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Good Reads  Palaeontology  Palaeontology: General

Explorers of Deep Time Paleontologists and the History of Life

By: Roy Plotnick(Author)
334 pages, 20 b/w photos and b/w illustrations
Leaving no rock unturned, Explorers of Deep Time is a highly informative book that shows the many faces of modern palaeontology.
Explorers of Deep Time
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  • Explorers of Deep Time ISBN: 9780231195348 Hardback Mar 2022 In stock
Price: £27.99
About this book Contents Customer reviews Biography Related titles Recommended titles

About this book

Paleontology is one of the most visible yet most misunderstood fields of science. Children dream of becoming paleontologists when they grow up. Museum visitors flock to exhibits on dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. The media reports on fossil discoveries and new clues to mass extinctions. Nonetheless, misconceptions abound: paleontologists are assumed only to be interested in dinosaurs and they are all too often pictured as bearded white men in battered cowboy hats.

Roy Plotnick provides a behind-the-scenes look at paleontology as it exists today in all its complexity. He explores the field's aims, methods, and possibilities, with an emphasis on the compelling personal stories of the scientists who have made it a career. Paleontologists study the entire history of life on Earth; they do not only use hammers and chisels to unearth fossils but are just as likely to work with cutting-edge computing technology. Plotnick presents the big questions about life's history that drive paleontological research and shows why knowledge of Earth's past is essential to understanding present-day environmental crises. He introduces readers to the diverse group of people of all genders, races, and international backgrounds who make up the twenty-first-century paleontology community, foregrounding their perspectives and firsthand narratives. He also frankly discusses the many challenges that face the profession, with key takeaways for aspiring scientists. Candid and comprehensive, Explorers of Deep Time is essential reading for anyone curious about the everyday work of real-life paleontologists.


Part I. Deep Time
1. Those Who Know the Past
2. We Have the Best Questions
3. I’m Not Ross (or Indiana Jones)

Part II. Exploring Deep Time
4. Attending Marvels
5. Safe Places
6. Cool Toys
7. Big Data and the Big Picture
8. The Ends of the Worlds as We Know Them
9. Lessons for and from the Living

Part III. Explorers of Deep Time
10. The Education of a Paleontologist
11. Living in the Real World
12. The Face of Paleontology
13. The Third Reviewer
14. Conferring, Conversing, and Otherwise Hobnobbing
15. Fighting Over Scraps

Part IV. Deep Time and the Broad World
16. This Land Is Your Land, Your Fossil Is My Fossil
17. For the Love of Fossils
18. Presenting the Past
19. Those Who Do Not Know the Past
20. Drawing on the Past
21. The World of Paleontology
22. Last Thoughts: SWOT-ing at Paleontology


Customer Reviews (1)

  • What do palaeontologists actually do?
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 8 Mar 2022 Written for Hardback

    When I ask you to think of a palaeontologist, what comes to mind? Admit it, you likely thought of someone digging up dinosaur fossils. And that someone was probably a white man. Grounded in the past, and endlessly repeated in the present, this is of course a very narrow picture of what palaeontology is like. In Explorers of Deep Time, Roy Plotnick, a palaeontologist and emeritus professor in earth and environmental sciences, challenges this and other stereotypes. Pardon the excruciating pun, but he leaves no rock unturned in the process of showing the many faces of modern palaeontology.

    Despite the huge amount of media attention for palaeontology, the focus is very narrow. If you are not working on dinosaurs, good luck keeping people's interest. Plotnick opens his book by clarifying that this is not a textbook nor a fossil collector's guide. Instead, he talks about the practice of palaeontology. Who, really, are these explorers of deep time, and what do they do? What stands out is the sheer diversity of topics tackled here, and the excellent way in which the material is organised over four parts and 21 chapters.

    One part covers palaeontology in practice. There is, of course, the fieldwork: where to go and what tools and gear to bring with you. The other important environment is museums and the various jobs here that serve both the scientific community and the general audience. Plotnick discusses the toolkit, with traditional tools increasingly complemented by modern devices such as spectrometers, synchrotrons, and photogrammetry. He describes the transformation of palaeontology into a big-data discipline where online databases such as the, to me unfamiliar, Paleobiology Database have become standard tools. This was part of the palaeobiological revolution of the 1960s and 70s in which scientists started to use the fossil record to ask new questions about the history of life more broadly.

    A second part covers palaeontology as a career. How do you train to become a palaeontologist? With a few exceptions, biology or geology are still the main inroads, but there are many more things you can do to prepare your career, as Plotnick shows here. There is a searingly honest talk about job prospects: the long hard road to tenure (i.e. a permanent position), the attrition on the way there, and modern challenges such as academic couples who can be pulled in different directions as they each try to advance their careers. Plotnick also discusses publishing and peer review, the joys and hardships of attending academic conferences, and the pain points of funding and grant applications.

    The last part steps back and takes a wider view of how palaeontology interacts with other groups: commercial fossil traders, amateur fossil collectors (often very knowledgeable), and palaeoartists. He talks about teaching and public outreach, paying particular attention to how both palaeontologists and the faith community are responding to the challenge posed by creationism. Plotnick agrees with Stephen Jay Gould's concept of non-overlapping magisteria and is involved in organisations that see people of faith oppose the teaching of creationism in the US educational system. In his opinion, "we err in assuming the hostility of people of faith in these scientific concepts. They are more often than not key allies" (p. 252).

