Sue Rigby 1997, British Geological Survey (Earthwise), 64 pp. ISBN 0-852722-84-2. £6.50.
There’s no way I can be negative about a booklet that includes the conodont story as one of six case studies selected to illustrate the cutting edge of palaeontological science. Nor would I wish to be, as Sue Rigby’s small volume is a pretty good addition to the market of popular fossil books. Her enthusiasm for her subject bursts through the pages, and it is especially pleasing that an active professional palaeontologist has taken the time to put together a text intended for the general public and for school students. The project was born during Sue’s time at the British Geological Survey, and the book is published as a contribution to their educational output.
The text is organised into double or single page topics, lavishly illustrated with photographs of fossils and with colourful line diagrams. The introductory portion covers topics such as the nature of fossils, evolution and past environments; this is followed by a skip through the history of life, with themes like terrestrialisation and mass extinction highlighted. A series of six palaeontological case studies not only includes the conodonts but also oxygen isotope studies of foraminiferans, and there are sections on collectors, collections and the major invertebrate macrofossil groups. One eccentricity is the inclusion towards the beginning of a mock board game, ‘the game of life’, which sits uneasily with the lucid, but serious, treatment presented in the rest of the book.
Inevitably, there are a few quibbles. As examples: diagrams of trilobite rib numbers, purported to show gradual evolution, in fact appear to show sudden changes separated by stasis; there are some very idiosyncratic definitions of ‘homology’ and ‘analogy’; and there are internal contradictions in the discussion of mass extinctions. The designer effect employed on several pages, where the text is overprinted on a backdrop of faded fossil photograph, is visually attractive but makes for difficult reading, and one or two of the photographs (especially the conodonts!) are out of focus. For readers of this newsletter, too, there may be rather too little on microfossils, which outside the case studies achieve very little mention. All in all, however, this is a valuable contribution to the popular palaeontological literature, and should help to enthuse new generations of palaeontologists. A good stocking filler for the children/nieces/nephews next Christmas if you missed it in 1997.
Richard J. Aldridge, Professor of Palaeontology, Department of Geology, The University, Leicester LE1 7RH, U.K.