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Dinosaurs Rediscovered - Michael Benton ****

When I give talks about science in junior schools, there is one magic word that I only have to mention to get children's attention: dinosaurs. They have a fascination that may dim a little with age, but still stays with us, whether it's their dramatic side (as brought out in the Jurassic Park films) or the fascination of finding out more about a set of animals that once dominated the Earth.

Mention of Jurassic Park tends to produce grinding of teeth amongst professionals in the field - leaving aside the impossibility of the premise (thanks to the half-life of DNA, amongst other things), our understanding of what dinosaurs looked like, how they moved and lived - and far more - has transformed immensely in last 30 or so years - and yet the representations we see on the screen often hark back to an earlier vision.

Michael Benton eases us in with a chatty introduction about how science works and how we now think we know far more about the dinosaurs than was possible even ten years ago, revealing aspects such as skin pigmentation, feathers, what their biting capability was like and far more through fascinating new techniques and discoveries.

This is literally a weighty tome - at nearly 1kg I found it quite hard to hold to read for any sustained period. For me, the mix of content sometimes lacked a sense of structure and flow - we go from sort of dinosaur top trumps inserts with illustrations, specifications and a 'little-known fact' about each species, to background on their period, stories of discoveries and answers to perky little questions such as 'Were the dinosaurs warm blooded?' (short answer 'Yes and no') and 'Are birds really dinosaurs?' (short answer 'Yes'). Then we'll plunge into something quite detailed, such as bone histology, the study of the internal microscopic structure of bones.

Overall the book is often charming, verging occasionally on the whimsical (particularly in photograph captions: of a portrait of Thomas Henry Huxley, for example, we read 'did he perhaps know how smart he was'). I found it difficult to read through from end to end, finding it worked better as something to dip into on train journeys... but well worth it for a journey that was both informative and personal.
Review by Brian Clegg


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