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Sea Slugs, Wombats, Microbes

Richard Fortey: Species Seekers, 28 April 2011

The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth 
by Richard Conniff.
Norton, 464 pp., £19.99, November 2010, 978 0 393 06854 2
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... race was always on to find something new and preferably spectacular, and to get the credit for it. Richard Conniff’s entertaining book commemorates this contest, particularly during the 18th and 19th centuries. The seekers sought out challenging, unexplored places likely to yield rich taxonomic rewards, notably Amazonia and the Dutch East Indies. Many of ...

They might be giants

Richard Fortey: Classical palaeontology, 2 November 2000

The First Fossil Hunters: Palaeontology in Greek and Roman Times 
by Adrienne Mayor.
Princeton, 361 pp., £22, May 2000, 0 691 05863 6
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... In 1586, William Camden reported in Britannia, his travel guide to British curiosities, that the bones of giants had been discovered in Essex. The evidence took the form of limb bones the size of small tree trunks, and enormous teeth. The local people were familiar with legends of their oversized forebears, and the bones provided visible testimony to the history behind the legends ...

Most Curious of Seas

Richard Fortey: Noah’s Flood, 1 July 1999

Noah’s Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries about the Event that Changed History 
by William Ryan and Walter Pitman.
Simon and Schuster, 319 pp., £17.99, February 1999, 0 684 81052 2
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... When the water started to rise, all the fish floated to the surface of the lake, bloated and dead, or convulsively dying. The people of the lakeside watched their livelihood disappear within a few days – there was no stopping the inundation. One of the tribal elders noticed the water had taken on a salty taste. Soon, it was lapping at the skimpy foundations of the wooden huts: there was nothing to do but flee before the onrush with what could be carried ...

Archaeology is Rubbish

Richard Fortey: The Last 20,000 Years, 18 December 2003

After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC 
by Steven Mithen.
Weidenfeld, 622 pp., £25, June 2003, 0 297 64318 5
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... An excavation made in 1975, behind the town of Vedbaek in Denmark, revealed the body of a tiny child laid to rest in the embrace of a swan’s wing. Next to the skeleton was the grave of the child’s young mother, dead in childbirth, her remains decorated with snail-shell beads and pendants; her face had been dusted with red ochre, the better to seem alive ...

Down to the Last Flea

Richard Fortey: Resurrecting the mammoth, 23 May 2002

Mammoth: The Resurrection of an Ice Age Giant 
by Richard Stone.
Fourth Estate, 242 pp., £14.99, January 2002, 1 84115 517 9
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... from their frozen obscurity and brought back to life, once more to browse the Arctic plains? Richard Stone assumes that attempts to revive mammoths are a practical possibility. Frozen mammoth sperm, so the theory goes, may yet be viable. Techniques are already used routinely in fertility treatment that allow defrosted sperm to fertilise living eggs, so ...

Blow-Up

Richard Fortey, 2 October 1997

Volcanoes: Crucibles of Change 
by Richard Fisher, Grant Heiken and Jeffrey Hulen.
Princeton, 344 pp., £25, July 1997, 9780691012131
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... of the Earth itself. But the sheer power of the processes at work may be a greater attraction. Richard Fisher’s signature appears on many of the illustrations. He must have visited these crucibles of steam and lava. It would have been good to know more about what it is like to be inside a living volcano, to hear the sounds of fumaroles popping, or feel ...

Shock Lobsters

Richard Fortey: The Burgess Shale, 1 October 1998

The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals 
by Simon Conway Morris.
Oxford, 242 pp., £18.99, March 1998, 0 19 850256 7
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... of the divine in the Conway Morris version. The word ‘numinous’ appears in a footnote; how Richard Dawkins would shudder. Do these differences in historical interpretation amount to anything more than the kinds of fiction which can be built around the idea that Hitler won the Second World War? What Gould called ‘re-running the tape of life’ is ...

Everything but the Glue

Richard Fortey: A Victorian sensation, 22 August 2002

Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception and Secret Authorship of ‘Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation’ 
by James Secord.
Chicago, 624 pp., £22.50, February 2002, 0 226 74410 8
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... their own author. In aristocratic circles authorship was attributed to one of their own – Sir Richard Vyvyan was a popular candidate at fashionable metropolitan soirées when the sensation was at its height, and the name of Prince Albert was, according to one account, also suggested. In ecclesiastical circles any one of a number of free-thinking radicals ...

