Transcript Episode 619: Riley Black

We're experimenting with the addition of episode transcriptions. Note: the audio is transcribed with AI, via Otter. 

Riley Black  0:12  
Yeah, I volunteer because I volunteer able to go out with a lot of different institutions over the years and you have been everywhere from like Northern Mexico to Denali National Park to some spots in Argentina and elsewhere. So it's something where like, I'm not a professional paleontologist, and I have a specific crew and research plan and things like that. But I get to hop to a lot of different places and time periods and try out a lot of different different things. And it's nice to find something that you know, is going back to the museum is going to have that little like nameplate,

Brian Heater  0:43  
how would you define being a professional paleontologist,

Riley Black  0:46  
I think the most functional way to do it is to think of professional paleontologists is somebody who gets paid to do paleontology Biden institution, whether that is a university or a museum of some kind. And it gets a little bit sticky in some ways, because there's so many people who are amateurs, or avocational, who are experts in their field, there's been people who like physicists who decided like late in life, like I'm going to study dinosaurs now and became world experts, you know, on that group of animals. And there are so few paid paleontology positions, just give you an example, I live in Salt Lake City. So we have the Natural History Museum of Utah here. And there are only three paid paleontology positions, a curator of collections manager in the field and lab expert. Everything else is done with volunteer and amateur labor. But some of these people who are working in the lab, or who are otherwise assisting are experts at what they do. So it's a field that there's this constant tension almost between like, who is getting paid and who is getting the credit and who is getting put out front, or like, anytime you see a paleontologist basically on a television show or being interviewed for anything, there is a whole team of people behind them that is making that research possible.

Brian Heater  2:07  
You know, I write for a living so I can say I'm, I'm a writer, I didn't go to journalism school, but I report as my job. So like, I feel fairly comfortable saying of a reporter or a journalist, is there is there sort of like a level of discomfort in terms of calling yourself a paleontologist.

Riley Black  2:24  
I don't find any discomfort. calling myself a paleontologist, like I've done the work of published technical literature, I've made significant finds out in the field, I write about the field. As part of my living, I was invited to give the keynote talk at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting last year in Toronto, Canada. And they don't do that unless they think you know what you're talking about. So they'll just pluck people off the street, right? Yeah. So I'm completely comfortable calling myself a paleontologist, I think where a lot of people get come up hung up on these things, is the professional amateur divide for a variety of reasons. You know, I know some folks that live well, you can't call yourself a paleontologist until you have your PhD or until you've published a certain number of papers, or something like that. But then again, there are people who like I very much feel our paleontologists who are grad students who are probably learning the most about what's going on in their field. Because it's all new to them, they have to read and look at and study everything, who then get their masters or their do just dissertation or their PhD, but then there's not a place for them in the field. And they ended up leaving it. And I wouldn't be comfortable saying well, that person isn't a paleontologist because they didn't hit some kind of academic standards, almost a bit of defensiveness. Like I get that people work really hard for their doctorates. And they work really hard for their positions. But I don't think it really serves us well at all to kind of treat it as this kind of specific club, you know, you kind of at some point have to take people's like work and their arguments, you know, at face value, regardless of what their background is. And obviously, as a professional, you're going to have more access to students and collections and lab equipment and all that other kind of stuff. You can do all sorts of things. But that doesn't mean that the 70 year old volunteer who's going and finding, you know, dinosaur sites for you at the middle of desert isn't a paleontologist. And I think that's something where our whole kind of even what I do even journalism plays into this a little bit like who we talk to who's the lead author on the paper, who gets the attention for stuff. It's still very much all through this academic kind of lens, when the reality is so much broader.

Brian Heater  4:30  
I write about technology, that's my day job. And I talked to a lot of researchers and it dawns on you pretty quickly that it's as in some ways as capitalistic and enterprise as anything else that everybody is, to a certain extent doing what they're doing and what's the saying publish or perish in order to get those those grants so like that. Having your name at the top of a paper is at the end of the day, pretty important for pragmatic reasons,

Riley Black  4:58  
entirely. That's something I try and be my Hello, when I report on a lot of these studies, like I make my living primarily as a science writer and as a journalist, so I'm constantly writing books and constantly pitching articles to places like National Geographic and Smithsonian and Scientific American. And when I reach out to researchers on paper papers, I often think, Okay, well number one, like do I want to report on this paper in there? Some honestly, they have reported under the research is cool. But I know that at least one of the people on that paper is a child basically, that there are harassers and there are problematic people in the field, who, like, if I do this, I'm just kind of bolstering their reputation and like, it's not worth it. I don't want to do that. And then if I am going to report I like who am I going to talk to, on the paper is the lead author, the best person to am I gonna be able to help like a graduate student or someone earlier in their field, if I talk to them instead, there are all these, like, small choices that you that you make that go into all of this, that I think, you know, it doesn't directly influence the field. But I think of all the sciences, you know, paleontology is one of the most public facing ones we are constantly talking about, what's this new dinosaur discovery that's going on, or someone changed something about Spinosaurus, we need to talk to a whole bunch of people about it, you know, more so than many other fields and like molecular biology or something like that. So I feel like especially as like sort of an interpreter. And even fan of paleontology, it really like it's changed over time. I think I used to be much more of a sort of a cheerleader for science. I just, I thought the research was cool. And I thought the stuff was coming out about the past was cool. But then as I learned more about sort of the process of science, I realized that I have a responsibility in in terms of how am I presenting this? And who am I speaking to? And who am I giving a platform to? And it can be a little bit challenging, but I think it makes it makes the reporting better. And it's a better reflection of how the science gets done, than just talking about whatever the latest finding was. Early on for

Brian Heater  7:03  
you was that was that a bit of a moral quandary? In terms of I mean, obviously, you want to elevate interesting things and things that feel like breakthroughs. But you know, like in, in the arts, they call it separating the art from the artist. But at the end of the day, you feel like sort of publicizing that work is effectively platforming somebody.

