Monday, January 11, 2010

Ohh. Science-y!

This is the kind of book that appeals to the guys who sit at the back of the theater and make fun of everything that’s going on onscreen. And to guys like me who want a little information – but not too much – about the science behind the science fiction.

The book of which I write is The Science of Jurassic Park and the Lost World, by Bob DeSalle and David Lindley. It came out in 1997, shortly after Steven Speilberg’s film, The Lost World, came out. The film is, of course, based on the book by Michael Crichton.

I admit to a love/hate relationship with Crichton. In too many instances, narrative drives too much of the science, which is unfortunate, because Crichton is in a position to teach as well as entertain. More often than not, however, Crichton presents enough of a scientific theory or principle to get the narrative point across and leaves it at that. (My favorite book of his is Airframe, which mixes two other interests, aviation and journalism.)

As far as explaining the science behind whether it would be possible to recreate dinosaurs from DNA extracted from dino blood-drinking mosquitoes trapped in ancient amber, DeSalle and Lindley do an adequate job, only taking the science two or three steps beyond what Crichton does. This method, however, while entertaining, doesn’t do much more for teaching science than Crichton’s approach.

Of course I know it’s a book meant for mass audiences. Individuals looking for the meat behind the bones the pair present in this book are better off going elsewhere. I learned some about nuclear physics, for example, through reading The Radioactive Boy Scout, but learned a lot more from Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb – a book meant for a more learned, more serious audience. (What those who don’t read that book would be shocked to find out, however, is how much Rhodes tackles the subject matter as a novel, creating a narrative that’s dripping with science but with enough action and character to keep the “story” moving along nicely.)

But back to this book. Their basic premise is that though this DNA-to-dino dream is just a dream now, it might be possible in the future, although success is dependent on so many factors spread out literally over millions of years that one would have to be extremely lucky and extremely wealthy in order to succeed. Buying up the world’s amber supplies, they point out, though costly, would not be as costly – nor politically difficult – as buying an island large enough to support not only the research and development, but also the dinosaur population. Forget a craggy volcanic island off Costa Rica, they say, for an experiment of this magnitude to succeed, one would need an island as big as Barbados or Martinique, and good luck getting folks off those islands. Montserrat, maybe, but then you’ve got that whole destructively active volcano thing to worry about as well, so you might be better off looking elsewhere.

What I enjoyed the most in this book is how the authors remind us that scientists have to take a critical eye to their work, ensuring that they’re not overlooking possibilities or problems – as much as humanly possible – effectively not putting on blinders, working to get the end result they wish while taking shortcuts and may in some way compromise their work. This is good advice for all of us, especially as they point out, subtly, time and again how the science in these books is kept secret and not peer reviewed – because it’s in the peer review that often those glaring mistakes or omissions are brought to light.

I don’t pretend to be a scientist, of course, just an interested reader who likes the idea of learning and nurturing the idea to think critically. I know as a journalist I needed better critical-thinking skills, and felt the program of study I took on didn’t really include that in the mix. Science has more of a built-in critical thinking system which, while not perfect, takes the concept a bit further than can be done with a few harried checks by an editor working under a deadline.

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