Changing Times

Big changes occurred in 1984. Over time the absent-minded Dr. Bob proved unsuited for managing a bevy of students and dealing with the bureaucracy of academe, and the atmosphere went downhill (although I did not have serious issues with Bakker.) He did not try for tenure, and he departed Hopkins. Having no desire to deal with students or university/museum systems myself, I never did try for a degree. Because of my history at Hopkins, and because I was publishing technical papers, my ability to continue to participate in the academic literature was ensured. Ken kindly invited me to join his crew building a new exhibit in Philly, but bone and plaster work was not my interest either. The possibility of doing a large mural in Albuquerque came up and I entered the competition with a pair of oversized Morrison paintings for a reasonable compensation. But there was something screwy with the New Mexico politics behind the process and I did not win.

Note to reader: If you are wondering how I remember all these dates, recall that I am an evolutionary paleontologist that deals with Time.

About that time I decided to do a popular book with a technical edge, one focusing on the theropods. I could flesh out my secondarily flightless hypothesis among other things. My skeletal restorations would be the core of the tome, which would be rather like volumes that included plans of aircraft or ships, such as Jane’s Fighting Ships of the World and Aircraft of the World that I enjoyed leafing through in search of technical details. So the book would be Predatory Dinosaurs of the World (PDW for short). But I still needed a publisher.

Contacts at Hopkins lead me to a project at the New York Academy of Sciences to recruit authors who would be represented by the top New York science book agent John Brockman. After awhile I had a contract with Simon and Schuster, and the editor was Alice Mayhew who handled the Watergate books by Woodward and Bernstein (one of them contacted my mother when she was the office manager of a dental practice to verify if Nixon’s lawyer had been a patient the day he told Nixon he had to resign).

PDW appeared in 1988. The book has become a classic, but some were not happy with it at the time. I was especially perplexed that Scientific American ran an aberrantly lengthy review/assault on the book by two Harvard paleos. Why were they devoting so much attention and venom to the first book by a young researcher? They even accused the book of having too many illustrations (!) It is, of course, not possible for a dinosaur book to have too many illustrations. Basically they were using me as a proxy to go after Bakker. Handed the review to my mother and she passed it back while rolling her eyes.

Why have I not produced additional books in the same format? Among other things, the economics of publishing have changed as the book market shrinks in the face of the Internet. Major publishers no longer handle such books, only university presses do and most cannot provide the necessary advances and promotion needed for large sales. So blame the free market of commerce and ideas.

Growing up I read about how Pteranodon was the largest possible flying creature, something bigger being aerodynamically impossible of course. That premise was blown apart by the superpterosaur Quetzalcoatlus northropi.

A decade later, the Baltimore City Paper included an article about how AeroVironment's Paul MacCready, the designer of the first successful human powered aircraft, was undertaking a project to build a realistic robotic version of the azhdarchid. Sent them a sample of my work and I was brought into the project to do the life design. Went to the public performance of the robotic "QN" at the big air show at Andrews Air Force base, but it did not work that day. While working on the project I realized that the estimated mass of 70 kg for the sailplane-sized creature was absurdly low. No way an animal that had legs as tall as a human weighed no more than a human. Scaling up from the more complete half-sized skeletons, I estimated that the big mommas were more like ostriches in weight, giving them the same wing loading of manned gliders. The low mass values are no longer accepted by most researchers. I further concluded that the broad boned, well-muscled wings of azhdarchid pterosaurs were not well suited for soaring. They may have been short-ranged burst fliers like turkeys. The QN starred in an IMAX documentary about the history of flight called On The Wing.

By this time, I now had a lot of illustrating competition – Hallett, Doug Henderson, John Gurche among them. In the Darwinian sense this was a good thing, it compelled me to improve my product. In the late '80s my mother was in and out of hospitals with cancer. At one hospital, her pretty young nurse introduced herself to me. Her husband was Gurche.

Based in the L.A. area, Sylvia Czerkas, whose husband Steve does full size dinosaur sculptures, got the bright idea of organizing a major traveling art show featuring a combination of past artists' work and the new wave of paleoart. I eagerly participated, and enjoyed the 1986 opening in Tinseltown. It included a conference from which later emerged the well-produced pair of Dinosaurs Past and Present volumes I contributed a chapter to, 'The Science and Art of Restoring the Life Appearance of Dinosaurs and Their Relatives: A Rigorous How-To Guide'. Equally enjoyable was the Smithsonian venue that my mother and father and stepmother got to see. They were so proud.

Now out west, Bakker suggested I contribute something to the journal he was involved in, Hunteria. It was about time someone finally published an accurate skeletal restoration of a brachiosaur from the Tendaguru (one of my favorite formations, then on the shores of a finger of the Tethys ocean). I noted that B. brancai was more different from the Morrison’s Brachiosaurus altithorax than previously realized and proposed the new name Giraffatitan. New research is supporting the generic separation.

Pop Resurgence

The 1980s saw a surge in dinosaur documentaries, including the primetime CBS program Dinosaur! narrated by dinobuff Christopher (Superman) Reeve. This reflected the major uptick in popular interest in dinosaurs, encouraged by all the discoveries and ideas of the Dino Renaissance, and it was becoming difficult keeping up with the new developments. Horner’s baby rearing maiasaurs were especially effective in revising the pop image of dinosaurs.

Having built up a large library of art, my illustrations were appearing here and there on a regular basis. Combined with my scientific efforts, it was having an impact on the popular culture. Novelist Michael Crichton wrote Jurassic Park as a screenplay option for the Steven Spielberg flick. I am ambiguous about Crichton’s body of work, as it includes dubious anti-scientific elements. But I can’t be too upset about a fellow who includes me in the acknowledgements of his bestselling novel. I ended up doing some preliminary studies of Tyrannosaurus and Deinonychus for the movie(s). These were significantly altered by Spielberg and Stan Winston and his effects team for copyright purposes. In the film, some of my skeletals show up posted on Sam Neill's (ak.a. Dr. Grant's) trailer wall.

I was accidentally responsible for the avian term 'raptor' being improperly applied to dromaeosaurs. In another Hunteria paper and PDW, I synonymized Deinonychus with Velociraptor, which Crichton picked up on and shortened into the convenient handle 'raptor'. The movie was okay, but I will never forgive them for presenting Brachiosaurus as such a heavy limbed clunker. I had nothing to do with that. I thought it was too bad the potentially omnivorous brachiosaurs – which were unlikely to have been as placid as cattle – missed the opportunity to snarf up the bratty kids when they were up in the tree.

In these years Canadian wildlife artist Robert Bateman had a show of his art at the Smithsonian. Included was an excellent study of shorebirds on a beach with crashing waves making up the background. That got me thinking: Archaeopteryx is usually shown amidst trees, but it dwelled on lagoonal islands back when Europe was an archipelago off North America much like Indonesia is an extension of southeast Asia these days. It is quite possible that Archaeopteryx spent a lot of time on the shores of the Solnhofen islands. So after taking some shots of Atlantic waves at Assateague Island I executed a scene of a pair of the urvogels interacting with a Pterodactylus at the wave line. I later printed one of the beach photographs and painted a pair of Anhanguera flying parallel to the shoreline. (Next)