Riley Black  7:21  
Yeah, I think that is the case. And in some cases, there are some people in paleontology like big, big names in the fields, that I am kind of surprised that we have not had a metoo moment about yet. And it's not my place to tell those stories. But there's a very active whisper network, about, you know, huge names that you constantly see out there. And it becomes something of an ethical dilemma of do I want to up this person's reputation, because I would see like at meetings, these people that I know are toxic, but people think that their lab is doing, you know, the best or most important or cutting edge work. And I don't want to give the impression that like, yeah, if you want to go to graduate school, you want to be a paleontologist, like that's the person that you should be reaching out. And at that point, it becomes a matter of just my own choices and stuff. Like, you know, I'm also a subjective and fallible person. Rather, like it would be almost easier to just go, I'm just going to report on the science, that's all I'm going to do. I'm not going to pay attention to it. But at some point, I just couldn't do that. anymore. I think it matters, how stuff gets done even just in terms of the sciences, like Who Are we welcoming into the science? Who, who are we making this accessible to? What kind of viewpoints do we have, if everything is from, you know, a cisgender, heterosexual, you know, white middle aged guy perspective, there's probably a lot emphasis on things like competition, and less so on things like cooperation or kind of nature, red in tooth and claw, or like these ideas of dominance and stuff versus other aspects, if you're coming from a different background, like might actually inform how we're interpreting all these different things. And that's a whole other sort of can of worms about you know, how the relationship between the process of science and and the scientists doing it? Yeah, it just came to a point where I think I didn't really know better early on, especially since coming out and thinking about my own relationship to the field and my own relationships. So like, how do I feel about these narratives that I keep perpetuating? It didn't feel good to keep doing the same thing anymore, that I really had to start saying something and change changing my approach to how I interpret the social because like, there's not anybody else who has my job. There are other science reporters out there. There are other people who talk about and write about dinosaurs, many of them do a very well, but so far as I know, I am the only full time paleontology sort of journalist and writer that exists. So I really want to do the best I possibly can.

Brian Heater  9:59  
I Read the article about effectively like not crying in the field? Is that the experience that you outlined there? I mean, I think toxic is a fair word to use and persistent as well, is that a typical experience for you being out in the field?

Riley Black  10:19  
Honestly, it is, I wish it were a little bit different. I try and choose who I go out with, in terms of field crews very, very carefully. It's always a little bit of a gamble, because so often, it's also undergraduates and students and different volunteers who are going out there who have our own ideas and views, about, you know, queer people in general,

Brian Heater  10:42  
you would think that being with students that, you know, with the younger generation that like, theoretically, they would be somewhat more progressive,

Riley Black  10:51  
one would hope but there's, there's almost always one, there's almost always one that you have to explain why, you know, they them pronouns do make grammatical sense, or like, unless someone asks you to, don't call them it, you know, it's, it's something that there's, you know, most are okay, but it doesn't take all that many, where you start to feel like you are now representing sort of all queer people of whatever intersection you're at, to answer questions and inform and all this stuff, but you just want to be out there, like Find Them bones, you just want to exist. And it, it, I think we're in this moment where people feel like they kind of have a right to try. And, in a sense, without any kind of foundation of a relationship and interaction. And there's so much I think people understand even the folks who consider themselves progressive, I think, you know, one of the last time does out in the field, you know, I'm driving the field side, I'm driving the pie out there. And, you know, I've been doing this career, you know, I've been visible in the field for about 12 years or so now. It's been a long time, and I transitioned about started my transmission about five years ago, and I came out. And there are some people, I've heard this more than once, where they'll talk about like pronouns, and, you know, it's like, well, you know, like, I know, of trans people aren't going to get like, you know, jumped down my throat, if I use the wrong pronouns, or whatever, that that that's overblown, by me, like, for you, if I make a mistake, that's totally fine. It's like, there's this weird sense of like, they get to excuse themselves before they even do it. And I'm just gonna, like know, hey, wait a minute, it's been five years if you can't get it right now,

Brian Heater  12:28  
if you have the forethought to have a conversation about the mistake, like that's probably not an honest mistake.

Riley Black  12:34  
Yeah. I mean, I had some the last Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting, I was sitting down, to have a drink with my girlfriend and a friend of mine that I had never met in person before I got finally got to meet this person. And a colleague saw me from across the bar, and he comes over, and he says, you know, hello, just wanted to say good, good to see I'm gonna miss your talk. But I hope you have a good meeting. And then he comes back about 30 seconds later, he says, Oh, by the way, like, if I'm this gender you like, just know that that's like an accident. And just, I'm just like, sitting there going, like, you can't pre excuse yourself for this. And also, like, it's not like it's a secret is brand new. And it's that sort of thing that I feel like I run into, most often. It's not necessarily like outright, hatred is just a lot of people who think they're kinda like on the right side of history, but they like didn't actually pay attention. performative. wokeness

Brian Heater  13:27  
is how I would describe that. Yeah, this actually does reflect on the book as well, there is, I think of the conclusion, you know, you really detail. Listen, we all, we all have a very shitty couple of years to teach a different expense. So I think that that, like on a very on a base level is pretty, pretty relatable for everyone. But I also imagine that first getting into this and when you're first starting out writing that maybe your impulse isn't to inject personal things into it is to you know, I'm a science writer writing about science, I want to write about this as like, in a straightforward manner as possible. But at a certain point, it kind of gets unavoidable. Like, certainly in the story of you dealing with that on a dig.

