The New Dinosaur Dictionary, Mark Hallett, and the best Christmas present ever

January 18, 2018

When I was nine, a copy of Don Glut’s The New Dinosaur Dictionary turned up in my local Waldenbooks. It wasn’t my first dinosaur book, by far – I’d been a dinosaurophile since the age of three. But The New Dinosaur Dictionary was different.

Up to that point, I had subsisted on a heavy diet of kids’ dino books and the occasional article in National Geographic and Ranger Rick. The kids’ books were aimed at kids and the magazine articles were pitched at an engagingly popular level. I didn’t understand every word, but they were clearly written for curious layfolk, not specialists.

A typical spread from The New Dinosaur Dictionary (Glut, 1982). The armored sauropod blew my young mind.

The New Dinosaur Dictionary was something else entirely. It had photos of actual dinosaur bones and illustrations of skeletons with cryptic captions like, “Skeleton of Daspletosaurus torosus. (After Russell)”. Okay, clearly this Russell cove was out there drawing dinosaur skeletons and this book had reproduced some of them. But nobody I knew talked like that, and the books I had access to up to that point held no comparable language.

The New Dinosaur Dictionary (Glut, 1982: p. 271)

Then there was stuff like this: “The so-called Von Hughenden sauropod restored as a brachiosaurid by Mark Hallett”. A chain of fascinating and pleasurable ideas detonated in my brain. “The so-called” – say what now? Nobody even knew what to call this thing? Somehow I had inadvertently sailed right to the edge of human knowledge of dinosaurs, and was peering out into taxa incognita. “Restored as a brachiosaurid” – so this was just one of several possible ways that the animal might have looked. Even the scientists weren’t sure. This was a far cry from the bland assurances and blithely patronizing tones of all my previous dinosaur books.

“By Mark Hallett.” I didn’t know who this Hallett guy was, but his art was all over the book, along with William Stout and some guy named Robert T. Bakker and a host of others who were exploding my conception of what paleo art could even be. Anyway, this Mark Hallett was someone to watch, not only because he got mentioned by name a lot, but because his art had a crisp quality that teetered on some hypercanny ridge between photorealism and scribbling. His sketches looked like they might just walk off the page.

In case that line about scribbling sounds dismissive: I have always preferred sketches by my favorite artists to their finished products. The polished works are frequently inhumanly good. They seem to have descended in a state of completed perfection from some divine realm, unattainable by mere mortals. Whereas sketches give us a look under the hood, and show how a good artist can conjure light, shadow, form, weight, and texture from a few pencil strokes. Put it this way: I am anatomist by temperament first, and by training and occupation second. Of course I want to see how things are put together.

The New Dinosaur Dictionary (Glut, 1982: p. 75)

Anyway, The New Dinosaur Dictionary was something completely new in my experience. It wasn’t aimed at kids and written as if by kids, like lots of kids’ books. It wasn’t even written by adults talking down (deliberately or inadvertently) to kids, or trying to reach a wide audience that might include kids. It was written by an adult, aiming at other adults. And it was admitting in plain language that we didn’t know everything yet, that there were lots of animals trembling on the outer threshold of scientific knowledge. I didn’t understand half of it – I was down in an ontogenetic trench, looking up as these packets of information exploded like fireworks over my head.

In Seeing In the Dark, the best book about why you should go out stargazing for yourself, Timothy Ferris writes about growing up on Florida’s Space Coast in the early 1960s, and watching the first generation of artificial satellites pass overhead:

I felt like an ancient lungfish contemplating the land from the sea. We could get up there.

That’s precisely the effect that The New Dinosaur Dictionary had on me: I could get up there. Maybe not immediately. But there were steps, bodies of knowledge that could be mastered piecemeal, and most of all, mysteries to be resolved. The book itself was like a sketch, showing how from isolated and broken bones and incomplete skeletons, scientists and artists reconstructed the world of the past, one hypothesis at a time. Now I take it for granted, because I’ve been behind the curtain for a couple of decades. But to my 9-year-old self, it was revolutionary.

This has all come roaring back because of something that came in the mail this week. Or rather, something that had been waiting in the mailroom for a while, that I finally picked up this week: a package from Mark Hallett, enclosing a copy of his 2018 dinosaur calendar. And also this:

 

An original sketch, which he gave to me as a Christmas present. The published version appears on one of the final pages of our book, where we discuss the boundaries between the known – the emerging synthesis of sauropod biology that we hoped to bring to a broader audience by writing the book in the first place – and the unknown – the enduring mysteries that Mark and I think will drive research in sauropod paleobiology for the next few decades. Presented without a caption or commentary, the sketch embodies sauropods as we see them: emerging from uncertainty and ignorance one hard-won line at a time, with ever-increasing solidity.

Thank you, Mark, sincerely. That sketch, what it evokes, both for me now and for my inner 9-year-old – you couldn’t have chosen a better gift. And I couldn’t be happier. Except perhaps to someday learn that our book exploded in the mind of a curious kid the way that The New Dinosaur Dictionary did for me 34 years ago, a time that now seems as distant and romantic as the primeval forests of the Mesozoic.

Advertisements

12 Responses to “The New Dinosaur Dictionary, Mark Hallett, and the best Christmas present ever”

  1. Mike Taylor Says:

    That is truly beautiful.

    The power of the right book, arriving at the right time, is pretty astonishing.

  2. Matt Wedel Says:

    Thanks for the kind words.

    Looking back now, I can see how The New Dinosaur Dictionary awakened me to the existence of uncertainty in science, in a way that The Dinosaur Heresies would massively expand on when it arrived in my local bookstore just a couple of years later.

    And the Norman and Sibbick Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs came out right around the same time. Man, the mid-80s was a golden age for pop dino books.

