Burnes on Plotnick, 'Explorers of Deep Time: Paleontologists and the History of Life'

Author: 
Roy Plotnick
Reviewer: 
James Burnes

Roy Plotnick. Explorers of Deep Time: Paleontologists and the History of Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 2022. Illustrations. 344 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-19534-8.

Reviewed by James Burnes (University of Oklahoma) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (November, 2022) Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57678

Roy Plotnick’s Explorers of Deep Time is not a deep dive into the history of paleontology, nor is it populated with those early men who fashioned the discipline. It does take readers on a modern tour of the field of paleontology and illustrate how “one of the most familiar and accessible of all sciences” is still “a young, vibrant, and essential field with much to contribute to the future” (pp. 6, 284). Through a series of interviews, personal anecdotes, and research and analysis, Plotnick provides a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis to the scientific discipline of paleontology. His results provide an acute snapshot of a dynamic field of science that is in various stages of ebb and flow across universities, museums, and professional societies, each of which reveals its own internal SWOT statuses that are inter-(and intra-)connected.

Explorers of Deep Time moves across the field of paleontology, beginning with its brief history and relationship as a historical science to physics and chemistry and ending with its almost ubiquitous presence not just within the public sphere but within other disciplines as well. Plotnick discusses scientists who use paleontological resources and some methodologies for their own work and who may not consider themselves “paleontologists.” This is particularly useful framing as he moves toward more interdisciplinary study. These scientists also provide a framework for internal analysis of how and where they work, where they publish their findings, and at which, if any, conferences they present their research. Each example reinforces the notion that the seemingly monolithic field of paleontology is made up of scores of fragmentary, underlying groups feeding data into ever-growing collections.

The public is one of, if not the, largest aspect of paleontology. Plotnick works through the relationship between paleontology and the public with candor and humor. Chapter 3, “I’m Not Ross (or Indiana Jones),” will be intimately familiar to anyone who has ever answered the question “What do you do?” with “I’m a paleontologist.” Instead of vilifying the public’s general misunderstanding about paleontologists’ roles, Plotnick reinforces the importance of public engagement in not only being instrumental in the continued success (and existence) of paleontological research funding but also in being the driving force for many of the scientists he has interviewed, and countless others, to have pursued their chosen field. Plotnik notes that paleontology, like astronomy, is one of the only fields in which highly skilled or extremely lucky (and oftentimes both) amateurs can make important discoveries. The final section of the book begins with this modern “gold rush” for fossil discoveries that many private collectors believe (or hope) are worthy and capable of fetching high prices at auction (p. 210). The juxtaposition between these auction hounds and “avocationist” private collectors, who have mutually beneficial and scientifically sound relationships with researchers, is a great inclusion.

Paleontology is the history of life on earth, all of earth. Until recently paleontology has not been as global an enterprise as its research material. By collecting recent work and growing interest and funding in places like Argentina, China, and Mongolia, Plotnick pulls together research from a perspective broader than that of those working in specific areas, which may not hold material, field sites, or specimens. This is refreshing, as at times many of us get so caught up in our own little corner of specialty that we fail to notice or acknowledge that others are working toward the same goals and that every other paleontologist is a potential collaborator. Plotnick also discusses early society meetings, the expense of time and money to attend professional conferences, and the more recent shrinking of the professional world as the global pandemic gave rise to more virtual meetings, which greatly benefited the push to have more diverse attendance as well as speakers.

Returning again in the end to the public, their expectations, and their engagement through the field in popular culture, suggests the audience for this book. Not a textbook and not a specialist’s history of science, Explorers of Deep Time could easily be classified as a memoir, as it follows Plotnick’s professional trajectory along with that of the modern paleontology discipline. The personal anecdotes and relationships recounted within are also part of the author’s commentary on bias, fraternity, and family within the discipline itself. This book is an excellent reminder of how paleontology has developed and been slow to change, but representation in this most accessible science is now finally growing more diverse and inclusive. This book’s scope and readability as well as its candor and sincerity make it an exceptional read for early career paleontologists or students thinking of choosing that path. Anyone who considers themselves a paleontologist—professional or avocational—or anyone who works with paleontological research material or data would do well to have this book in their collection.

Citation: James Burnes. Review of Plotnick, Roy, Explorers of Deep Time: Paleontologists and the History of Life. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. November, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57678

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