Riley Black  14:18  
It's, it's kind of funny. So the last days of the dinosaurs, I had the idea for quite some time, because like, anytime you're writing a book, you get like six more ideas for what you want to do next. So I've been with me for a couple of years, and then it came time to do the next pitch. And I pitched it in the summer of 2019. And this is, like, just months after I like come out and start hormones very early in my transition. I just, I knew I wanted to write this book. And I was attracted to the topic of you know, we often just talk about this mass extinction, right? Like the asteroid hits the planet. It's really obvious what happens next when it's not it's probably the strangest mass extinction we've ever had. That you know, most dinosaurs didn't go extinct over this course of like year. versus impact winter, like I saw on all these like documentaries and cartoons. But as it gets like the first 24 hours, probably took out most of life on this planet much less than three years of impact winner afterwards and how different that was from all these previous ones where it's like up to a million years of grinding change. So I really wanted to tell the story. And as I was writing it, and writing it through the, the pandemic, or at least the early years, that pandemic has, we're still in it. It felt more and more important to say like, why, why now why I was telling this story. And it's kind of funny, because I been working as a science journalist for about a decade at that point. And I tried my best to be a good science writer, and I tried my best I injected myself into, you know, my blogging and some of my previous books, like my brother, Brian Soros and skeleton keys. But it was often very much like a news you can use kind of way, it was almost like, you know, I'm not the same kind of writer, but like Mary wrote his books, where she's telling you about the science and stuff was very much through her experience of it. And that felt kind of what was expected in terms

Brian Heater  16:06  
of like, you know, going to the lab and meeting with her. Yes,

Riley Black  16:09  
yes, yeah. So you talk about the journey of it, you're, it's meant to be like I am a stand in for the reader more or less. So you can discover this, as I'm discovering it. And none of those books really did well. I was able to survive as a science writer, but you know, dinner and other advances in particularly Cielos, I was moving to another publisher. And this one is how I like Andela, like, finally out after all these years. And finally starting my transition, why not just be a little bit vulnerable, why not write the book that I feel that I want to write and use my full voice in this not trying to pull it back? Because I'm going to be afraid that somebody's going to read the conclusion, and be turned off by it because I say that I'm trans, which actually I've had the only they're not even negative reviews, there are positive reviews, but I've had a couple of reviews from like conservative news sources where like they call it like trans propaganda or something. Because I say that I'm trans in the end, keep your politics out of my sports kind of Yeah, yeah. What meanwhile, they're the sort of people who are like driving the conversation, but like, I would love to not talk about it. But like you.

Brian Heater  17:14  
Are your existence a political act?

Riley Black  17:17  
Yeah, yeah. So I just felt like it was so important for the context of why I was drawn to the search, because it really clicked for me, because it wasn't only that it was just coming out. I was also I had been married for 13 years. And I was just going through a divorce at the same time. And it felt like all these huge life changes together that it really felt like I kind of had this like age of dinosaurs. And then very suddenly, much like this mass extinction. It just changed in a moment. This was not something like it's a volcano rumbling in the distance. And gradually, it's going to change stuff over its lives. Like in the space of a day, my life was going from being one thing to something else. And it flourished in the aftermath. And I just I felt that personal Connection to this idea of resilience and hope. And that there is an after, that's what I kept telling myself during this time in my life that like it's painful. Some of these things were and as challenging as some of these things were to start. There's an after to all this, like if I can get there and I really related see some of these mammals and other critters and stuff like that living in this kind of ashen world that they couldn't obviously think the same way that'd be anthropomorphizing. But just like that sense of, we do today, and we do the next day, and eventually, something that comes from it.

Brian Heater  18:34  
It's a heavy topic, though. And the realization that what like 99% of all life forms are extinct, like in the history of Earth, I don't Is it? Is it a difficult thing to draw positive inspiration from mass extinction?

Riley Black  18:50  
It can be, I view it very much as I don't want to say two sides of the same coin. But extinction, evolution are intertwines. And there's more than one kind of extinction, we often think about extinction is like the last of anything disappears, and it's gone is very, very sad. And we grieve that. But another form of extinction is that population, that species turns into something else. That's why there's an unbroken thread between us and the very first living things on this planet, that everything around us now is part of this ever branching sort of story. And even though like eventually, you know, the species, Homo sapiens is going to go extinct. There might be something that comes from us, it's after the is part of this continuum. It's kind of funny because being a paleontologist really messes with your sense of time and history. You always I can look out my window right now and I see like some mourning doves, you know, perched on a tree outside. And that tree is a flowering plant. It's an angiosperm, which didn't spread until after the mass extinction and the fact that it's the morning David's a beekeeper The only surviving dinosaurs found that mass extinction, and really 66 million years after this event, and I can find traces of it. And yeah, I can think about, well, these organisms, they have futures as well, and they might become something else. So it feels almost like you're at the middle of this like drop in a pond where you're constantly looking backwards and forwards, it actually makes writing in my tenses in my drafts are terrible, because it's very difficult sometimes to talk about, like a fossil where like, the fossil is, but it's different from what it was when it was alive. And it's going to be different in the future. So you have basically something that is both the idea of something once alive, that has been transformed, and how do you properly describe that in the English language, it's actually a very complicated thing sometimes. But I love it, it's, it's something that like, it is sad, it does involve grief, it does involve getting to know and find joy and these forms of life that you're never going to see, as they're meant to that you have to imagine them. But that's also where the joy comes in. As well, that is a prompt, I like to think of it often is open questions and that the point is not gathering all this knowledge in the huge database. So just that we understand, and then it's done, and it's solved. It's this constant invitation to think about the past and our relationship to it. And what we understand. That's the part that really engages me is just the sheer curiosity of it. It's something that sometimes you can't even directly measure, or describe what you would like to but you knew it must have been there. And you can still think about it and imagine it and wonder like, how would I even begin to envision what life was like for this creature. And I love that it feels like something that like I knew I didn't want to give up. You know, people talk about the relationship between dinosaurs and children. Often we get asked like, Oh, are you a dinosaur cat? Are you basically just like a grown up child now? Because you still like dinosaurs? It's like, it's not exactly. It's just that sense of wonder and curiosity. And it requires that stuff of your imagination. That's the part of it that I love.

Brian Heater  22:13  
Yeah, there are expectations in society that we that there are things that we grew out of, and I think, you know, I think dinosaurs are probably one of those things for most people,

Riley Black  22:25  
which is funny, because things like Jurassic World made a billion dollars, you're talking about like, oh, like dinosaurs or kid stuff and stuff. Like you just went and saw a movie where a bunch of dinosaurs ate a bunch of people. You know, superheroes,

Brian Heater  22:35  
these are all kids things. But these are all the things that are like this is culture now.