Did the self-made man fake it with Bohemian fossils?

Richard Fortey: Jacques Deprat, 25 November 1999

The Deprat Affair: Ambition, Revenge and Deceit in French Indochina 
by Roger Osborne.
Cape, 244 pp., £15.99, October 1999, 0 224 05295 0
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... On 23 May 1909, Jacques Deprat left France for Hanoi with his young family to start a career as a geologist in the Service Géologique de l’Indochine. His advancement had been won against the odds. His beginnings were humble, if respectable, and he had progressed by virtue of hard work. He had published brilliant papers on the geological structure of Corsica, which had eventually earned him the respect of a distinguished sponsor, Professor Termier at the Ecole des Mines in Paris ...

Tasty Butterflies

Richard Fortey: Entomologists, 24 September 2009

Bugs and the Victorians 
by J.F.M. Clark.
Yale, 322 pp., £25, June 2009, 978 0 300 15091 9
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... John Lubbock, Liberal MP and social reformer (he introduced the bank holiday into law in 1871), was also the founding father of scientific anthropology and an obsessive entomologist. Of his many books, the most successful, Ants, Bees and Wasps, ran to 18 editions. In 1872, he presented a wasp that he had tamed (allegedly) to the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science ...

No Such Thing as a Fish

Richard Fortey: Cladistics, 6 July 2000

Deep Time: Cladistics, the Revolution in Evolution 
by Henry Gee.
Fourth Estate, 262 pp., £20, April 2000, 1 85702 986 0
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... In 1952, Gustav Wängsjö published a 612-page monograph on early fossil vertebrates from the Arctic island of Spitsbergen. These fossils were the remains of sluggish, fish-like animals covered in bony plates, on which, more than 380 million years ago, the finest details of nerves and arteries had been as faithfully impressed as fingerprints in clay ...

Prophet of the Rocks

Richard Fortey: William Smith, 9 August 2001

The Map that Changed the World: The Tale of William Smith and the Birth of a Science 
by Simon Winchester.
Viking, 338 pp., £12.99, August 2001, 0 670 88407 3
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... The birth of almost every science has been achieved with the help of a map. Astronomy began by mapping the stars. Anatomy – and modern medicine – is indebted to those flayed bodies laid out with such excruciating clarity in Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica. Mendeleev’s periodic table of elements gave inorganic chemistry its logic: the famous chart, which used to be posted on the wall of every chemistry laboratory like a sacred text, is as much map as matrix ...

Hammers for Pipes

Richard Fortey: The Beginnings of Geology, 9 February 2006

Bursting the Limits of Time 
by Martin Rudwick.
Chicago, 840 pp., £31.50, December 2005, 0 226 73111 1
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... On his release from jail, Gordon Liddy, the Watergate conspirator, set up as a radio guru, with a nationally syndicated show dispensing cracker barrel philosophy and a folksy view of the world. A few years ago, I found myself a guest on the show as part of a tour to promote a book I had written on the long history of life on Earth. Liddy’s avuncular manner belied his previous history, and he was apparently no creationist; but, as I had anticipated, a caller from Kentucky duly declared that the world had been created in seven days, and what did I have to say to that? I invited the caller to ask himself whether, when his grandfather used the words ‘in my day’, he meant one particular day, or rather a season or a phase of life ...

70 Centimetres and Rising

John Whitfield: Plate tectonics, 3 February 2005

The Earth: An Intimate History 
by Richard Fortey.
Harper Perennial, 501 pp., £9.99, March 2005, 0 00 655137 8
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... explain the Earth’s structure and movement, and turned continental drift into plate tectonics. Richard Fortey witnessed some of the ferment first-hand while studying for a PhD in palaeontology at Cambridge, and in the 1980s, he used the distribution of trilobite fossils from half a billion years ago to work out the positions of some of the land masses ...

Coloured Spots v. Iridescence

Steven Rose: Evolutionary Inevitability, 22 March 2018

Improbable Destinies: How Predictable Is Evolution? 
by Jonathan Losos.
Allen Lane, 364 pp., £20, August 2017, 978 0 241 20192 3
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... In The Crucible of Creation (1998) he attacked Gould, ‘biting the hand that once fed him’ as Richard Fortey put it in his review, in a way that made ‘a shoal of piranha seem decorous’.* The range of evolutionary options is tightly constrained, he insisted, and wherever there is life, on earth or any other planet, human-like creatures are likely ...

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