve been toying with a collection of Mesozoic stories where I try to get into the heads of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures, using science and imagination to see the world as they did. In the meantime, I’ll keep geeking out about paleo and natural history news at my National Geographic blog.

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