  3. Andy Farke Says:

    The New Dinosaur Dictionary was similarly influential on me…it was the first time I saw illustrations taken directly from the primary literature, and it was _so_ cool to see the scrappy nature of some fossils and the gorgeous nature of others. Seeing the rendering of the “Diceratops hatcheri” skull still sticks in my mind…and it spurred me to track down Hatcher’s original monograph via ILL. I still have my dino dictionary–it is nearly completely worn out, scribbled upon, bearing stains where I tried to make replicas of some bones by sculpting clay over top of the figures, and more. The Norman/Sibbick encyclopedia is similarly worn, held together only by duct tape on the back spine. I think what was most remarkable about both books was the unvarnished way in which they presented the data and even the interpretations–sure, there were slick life reconstructions, but otherwise it was “here, take a look at this incomplete braincase.” I don’t really know of any contemporary books for the general public that fall into this morphospace.

  4. Matt Wedel Says:

    I still have my dino dictionary–it is nearly completely worn out, scribbled upon, bearing stains where I tried to make replicas of some bones by sculpting clay over top of the figures, and more.

    Mine split in half a long time ago. Ditto for my Dinosaur Scrapbook, which came out about the same time, and which I always thought of as forming half of a matched set, the popular yin to The New Dinosaur Dictionary‘s scientific yang. I should get them rebound. I know you can get used copies online for a song, but I want those particular books. I spent so much time poring over them, I think they have little bits of my soul stuck to the pages.

    I think what was most remarkable about both books was the unvarnished way in which they presented the data and even the interpretations–sure, there were slick life reconstructions, but otherwise it was “here, take a look at this incomplete braincase.” I don’t really know of any contemporary books for the general public that fall into this morphospace.

    Yes, exactly. I think possibly those books benefited for having been produced before there was a professional cadre of “science communicators” to insert themselves between scientists and the public and protect laypeople from science in all its unexpurgated complexity.

  5. Allen Hazen Says:

    As mike said: that is truly beautiful. Best essay I’ve seen on the WWWeb since I don’t know when.

    I didn’t think much about dinosaurs, or palaeontology in general, between childhood and graduate school, but I can relate to the way a book can come as a revelation, disclosing a universe of science barely hinted at in juvenile and popular books. For me, in palaeontology, the book was Bjorn Kurten’s “The Cave Bear Story”: each section posing a question, and then describing the sort of evidence that let palaeontologists address it. Revelation: palaeontology was a science, and not stamp collecting! (Sort of like my first modal logic course in my first term of graduate school: week after week Alan Anderson would present a new KIND of result about modal systems, and a new WAY of proving it. So, as I told people, it wasn’t just a course on modal logic, but a course on what it was like, and how much fun it was, to be a logician.)


  6. When I was growing up, my local library had a copy of The New Dinosaur Dictionary. I remember borrowing it over and over again, fixated by William Stout and Mark Hallett’s reconstructions, and astonished at how many dinosaur names there were to learn and how few of the named genera were well understood. I started trying to write and illustrate my own dinosaur dictionary (several versions of which I still have – they should probably never see the light of day!). One day, though, I checked my library and its catalogue for the book, and it wasn’t there. Presumably it had been removed from circulation and sold or thrown away, or borrowed by someone and never returned.

    Although I no longer had access to the book, I never forgot it. Every time I went to a secondhand bookshop, I kept an eye out for it. My was lacking… until around 2009/2010.

    When I was doing my Ph.D., I would treat myself practically every week to a lunchtime trawl through the wonderful, and sadly no longer extant, co-op bookshop at my alma mater, Monash University. My searches were often constrained to the science and nature sections, but one day I decided to look through the shop more broadly. Why I looked at the dictionary/reference section that day, I don’t know. But then I saw that deep purple spine, with the title in yellow block letters, the author’s name in green, the publisher’s in red… There it was! Mis-classified in the bookshop for goodness knows how long… and then speedily purchased by me and whisked back to my office! Leafing through the pages for the first time in at least a decade (maybe longer), I almost felt like I was getting reacquainted with an old friend, sad as it is to admit! I’m sure my office mates thought I was nuts, given how excited I was to have found it…

    Mat, everything you said about this book could not have been said better. Well played :)

    And I agree – popular dinosaur books from the 1980s and early 1990s were pretty amazing – throw some of David Lambert’s and Dougal Dixon’s in with Norman/Sibbick’s, Bakker’s and Paul’s…

  7. Matt Wedel Says:

    Allen, Stephen, thanks for the kind words and for sharing your stories. I’ve never read Kurten’s cave bear book, reckon I ought to give it a go.

    I have a whole shelf here of popular dino books from the 1980s. I should do a post series on them, when they came along, what they taught me, which ones were my favorites. Although I think any such program would draw unfavorable comparisons with the similar and much more exhaustive efforts put in by the folks at Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs on classic dino books. But maybe one of these days.

  8. Allen Hazen Says:

    Kurten’s book was a revelation to me, but… it’s old enough that it may seem very dated now.

  9. Matt Wedel Says:

    Hey, no worries. I love old dinosaur books. To seem dated is the inevitable fate of all works of science, so there can’t be any shame in it.


  10. […] to trace stuff to get the proportions that close on the first go. And as I recently mentioned in another post, it’s always mesmerizing for me to see how a visual artist can conjure form, weight, and […]


  11. […] with scientific content by Peter, showed up at my local Waldenbooks around the same time as the New Dinosaur Dictionary – much more on The Dinosaurs another time. Then when I started doing research as an undergrad […]


  12. […] cool? It’s no exaggeration to say that I am a paleontologist today because I was exposed to mind-bending paleoart from a young age. Brian cares about paleoart–he cares about making better paleoart, himself, […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: