Friday, February 12, 2010

The Riddle of the Dinosaur, by John Noble Wilford

We all have our little things we're interested in. For some people, it's dinosaurs.

I happened to read -- or, honestly, skim through -- John Noble Wilford's The Riddle of the Dinosaur at about the same time I was also glancing through a beautiful coffee table book called Universe: A Journey from Earth to the Edge of the Cosmos by Nicolas Cheetham. The lesson I couldn't help but pull from both books, filled with facts about the most fantastic animals that have ever lived, or with pictures of the most mind-bogglingly distant and gigantic space phenomena known, is that none of this information really means much except that people know it.

Which is fine. I am not a friend to the idea that all human endeavor must have practical applications. Still, simply as an objective thing, I would think even scientists would recognize that only our knowing it gives meaning to the fact that Tyrannosaurus rex once roamed Montana. Only our knowing gives meaning to a picture of NGC 4622, a spiral galaxy gleaming in delicate gold and silver, one hundred and eleven million light years away. For us, the reality of it is not even that far away; it's a photograph, about ten inches by ten inches, sitting on the breakfast table within reach. Knowing about it, looking at it, gives pleasure.

(I'm reminded here of a superb quote from Renoir, as recorded by his son Jean in the biography My Father. " 'That fool Galileo,' " the great painter scoffed across the centuries at the great astronomer, " 'tells us we are no longer at the center of the universe, and yet no one behaves as if it were true.' ")

I wonder if there is a sort of pecking order among scientists, if some laugh up their sleeves at others, depending on whose subject matter is more heroically outlandish, or more popular, or more useful to mankind, or more difficult to master. Midway through The Riddle of the Dinosaur, as if he too were groping with the problem of science as rich inner life, Wilford tries to take it to a higher (more practical?) level (p. 184). What most frustrates paleontologists, he says, is that so much about dinosaurs can never be known. What makes the search worthwhile?

It is reassuringly human of scientists that, when it comes to dinosaurs, they can be just as stricken with puzzlement as the next person and find themselves with little more to work with than their imaginations. Yet they persist in their search for solutions to the riddle, knowing they will never fully succeed but believing they will learn something about the greater mysteries of life. This is the wonder of humans, their faith that there is much about dinosaurs that is worth knowing.

I'm not sure dinosaurs will teach us much about the greater mysteries of life. The sentence could be simplified, a la Renoir perhaps: "this is the wonder of humans, their faith that there is much that is worth knowing." The Riddle of the Dinosaur's most interesting chapters, after all, tell the human story of the great beasts' discovery, beginning in the early 1800s, and of the way those discoveries, the unearthing of giant bones which belonged to no creature any one had ever seen, forced mankind to confront and almost to make mysteries -- wonders -- where before there had been certainty. He was forced, abruptly, to rethink time and his own place on earth. Not that he behaved as though things were any different.

The book also tells the story of how the basic notions about dinosaurs which have seeped into popular culture arrived there. Originally, today's commonplaces -- that some of them were fast-moving predators, that some may have tended their young with an un-reptilian concern, that in the end birds may have evolved from them -- were scandals when they were broached and argued over by sober professionals in the field. The same is true for the last topic dealt with, the dinosaurs' mysterious and likely very sudden extinction. Here again Wilford retraces the arguments and evidence for a scandalous idea about it that has since seeped into the popular consciousness, namely that the dinosaurs died off because an asteroid hit the earth and sent up a cloud of debris thick enough to block sunlight, stunt plant growth, and so for a lethal while -- three years? three months? -- break the entire food chain.

Mass extinction left room on the planet for the dinosaurs' timid prey, the mammals, to emerge from the night and the undergrowth and begin evolving into everything else, including us. Sometimes, science writers take their "popularization" duties a bit far:

The little hoofed animals took to the unpopulated grasslands and grazed where the ceratopsians used to roam. Other mammals developed a taste for meat, initiating new predator-prey relationships in nature. Some took to the trees, and this led to monkeys. Some took to the sea, and this led to whales and porpoises. Some took to the air, and so there are bats today.

In time, no doubt. All this wrapping up leads Wilford to the standard last chapter theme in a science book meant for John Q. Public: isn't it sobering to think we, now, mammals with consciousness and the ability to wonder about our planet and its past, also have the power to cause the kind of catastrophe which ended the dinosaurs' ... yes, yes. (He's talking about the danger of man-made cataclysms, nuclear war, overpopulation, or maybe "nuclear winter," also suddenly destroying the food chain and all life on earth. Global warming had not yet become the dernier cri in 1984.) To paraphrase Wilford: "We've traveled back in time to the fossil fields of Montana and Mongolia, and come face to face with ourselves." Well, yes and no. If in any course of study or pursuit of pleasure or knowledge, we come face to face with ourselves, it seems to be because, in the ways that matter, we were always there.

Image from Hubblesite Newscenter

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