The Daily Dose Presents: Brian Switek and Beloved Brontosaurus

DailyDose2Welcome to the Daily Dose!

Theoretical physics suggests that time travel is, in fact, possible. Well, today I’m here to prove it. I’ve just taken two journeys. First, I traveled back to the Jurassic period to get a glimpse into the life (and love life) of Apatosaurus, more commonly known as Brontosaurus. Second, I traveled back to the summer of my 3rd grade year, when my parents enrolled me in a two week class on all things dinosaur. Along the way, I remembered something I’d forgotten: like the joy of an 8-year-old discovering real life monsters for the first time. For hours I poured over (rather incorrect) artwork depicting flying creatures as big as airplanes and great striding beasts the size of buildings. I sneaked my cousin’s dino-book, and reveled in bloody pictures of a T-rex taking down his prey. I spent long weeks planning my excursion to distance lands where I would discover living Plesiosaurs. These were the dreams of my youth. Today, I’m happy to remind you of your first wonder, too–and to present the work of Brian Switek:  My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our FavWax_finaledge_rogueSorite Dinosaurs.

Given his brilliant work–and the talent and joy he brings to what is often considered a niche reserved for the Paleantologist PhD, I think it only fitting that Brian also be honored with the Rogue Scholar Seal of Approval!

ABOUT Brian Switek
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Brian Switek is a freelance science writer and blogger, and so also gets our Rogue Scholar seal of approval. He is the 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 – will be published by Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux in April 2013.

In addition to the hundreds of essays he has written for the blogs Laelaps (now at National Geographic) and Dinosaur Tracking, he has also contributed pieces to Slate, the Wall Street Journal, Nature, Scientific American, New Scientist, Times of London, Smithsonian, WIRED Science, ScienceNOW, the Guardian, academic journals, and a variety of other publications. He has given talks about evolution, the history of science, blogging, and science communication in both academic and popular venues, and has regularly been interviewed by organizations such as the BBC, the Calgary Herald, and other news sources to discuss new fossil discoveries.

About the Book
Dinosaurs occupy a sacred place in our childhoods with their awe-inspiring size, terrifying claws and teeth, and otherworldly abilities. They loom over museum halls, thunder through movies, and are a fundamental part of our collective imagination. Now, in My Beloved Brontosaurus, dinosaur fanatic Brian Switek enriches the childlike sense of wonder that these amazing creatures instill in us as he investigates the latest discoveries in paleontology and breathes new life into old bones.

Switek reunites us with these mysterious creatures as he visits desolate excavation sites and hallowed museum vaults, and explores everything from the sex lives of Apatosaurus and T. rex’s feather-laden body to just why dinosaurs vanished (and of course, on his journey, he celebrates the book’s titular hero, “Brontosaurus,” as a symbol of scientific progress, who suffered a second extinction when we learned he never existed, after all).

With infectious enthusiasm, Switek questions what we’ve long held true about these beasts, weaving in stories from his obsession with dinosaurs that started when he was just knee-high to a Stegosaurus. Endearing, surprising, and essential to our understanding of our own evolution and our place on Earth, My Beloved Brontosaurus is a book that dinosaur fans and anyone interested in scientific progress will cherish for years to come.

My Beloved Brontosaurus will be published in April 2013 by Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux

–AND if you can’t wait until then for the beef about dino sex, you can find an excerpt here!

INTERVIEW

1. When I was 8, my future was secure. I was either 1) going to be a great archeologist digging up dino bones or 2) a great explorer who would find real live dinosaurs. After all, the world is unbelievably large to an 8-year-old, and it seemed to be unconscionable that it wouldn’t contain great gobs of strange creatures no one had ever discovered (before me). Somewhere along the way, though, I lost or forgot about this love. I’m curious, what has kept the dino flame alive for you? Could you share with us how you have managed to live that dream through writing?

I adored dinosaurs when I was a kid. I excavated a good deal of my grandparent’s backyard in search of a Triceratops nest, spent hours drawing my favorite dinosaurs, and actually got in trouble with my school librarian for checking out too many paleontology books that were supposedly above my reading level. I’d love to say that I kept that same intensity over the intervening twenty five years, but, even though dinosaurs always had a place in my heart, there was a long stretch of my life when they were more of a persistent background interest rather than creatures I actively pursued.

College constrained my dreams. “There are no dinosaurs in New Jersey”, my parents and guidance counselors told me. And I wasn’t diligent enough to earn the scholarships I would need to go to school out west, or even out of state. So I figured I’d follow one of my other toothy loves – sharks – in the marine biology major at Rutgers University. I still regret going to that school. The experience was a nightmare, but during my flailing attempts to earn a degree I took an ocean science communication course that required that I teach a lesson to local fifth graders once a week. The lessons were pre-packaged, except for the last one which I had to design myself. I created a short talk about whale evolution – one of the greatest evolutionary transformations of all time! – but the idea was rejected. The school principal didn’t want angry phone calls from creationist parents.

