One surefire way to make fossils exciting are to make them come to life—literally! Perhaps that’s why Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park has become one of the hallmarks of American culture over the past thirty years.
If you don’t know: the 1990 novel (and the 1993 Steven Spielberg movie based on it) is about a group of scientists who use DNA contained in fossils to clone dinosaurs. They bring the ancient creatures back to life in order to create a theme park in which visitors can see real, live dinosaurs in person. Things don’t go so well. And they continue to not go so well in all of the sequels the novel has led to.
These thrillers are terrific page turners, and a lot of fun to read. But let’s get one thing clear: the science in the books is pretty bad.
On the other hand, that also makes them worth reading, beyond the pure enjoyment they offer. As TIP instructor and paleontologist Dr. Christine Metzger explains it, reading a book with bad science gives you a chance to practice some critical thinking skills. Using Jurassic Park and similar books and movies “has proven to be a very effective way to teach science,” Metzger said, “because it gives students not only content knowledge, which is what you’d get in, you know, an introductory science class, but also get really good sort of critical thinking and contextual skills for how to actually assess whether or not something is complete nonsense. And that is a really important skill.”
So as you read Crichton’s work, compare the science with what you learn in this issue of Insights, what you learn in school, and what you can read in reputable sources like National Geographic and Scientific American. Challenge yourself to figure out what’s plausible and what’s totally made up. And of course, enjoy the story anyway.