When Niles Eldredge was in school, his favorite subject was Latin. Another thing he loved was playing the trumpet. As for science, "I was not a science person," he told us. "In fact, I was in the slow science class in ninth grade."
Today he is a well-known evolutionary biologist and the author of dozens of books for adults and children, students and scientists, and the general reading public. He even wrote a book, The Fossil Factory, with his sons Gregory and Douglas who were 9 and 11 years old at the time.
The subjects he writes about range from trilobites to patterns of extinction, from evolution to biodiversity. He has worked at the American Museum of Natural History for nearly 30 years, doing research and teaching. He is a Curator in the Department of Invertebrates and heads the team of curators who made the new Hall of Biodiversity at the Museum.
As Niles puts it, "I have devoted my entire career to effecting a better fit between evolutionary theory and the fossil record. In recent years, I have focused on the mass extinctions of the geological past and their implications for understanding the modern biodiversity crisis and future human ecological and evolutionary prospects."
How did the trumpet-playing, mediocre science student get from there to here?
"I was not supposed to have been a scientist," he admitted. "When I went to college, at Columbia, I was studying languages, but then I started dating the woman who is now my wife, and she was hanging out with a bunch of anthropology majors, so I left Latin and switched over to anthropology."
It was neither the first nor the last time Niles made a decision by following his heart.
"When I was nineteen, I spent a summer in Brazil. It was really great, and I got interested in fossils when I was down there. When I got back I took an anthropology course and a paleontology course. The person who was teaching the paleo course was great, and I got really hooked into it. The person who was teaching the anthro course was only so-so. So I chose paleontology as my major, which in those days was part of the Geology Department."
Niles was still an undergraduate when he came to AMNH to work on a project sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The Museum was a place he had loved since he was a child growing up in Westchester County.
"I had an aunt who lived in New York City, and I used to take the train in all by myself, which made me feel very brave, and she used to take me here. It was a great adventure always."
As a Columbia doctoral student, he continued his research at AMNH. Then, in 1969, when he was looking for a job in his field, he was asked to stay on at the Museum. "It was like starting at the top," he said.
But didnt he find science difficult, and didnt that discourage him?
"Not at all. I was never scared by science. To me, being a paleontologist is not all that different from being a historian or studying Latin. I have never been taught not to follow up on my passions. I believe if you are passionately interested in something, its not hard. And I just thought this stuff was the neatest stuff in the world."