Paleontologist Richard Fortey specializes in trilobites, a vast group of extinct arthropods; he’s also an award-winning writer whose books revel in the wonders and mysteries of natural history. Here he turns his attention to the institution in which he pursued his career: the Natural History Museum, the vast treasure house on the Cromwell Road in London, where Fortey began his scientific career in the early 1970s. Behind the stuffed giraffes and dazzling arrays of gemstones, generations of scientists have named, measured, and preserved specimens from every branch of the tree of life, seeking to document and understand our planet’s seemingly endless biodiversity. Although the working methods of these scientists have changed radically in Fortey’s lifetime — measurement of dried skins has given way to DNA sequencing, and museum scientists have traded safari jackets for lab coats — it remains crucial in a time when biodiversity is imperiled by climate change, pollution, and habitat destruction. But as Fortey amply documents, museum naturalists pursue their research not so much out of a sense of mission as for the sake of sheer curiosity and love of the natural world. Although long on institutional anecdote and lacking the essayistic elegance of the work of such natural history writers as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould, Fortey’s book works much like some of the eccentric scholars he profiles in its pages: shabby and unkempt, it ambles in reverie through a cabinet of wonders.
About the Writer
Matthew Battles is the author of Library: An Unquiet History. He has written about language, technology, and history for such publications as The American Scholar, The Boston Sunday Globe, and Harper's.