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The Story of the Dinosaurs in 25 Discoveries: Donald Prothero *****

Two things worried me about this book. One was the title. Publishers love the 'topic in n chunks' style for some reason, but often such books feel too bitty and insubstantial. And then there have been quite a lot of palaeontology books recently, making dinosaurs seem old hat. But I needn't have worried. After a couple of pages, Donald Prothero had me hooked. As his easy style introduced the earliest fossil discoveries, from a giant salamander originally assumed to be an antediluvian man (even though he or she would have had a head shape more suited to a Dr Who alien) to the knee-end of a dinosaur thigh bone that briefly gave the first identified dinosaur (megalosaurus) the Latin name 'Scrotum humanum', learning about our gradually growing understanding of the dinosaurs with Prothero was like attending the best kind of dinner party, replete with entertaining stories.

Although Prothero does give us plenty of information about the various dinosaurs covered (the 25 chapters are based around 25 specific species, including all the old favourites, and some less well-known, such as cryolophosaurus and heterodontosaurus, there are plenty of other species introduced along the way), the reason the book works so well is that he drives his narrative from the individuals involved in making the discoveries and attempting to piece together what was represented from sometimes very fragmentary finds.

So, for example, in that first chapter on megalosaurus, we see how it was assumed that it walked on four legs, looking something like a giant armoured crocodile (hence the totally inaccurate representation amongst the Crystal Palace concrete dinosaurs). We discover the contributions of William Buckland (a renowned eccentric who famously tried to eat pretty well every living thing) and Richard Owen, while the second chapter, focusing on Gideon Mantell, includes the story of a dinner being hosted inside the shell used to cast an iguanodon figure. And so it goes through the 25 chapters with a whole host of eccentrics (palaeontology seems to attract more than few of these), and even a few normal scientists helping us to get a far better feel for how the discoveries were made and interpreted than a collection of dry information about dry bones would ever have achieved.

A must for any dinosaur-lover, or anyone who enjoys a history of science that has a distinctly human touch.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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