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The Other Side of the Medal -Reviews


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"Olson’s career adroitly charts the erratic and hazardous course of paleobiology in the late 20th Century. When Olson entered the profession in 1935, Ph.D. in hand, he stepped into what he calls the 'age of innocence.' The 'old Guard' had a grip on paleontology and its sister disciplines – geology and evolutionary biology. Traditional views seemed stronger than ever; the earth’s continents were quite content to stay put, and the fabric of Darwin’s theory of evolution had nary a thread hanging. Some decades later, that age collided with a revolution in earth and biological sciences that gave us a new world of moving crustal plates and unexpected patterns of evolutionary change.

"Olson’s investigations not only survived this turmoil, they thrived on it. Most importantly, many of the problems Olson struggled with in his earlier years foreshadowed the issues that emerged in the 1960s.

"Great science aside, this casually delivered book brings its own distinctive pleasures. An extended section deals with Olson’s experiences collecting Permian fossils in the parched and windy plains of north-central Texas. Passages here are lyrical, amusing and earthy. Olson’s comrades, the hard drinking, profane Ernst, and genial Ab, and the 'taciturn cowboy' Wade, among others, are characters as real as the rocks in your boots. Olson’s recollections break with pompous and overly romanticized exposes that are typical of such chronicles, and, in doing so, give a sharp-edged image of the life of a field paleontologist.

"The final chapters of the book offer another surprise. Instead of building on reminiscences of his own achievements, Olson brings to us the fascinating life and thoughts of his close friend and colleague, Ivan A. Efremov, an influential paleontologist of the Soviet Union. Efremov, an expert like Olson on Permian reptiles, a philosopher with interest in dialectical materialism as well as evolutionary theory, and a brilliant writer of fiction (especially science fiction), is somewhat of an enigma to western scientists. Olson is our cherished link with Efremov and the intellectual community of the Soviet Union at the height of the cold war. The record of correspondence reproduced here, like the letters of Turgenev and Flaubert, reveals the intellectual ferment that is spawned by this friendship of two extraordinary people." - Michael Novacek, The Quarterly Review of Biology, September 1991