Skip to main content

Jurassic Mary – Patricia Pierce ****

We almost take fossils for granted now. The sight of a fossil might still be exciting, but we know just what we’re dealing with, and why they’re there. But Patricia Pierce takes us back to a different time, when the word “dinosaur” was yet to be coined, when fossils were much more mysterious finds. What’s more she takes us back to meet a very successful fossil hunter, who discovered several new species, or British firsts, who was an uneducated young woman – someone who therefore had to overcome a huge mountain of prejudice through sheer enthusiasm.
That’s enough to make Mary Anning’s story a delight – and Pierce tells it well, embroidering a little to set the scene, but never going over the top. We are taken into the world of Victorian Lyme Regis, getting a good feel for the place at the time and Mary Anning’s achievements that would put her alongside many of the great names of fossil discovery of the period, though she herself only once left Lyme for a brief visit to London, and never received the accolade arguably due to her – sadly this was pretty well always the way for the people who did the spadework at the time. I shouldn’t give the impression that Mary was just a humble digger, employed by the great and good, though. Self-taught, she had significant expertise as well as an unerring eye for a likely location and tons of location experience that made her opinions more important than many of the armchair theorists of the time. Pierce has done an important job in highlighting Mary’s contribution.
The only thing I’d take issue with is her statement that Mary was “born and bred in lowly circumstances”. While it’s true Mary’s family was not in the “educated classes”, her poor and lowly circumstances were certainly relative. Her family lived in a 3 story house with cellar and bow windows. When she and her brother found their first major fossil (when Mary was 12, the Annings “hired men to dig out the complete skeleton.” Compare these with the living conditions of, say a Lancashire cotton worker, crammed with maybe a dozen others in a two up, two down shack, and this is relative wealth. Mary’s father was a craftsman, not a humble labourer, and they could afford to hire men – this was certainly not a wealthy family, it was a family who had to work for their living, but by 19th century standards, certainly not as lowly as Pierce makes out. I don’t say this to take away from Mary’s achievement – or to knock Pierce’s book – but it is gilding the lily a touch. (Oh, and if we’re being very picky, look out for the page heading where the proof reading process failed to spot this enigmatic heading for one of the pages of notes that sounds like something out of the Da Vinci Code: THE CHAPNOTESTER TITLE… think about it.)
Altogether a fascinating book that reveals a lot about someone who for many is a total unknown in the human backdrop of the discovery of fossils, and the impact that they would have on everything from geology to theology.
Hardback:  
Review by Martin O'Brien

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Dialogues - Clifford Johnson ***

The authors of science books are always trying to find new ways to get the message across to their audiences. In Dialogues, Clifford Johnson combines a very modern technique - the graphic novel or comic strip - with an approach that goes back to Ancient Greece - using a dialogue to add life to what might seem a dry message.

We have seen the comic strip approach trying to put across quite detailed science before in Mysteries of the Quantum Universe. As with that book, Dialogues manages to cover a fair amount of actual physics, but I still feel that the medium just wastes vast acres of page to say very little at all. This is brought home here because quite a lot of the sections of Dialogues start with several pages with no text on at all, just setting up the scenario.

As for using a discussion between two people to put a message across, Johnson makes the point that, for instance, Galileo's very readable masterpiece Two New Sciences is in the form of a dialogue (more accurately a discu…

Liam Drew - Four Way Interview

Liam Drew is a writer and former neurobiologist. he has a PhD in sensory biology from University College, London and spent 12 years researching schizophrenia, pain and the birth of new neurons in the adult mammalian brain. His writing has appeared in Nature, New Scientist, Slate and the Guardian. He lives in Kent with his wife and two daughters. His new book is I, Mammal.

Why science?

As hackneyed as it is to say, I think I owe my fascination with science to a great teacher – in my case, Ian West, my A-level biology teacher.  Before sixth form, I had a real passion for the elegance and logic of maths, from which a basic competence at science at school arose.  But I feel like I mainly enjoyed school science in the way a schoolkid enjoys being good at stuff, rather than it being a passion.

Ian was a revelation to me.  He was a stern and divisive character, but I loved the way he taught.  He began every lesson by providing us with a series of observations and fact, then, gradually, between …

Ten Great Ideas About Chance - Persi Diaconis and Brian Skyrms ***

There are few topics that fascinate me as much as chance and probability. It's partly the wonder that mathematics can be applied to something so intangible and also because so often the outcomes of probability are counter-intuitive and we can enjoy the 'Huh?' impact of something that works yet feels so far from common sense.

I think I ought to start by saying what this is isn't. It's definitely not an introductory book - the authors assume that the reader 'has taken a first undergraduate course in probability or statistics'. And though there's an appendix that claims to be a probability tutorial for those who haven't got this background, it's not particularly reader-friendly - in theory I knew everything in the appendix, but I still found parts of it near-impossible to read.

As for the main text, if you pass that first criterion, my suspicion is that, like me, you will find parts utterly fascinating and other parts pretty much incomprehensible. Th…