Book Review: The Story of the Dinosaurs in 25 Discoveries

Reviewed by Blandine Hautier (Bonn, Germany)

Prothero, D.R. 2019. The Story of the Dinosaurs in 25 Discoveries: Amazing Fossils and the People Who Found Them. Columbia University Press, NYC. 488 pp. ($28.00 cloth, $20.80 paper/e-book with 20% PS discount.)

A must-read for any dinosaur paleontology enthusiast, student or specialist, and great Science communication work.  In a very concise and entertaining way, Donald R. Prothero offers a global overview of paleontology, in a book combining the History of Science and dinosaur-specific as well as general paleontological knowledge.

Using one of 25 dinosaurs as a starting point for each chapter, the author depicts the whole context behind their discovery and study: from geological context to political settings, the reader follows the greater than life (sadly not all so nice) protagonists who discovered and studied the fossils, as well as all the drama they went through with other scientists during their career.

The story-telling in bite-sized chapters makes the wide diversity of scientific concepts (phylogeny, osteology, geology, evolution) disseminated across the book in a smart way: very easy to assimilate, or reminisce with if you’re already familiar with them. Chapter after chapter, you learn more about dinosaurs, their biology, and evolution, in a didactic way. Each section is strongly supported with scientific references listed at the end of it, which allows you to dig deeper on any given topic.

The book is organized in a quite chronological order, allowing you to have a grasp on the whole history of this quite recent science that is paleontology. But, if you feel like jumping from one part to the other, that is also possible. This volume is richly illustrated with good-quality black and white pictures of fossils, landscapes, and protagonists of the stories. And as some things are easily explained in a visual way, the more complex scientific concepts come with illustrations as well.

One thing that I specifically appreciated while reading, was the willingness of the author to tackle the “ugly” sides of the field that are too often overlooked in the media and university courses; colonialism, power fights, data theft, political issues, etc. There were many stories I had never been made aware of before reading this book. Sometimes Prothero also reflects on his own career, experiences, or opinions about controversial scientific questions, and I thought it added a very nice and personal yet sensible touch to the book. 

As someone with a degree in the paleontological field, I enjoyed and found this piece of work to be a must-have in one’s collection, as this synthesis could be handy when beginning research/work from scratch on one specific dinosaur, creating a course on any of the topics mentioned, needing a reminder on some concepts, or just wanting to deepen your knowledge of the story of this scientific field. As a result, The Story of the Dinosaurs in 25 Discoveries: Amazing Fossils and the People Who Found Them is a book I strongly recommend to dinosaur enthusiasts, as well as paleontology students getting started with dinosaurs.

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