Book Notes; The Science of Jurassic Park and the Lost World

29 05 2007

Despite the busy weekend, I managed to polish-off Rob Desalle & David Lindley’s 1997 book The Science of Jurassic Park and the Lost World or: How to Build a Dinosaur. Spanning only 181 pages, it went fairly quickly, but in the end I wasn’t terribly impressed. While a book like this was certainly needed, it could have been so much more than what it actually was. The rhetorical technique of taking the reader step-by-step through a PCR process works, although the description is a bit dry and runs on long (just like, from what I’m told, running a PCR in real life). The authors also tend to bounce between vignettes from the book and the movie despite the fact that the movies are really quite different from their source material. This isn’t a major issue, but the authors seem to be picking and choosing bits rather than addressing the works as a whole.

Be that as it may they do a good job at describing how, at nearly every level, the park couldn’t have worked and the dinosaurs would have been nearly impossible to create (at least in any form resembling a dinosaur). The closing chapters on the simple logistics of the park, predator/prey interaction, and the issue of having enough space for the dinosaurs successfully takes down Crichton’s fantasy islands, although I wish a little more time was spent on these issues and as well as a little more scientific fact. I have no doubt their conclusions were correct in that, i.e. there was not enough space or food for all the herbivores and carnivores said to inhabit Site B, but they didn’t seem to put in as much effort explaining this as refuting the notion of getting dinosaur DNA from blood inside an amber-entrapped mosquito (although that is the bigger issue at stake).

Perhaps my favorite chapter, however, deals with Jurassic Park’s “conscience,” Ian Malcolm. While Malcolm seems to be able to predict that the system will fail and that the dinosaurs will escape with some accuracy, he never really explains his computations or thought processes to achieve these conclusions. Much is said of “Chaos Theory,” but it is never really explained and does not seem to hold up to scrutiny when looked at closely. Indeed, Malcolm is much like the book Crichton wrote; fun fiction, but no more scientific than Godzilla or Frankenstein. That very reason is why The Science of Jurassic Park and the Lost World is important; it’s easy to throw assertions about DNA, cloning, and dinosaurs around and seem scientific, but is it really anything of the sort? Hardly. This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy reading the fantasy-laden Crichton novels or the high-tech films, but there is a difference between regarding them as science fiction and scientific possibility, and the idea that a real-life Jurassic Park might be possible someday soon was a notion that seems to have been supported by the filmmakers.

In any event, if you’re already familiar with the process of obtaining, processing, and studying DNA this book probably doesn’t have much new information for you. I was overall unfamiliar with the PCR process so I learned a few things there, but otherwise it’s a fairly easy read that doesn’t didn’t excite me or bore me. While there are certainly things that could have been improved (and some rather painful, obvious mistakes like calling Maiasaura “Maiasaurus”), it’d be a good read for anyone who is altogether unfamiliar with basic science dealing with finding, extracting, and studying genetic material and has an interest in dinosaurs. In the end though, I shouldn’t complain too much; I bought it for a penny and I certainly got the author’s two cents.


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