More Time Travel

At the end of my last review I promised I'd follow with the latest from Peter D. Ward so here it is. Time Machines, Scientific Explorations in Deep Time is Ward's newest book. Published in 1998 by Copernicus, the hard cover edition lists for $25.00. I was not disappointed since Ward has done another masterful job as in the previous books I have reviewed. I will take a shot at the editing however. There are far too many typos and double words than should appear in the final edit of any $25.00 book. Having said that, the good stuff follows.

Time Machines will, dare I say, teach you about geologic time, paleo location, paleo environments, paleo communities, and the means by which paleontologists determine these. I hesitated to use the word "teach" for fear of implying that Time Machines is some dusty old text with complex technical terms. No, your learning will just happen as Ward presents the methods of paleo sleuthing through dynamic stories of discovery and investigation. You will end the book with a better understanding and confidence in how paleontologists can recreate the life and times of creatures known only through their fossilized remains.
Ward uses the first three chapters to deal with geologic time. Biostratigraphy and its use as the earliest means of telling relative geologic time begins the presentation. I know that you will remember that Biostratigraphy is the use of fossils to correlate localities and is the foundation of the "classic" Cincinnatian formations we still use today. True age dating has come with the twentieth century development of radiometric and magnetic clocks. Ward uses his own field work and questions through his career to demonstrate the use of these three tools.

Place is the topic of the second section of Time Machines. You'll be fascinated to hear of the tale of Baja British Columbia as Ward explains the proof that part of British Columbia was part of Baja, California in the Cretaceous. The second chapter in this section deals with ancient environments and ancient sea levels - the clues that tell paleontologists water depth and temperature.

Section three is entitled Inhabitants. Here Ward has fascinating chapters on his favorites - ammonites and Nautilus - and huge Cretaceous clams. He uses the techniques and background developed in the first sections to sleuth out the answers to some very interesting paleontological problems.

I imagine that most of you have seen, at least in pictures, the famous fossil ammonites (there are many of these fossils) with tooth marks from a Mosasaur. This has been a widely accepted explanation for the circular holes in the ammonite shells that seem to line up with the tooth rows in Mosasaur jaws. This interpretation, Ward explains, originated in a paper by Kauffman and Kessling in 1960. This was the earliest attempt in paleontological papers to go beyond strictly taxonomic descriptions of fossils and determine something about the once living creatures.

Ward's contrary evidence is simple and understandable so long as one doesn't presume the answer before investigating the possibilities - a mistake made in the earlier paper and by other overzealous paleontologists in the past. One of his proofs? - A circular hole can not be formed in the shell of a mollusc by pushing a cone shaped tooth into it. This merely shatters the shell leaving no hole. Ward's next chapter in section three deals with the enigma of the complex and dendritic suture patterns of ammonites. The distinctive patterns are used to identify ammonites but their use by the living creature is problematic. The long time and most accepted purpose was that these strengthened the shell to allow for deeper water habitats. Using modern computer modeling Ward shows that the suture pattern actually is weaker than the simple sutures of the nautiloid cephalopods. He proposes an alternative advantage to the living creature: more rapid filling of the chambers for faster buoyancy changes. Unfortunately for me this was presented as a jump in faith with insufficient discussion to gain easy buy in (my only complaint). I presume that the explanation must be too complex for the audience of this popular book and hence the omission.

I am giving away too much. My main goal is to encourage you to seek out the book not to present every minute detail and spoil Time Machines for you (after all, who would go see a movie about the Titanic if they knew how it ended??). I will tell you that Ward uses modern cladistics to ferret out the paleo history of the living Nautilus and establish a second genus for living nautiloids. Also using modern analogues he determines that some Cretaceous sea creatures lived near cold methane seeps.

Time Machines ends with what I consider to be one of Peter Ward's trademarks: a fictional trip back in time ala H.G. Wells. He recreates the living Cretaceous ocean from the discoveries and creatures dealt with in the text. Maybe Peter could have done Jurassic Park with more accuracy. As I've said of his other books, Peter Ward transports the reader into the midst of the story and you will learn without effort.

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