The conversation had occurred on the fifth day of the expedition by which time Anna had already gained a reputation for being something of a chess wizard. They played on a small board with horn pieces, which von Molsen had conjured up from the left-hand pocket of his jacket, opposite the one in which he kept his pipe, and he balanced the board on his right thigh. Anna had slipped up when, in an attempt to support Darwin's views, she had mentioned a fossil that wouldn't be discovered for another seventy-four years, and had, in order to cover up her gaffe, dug herself into an even bigger hole by citing the feathered dinosaur from China, which two Chinese paleontologists would find and describe 124 years into the future. At this point, von Molsen had become so outraged that he accidentally knocked his own queen off the board. Anna felt like banging her head against one of the tent poles. "We're talking serious science here, not tomfoolery and nonsense," von Molsen had sneered as he picked up his queen. Anna gave up. After all, it was just a dream.
From that day onward Anna's mood had gone steadily downhill and this morning when von Molsen, in an exuberant state of mind, started gesticulating toward England with his pipe, Anna decided that, as far as she was concerned, the excavation was over. She would return to Munich, eat a decent meal, then take the train back to Berlin and from there travel home to Copenhagen. She rubbed her eyes and tried to wake up, but the wind swept heedlessly across the Bavarian plain and von Molsen had turned ninety degrees north and reinserted his pipe. In the distance Anna saw a hare rise onto its hind legs to sniff the air before it disappeared into the scrub. She sighed.
During the day, when Anna was awake, the year was 2007, and she was enrolled in the master of science program at the College of Natural Science at the University of Copenhagen, more specifically at the department of Cell Biology and Comparative Zoology at the Institute of Biology, where she had spent the past year writing her dissertation on a scientific controversy which had been running for more than 150 years. Were birds present-day dinosaurs or did they originate from an even earlier primitive reptile? She had just handed in her dissertation and her dissertation defense was in two weeks. Scientific controversies were par for the course. People had argued whether the Earth was flat or round, whether man was related to the apes, the status of the Milky Way compared to the rest of the universe, with a fervor that ceased the moment sufficient evidence became available. The earth is round, man is a primate, and the Milky Way does mainly consist of red stars. However, the controversy surrounding the origins of birds appeared to be different. It rumbled on, even though, scientifically speaking, there was nothing left to discuss.
Von Molsen relit his pipe and the sweet tobacco aroma tickled Anna's nostrils. Someone started to make coffee. She could see and hear Daniel, one of the other students, clatter with a saucepan while he said something to von Molsen and hitched up his trousers, which tended to fall down. Daniel had been fairly chubby five weeks ago when the excavation began, but since then he had lived on the same food as everyone else: beans, oatmeal, cabbage, and coffee. Anna suspected that Daniel secretly questioned von Molsen's dismissal of natural selection. The day she had debated it with von Molsen and had completely shot herself in the foot by referring to the two as yet undiscovered fossils, she had exchanged glances with Daniel, who was standing a little further away pretending to secure a couple of guy ropes, and she thought she had detected something in his eyes. Something that told her he had genuine doubts as to whether Darwin's theory of natural selection was really as far-fetched as the older established scientists of the day were claiming.
Excerpted from The Dinosaur Feather by S J Gazan. Copyright © 2013 by S J Gazan. Excerpted by permission of Quercus. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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