Saturday, July 15, 2017

And yet another

Oh look, here's another review. Barnes & Nobel has this one on their page for the book.
Library Journal
When people first encountered the extinct mammoth remains, opinions varied on what these creatures were. In a thorough look at the beginning of paleontology, especially cultural influence and assumptions, technical writer McKay traces how people interpreted this mystery. The author organized centuries of sometimes messy findings into a coherent report spanning continents. History enthusiasts will appreciate learning how the mammoth and other discoveries were documented or lost. Shipwrecks, fire, and improper preservation destroyed evidence; inaccuracies in maps, sketches, and written descriptions impeded comprehension. Readers will find it humbling that the greatest minds of past centuries were adamantly wrong and will enjoy reading about their rationales: of course, it made sense to believe that mammoths lived underground and couldn't survive upon reaching the earth's surface. Similarly, those who held to a literal interpretation of the Bible assumed that the mammoth skulls belonged to giants who once roamed the land (the concept of a defunct species would have implied a flaw in God's design, a heretical thought).
VERDICT For those seeking a scholarly, straightforward examination of paleontology's origins and key players. 
—Elissa Cooper, Helen Plum Memorial Lib., Lombard, IL
Damn, this is fun.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Another review

Today, I have a review on Booklist Online. It will also go out in their weekly news letter. It's recommended both for adults and teens. Since it's behind a subscription wall, I'll quote the whole thing here:
Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science. McKay, John J. (Author) Aug 2017. 256 p. Pegasus, hardcover, $27.95. (9781681774244). 569.6. 
Humans and mammoths coexisted until 10,000 years ago, but in the intervening years, humans lost that knowledge, even though they continued to find mammoth bones and trade in their ivory. In the seventeenth century, the recovery of teeth and bones of giant land mammals validated, for some, the existence of the mythical creatures described in the Christian Bible and local folklore until a modern elephant skeleton was first seen in Europe, and observational connections were made. But how could elephants, hot-weather animals, have gotten to North America and Europe? The great deluge described in the Bible was one explanation. Giant bones from a similar time frame were found in North America. Russian expeditions to map routes to Asia led explorers through some of the most fertile areas for mammoth ivory and bones. A nearly complete mammoth found in Siberian glacial ice helped to fill gaps in scientific knowledge and place this extinct species in the animal kingdom. McKay masterfully weaves an intricate story of the events, politics, people, and scientific development associated with the “rediscovery” of mammoths. — Dan Kaplan
Heh. "Masterfully."

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Book update

The book has been printed. The printer started shipping to wholesalers last week. It should finally work it's way into your local bookstore the first week in August.

Meanwhile, the British science journal, Nature, is planning to review it and the Christian Science Monitor will be interviewing me for their review page.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

My answer to a Quora question:

History is a useful narrative constructed from what we know about the past. Let me unpack that bit by bit.

"History is a ... narrative..." History is not an accurate reproduction of the past and it is not all of the facts. History is a story (as the word indicates). We know he names and home towns all of the soldiers involved in D-Day. We know what many of them ate that day. We know the technical specs of their weapons, who designed, and who manufactured them. We know the logistics of getting them to the beach, the support efforts, and the casualties. To wrote a history of that day, the historian has to pick and choose through all of the raw data--the facts--to decide what is necessary to tell the story they want to tell.

"History is ... useful..." No historian is completely random in picking their narrative. Again, look at military history. A narrative based on the same data/facts might describe a glorious victory, a unredeemed tragedy, or illustrate some aspect of the human condition. Facts and interpretation are two different things. This is why conservatives get so upset about how history is taught in the schools. Each new generation of historians reinterprets the same facts in the light of their experiences. Conservatives want history to be carved in stone. Facts are facts. History isn't facts; history is interpretation of facts.

"History is ... constructed from what we know..." We can't know everything. This is obvious in the far past where we take every tiny data point and try to squeeze as much information as we can from it. Every decade or so we have an earthshaking discovery in ancient history. Here is a city that dominated this trade route for three centuries and this changes everything we thought we knew about the cities on either end of that trade route. Even in something as information rich as the D-Day example, there is an enormous amount we don't know. What were the conversations that led to important decisions. Who knew what and when did they now it.

It's an historian's cliche to refer to history as a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces, and no box to show us what the picture should look like, and no edge pieces, and a few handfuls of pieces from other puzzles added, and a hyperactive cat in the house, and half the pieces are wet... and that's why we love it.