    Next to this overview, Explorers of Deep Time does not shy away from discussing uncomfortable and controversial topics that some would perhaps rather not talk about. Examples of the former include sexual harassment in the field and at conferences, and what to do about the underrepresentation of women and ethnic minorities*. The latter covers such topics as the friction with commercial fossil traders, the monetary versus scientific value of fossils, the insalubrious history of collecting fossils without seeking permission from indigenous people, or the current hot-button topic of human rights abuses linked to the trade in Burmese amber from Myanmar.

    The second goal of this book, which is woven throughout, is to convince the reader that palaeontology is not a dusty and outdated discipline. First, it is vital to biology: the fossil record is the history of life's development. As Plotnick pointedly observes: "nearly all studies in modern biology are ahistorical, looking only at the current snapshot in time. To truly understand biology is to recognize the role of history, which is recorded by paleontology" (p. 15). Particularly interesting is his point that we often mischaracterise the process of fossilization: "Every step in fossilization is not simply loss of information; instead, each phase adds critical evidence [...] much of which is unique to it" (p. 110). Second, Plotnick descends into the "disciplinary jungle" (p. 21) to show you just how many other academic fields rely on information from fossils; you can validly prefix many of them with "palaeo-". Third, the information recorded in the fossil record is highly relevant to today's problems of climate change and biodiversity loss. Rather than picking a side on whether we are or are not (yet) in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, Plotnick points out how this one is different and why it is hard to make direct comparisons.

    Overall, Explorers of Deep Time is a highly informative book for people in and outside of palaeontology that touches on every topic under the sun. Fortunately, Plotnick's humour and anecdotes ensure it is not a dry read. If you are curious about what palaeontologists do or you are thinking of pursuing it as a career, this book is vital reading that goes far beyond the material covered in David Penney's brief So You Want to Be a Palaeontologist? In his conclusion, Plotnick observes that palaeontologists are scattered over various professional societies that do not necessarily talk to each other. Thus, for insiders, the coverage of internal controversies, professional challenges, and topics relevant to various stages of one's career are valuable reminders.

    * Plotnick admits that his own demographic (white, male, old, and American) only gives him limited insights, but includes interviews and short biographies of people of all walks of life who have ended up in palaeontology.
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Roy Plotnick is professor emeritus in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is a fellow of the Geological Society of America and the Paleontological Society.

By: Roy Plotnick(Author)
334 pages, 20 b/w photos and b/w illustrations
Leaving no rock unturned, Explorers of Deep Time is a highly informative book that shows the many faces of modern palaeontology.
Media reviews

"Roy Plotnick is an invertebrate paleontologist who loves his job. Here he writes an excellent tome filled with his personal experiences, friends, and numerous colleagues in the field. He provides a rare, very personal look at the aspirations and lives of paleontologists, including his own. Plotnick's detailed biographical perspective is important in how it personally documents this scientific profession today, and makes the case for its importance into the future. Even highly controversial issues are discussed, such as scientific vs commercial fossil collecting. The book is skillfully written in a way that engages professional scientists as well as members of the public with an interest in this field."
– Lance Grande, Field Museum of Natural History, and author of Curators: Behind the Scenes of Natural History Museums

"Plotnick has gone above and beyond to highlight as many of paleontology's contributors as possible, demonstrating that it is an increasingly inclusive, diverse field of study. Explorers of Deep Time is an invaluable tool for the budding scientist and a beautiful homage to the breadth and depth of this discipline."
– Emily Graslie, host of Prehistoric Road Trip on PBS

"Explorers of Deep Time is more than an examination of people who study fossils – it is a biography of the field of paleontology itself. As described by Plotnick, paleontology is cutting-edge, relevant, and full of people who bear absolutely no resemblance to Ross Gellar. A key resource for aspiring paleontologists and a call to action for those already part of the field, who are reminded of the challenges our discipline faces."
– Ellen Currano, coeditor of The Bearded Lady Project: Challenging the Face of Science

"An unexpurgated and entertaining romp through the world of fossils and the stories of the people who study them. Plotnick gives us an up close and personal view of the joy of paleontology and its transformation into a vibrant modern science that is ever more relevant to understanding our world and its future."
– Sir Peter Crane, fellow of the Royal Society, and senior research scientist, Yale University

"Dr. Plotnick's personal anecdotes about his journey through his paleontological career are enjoyable to read. He has had a lot of fun in what can be a very challenging field, and it shows – this book will inspire younger generations to pick up the torch."
– Victoria Arbour, Curator of Palaeontology, Royal BC Museum

"Plotnick neatly demonstrates why paleontology is relevant to the modern world of cloud data and smartphones – and perhaps more relevant than ever due to the accelerated rate of climate change in the twenty-first century. His frank discussions of some all-too-familiar issues facing paleontologists in their workplaces (be they museums or universities) will be helpful knowledge to students and professionals alike."
– Lee Hall, paleontology field professional, Museum of the Rockies

"Explorers of Deep Time is an enjoyable and practical introduction to the work of paleontology."
Foreword Reviews

"Blends [Plotnick's] personal experiences with a cogent examination of the field of paleontology and the individuals who shaped it."
The Clergy Letter Project

"Explorers of Deep Time is a fascinating look at paleontology as a whole, and is a must-have for anyone looking to better understand the field and the people within it. Every aspiring paleontologist should have a copy, as it gives an honest look at the joys, challenges, and opportunities that the science provides. Explorers of Deep Time gives paleontology the close-up it deserves.

"This is an excellent guide to the pros and cons of choosing palaeontology as a career Highly recommended."

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