Riley Black  22:39  
Exactly. Yeah. And was, I need to finish the chapter. Honestly, I feel very bad that I haven't finished this, I was asked to write a chapter on dyno mania for this ongoing, these ongoing volumes called the complete dinosaur that gets a revision every few years. And it's a hard one to get around. Because I feel like people often want a single answer, right? It's, it's what was the spark what really made dinosaurs like what they are in our public consciousness, why out of all the things I've ever lived, we're expected to go through a dinosaur phase, and you can buy like almost anything with the dinosaur on it. And you see the movies, we play the games and all this sort of stuff. I think the genesis of it had to do with just like appending expectations back in the 1960s and 1970s. And that you had this view of these animals that were living in slums, and they were so popular that like public love them. That's why museums kept putting the museum halls because they're big and impressive and weird. And we thought we had a lock on what they were like. And all of a sudden, it's totally flipped and totally different. This mass extinction is unlike anything that happened before. And that bled out into you know, magazine stories, new museum exhibits, and even just the technology of the time that dynamization exhibits the animatronics and stuff that would tour around and you got to see, and things like Jurassic Park, and that at that point is just marketing. Really, like I remember living like I was born 1983. I remember growing up that I could put on like my dinosaur jammies, to go on my dinosaur sheets to wake up eat my dinosaur cereal, watching the cartoon or playing with it like it was everywhere. And it's a little bit less than what it was. But I think at this point, we just kind of elected them to be these celebrities. And there's no single reason why it just, it's just part of the sort of cultural lattice at this point that they're, they really powerfully embody the fact that some, like life goes extinct. Life also evolves, the time is very, very long, and there's some weird stuff in the past life used to be very, very different. And that is so powerful and so accessible, that it's really kind of a wonder that they didn't become these mascots, like earlier. But then again, like I would say, like you know, the word dinosaur was coined in 1842. You buy 100 years after that, I'd say they hit celebrity status like or at least in terms of cultural awareness. So almost from the time that they were discovered, there was a time period where people kind of like looked down on them a little bit. But for over 100 years, we've loved their dinosaurs. And I think that's kind of just keep going. You touched

Brian Heater  25:17  
on this a little bit, but I can't underestimate size in that conversation. I think that's such a big part of it. And I think that's, that is, that's the thing that captures our imagination. I mean, if these things were running around, and they were all monitor lizards, I, I don't think that they would get this, this much excitement. And you and you use a term that that was similar, you know, they have that term, charismatic megaphones. And you use the word charismatic, I think, at some point in the book to describe dinosaurs, and I think that captures a lot of

Riley Black  25:45  
it. It's something where, like, I wish people would get more excited about the little super cool, but the, the size, it doesn't matter, it is important. It is it is something that people they're drawn to. And I wonder how much of that is because we live presently in a megafaunal? Low because anytime I give a talk, one of the first questions that I get no matter what I'm speaking about, just like yours, right, the plaque just speaking about paleontology? Well, the first questions I always get is, why was everything bigger in the past? And then you'd have to unpack that? Because like, Okay, well, number one, like not everything was bigger. And there are different reasons at different times. And we can talk about all those sorts of things, like the reasons the insects were big, and the carbon efforts is not the same that you had big sore pods and the drastic or what have you. But people get hung up on that aspect. And I think we're kind of missing that. And it's strange, in a sense, like, this is the first time in millions of years, that most continents don't have a whole bunch of really big animals running around on it, you know, we basically, we're still in the shadow of the Pleistocene extinctions, where it wasn't just that there were big animals around, but that you had several species of saber toothed cats, you had several species of really big bears, and mammoths and giant ground sloths, and this whole menagerie of large animals roaming around at such a diversity filling the environment in such a way, and they went extinct. And there hasn't been a replacement for that. So I feel like for many of us, you know, the largest animal that we're likely to see, you know, like, on a daily daily basis, it's probably my dog who's 75, that's mostly squirrels and stuff like that, like maybe if I'm lucky, I'll see a mule deer, or something like that. But outside of the zoo, or you know, watching a documentary and like life around, it seems pretty small. And then you go to a museum and you see this thing that's 100 feet long, and it's you know, 15 feet, high, the shoulder or whatever, and you're absolutely dwarfed by this thing. And it's, it's hard not to be impressed. I think that that sense of feeling small, I think similar to like, when you look out into space, and you are you see the stars and the Milky Way, and you get that sense of like I am on this, you know, basically, I'm on this planet, but there's so much more out there. I think dinosaurs do something very, very similar for us. And in some ways, it doesn't require that much unpacking, it's just, it's something that resonates, and probably always Well,

Brian Heater  28:16  
anytime I'm reading about it a dinosaur on Wikipedia, I immediately go to that little drawing of the little person next to it for sale. Immediately where my my eyes drawn, because that it like, that's kind of, you know, one of the most interesting things but but I also think that, you know, I live in New York City, and you know, we've got the amazing natural history museum, and it's got that giant blue whale in it. Yes. And like, let's not discount the fact that we're living at a time with probably the largest organism, the animal to ever live.

