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Gorgon: Paleontology, Obsession, and the Greatest Catastrophe in Earth's History Hardcover – January 15, 2004

3.9 out of 5 stars 30 customer reviews

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Amazon.com Review

In Gorgon, geologist Peter Ward turns his attention reluctantly away from the asteroid collision that killed all the dinosaurs and instead focuses on a much older extinction event. As it turns out, the Permian extinction of 250 million years ago dwarfs the dino's 65-million-year-old Cretaceous-Tertiary armageddon. Ward's book is not a dry accounting of the fossil discoveries leading to this conclusion, but rather an intimate, first-person account of some of his triumphs and disappointments as a scientist. He draws a nice parallel between the Permian extinction and his own rather abrupt in research focus, revealing the agonizing steps he had to take to educate himself about a set of prehistoric creatures about which he knew almost nothing. These were the Gorgons, carnivorous reptiles whose ecological dominance preceded that of the more pop-culture-ready dinosaurs.

They would have had huge heads with very large, saberlike teeth, large lizard eyes, no visible ears, and perhaps a mixture of reptilian scales and tufts of mammalian hair.... The Gorgons ruled a world of animals that were but one short evolutionary step away from being mammals.

With characteristic enthusiasm, Ward transports readers with him to South Africa's Karoo desert, where he participated in field expeditions seeking fossils of these fearsome creatures. He suffers routine tick patrols, puff-adder avoidance lessons, stultifying thirst, and the everyday humiliations of being the new guy on a field team. Besides telling a fascinating paleological story, Gorgon lets readers feel a bone-hunter's passion and pain. --Therese Littleton

From Publishers Weekly

Millions of years before dinosaurs, gorgons roamed the earth. Like a creature out of Greek mythology, the gorgon was a lizard the size of a lion, with a huge head, razor-sharp teeth, reptilian eyes, a long, slashing tail and, perhaps, mammalian hair along with its reptilian scales. Then, almost in an instant, at the end of the Permian period 250 million years ago, the gorgons were gone, along with most other major land and maritime species, both plants and animals. The Permian extinction was greater than the catastrophe that killed off the dinosaurs. Paleontologist Ward (Rare Earth; The End of Evolution; etc.) recounts in this memoir his decade-long search in South Africa's Karoo Desert for clues to the cause of this extinction. By studying the fossil record in the Karoo, Ward concluded, contrary to accepted belief, that the extinction took place simultaneously on land and in the sea, rather than in two stages, and that the gorgon was in essence asphyxiated by a decrease of oxygen in the atmosphere, caused by a series of catastrophes that began with the dropping of sea levels. Some readers may wish Ward had cut to the chase and arrived at his conclusions a chapter or two sooner and focused less on elements of personal memoir, but young people aspiring to be the next Indiana Jones will learn from this realistic account of the quotidian details and battles of fieldwork. 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; 1st edition (January 19, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670030945
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670030941
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #400,645 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on January 16, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Today's schoolchildren, fascinated by Jurassic creatures, learn that the dinosaurs were mostly wiped out by a meteor that struck the area of the Yucatan 65 million years ago. This explanation was put forward only a couple of decades ago, and though it was revolutionary at the time, it has been confirmed so well that it is hard to imagine that there will ever be evidence to disconfirm it. Peter D. Ward, now a professor of geological sciences at the University of Washington, worked on evidence for this Cretaceous extinction, and then turned his attention to a previous extinction, one that makes the Cretaceous look like a fender-bender. In _Gorgon: Paleontology, Obsession, and the Greatest Catastrophe in Earth's History_ (Viking), Ward has told the story of his researches into the Permian extinction, which 250 million years ago exterminated forever 95% of the species then living. This is a personal account, a memoir to tell about field adventures, the atmosphere in modern South Africa, and the theory he has come up with. It is a fine introduction to current ideas about the Permian extinction, and what it is that paleontologists do.
The Gorgon of the title was a beast something like a tiger, ten feet long. The fearsome Gorgon was not a mammal; it had eyes at the side of its head and it had scales on its body, both characteristics more associated with lizard-type creatures. And the Gorgon itself left no descendants. It was one of the victims of the Permian wipeout. Ward was in South Africa in 1991 to research another type of fossil, but circumstances sent him into the heat, cold, storms, flies, ticks, snakes, ants, and scorpions of the Karoo desert. The stratification there, and other evidence, brought fundamental changes in the way paleontologists view the Permian extinction.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I bought this book hoping to learn more about the gorgonopsians and other mammal-like reptiles. No such luck. This book contains very little about the mammal-like reptiles. In fact, it is almost entirely free of scientific facts.

