Since the African exploits of the great explorer Henry Stanley more than a century ago, stories of the scientist-adventurer have fascinated readers. We know that, realistically, the only way most of us will ever get to join a scientific expedition to such exotic locales as remote Andean peaks or fabulous fossil beds on the steppes of Mongolia is through the pages of a book, so we hungrily devour every page full of vicarious thrills. Time Traveler, the story of Novacek's illustrious career, and some of the most significant fossil discoveries of the 20th century as well, will surely become a classic in this genre.
was a typical teenager growing up in the 1960's. Although he liked dinosaurs,
fossils and rocks a lot, he also played in a rock' n 'roll band, and seriously
considered a career in music. Then one of his college professors offered him a
fortuitous summer job opportunity at a fossil dig:
"Our hands were swollen and blistered from swinging sledges all day, and our backs were sore from cradling heavy plaster blocks [containing fossils] as we climbed the steep slope back to the vehicles. The work was hard. But I liked the routine, I felt useful; we were a chain gang in the service of science."
This summer learning experience put him firmly on the path to a career in paleontology.
That career has taken him all over the world, and led to discoveries of many important fossils, including some spectacular finds in Mongolia's Gobi Desert. Novacek's expedition in 1990 marked the first time since the 1920's that a Western team had been allowed to do fieldwork in that Chinese-ruled country. Returning each subsequent season, Novacek's team found dinosaurs and mammals all extremely well preserved in the soft, fine sands of the area.
Novacek's recollections of life in the field are witty and exciting. He learns to endure heat, cold, long hikes, gastrointestinal illnesses from dirty water, bucking horses and all variety of hardships in his quest for fossil finds. His descriptions of the fossils themselves are interesting, too, and the book has lots of illustrations showing the different creatures discussed. There are also plenty of charts illustrating prehistoric time periods, rock layers, continental break-up, drift and fault lines, and evolutionary charts of the creatures. Although very scientific – it reads kind of like a first-year paleontology textbook – it is easy to understand and never dull.
Time Traveler also touches on some pertinent current issues, such as the fad of adventure travel, or as Novacek writes, "some call it explornography." The lack of frontiers in our modern world leads people to extreme and sometimes foolish actions in the search for "true and meaningful discovery." This makes the job of the true scientist all the more vital, to ensure that the planet's precious fossil sites are not wholly destroyed by the Indiana Jones wannabes of the world (or by the desperate poor of undeveloped nations, seeking black market money to feed their families). That legacy is important because
"…The fossil record can be a powerful mirror reflecting back to us our evolutionary future. There are sobering lessons to be learned from the past. The possibility of mass extinction…and the implications of this for the fickle quality of live such as we know it would not be readily evident without paleontologists and their fossil record."
Novacek sounds the alarm about the mass extinctions of today, which some scientists feel could prove as sweeping as the extinction of the dinosaurs if they continue. These extinctions are primarily caused by human mismanagement of animals and environment. Sobering, indeed. Despite that, this hard-to-define book, part memoir and part scientific treatise, is not gloomy, nor is Novacek's primary intent to preach at the reader. This is an exciting, educational page-turner and the picture of one man's extraordinary life's work.