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How 'The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs' Makes Academic Life Look Awesome

Why reading about paleontology will make you want to go to grad school.

July 16, 2018
 
 

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World by Steve Brusatte

Published in April of 2018.

I don’t know anything about dinosaurs. Actually, I didn’t know anything about dinosaurs.

After reading Brusatte’s accessible, enthusiastic, but not-dumbed-down primer The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, I feel as if I know quite a lot.

This may be a classic case of the dangers of acquiring a little knowledge. When you don’t know much about a subject, it easy to feel as if you know almost everything there is to know after reading a single book.

So in this review, I will not regale you with stories of how dinosaurs evolved, how they hunted, why they got so large, and how they became extinct. Although I could. Nor will I explain in great detail how birds evolved from dinosaurs.  How birds are dinosaurs! Although you would be impressed with my arguments.

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs may be the best book on dinosaurs ever written for a popular audience. I have no idea, as this is the only book on dinosaurs that I’ve ever read.  Unless you count reading Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park when I was a junior in college (history major).

What I’m sure of is that The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is one of the most enthusiastic books ever written on the joys of grad school, and the pleasures of being an academic.

After reading this book I wanted to either:  A) Get a PhD in paleontology, or B) Hang out with a paleontologist.

Brusatte (Columbia PhD, 2012) makes the life of an academic seem less like a job, and more like an incredible adventure of exotic travel combined with world-changing discoveries. Paleontologist’s get to tromp around the globe digging up bones and unearthing fossils, all while debating the history of evolution over beers and spicy food with the world’s coolest academics.

So much of academia nowadays is doom and gloom. On the day I wrote this review, Bryan Alexander came out with a new piece - which is really difficult to argue with by the way - on how American higher ed is overbuilt.  

I have no idea if the job market for paleontologists is better than that of other PhDs. If paleontology grad students make it through their PhDs faster than everyone else. If the discipline of paleontology is as vibrant and exciting as Brusatte, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, makes it seem.

I do know that this is a book with zero hand-wringing about academia. This is a book that details the pure joy of discovering an academic discipline, and then spending one’s life within a community of scholars engaged in an ongoing series of rich intellectual debates.

We need more book-length defenses of the wonders of academic disciplines, and the pleasures of academic life.

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is a great book to read if you just might be interested in dinosaurs. I imagine that if this book was passed out to every incoming first year student that we may see a surge in major switching.

What are your favorite popular science books written by professors?

What are you reading?

 

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