Riley Black  28:53  
I remember growing up in New Jersey and my first big museum trip, I've been to a few local ones, but the first like, really big institution I've been to was the American Museum of Natural History, outside Central Park. And you know, that's where a lot of these all the pictures and toys and everything else, like it didn't really even makes sense until I saw those bones until I could stand there and look at them and see that they were real and think about like, what would it sound like? How would it move to the environment look like all the stuff that's still rattling around my head today. In fact, there's a great documentary it came I think in like 1985, starring Christopher Reeve just called dinosaur with an exclamation point you'll find on YouTube and is one of my absolute favorites because it's all shot within those halls back back when they were still relatively dark and shadowy. And as much as I love modern museum design, and, you know, trying to make things bright and open and more accessible. I really love the ones that are kind of dim and shadowy, and you get the sense that there might be like dinosaur ghosts and they're not that I believe in but There's something a little extra about it, but you know, trains your focus on these animals and what they might have been like that you feel like you're kind of locked in there with them. And it just fires my imagined imagination in a way that doesn't throw the bright daylight. It really just took such a hold of me. And in that moment, that's what keeps me going back to all these things. And, you know, as silly as it is, like, you know, I do my best to be professional, be up on the science have all my technical stuff down. But like once I was doing field work at a place, go Cleveland, a dinosaur quarry here in eastern Utah. And their torrential downpour is the whole field team, like almost everybody was rained out, everybody's soaking wet. And this in the middle of Utah summer, so no one had planned for for rain, because we get we have like the second lowest rainfall of any state possible, total disaster. And there's a reconstruction of Allosaurus the drastic carnivore in the middle of this. And what we did that night as everybody dried off, because I had a laptop, and we opened the case of Takata, because that was all that was left, and I fired up Jurassic Park. And then I threw out my sleeping bag underneath that Allosaurus skeleton, just because like I wanted that moment, again, I wanted to be able to look up at this thing as bones and think about what it was like. And I think that sense of wonder, I think it's important to emphasize, because so often, I think with paleontology, we talked about these maps, the mastery of facts, like do you know how long this thing was? how heavy it was? What's your evidence for backing this or that up. And that's all great and important stuff. But the wonder of it, that's really what even just drove this latest book that I wrote, like, I was tired of writing about descriptions of how we discovered things and all the measurements and everything else, I wanted to basically play with these animals as I saw them in my head.

Brian Heater  31:46  
It's almost like fanfiction. In that way. I've just like a bit of like world building, obviously, you know, with the facts that you have. But as you were earlier, as you're describing tenses, in terms of how to refer to a fossil, you know, I was looking down to my phone and looking at the book, I finished recently and completely forgot. I was like, I think the entire thing was written in present tense, but I need to double check. And it was and that's a very, that's a very deliberate decision for a book that takes place, you know, 65 million years ago.

Riley Black  32:20  
Yeah, I struggle with that first because in some ways, writing and past tense are sort of this kind of third person omniscient, saying, like, everything, like just like the moment after it happened, or so it was, is a much more comfortable way way to write. Sometimes writing presents easier.

Brian Heater  32:34  
It's like default, like, that's how most things are written. Right?

Riley Black  32:40  
But present tense, it felt vital. Like if I'm talking about these things being alive, I want to talk about them being alive, because if I'm constantly using the past tense, I'm just reminding everybody of the ending, I can't really get somebody lost in the Paleocene, if I'm constantly reminding them, that, you know, there's something that happened 65 million years ago, this is sort of, it's something I like to do like I remember when 3d movies for really like in vogue and, and almost everything with 3d, really. And I remember when I go see them that sometimes I had a hard time paying attention to like what the main point was, because you could kind of like look around the screen, you could look into the background and kind of see like, oh, it's like what's in that cabinet. It's like, you kind of like look around the way that you look around the room. And that's the kind of feeling that I wanted to give people like just enough information that they could feel that they were there. And they were kind of looking around and how they were imagining this, the setting. Whereas if whenever I thought about using the past tense of felt like it's kind of like flattened everything out is like using time to just kind of squish everything down to I'm telling you this series of events that transpired. And I wanted more of a feel of like we're there with our boots on the ground watching this critter scurry around or watching this fern grow, or whatever it is, it felt very important to making it a living story, when you

Brian Heater  33:59  
were discussing some of these kind of more toxic people in in the industry, he touched on something that's to me, it's a very interesting point. That I think, I don't know, I don't know that this applies to all science in the same manner. And in fact, I don't think that it does, but there is a level of what you would said is you know, how they how these people interpret things. And there's there's a level of almost like subjectivity that has to go into a lot of this because, I mean, obviously it's entirely based on fact, but you're hanging some imagination. On top of that and your disgust I heard you discussing this with with another paleontologists of just like, I had to make this decision for this reason. You talked about this in the book to you know, there are probably some ways in which it makes for a more interesting story or there's a there's a triceratops like dinosaur with the perforated skull that may or may not be an actual dinosaur but you choose to you chose to include it, there has to be a little bit of subjectivity that goes into a project like this

Riley Black  35:07  
entirely. And that's fly once we're at the Appendix for it, because I've wanted to lay out, you know what we know and that paleontology really is filling in even playing with these these gaps in our knowledge. One example that I use is one of my favorite examples to use. There is a book called the world before the deluge that was printed in the 19 century after Archaeopteryx, the first bird was discovered in that first skeleton that was recognized the London specimen, they didn't recognize the head on it. At first, there were teeth and jaws on there, they thought they were the jaws of fish. So for it took a couple of years to recognize that and in that interim, it was like we don't really know what the head looks like we don't know what their beak we don't know where their teeth and the illustrator for this particular book, do this drastic forest full of conifer isn't had Archaeopteryx with its wings spread over this forest, and is headless. I just found that so ridiculous that you're doing this living seen this animal in its environment. We know it's a vertebrate, we know it's a bird that must have had a skull and jaws whether tooth or not the central nervous system, but this person is like, well, I need to stop there. Because it might not be accurate. It's like so much else that you've already illustrated is either conjectural or informed by something else. So one of the basis for Paleontology is comparative anatomy like girl, especially early in its history, it was often said it was basically combination of comparative anatomy, and geology. And that origin really means that, you know, the whole reason we can understand so much about certain bones is that we can look to living animals and see the same muscle scars, the same nerve openings, you're always comparing between the past and the present in some way and find the common denominators. For a lot of these animals. Here's the one wonderful things about what we call homology and evolutionary sciences, that you often have the same parts, but their fashion in different ways. And you kind of suss that out if you know your anatomy well enough. And I think it's important to highlight that this isn't a matter of just looking at a skeleton, you can tell everything about it as if you're designing it directly from the bones. It's so much of this relies on comparison, or you're making a logical argument that you know, okay, like, I see a cavity inside of its skull, and it looks like a brain, that's probably the brain and the brain, like seems to have large olfactory bulbs. We know the animals that have that have a good sense of smell. So there's no way to test the dinosaurs sense of smell in any sense of the word. But we can make that hypothesis and support it. And it seems pretty reasonable. And I really wanted to bring that I wanted that to be part of the story, both because I think it's important to sort of show my work for something like this. And I was a little bit worried. And I've seen this in a few of like the reader reviews who were maybe expecting a different book of this being just that was paleo fiction, and I'm just making things up off the top of my head. And for me, it's more like, I've been living with these studies and stories and animals and ideas for most of my life and working with them professionally for more than a decade. This is me kind of fine letting them loose. On paper. This is the stuff that we think about and talk about, you know, aside from the technical paper where you have to be so precise and passive voice, because there wasn't really another paleontology book like that. There's an older one that Edwin Colbert wrote called Dear the dinosaur by Bakker did raptor read, you know, years and years ago, which is a little bit more fanciful, but similar sort of idea. And this was kind of my Homage to the genre. But through my particular lens, like you were saying, like, science is done by people, people are subjective, we do our best to show our work and to narrow things down to, you know, measurements and data that can be repeated and tested. And, you know, all those things that are so important for the science, but the theory the hypothesis, like what we think about what a particular animal is doing, you know, that's why dinosaurs keep changing, you know, the bones are the same as they ever were, it was entirely possible that the first person, for example, to describe the T Rex could have figured out that his posture was different, or that it you know, moved in a certain way, or like all the things that we know, now, they could have worked a lot of that out, but they're working with a different framework. And that's the whole reason it's changed. And it would have felt dishonest. If I kind of put myself out there as like this authority. I'm going to tell you what the reality was, when the entire history of science tells me it's like, yeah, in 10, or 20 or 50 years, Someone's probably going to read my book and be like, Why was she wrong about a lot of this stuff?