I taught the lesson anyway. (The teachers and class loved it, by the way.) But the fact that the school principal and even my college professors told me NOT to talk about evolution in a science class disturbed me. I had no idea that there were people who believed that the universe and everything in it was created less than 10,000 years ago, much less that some of those people claim that humans and non-avian dinosaurs walked together! I wanted to know more about the controversy, as well as evolution. I realized how little I knew about how life changes, so I dug up a slew of books and papers on the subject starting with the topic I felt I knew best – paleontology.

I devoured technical papers and symposium proceedings, and took a few paleontology courses just for the hell of it. My professors in those classes actually encouraged my interest – something I hadn’t previously encountered at Rutgers – and I started blogging about what I was learning. Even though I eventually quit college two courses short of my degree, I still value how enthusiastic my paleontology teachers were. The rest of the story is pretty simple. The more I dug, the more questions I had and the faster I wanted to keep digging. I started working on my first book, Written in Stone, and accidentally built myself a career as a science writer that have given me the freedom to volunteer in the field and museum when I can. (I’ve written a few technical papers, too, and I try my hand at paleo research when I can.) I had never intended to become a full-time science writer, and I never thought I’d have a chance to search for fossils in the gorgeous badlands of the American west, but here I am. I count myself as incredibly fortunate that I was able to find a way back to my childhood dreams.

2. Like many of the folks I interview, I am a “rogue scholar.” Though my PhD was in literature, my publications and my day-to-day work are in medical humanities and medical history (I also freelance, and I blog for the Dittrick Medical History Museum). What does it mean for you to be pursuing this work outside of the “traditional” academic milieu? What might be the benefits (or pitfalls) and how have you gone about maintaining enthusiasm and audience? What would you recommend to other intrepid dino seekers and freelance writers?

Had everything gone according to my teenage plans, I’d probably have a paleontology PhD and very few job prospects. As painful as some parts of my journey so far have been, I really couldn’t have asked for a better happenstance. People pay me to write about dinosaurs, and during the summer I actually get to find the fossils that inspire my imagination. Honestly, even though I would love to attend graduate school someday and learn even more details about prehistoric life, I think I’ve carved out a comfortable place between the informal and academic. And since there are many paleontologists who have taken alternate routes to their career, I’ve felt very, very welcomed by researchers. I’m always floored when I attend a conference and my scientist heroes say, offhand, “Oh yeah, I read your blog.”

I wish I had something insightful to say about maintaining my enthusiasm for paleontology, and science in general. There’s no secret to what I do. I just follow the inspiration I find in nature – creatures or ideas that may be say “Whoa!”, “What?!”, and sometimes “Squeeee!” I write for myself, often because I want to more about something that I’ve only just encountered. Maybe that’s the answer. Even though I consider who I’m writing for every time I sit down at the keyboard, I’m really writing for myself. I don’t want to come at writing like a know-it-all who believes that a science illiterate public needs to take their medicine. My approach is much more “Have you SEEN this? How cool is that!”, and that happens organically. Ultimately, I’m able to write like I do because I’m trying to reflect and channel my irrepressible enthusiasm. And nature, past and prehistoric, is so fantastic that I don’t think I’m going to run out of inspiration.

As for dino seekers and freelancers, there’s not much I can say that applies to both! If you’re keen on finding dinosaurs, contact your local museum or seek out reputable paleontologists who run field programs. Many excavations and projects are happy to take on enthusiastic volunteers. And freelancers shouldn’t be afraid of being specialists. Being flexible enough to write about something outside your field of interest is a great thing, but having a beat or area of expertise can be invaluable if you become known as the go-to writer on that subject. But there is a place where both disciplines intersect – whatever you do, act professional. Even if you’re just starting out or not getting paid, it’s essential that you act like your chosen area of interest is your job. When I was starting out as a science blogger, I tried to act like a pro science writer and hone my craft even though I was really just exploring a hobby. But by acting professional – the equivalent of dressing for the job I want rather than the one I have – I was able to cultivate a career that otherwise would have remained closed to me.

3. So much as changed about dinosaurs in recent years; the T Rex went from lumbering giant, to swift predator, to scavenger to–well, feather-festooned. There are probably many people shaking their heads, feeling this represents a slide from fearful dragon to giant chicken. In fact, I’ve seen and heard reactions that patently refuse the feather philosophy. Why do you think some of the new ideas meet with resistance?

