Reviews of Brad Matsen and Ray Troll’s Planet Ocean:

 5.0 out of 5 stars As good as palaeontology gets! Sagan would be proud! A+,
An Amazon.conm review by Robert A Felthousen

 This review is from: Planet Ocean: A Story of Life, the Sea and Dancing to the Fossil Record

 The late Carl Sagan thought that science should be "user-friendly," presented not in jargon but in regular English. He believed that the general public could -- and should -- have access to the latest scientific discoveries.

Sagan would be proud of _Planet Ocean._ The central theme of the book is stated clearly on page 1: "Nature is a workshop, not a temple." Matsen spends the rest of the book supporting this concept, explaining that life is not a stately, well-executed design where species climb a ladder of progress; rather, evolution is an inescapable and completely random condition. Animals and plants breed, have offspring that are slightly different, and continue to become slightly more different with each successive generation until the distant grandkids look nothing like the original parent. In addition, through totally weird, sometimes avoidable and sometimes unavoidable circumstances, the species as a whole will either do very well, or get pushed out of the scene. The environment works like the stock market -- fortunes are made, and fortunes are lost. (The metaphor of "rolling the dice" comes up more than once.)

Matsen's prose is engaging, entertaining, and extremely informative. In one of my favorite sections, he describes the success of the trilobites (who survived for 300 million years in Earth's oceans):

"They would eat anything and breed anywhere, and they made themselves as unattractive to predators as possible. We all have relatives like them. From [trilobites] and their success and longevity, an evolutionary rule of thumb has emerged: 'The more specialized a species, the less able to cope with change it will be once the inevitable happens and old habitats change beyond the point of recognition' [...]. In other words, generalists usually outlast specialists, and evolutionary progress is not necessarily a matter of refinement. [...] Ninety percent of success is just showing up. Ask an arthropod, like a trilobite or a cockroach. [...] Generalism won't get you to Carnegie Hall with your cello, but a cockroach doesn't need a cello." (p. 14).

This conversational tone is used throughout the book, and it really works. Matsen's prose reminds one of an after-class discussion with a very generous, patient biology teacher -- the kind you always wished you had, and didn't. Matsen takes otherwise very difficult subject matter and explains it in understandable terms that don't insult the intelligence of the reader. He even suggests amusing mnemonics to remember the order of epochs in the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras ("Crying over sleeping dragons may puzzle people, terrify, (or) joyfully convert") as well as for the Cenozoic era ("Palaeontologists eat only murky plankton porridge hot").

Interwoven with the education that Matsen offers is the story of his and artist Ray Troll's voyage of discovery. Brad and Ray actually travelled to many of the sites discussed in the book, and the little personal touches -- Brad's vision of the Cretacious sea as they drove across Kansas, Ray's discovery and naming of a totally new species of pterosaur, and the fishing trips enjoyed by both -- really draw in the reader. One becomes intimate with the friendly voice, the casual, personal stories, and history of life on Earth.

Not to be missed, of course, is the wonderful art. Ray Troll is a meticulous artist, and his offbeat sense of humor is perfectly in place with the spirit of the book. For example, his illustration of a lungfish's hesitant voyage out of water is captioned, "Out of the ooze and born to cruise." Not to be missed are his "ads" for a wrist watch that measures geologic time; Burgess Brand Primordial Soup; and that great French wine, Chateau Mosasaur. Doodles, sketches, and highly detailed pastel paintings are strewn throughout, and they are worth the price of the book by themselves. (Interested readers can preview some of Ray's art at his homepage, www.trollart.com)

This book is an excellent introduction to evolution, paleontology, marine biology, and/or marine science. Alternately light and serious, one is sorry to finish the book. It -- like the 650 million year history it encapsulates -- is such a joy to experience. Highly recommended.

5.0 out of 5 stars Planet Ocean: A story of life, the sea...

A review by 

Lee Say Keng "KNOWLEDGE ADVENTURER/TECHNOLOGY... (Singapore)

This review is from: Planet Ocean: A Story of Life, the Sea and Dancing to the Fossil Record

I bought this book essentially to serve as additional curriculum support to my 'Science & The Art of Discovery' workshop designed for kids, 8-12. I have kept it in the office library where the kids can have ready access.

Participating kids often like to take out the book to browse. I often find them transfixed with awe.

The book is a wonderful visual & intellectual treat. The printed text integrates natural history, paleontology, geology, & biology into a wholistic narrative about the origins of all life on earth.

I like to conclude this review with a quotation from the book: "We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started. And know the place for the first time. (T S Elliot, 'Four Quartets')"

I would enthusiastically recommend this entertaining book to your kids, particularly when they have an interest in science.

5.0 out of 5 stars A beautiful, well-written view of past life in the ocean!, June 24, 1998
By A Customer

This review is from: Planet Ocean: A Story of Life, the Sea, and Dancing to the Fossil Record

This book was a pleasure to read- even though it was mostly facts (and this is coming from a teenager)! Sure, I love learning about evolution and fossils, but I rarely sit down to read long, boring books about it. But this book is fresh, colorful, full of information, and INTERESTING!!! I congratulate the author and illustrator for putting out such a masterpiece! It is sure to recruit paleontologists for the next generation!


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