Dino DNA 

Digging for Dinos in My Beloved Brontosaurus

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OVER THE LAST five months, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield's YouTube dispatches from the International Space Station cracked open a sense of childlike wonder the internet didn't even know it had. Hadfield's videos demonstrated what it was like to perform mundane activities in space—activities like wringing out a wet washcloth, brushing your teeth, or singing David Bowie's "Space Oddity." (Raise your hand if you openly wept at that last one.)

It's but a small step from Hadfield's space videos to Brian Switek's new pop-science book My Beloved Brontosaurus. Hadfield left the planet, while the fossil-minded Switek digs in deep—but the two forge similar connections to interests most of us left behind in the tar pits of childhood.

The title My Beloved Brontosaurus comes from Switek's dismay at learning the favorite dinosaur of his youth had been knocked from the dinosaur pantheon. Using the deposed brontosaurus as a starting point, Switek walks the reader through historical and recent discoveries in paleontology, infusing the at-times dry subject matter with an enthusiasm preserved intact from his five-year-old self.

There's a learning curve to reading My Beloved Brontosaurus, in part because Switek assumes a level of familiarity with dino-vocab that many casual readers just won't have. (Pop quiz: What's a sauropod?) It's like watching a movie with subtitles, though—eventually you get used to it, and Switek's essentially fascinating subject matter moves to the forefront, aided by jovial, irreverent prose that goes a long way toward mitigating some of the more complicated sections.

Chapter by chapter, he deconstructs what we know about dinosaurs, from how they had sex (in a chapter titled "Big Bang Theory," A+) to what color their feathers were to why most of them are no longer with us. His enthusiasm is perfectly infectious, and he's not above cracking a joke or taking a swing at creationists, as the mood strikes him.

Switek has a habit of introducing chapters with a description of driving to various research sites, a framing device that feels like an attempt to make the book more personal. I wish he had instead ramped up the human element by explaining more about the personalities involved in the history of paleontology (there are intriguing references to the dueling paleontologists of the "Bone Wars" of the 1880s, for example), or his own path toward becoming a science writer and scientist. But maybe he doesn't need to get personal, because the topic at hand is interesting enough—Switek proves an affable guide as he sleuths through the bones of some of (natural) history's greatest monsters.

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