Brian Heater  39:41  
At a certain point, you have to decide whether that's that's frustrating or exciting, knowing that none of this will ever be finished.

Riley Black  39:50  
I think it's exciting. I mean, especially as I've carved this whole niche for myself, as you know, a very much like out queer person in paleontology and science. Since I want to hear other people's stories, interpretations, I kind of love when I find out that I'm wrong about something, or we have a new discovery that changes what we previously knew. Because that usually that leaves the question of why well, how do we find that out? What What's the new information hearing? Does that lead to additional questions or additional queries, and see me it kind of creates this bridge of conversation across years and across generations. And I feel like science media and science writing in particular has often struggled with this. I think it has a lot to do with the sort of the business models that we've had that were a lot of this work is disseminated. I remember growing up the 1980s 1990s guy, the end of like, the magazine, is right before the collapse, and you add people, and you had I'm not a fan of necessarily all these Stephen Jay Gould is a huge fan of but yet other folks like, you know, like Richard Dawkins, and you know, Wilson, Carl Sagan, and you just all these other authors that were getting like, you know, they'd have books that sold well, and they'd have columns and you know, national magazines and stuff. And they'd had these debates that then other people would write books about. And there seemed to be this drive to have like, these big interpreters of science where like, this was the person who was going to explain once and for all, how evolution works to you. And I think in some ways, we've continued in some of that tradition that we have, like particular people like these are the most recognizable science writers or science journals, these are the interpreters of the scientific record, and they're gonna do their best to tell you the facts about nature and natural history. When really the way that I feel about it is like, I don't want to be a household name. I don't want to be a best seller. And like, I want to be somebody who like, here's how I see it, how do you use and to have this conversation that kind of broadens out from, from these moments in our very fragmented and fractured media ecosystem. But I think the time of having sort of these chief interpreters, like you know very much how we had Carl Sagan then people want Neil deGrasse Tyson to be kind of like the replacement. And that didn't work for him, kind of Thank goodness. But yeah, I think things have changed so much, that I feel more comfortable. And I feel like it's more useful to people in general to be like, this is something I know, I'm probably seeing some this wrong. Or maybe I'm seeing this, you know, in this idiosyncratic way, because of who I am and where I'm coming from. But if you can look at it from a different background, and you see some similar things, that maybe we're getting somewhere in terms of figuring something out, or maybe you're gonna see something that like, nobody's realized before. And I love that idea of sharing a little bit to stoke conversation. And that's what keeps driving things forward. Me just going like this is mine. And this is my interpretation. I'm an expert that doesn't really get anybody anywhere.

Brian Heater  43:05  
I'm somebody who I deal with a lot of anxiety, depression, and these things were heightened nevertheless, three years. And you've written and talked about that aspect of your life as well. I certainly I would consider myself an introvert in spite of, you know, effectively like interviewing people for a living and going out and stage and talking to a lot of people. Is it oftentimes difficult to put yourself out there in that way?

Riley Black  43:32  
Entirely. I had an interview for a story earlier this week, where I had to talk to the curator of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum about a capsule cool Atlas like model that was made in the 80s. And I hate cheese. How's this gonna go? And that's a millennial thing. Yeah, yeah, definitely. Yeah. But even over emails, like my job involves, like cold calling, basically, researchers all the time. And sometimes there may be two three experts on a particular topic, like in the world for me to talk to you. Like I would just describe this Cambrian jellyfish that was found that Burgess Shale, so it took me about an hour just like sifting through various papers and going like, Okay, who do I talk to? Who's most likely to give me an answer? Who's most likely to be available? And then just hoping that when I send this email, basically, I'm asking them to do work for free? Yeah, the only hope I have is that they think the paper is cool enough for outrageous and ever, whatever it is, to comments on and it's, it seems like I've picked a weird career choice for somebody with C PTSD and some anxiety and he's autistic and all that fun stuff. But I just have to keep doing it as I have too many questions and too much curiosity. And I think it's so much of it is when I see some of these new papers and you say it's just got like, this is cool. Like I want to tell people about it. And that's what kind of helps me override all the interviewing and paperwork and things like that. that needs to come with it like, you know, earlier this month, I had a gender affirming surgery. And I've been planning for this for quite some time. And I was trying to get all my work off my desk and I was telling myself the week before, I'm not going to take any more assignments, I need to rest I need to be ready. And then just before a paper comes out, or is it like next week, and I think I can't remember what's nature of science busy next week, we are announcing what may be the largest creature they have ever lived a new fossil whale. And they showed the illustration and is the cutest like chunkiest thing I've ever seen. Absolutely. Percy, this is tiny head, massive body, it was up to possibly, like 300 tons. As it's like, okay, I need to write about this. So I remember like being in the hospital in recovery, still hitting like the button for like the morphine every couple of minutes as I need it, tapping on my phone, getting edits back to my editor, because I had to tell this story. And that's, that's the stuff that keeps me writing is that there's always something else, there's always something unexpected, the fossil record in particular is always going to surprise us. And that's the part that helps me get over some of the more complicated, I think social aspects of being a journalist and a science writer.

