Skip to main content

Jurassic Mary – Patricia Pierce ****

We almost take fossils for granted now. The sight of a fossil might still be exciting, but we know just what we’re dealing with, and why they’re there. But Patricia Pierce takes us back to a different time, when the word “dinosaur” was yet to be coined, when fossils were much more mysterious finds. What’s more she takes us back to meet a very successful fossil hunter, who discovered several new species, or British firsts, who was an uneducated young woman – someone who therefore had to overcome a huge mountain of prejudice through sheer enthusiasm.
That’s enough to make Mary Anning’s story a delight – and Pierce tells it well, embroidering a little to set the scene, but never going over the top. We are taken into the world of Victorian Lyme Regis, getting a good feel for the place at the time and Mary Anning’s achievements that would put her alongside many of the great names of fossil discovery of the period, though she herself only once left Lyme for a brief visit to London, and never received the accolade arguably due to her – sadly this was pretty well always the way for the people who did the spadework at the time. I shouldn’t give the impression that Mary was just a humble digger, employed by the great and good, though. Self-taught, she had significant expertise as well as an unerring eye for a likely location and tons of location experience that made her opinions more important than many of the armchair theorists of the time. Pierce has done an important job in highlighting Mary’s contribution.
The only thing I’d take issue with is her statement that Mary was “born and bred in lowly circumstances”. While it’s true Mary’s family was not in the “educated classes”, her poor and lowly circumstances were certainly relative. Her family lived in a 3 story house with cellar and bow windows. When she and her brother found their first major fossil (when Mary was 12, the Annings “hired men to dig out the complete skeleton.” Compare these with the living conditions of, say a Lancashire cotton worker, crammed with maybe a dozen others in a two up, two down shack, and this is relative wealth. Mary’s father was a craftsman, not a humble labourer, and they could afford to hire men – this was certainly not a wealthy family, it was a family who had to work for their living, but by 19th century standards, certainly not as lowly as Pierce makes out. I don’t say this to take away from Mary’s achievement – or to knock Pierce’s book – but it is gilding the lily a touch. (Oh, and if we’re being very picky, look out for the page heading where the proof reading process failed to spot this enigmatic heading for one of the pages of notes that sounds like something out of the Da Vinci Code: THE CHAPNOTESTER TITLE… think about it.)
Altogether a fascinating book that reveals a lot about someone who for many is a total unknown in the human backdrop of the discovery of fossils, and the impact that they would have on everything from geology to theology.
Review by Martin O'Brien


Popular posts from this blog

Bits to Bitcoin - Mark Stuart Day ***

When I saw the title of this book, I got all excited - at last we were going to get an explanation of bitcoin for the rest of us, who struggle to understand what the heck it really involves. There certainly is an explanation of bitcoin, but it comes in chapter 26 - in practice, the book contains far more. Almost every popular computer science title I've read has effectively been history of computer science - this is one of the first examples I've ever come across that is actually trying to make the 'science' part of computer science accessible to the general reader.

I don't mean by this that it's an equivalent of Programming for Dummies. Instead, Bits to Bitcoin takes the reader through the concepts lying behind programming. If we think of programming as engineering, this is the physics that the engineering depends on. This is a really interesting proposition. Many years ago, I was a professional programmer, but I never studied computer science, so I was only fa…

Through Two Doors at Once - Anil Ananthaswamy *****

It's sometimes hard to imagine that there's anything new to say about the basics of quantum physics, yet Anil Ananthaswamy manages this in a twofold manner (appropriately, given the title). Through Two Doors at Once does so by using the double slit experiment as a constant reference point throughout the book, and by bringing in a number of the more modern variants on the experiment which rarely feature in popular accounts of quantum theory.

Strictly, the book should probably be called 'Through Two Doors at Once and Spooky Action at a Distance plus Things That Have a Similar Effect', as it uses both the double slit experiment and the EPR entanglement thought experiment, plus modern experiments which don't, for example, involve slits but rather beam splitters that are their logical equivalent - but I have to admit, that would be a clumsy title.

Ananthaswamy gives us a good overview of the development of quantum physics - sometimes quite summary - but by making repea…

By the Pricking of Her Thumb (SF) - Adam Roberts *****

Sometimes a sequel betters the original - think Terminator 2 - and Adam Roberts has done this with his follow-up to The Real-Town Murders. (It's sensible to read the first book before this: while it's not essential, there are plenty of references you will miss otherwise.)

Ostensibly this is a murder mystery, or, as Roberts tells us, a combination of a howdunnit and a whodunnit-to, as the central character Alma is called on to work out how someone found with a needle stuck through her thumb was killed and which of a group of four super-rich individuals is dead when all claim to still be alive - though one of the group who hires Alma is convinced that the death has occurred. 

However, this is anything but a conventional murder mystery - far more so than the strange crimes suggest. Alma and her partner Marguerite (the latter still trapped by an engineered polyvalent illness that requires treatment every 4 hours and 4 minutes) don't do a lot of detecting. In fact Marguerite hard…