A “dinosaur phase” is a common and almost expected part of American childhood. We revel in dinosauriana, learning the names and stats of genera and species just like sports fans know the details of their favorite players. But then most of us leave dinosaurs behind, or at least push them to the background, until we encounter them again a decade or two down the line when we revisit museums or the latest Jurassic Park sequel comes out. Since our understanding of dinosaurs and their lives is changing on a near daily basis, it’s no wonder that the new dinosaurs don’t match our expectations! We expect to see old friends and instead meet entirely different dinosaurs. The disconnect can be jarring. The same thing happened when Pluto was demoted – the part of our solar system didn’t go anywhere, but it changed and therefore altered our image of what our solar system is. I don’t have the social science or psychological chops to say why this is, but it seems to me that our childhood affection for nature can sometimes get in the way of understanding and accepting changes driven by science. Which makes me wonder what future generations of dinosaur fans will be upset about, since all the young dinosaur maniacs I’ve met so far have been totally on-board with feathers.

But, for feathers, it’s not just a problem of nostalgia. I think paleontologists and artists have sometimes been a bit too tentative and too sloppy about restoring dinosaurs with feathers. There are some really ugly, gnarly feathered dinosaurs out there that really do look dumb. If we’re going to restore dinosaurs as they were – increasingly with fuzz and feathers and bristles – then we should really put in the effort to bring dinosaurs to life in the best, most accurate way we can. I’ve seen some awful tyrannosaurs with feathers, for example, but I’ve also seen artists create well-rendered restorations of the dinosaurs that are true to the science and look just as fierce as the naked-skinned version. Simply slapping feathers on old dinosaurs doesn’t bring them up to date – it’s important to pay attention to what kind of feathers, how they were arranged, and even what color they might have been. Die-hard fans of nude dinosaurs might still be grumpy, but I think paleontologists and artists can help the acceptance of new dinosaur imagery by being aware of just how powerful images are.

4. You have chosen to keep the “Brontosaurus” name, I note, for the book. Could you talk a bit about that decision? I don’t think most people realize that the name was ever in question…and probably find themselves asking, with Shakespeare, “What’s in a name?”

The title might be a little deceiving. I spend the first chapter of the book explaining why “Brontosaurus” went extinct a second time at the hands of science, and should really be called Apatosaurus. But I picked the lost dinosaur as a symbol of the tension between the dinosaurs we grew up with and the new dinosaurs. When I was young, “Brontosaurus” was the epitome of dinosaurness – slow, stupid, drab, swamp-dwelling, yet still magnificent. Apatosaurus is a very different animal brought to life through better science, and I believe that the transformation from “Brontosaurus” to Apatosaurus is symbolic of our tangled relationship with dinosaurs. We love how science brings dinosaurs to life, but then the dinosaurs we meet become “ours”, in a way, so we feel a sense of loss as paleontology continues to change the dinosaurs we loved most. Since some of my friends and colleagues tell me that they’re still upset about “Brontosaurus” being struck from the fossil record, the dinosaur seemed like the perfect mascot for the book’s journey.

5. And back to time travel: what period would you visit if you could only choose one? What dino would you be if you could only be one? And finally–what, in your opinion, would be the most awesome site to witness on your journey?

A period is quite a long time! The Jurassic – between 201 to 145 million years ago – is the obvious choice for me. This is when dinosaurs actually became the dominant form of life on land, and the biggest dinosaurs of all time first evolved. But if I had to narrow it down, I’d want to visit the places now persevered in the 150 million year old Morrison Formation. These fern-covered floodplain habitats were trod by Allosaurus, Stegosaurus, Apatosaurus, and a wonderful array of other dinosaurian celebrities, and must have been some of the most productive environments of all time. To have three massive carnivores in the same place as at least five gigantic sauropods, with stegosaurs and other dinosaurs to boot? I can’t think of a more spectacular prehistoric habitat. And I was thrilled to be at Dinosaur National Monument, Utah – one of the most famous Morrison Formation sites – when the bone-filled quarry wall re-opened in October, 2011. The site is a logjam of dinosaur bones and is one of the most spectacular visions I’ve ever seen. I love the Jurassic.

I’m actually not sure which dinosaur I’d be. Finding and studying dinosaurs has always been more exciting to me than being one! But if I had to choose, I think I’d be Apatosaurus. There’s nothing quite like the dinosaur alive today, and I really wonder what it would have been like to experience the world as the sauropod did. What could it smell, and what could it see? What would it be like to be an 80 foot giant, constantly snarfing down Mesozoic salad? I don’t know, but I imagine it’d be a wonderfully alien experience.

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