Skip to main content

Brian Switek – Four Way Interview

Brian Switek is a freelance science writer based out of Salt Lake City, Utah. In addition to writing about paleontology and natural history for publications such as Smithsonian, Scientific American, the Wall Street Journal, The Times, and others, he has published academic articles on fossils and has participated in fieldwork in Utah, Wyoming, and Montana. He also writes the blogs Laelaps for Wired Science and Dinosaur Tracking for Smithsonian. Written in Stone is his first book, and he is currently working on a follow-up titled A Date with a Dinosaur.
Why science?
Science is our ongoing effort to interrogate nature and understand the universe we inhabit. The more we discover, the more questions we have, and how we perceive ourselves is intimately wrapped up in our endeavour to understand reality. Science is not just the systematic accumulation of facts – it is an essential part of the human journey filled with poetry, serendipity, and surprises.
Why this book?
There’s no shortage of books about evolution, but I was frustrated by the short shrift the fossil record received in many of them. How can we understand evolution at all if we virtually ignore the deep history of life on earth? The patterns and processes of evolution in the deep past provide the essential context for life on earth today, and wanted to introduce readers to the intricate beauty of what prehistoric life can teach us about how familiar parts of the natural world came to be as they are.
What’s next?
I am currently working on my second book – A Date With a Dinosaur. I have been a dinosaur freak since I was knee-high to a Stegosaurus, so this is a dream come true for me. This summer I have been travelling around the west, searching for fossils with different field crews, and I hope that the stories I bring back with me will help my future readers understand why our image of dinosaurs has changed so drastically over the years. Why is the Tyrannosaurus of today not your daddy’s dinosaur? That’s what I’m setting out to explain.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
Paleontology is the most integrative of evolutionary sciences. It isn’t just the combination of geology and comparative anatomy – ideas and techniques from various disciplines, from biochemistry to evolutionary theory, have been brought into the science to better understand how the world was long before our species evolved. From the body temperatures of ichthyosaurs to the colours of dinosaurs, paleontologists are finally starting to approach questions we have always had but have previously been unable to answer. There has never been a more exciting time for paleontology than now.

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…