Brian Heater  46:23  
Yeah, I mean, to peel back the curtain a little bit, when I asked you to do this, he basically said, I'm recuperating from surgery, I've got all the time in the world. So clearly. And you know, maybe like even as somebody who, you know, again, I'm an introvert myself, like, I had that thing of, like maybe enjoying elements of the pandemic more than I should have in terms of like being completely alone with my rabbit. But at the end of the day, then you know, you're you're alone, and you've been alone for two months, and you look around you'd like shit like I do. As much as I hate to admit it, like I do need to interact with other people like this, you know, I do need to talk to people, I can't just be entirely alone.

Riley Black  47:03  
Yeah, it's, it was difficult finding a balance, I think, you know, writing and doing it helped a little bit because, you know, as everyone began to work from home, and I wish we still had, you know, as much access to that as we did, like, I've been working from home for about like eight or nine years, it did feel different, it didn't feel more isolating. But it was also good to be able to reach out to people around the world about these fascinating things and maybe think about something else other than the pandemic for a minute not to say that the pandemic wasn't important. In fact, I remember very early on those first couple of months, early in 20, whereas almost impossible for me to pitch a story about anything else, because that was just the constant story, just this new virus the or the beginnings of the pandemic. And over time, that shifted a little bit. And I think we can do both. I think we can recognize the seriousness of these things. But also, that there is more to the world there is more than history, there is more to the planet. And I know it's helpful in some ways to be able to reach out to people and just say like, Hey, I noticed everything is weird. Can we talk about this new Tyrannosaur for 20 minutes, and I can almost hear the relief sometimes that we just had something else that was cool and interesting to to share. In some ways, fieldwork changed quite a bit like a lot of field programs like stopped I used to go out like almost a week out of basically made through early October, I'd be out in the field almost every month for at least a couple of days. And a lot of those programs a lot of this like networks where how you get asked to go to one thing or another have kind of broken down a little bit. So now I get antsy sometimes sometimes, like I need to go out to the desert today. Like I know, it's like a three hour drive away. I'm just gonna get up at like, two in the morning, I'm gonna gonna do this hike and look at the fossils. I mean, I come home to it to do it. So I feel like we're still, at least for me, I'm still kind of finding my balance. You know, everything has continued to shift around. But yeah, it was a both the best and worst time to write a book about one of the ends of the world. And I didn't intend it to be so relevant to our present moments. But that's the way it just just kind of worked out. And it's kind of funny to me, I wonder looking back at it, you know, some however many years from now if I go back and I read that book. I started it explicitly in the conclusion, at least personally, but how much that moment in time formed, what my perspective was and what the takeaway from that story was because I just felt like it was selling. Then to talk about like, is ours worst day as bad as I could possibly get? Things still somehow continued. And we can hold that sense of both grief and hope. Together, we don't need to choose one or the other that like they can kind of inform each other. And that's maybe how we move forward.

Brian Heater  50:12  
Whenever I'm talking to somebody who has a paperback coming out, I like to ask a question of, you know, effectively, like how have the relationship with the work has changed in you know, the past year, but it's a, it's especially interesting in this case, both in terms of again, personal and the global setting in which this was written, but also that maybe some things changed. Maybe maybe, maybe there are some things that because of papers or other things have come to light that you're maybe you wouldn't have written them in the same way. So I'm curious if if at all, I know, again, geologically a year is not a lot of time for things to change in. But you know, it's a lot of time for people to change.

