Skip to main content

Dino Gangs - Josh Young ***

This is a book with an identity crisis. When I first saw the publicity material for it I assumed it was a children’s book. After all Dino Gangs is hardly an adult title. But no, it appears it is aimed at an adult audience. And then there’s the strange case of the author. The book cover is very clear there is one author, Josh Young. And in the ‘about the author’ section of the press release, there is also just one author. Dr Phil Currie. What? At the top of the press release the book is by ‘Dr Phil Currie & Josh Young.’ Totally confused. I turn to the copyright page as the definitive source, but the copyright belongs to ‘Atlantic Productions’, whoever they are.
The reason for all this confusion is that in many ways this isn’t a book at all. Atlantic Productions is a TV production company that made a documentary about the work of palaeontologist Phil Currie for the Discovery Channel. What we have here is an attempt to turn the script of the documentary into readable form. This comes through most painfully in Phil Currie’s contributions. Despite being labelled the author and/or co-author (except on the cover), we only ever see Phil Currie as the written equivalent of a talking head in a documentary. We keep seeing things like ‘”The whole world went a little crazy for a while,” Curry says.’ That present tense is the give away. After a while the recital of ‘Phil Currie says this’ and ‘Phil Curry thinks that’ becomes a trifle nauseating, like a sort of literary hero worship.
So the presentation is weird and more than a little off-putting, which is a shame, because at the heart of it there is a really good book trying to get out. Currie has an interesting theory that tarbosaurs, a particular type of tyranosaur, hunted in packs, rather than the way they have been traditionally portrayed as lone hunters, or more recently as scavengers.
Once we get the rather childish scene setting about how ‘dino hunters’ have to be able to live rough in tents, and a truly dull chapter that is just about the background of Currie and some of his contemporaries, there is a really interesting development of the group hunter concept, taking us through various analyses from how the animals could run (comparing legs with ostriches and humans among others), modern analogues (from komodo dragon to lion) and more. It was telling how well this part of the book works, where I suspect the author has been given a little more freedom, that at the end of one chapter I was left thinking ‘Hmm, but how intelligent were these dinosaurs?’ Then the next chapter… discusses the intelligence of these dinosaurs.
Overall, I couldn’t give the book more than three stars because the format has such a deleterious effect on it – but it’s a shame, because under the fake teeth smile of the TV documentary there is a really good book trying to get out. If it had been left to the author just to write a book, it could have been so much better. We would hopefully have seen rather more of the people who pop in briefly with ideas that oppose those of Dr Phil, for example – and would have had a much better journey. Even so, I think the book as it stands is worth persevering with. It’s a quaint oddity of what happens when TV people get too much control of a different format, but the subject matter is interesting enough to make it worth reading.
Hardback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Logic - Eugenia Cheng ***

This is an important book, though I'm not sure Eugenia Cheng would agree with my logic in saying so. 

Going on the marketing, what we have here is a counter to fake news and dodgy argumentation in the form of mathematical logic. The back cover tells us 'Newspaper headlines and social media use emotions to warp the facts. Politicians and companies master rhetoric to mislead us. What one book could help us make sense of it all?' Admittedly they don't answer their rhetorical question, but I assume the answer is intended to be The Art of Logic. (Did the company behind this book realise it was using rhetoric, though presumably not to mislead us?) 

What we actually have is a combination of a lucid and interesting explanation of the basics of logic with the mathematical equivalent of those books such as Algorithms to Live By that were so popular a couple of years ago. They used the logic of algorithms (differently worded, and, to me, easier to understand), the heart of computer…

Quantum Economics - David Orrell ****

David Orrell's earlier title Economyths is one of my favourite popular science books of all time. Or, perhaps, I should say popular non-science, as Orrell shows just how devastatingly traditional economics uses the tools of science without having a scientific basis. I was, therefore, really looking forward to reading Orrell's new book - until I saw the title. As anyone involved with physics can tell you, there's nothing more irritating than the business of sticking the word 'quantum' onto something to give a pseudo-scientific boost to waffle and woo. Was Orrell doing the same thing? Thankfully, his introduction put my fears aside.

Orrell, a mathematician with a physics background quickly makes it clear that the way he is using quantum theory is not just employing magic words, but involves making use of strong parallels between the nature of quantum objects and concepts like money (more on money in a moment). Yes, this is to some extent a metaphorical use of quantum …

The Ashtray - Errol Morris *****

Wow. When someone suggested I read a book called The Ashtray, written by a documentary film-maker, it didn't strike me that it would be a book that gave deep insights into the history and philosophy of science - while also being a remarkable reading experience. In fact, I almost didn't bother with it, but I'm glad that I did.

The titular ashtray was thrown at the author when he was a grad student - thrown by one of the two best known names in the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn, he of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the concept of paradigm shifts. Kuhn didn't like the young Errol Morris daring to challenge his ideas and reacted with what some would regard as a less than philosophical reply by hurling a heavy glass ashtray at him.

Part of the reason that reading The Ashtray is a remarkable experience is because it's a book that feels in some ways like watching a documentary. I have to confess I've never seen any of Morris's work, but he uses vis…