Paleontology

Everett C. Olson, 1990. The Other Side of the Medal. A Paleobiologist Reflects on the Art and Serendipity of Science. The McDonald and Woodward Publishing Company, Blacks-burg, Virginia, XIII + 182 pp. US $22.95, ISBN 0-939923-13-0, hard bound.

 

 

 

 

The biographies of geoscientists usually make for fascinating reading. Our profession seems to take us to out-of-the-way places at unusual times. As paleontological researchers, and not as mere tourists, we tend to have a different outlook and almost inadvertantly "dig deeper" into the culture and physical features of the regions we visit. Who in their right mind would voluntarily visit the mesquite-covered plains of north-central Texas? And who would befriend a Russian during the heat of the cold war? E.. Olson's The other side of the medal describes just such endeavours; the times and places are rural Texas in the middle of this century and Russia in the 1950's and 60's. The layout of the book follows this sequence with the first 80 pages devoted to Olson's field work in Texas and the following 100 to his visits to the Paleontological Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences in Moscow.

The Texas reminiscences are a rather straight forward and insightful but not terribly exciting description of field work in cowboy country. Contentwise, this is the part I feel qualified to talk about, as I worked in the same region 30 years later. North-central Texas is still one of the most thinly populated and internally remote regions of the United States, untouched by tourism or modern times and living by its own rules. This, after all, is the place the movie "The Last Picture Show" was all about. The character of the region with its vast ranches, the unspectacular but hostile countryside, the ranch and town folk, and the exciting fossils is very well captured. The narrative is purely chronological and follows Olson's quest for younger and younger vertebrate fossils from the Permian that document the gradual drying up of the continental interior of North America and the transition from the Lower Permian faunas of Texas and central Europe to the very different Upper Permian assemblages from Russia and South Africa.

The second half of the book, about Soviet paleontology in general and Efremov in particular, is very interesting although I am not fully competent to judge its quality due to lack of first-hand experience. More than anything else, these chapters are a glorification of Ivan A. Efremov, an important Russian scientist who had an equally successful career as a science fiction writer. Efremov's claim to scientific fame is mainly the coining of the term "taphonomy" for the science that investigates the processes from the death of an organism to its recovery as a fossil. "Taphonomy" largely won out over the essentially synonymous older German term "Biostratinomie" through the promotion of Efremov's work in the west by E.. Olson. Olson can largely be credited with the revival of this field of investigation in the 1950's and 60's in the anglophone realm. What is strangely lacking in this account, however, is the exact nature of Efremov's scientific achievements which would have been important factual information and certainly not out of place here.

The focus of the second half of the book thus quickly shifts from purely biographical information to the interchange through letters and visits between Olson and Efremov on how Soviet ("dialectical") science theoretically differed from western ("linear logic") science. The answer is not all too clear, especially since Efremov seems to have claimed that few Russian scientist truly adhered to the dialectical approach. Nevertheless, these chapters contain much valuable biographical, anecdotal and historical information about the fields of evolutionary biology and vertebrate paleontology in the Soviet Union up to about 1972, the time of Efremov's death.

The underlying reason for Olson to be at these two places, Texas and Russia, was the same: his research interest in vertebrate life in the Permian, for which he is the foremost authority. Nevertheless, the two sections are as disparate as they appear from a glance at the table of contents. This I suppose are the two sides of the medal, the dialectical approach to his research activities at two major geographical foci. However, what is missing in the volume, though fortunately not in Olson's science, is a synthesis of the two experiences so that the book's sections do not really flow together. The major criticism to be levelled at The Other Side of the Medal is thus that the whole is not more than the sum of its parts. The subtitle about reflections on the Art and Serendipity of Science is a promise not kept.

I recommend this volume to those who are interested in paleontological field work but do not already own another book of its kind such as one of the accounts by Colbert or particularly by Simpson which I consider superior. On the other hand, the book has gained rapidly in timeliness by the breakdown of the Soviet Union and thus will be handy as one of the rare western insights into science in the USSR after WW II but before its demise. Thus, although not a must for geoscience libraries, The Other Side of the Medal should find its way onto the shelves of historians and sociologists of science. The success of Olson's book will definitely be aided by the laudably low price, particularly for a hardbound volume.

P.M. Sander (Bonn)

1993 Book review: The other side of the medal. A paleobiologist reflects on the art and serendipity of science, by E.C. OLSON. Earth Science Reviews 34, 293-295.

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