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.

Hardback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Martin O'Brien

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under