Time Machines: Scientific Explorations in Deep Time. Peter D. Ward. 241 pp. Copernicus, 1998. $25.
In a world where most popular books about paleontology are about dinosaurs, it's refreshing and perhaps more informative to discover in Peter Ward's latest work a book about other creatures and the craft itself. Time Machines offers Ward's personalized and frequently entertaining view of the business of deciphering earth's past.
Ward, an expert on mass extinctions and the wonderful nautiloid creatures called ammonites, is an excellent storyteller with an insider's license to occasionally poke fun at his own profession. His focus is on the various "time machines" paleontologists use to establish a creature's time, place and life-style. These time machines are, in fact, tools and techniques such as sediment stratigraphy, radioactive and magnetic dating analyses, biophysical reconstructions, thought experiments and, especially, the art of cross-referencing data from multiple disciplines. Ward's description of how he and others in paleontology frequently have to pull together bits of data from all corners to arrive at their best guess is perhaps the most interesting insight into the practice of paleontology.
I must say that at the outset I was put off by the title. I found it confusing to pick up a book that advertises science fiction and machines only to discover it's actually about living (or once-living) creatures and science fact. That's my only bone to pick with this book.
Ward's final chapter, in which he does indulge in some well-founded science fiction by diving into the Cretaceous period—literally, scuba diving just off the Pacific Northwest coast some 76 million years ago—is great stuff. Here, the reader can truly experience Ward's imagination at full flower, swimming among ancient ammonites and a predatory mosasaur. For anyone interested in the how and why as well as the what of paleontology, Time Machines is a must read.—Tom Paulson, Seattle