It is about Peter Ward's experiences working in the Karoo desert of South Africa in the 1990s and early 2000s. During the 1980s, he had worked on the KT boundary, and the conclusion that the KT mass extinction was caused by an asteroid hit caused him to wonder whether the Permian/Triassic mass extinction also result from some sort of catastrophe. That was the ostensible purpose of the fieldwork. But this book is really about paleontological fieldwork, and the thoughts and emotions that go through a paleontologists mind as he struggles to find fossils in a very harsh and forbidding environment. Ward is a good writer, and the book is very readable, it's just that I would not have bought it if I'd known it was just a journal or diary written during the author's Karoo field work.

The last few chapters have a rushed discussion of the current opinions about the P/T mass extinction, but that problem has apparently never been solved. The author notes that most of the hypotheses have been falsified, and engages in some unconvincing speculation that lower oxygen levels caused the extinction. But the real point of the book is just to give the reader a feel for the day-to-day emotions of paleontological fieldwork, and on that level it succeeds.
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Format: Hardcover
First, let's have a big groan for Viking's uninformed jacket copy editor, who in the photo credits calls the gorgonopsian on the front cover a "dinosaur." I trust they'll fix that for the paperback edition.

I enjoyed and reviewed Dr. Ward's book _Rare Earth_, so I know he is capable of producing rewarding science writing for the educated layman. But as I progressed through this book, I was a bit disappointed to realize that it was mostly about himself. His is an interesting story, but the actual science content of the book could be told in the space of an article in Discover magazine.

The writing is gratingly overwrought much of the time, and the intensely personal nature of some of it is discomfiting. He keeps going on about the taciturnity of his South African colleague Roger Smith, apparently not thinking that it might be a reaction to Ward's stereotypically American puppy-dog gregariousness. The purplish prose works effectively in the first few scenes of field work in the Karoo, though; when the extreme conditions call for descriptive passages to match.

As he and the reader slog on, the scientific data slowly accumulate. The crew is bedeviled by human error and bad luck, on top of the hostile conditions. For instance, after one grueling expedition is finally wrapped up, the rock samples are ruined in a lab accident, necessitating a return trip to the South African wilderness. But eventually enough dots are connected for Ward to venture a hypothesis about the nature of the Permian/Triassic extinction, and about mass extinctions in general.

So, does his evidence add up? You can skip most of the book and just read the last chapter, and judge for yourself. Or you can read the whole thing, and get an idea of the travails of field paleontology, a much more detailed idea than you ever might have wanted.
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Format: Hardcover
Peter Ward writes of gorgons, the Permian extinction, and life as a paleontologist.

It is an interesting read, and there is a lot in here that's worth your time and money. I found some bits of it fascinating (especially his accounts of what it's like in the field). My problem was that I was expecting a book about gorgons. About what science knows (or hypothesizes) about the gorgon. In fact, most of the book doesn't mention the gorgon at all. And only a little is used to explain different ideas regarding the Permian extinction (with very little evidence being offered for Ward's views).

If you're looking to learn more about the gorgon - this isn't the books for you. If you're looking to learn more about the Permian extinction, this isn't the book for you.

If you're looking for an entertaining read about the process of field paleontology, about the experiences of doing work in a foreign country, then you should pick this up.
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