Riley Black  50:53  
Yeah. In terms of research, I think the book is still pretty sound, we've had a few papers that would like lead to minor things like I might have made a point about some T Rex having lips in that first chapter, because we had a paper about that. But in terms of like the overall story, how the extinction played out, aside from relatively minor details, I think it's still it's still an accurate story. It's still really emphasizing how strange this event was compared to anything else. It really was the combinations, the worst case scenario that there could have possibly been and how life came back from that. We have a couple of new papers about Paleocene mammals that I might have worked into there, like there was a neat one about how their body size got big, earlier than their brain size. So you had these things that were like the size of like rat, even like cat size, or smaller, like at the end of the Cretaceous, they survived, they get into the Paleocene, there's all this green food around, because forests can now grow dense without dinosaurs knocking everything over all the time, their body size gets big, but their brains are still the same size as they were back in the Cretaceous. So there wasn't a lot of behavioral complexity that's sort of like opening up these niches and stuff happened in this complex way. And it wasn't this lockstep kind of change that we might might expect. And that's pretty cool. In terms of my relationship to the book, it's kind of funny, because I'm working on the sequel right now, which is going to be very similar trying to put people in the past, but talking about the relationship between animals and plants through time that plants keep doing these things like oxygenating the atmosphere or starting to grow on lands or evolving relationships with pollinators, or evolving defenses that then like lead to fun things like catnip, this chapter involving saber toothed cats getting high catnip and why that why that happens and why that works. And writing this now reminds me the process for writing. And last days, the dancers, I was convinced that people were going to hate it, I was convinced that my editor was not going to see what I was trying to do, and that the reviewers are going to be aware, this is just fiction, this is just imagination, there's not really anything worthwhile in here. And that has to do with like many years of depression and dysphoria and generally feeling like imposter syndrome, and feeling like somehow, despite writing for every major outlet that I've ever wanted to write for, and publishing multiple books and fooling everybody somehow about expertise. So I basically, like wrote it down as fast as I could just kind of like threw it at my publisher and was like, Okay, I hope this does alright, but given that none of my previous books do particularly well, I was like making my ps4 as I gotta get the last advanced check, I'll just do the next thing. And this is the first book that I've ever had, like, I'm not trying to brag, I'm just kind of still in shock about both and thankful. So everybody who's picked it up, it's the first book I've ever had. That's earned out it's advance that's relatively rare for science fiction, or now it's advanced actually, like have a royalty check now that helps support some of this other transition related care that like I've been wanting to do. And that's been a wonderful thing. And it's really encouraged me in terms of writing this next book, because again, it's even though I've done this multiple times, and I've only had like one negative review after writing, like however many books, I still can tell myself, like, I don't know if it's gonna be good. I don't know if people are gonna like this. This This one might be might be the dad and just being able to say like, you wrote something that was very vulnerable, and that there's no other dinosaur but quite like it, and people loved it. So maybe just keep doing what you love doing. And I'm happy to see it come out. And the last is the answer to come out in paperback. I hope more people pick it up. I know some people it's like, they don't want the hardcover. They want to wait for the paperback for one reason or another. But I'm glad that this book like the story, it's still finding people like it makes me happy that I'm still getting emails about it. I'm still getting requests to talk about it. I feel like it's something that hit on something greater than just what the subject is about, like yes is about this mass extinction. If you read the book, you'll certainly learn about what happened 66 or 65 million years ago But I think in this moment that we're in, where everything is still strange, I think we're still very much in our own kind of like impact winter of everything that transpired from 2020 onwards, I think it still holds that relevance. And while I'm sad for that, I'm glad that people are finding the book and finding something personal. And I hope that continues to be the case.

Brian Heater  55:28  
I'm not going to spend, you know, the last few minutes of podcasts relying on the American healthcare system. Yeah. He said something in there, that release struck me trying to not, but like to find a point on it or be hokey or cheesy talking about, but there's a very, you were talking about her in the book of answering, you're talking about the being able to afford this health care. And I know, you know, as you said, you had that surgery recently. And there's a very real and tangible way in which this book is helping you become the person you are.

Riley Black  56:00  
Yeah, it's something that for all the discussions that are going on, just to be very direct about it, with all the discussions that are presently happening about transgender people, in various forms of media, including outlets such as no better like The New York Times in the Atlantic, some of those, like the ones that I get cranky with them so much, because they really should know better, and how defensive they are, that they're reporting is good when it's actually very harmful. But there's so much emphasis put on our bodies, and changes to our bodies and what those things do, and whether that's fair to other people, which is entirely the wrong emphasis to have in terms

Brian Heater  56:37  
of whether what you do to yourself has any impact on anyone else's life. Yeah, in

Riley Black  56:42  
terms of, you know, the fact that just transgender women were just banned from or at least post postponement from playing in chess tournaments, because we're not sure whether we have an unfair advantage against other women or not. You know, even just more physical sports as well, that we have the science we have the details, we have the evidence that we are not a threat to these systems that we've participated in previously. But it's as manufactured outrage that we can track directly to specific conservative groups like Alliance Defending Freedom and Christian nationalist organization, a very

Brian Heater  57:18  
funny thing of how many people suddenly care about women's sports? Yes,

Riley Black  57:23  
yeah. All of a sudden, after all this time, there's a great book called sexing the body that goes into this specifically to sports in detail that I very much recommend about doesn't just stick Yeah, how suspicious this moments this moment is. So you have all this emphasis on sort of, not only should we be able to, you know, alter our sex and change our gender presentation, but what bathrooms we can use, what sports we can play, what stories we can tell, this multi pronged assault that's fixated on us right now. It meanwhile, the reality of so much of this like, doesn't get reported and it doesn't get talked about like for every change, I've had to do, how much of it like even if I have an operation that's covered by insurance, how much I need to spend on therapy, or electrolysis for hair removal, or various consultations or travel or things like that is very expensive, if you want to medically transition to do so. And it affects a great deal of your life. And I feel honored that enough people have enjoyed the last days of the dinosaurs, that this book that I read, the very beginning of my transition was just coming into myself and a lot of these things seem far off from you, I didn't know when they were going to happen. Now, it's done well enough where I can not only, you know pay for my own needs in this messed up healthcare system that we have. But I can also like throw friends in you to a couple of bucks and help support their transitions as well. It's, it's absolutely bizarre, but I you know, I want to believe that the people who, you know, keep hammering on us who keep calling people like me basically a menace to society at large. And we're going to be the death of you know, the United States or Western civilization or whatever it is, they're actually afraid of that it is a small group of people and that most people that I know, most people that I run into and bump into are just like, happy you be happy. That's mostly what I feel like I'm running into. And just as evidence of this, this is a little chevron fraud on my part. So about a year or so ago, Tucker Carlson called me out on his show, because I gave an interview to NPR saying that dinosaurs are trans icons, primarily because of Jurassic Park, but also like basically transphobes at the time were trying to use dinosaurs as a dog whistle.

Brian Heater  59:45  
That's chum in the water. Carlson

Riley Black  59:48  
Right, exactly. So this is like NPR did a segment on a trans woman saying dinosaurs are trans icons. Like of course, he would say something. And you know, nothing happened. I got like One email that nobody cared and the fact that he just came out with a book that sold like 3000 copies and bombed, and I wrote a book about dinosaurs and how they relate to my trans experience and it's done superduper Well, I would, it's not, you know, a sign that everything is fine, everything isn't fine. But I would like to think that there are a lot of people out there who are beginning to understand why these things are and how they're related and that trans people are not the villains that you know, the media is constantly saying that we are if you want to

Brian Heater  1:00:36  
stick it to Tucker Carlson, buy a copy for at least book that's the best way

Riley Black  1:00:44  
it's a win win.