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Behind the scenes at the museum.
The second book in my trio of popular science books is also the second most complex in style but the least important. I've come out of the experience of reading it with a lot of trivia, but not a lot of science I didn't know previously. Your experience may vary – I've done a lot of reading in the biological sciences over the years.

However, this does not mean that Richard Fortey's Dry Store Room No 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum is not worth reading. Far from it.

Richard Fortey is one of the world's greatest experts on trilobites (and his pop science book on the subject Trilobite! is one I have re-read several times.) He is also one of our most lucid science writers, and gets a double entry in The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing (ed: Richard Dawkins) which I ought to read properly and review, instead of just keeping it in my bedroom to dip into, to congratulate myself on how many of the excerpted books I own, and make notes on those I need to read real soon now. Fortey's scientific credentials are indisputable: he is an FRS, a past president of the Geological Society of London and, until last year, was he was Senior Palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, where he spent most of his working life. It places him in an ideal position to write this book.

Fortey always writes in a very personal fashion, and his own viewpoint has always pervaded his books. Now, however, he lets himself go, and personal experiences take centre stage as he takes you with him on his youthful explorations of one of London's great institutions. It is the first time that he has written what is basically a memoir – though one with lots of science and history tucked in here and there. This is the story both of his time at the Natural History Museum and of the history of the buildings, the collections and the people who worked there. If you want to know how a great biological/geological museum works now and has worked in the past, this is the book for you. It also teaches you a lot about taxonomy, biological research, specimen storage, and Civil Service politics, and takes a few sideswipes at creationists and politicians. It is full of stories of astonishing dedication and ridiculous eccentricity. (I was very taken with the story of the scientist who tried on his new (pre-scuba) diving suit after hours and couldn't get out of it, so had to wander down Kensington High Street making wild gestures as he tried to find someone to free him.)

It is witty (occasionally hilarious) and interesting and passionate, and a great read, as well as being far more light-hearted than, say his The Earth: An Intimate History. Above all, it's fun. Go and enjoy.

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I've seen this book advertised in a couple of places, and have been wondering if it's really as good as it sounds! Now I'm definitely thinking about getting it, so thanks for this!

It's a fun book. I'd also recommend Trilobite!. There's a reason I have a fossil of one of these and cuddle it occasionally.

We've got a copy of this, but I haven't read it yet. This is a good reminder to me to take it on holiday to France in two weeks time.

I have two good friends who work at the NHM and so that gives it added interest for me. I still have very fond memories of the day one of them arranged for Mr FB and I to spend time examining all the original Piltdown material. We had an excellent day with it.

If you're ever interested in seeing it, it would be very easy to arrange. Mr FB actually does want to take another look sometime, and you're not very far away from London, are you? The relevant curator at the NHM is a very dear friend of mine. You'd be very welcome to join us if it interests you.

Oooooh, I would love to, Fred. I work in London, for the moment (at Somerset House) and live at Chigwell - the less posh end. I can get into London anytime - and I would love to meet you (and Mr FB) at any time.


That would be great. Mr FB wants to look at the eoliths in particular. Plus we'd like to see the Darwin exhibition. We could combine that with looking at the Piltdown stuff. It's great to say you've held the actual skull. I'll speak to my friend and see if we can fix a date between us. It would be lovely to meet.

Oooh yes. You have my e-mail. Ina would like to come too, if four could be accommodated.

I also think we need to think about organising a Primeval minicon at some stage...

I'll look out some dates and be in contact. We've had a couple of mini-Primeval get togethers over VS3, and we talking about another one, so yes, we'll try and fix something up.

Four will be fine for the NHM, I'm sure. Would a weekday be OK for the NHM, as our friend isn't there ate weekend?

Sure, fine. I have no trouble getting time off currently.

Okey cokey, we'll sort something out.

I've come out of the experience of reading it with a lot of trivia, but not a lot of science I didn't know previously.

It is, I think, a particular problem with the biological sciences that neither the science nor the trivia make much sense without each other.

True, to some extent. I don't think you can understand any of the biological sciences without understanding the New Synthesis (Neo Darwinism) but you can't really appreciate the New Synthesis (particularly its proofs) without a good understanding of the other biological sciences.

Has to be said, though, that I've been reading a lot of popular science, with the strong emphasis on biology for the last... er... let's say forty to forty five years, and I do try to keep up, honest. I also read a fair amount of history. The result is that I see a lot of stuff a number of times, and I have read most of Fortey's books.

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