When I tell someone I am a paleontologist, it leads to a predictable set of responses. The most gratifying initial one is “Cool!” An 8-year-old will then ask if I have found many dinosaurs and a 40-year-old will reference either Ross on Friends or Indiana Jones, and then ask if I have found any dinosaurs. I may also be asked if I have discovered any gold jewelry or pots on my digs.

Suppressing a scream, I calmly explain that going on digs to uncover jewelry and pots is archaeology, not paleontology; that Indiana Jones was an archaeologist and a bad one (theft of cultural heritage, anyone?); and that Ross was an idiot who would never have been hired as a paleontologist at even the lowest-ranked college. I then sheepishly explain that I have never found, let alone collected, a dinosaur (the 8-year-old immediately loses interest). I then discuss how my research is on some group of organisms that most people had never heard of and was definitely not the stuff of blockbuster movies — although I found it exciting.

11/17/14 EAES Portraits. Roy Plotnick

These are only some of the misconceptions about paleontologists. We are often pictured only as bearded white men in battered cowboy hats, with hammers and whisk brooms as our main tools. And, unfortunately, in this day of gene sequencing and giant colliders, many of our colleagues view paleontology as an old and archaic science (no pun intended).

My new book, Explorers of Deep Time: Paleontologists and the History of Life, was largely written to dispel these misconceptions. It is about who paleontologists are, what they do, and why it is important.

Readers will learn that many paleontologists are women (though still predominantly white), that they use all the modern high-technology tools of science to explore life of the past, and that their subject is the entire history of life, including every kind of organism that lived and left some trace of its existence. Most importantly, paleontologists know what happens to life when things go bad. In the current time of ongoing environmental disruptions, we have a unique perspective — because we have seen it happen before.

I wrote the bulk of Explorers of Deep Time while I was on sabbatical at Yale University. It is my first book, so I had no idea about how to find a publisher. Friends who had already published books urged me to get an agent, since commercial publishers want to deal with an agent, not the writer.

This did not go well. Many of the agents I contacted never responded, even to acknowledge my proposal. Others could not be convinced that, because the book was about paleontology, it was not intended for juveniles. Yet another said (and I am paraphrasing here): “We loved Stephen Jay Gould’s books! But you are not Steve Gould.” 

I finally gave up on finding an agent and thus publishing with a commercial press and started contacting academic presses directly. The first press I talked to looked at my proposal and suggested I write an entirely different book. Finally, I found an enthusiastic publisher at Columbia University Press. With a few bumps (I had to pay out-of-pocket to have an index made), it has been a great experience.

From when I first conceived the book until its publication took more than five years. It would not have been possible without the dozens of colleagues who agreed to be interviewed. They taught me a lot about my field; perhaps most importantly, how much we enjoy what we do!

Roy Plotnick, an Oak Park resident, is professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Chicago. “Explorers of Deep Time” is available at The Book Table.

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