Jurassic World: Not About Science

As a dinosaur paleontologist, I was perhaps duty-bound to see Jurassic World … that and my 10-year-old daughter was keen to see it as well. I am teaching a freshman-only seminar on dinosaurs this fall, and that also made the choice to see the movie a no-brainer. I had only seen one or two brief previews of the movie and had avoided reading reviews of the plot so I could go into the movie with as few preconceptions as possible. Here are my thoughts.

Before I start, let me say that this is not a review of the story or much about the accuracy of the science. That has already been done in multiple ways by many of my colleagues in the dinosphere. There is not much new I could add there.  Therefore, there are no spoilers here unless you consider what is shown in the movie previews as spoilers.

I was not surprised and kind of disappointed by I what I saw. In a sentence: it was a monster movie and not a movie about dinosaurs or science. There were no paleontologist characters in the movie, and the dinosaurs were there to devour people and cause mayhem or serve as background. As anyone would know from the movie previews, this is again a retread of technology gone wrong and hubris. No one should be surprised by the basic plot and its outcome.

So here is my question: since this movie is clearly not about science and is, like the original Jurassic Park, yet another Frankenstein story, why should we as scientists care how accurate is? And I ask this question because we dinosaur paleontologists suffer from a public image problem. We are often considered to be kids who never grew up, but not “real” scientists. I am the first to admit that my fascination with dinosaurs started early, and that many of us have a friendly competition to see who was interested in dinosaurs the earliest. It does come with a certain badge of honor. But I think that outside of our small group, this doesn’t often help us be taken seriously.

I suppose, for example, one could point to someone like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, arguing that he engages the public with his take on science-fiction movies. But even here astronomy and physics have more science “street cred” than dinosaur paleontology. Tyson can let his nerd flag fly, so to speak, without much “damage” to the reputation of physics because his science is “the” science in the mind of the public. Nobody (sane) argues about gravity. Everyone, though, is happy to argue with dinosaur experts about what they think dinosaurs were like … perhaps in part because we all know the science is done by big kids who aren’t real scientists.

I agree and empathize with many of my colleagues that dinosaur movies often miss an opportunity to educate the public about science as a process as well as entertain. But I also think we tread a fine line here — one that may inadvertently only reinforce the stereotype of the nerdy (read “child-like” and “out-of-touch”) dinosaur paleontologist when we engage the “science” of a movie that is clearly not about science at all. This stereotype of the “big kid” dino-nerd is more damaging than just reputation. For example, the recent attempt to sell the privately-owned “Dueling Dinosaurs” was predicated on the identity of one of the dinosaurs as Nanotyrannus. Even when an expert on tyrannosaurids like Thomas Carr pointed out in great detail why Nanotyrannus is not real, it is perhaps easier to ignore his expertise in favor of profit partly because of the “big kid” stereotype.

My suggestion would be, rather than engaging the press in the predictable “this and that were wrong” conversation, why not simply say, “this is science fiction and a monster movie and it doesn’t represent paleontology.” Jurassic World is about as close to dinosaur paleontology as Star Wars is to astronomy. These movies can be inspiring to children and adults, but their main focus is a story, its plot, climax, and resolution, not scientific accuracy. And the sad part about Jurassic World is that the missed opportunity is less about the science (which is relatively non-existent) and more about the tired re-hashing of gender stereotypes and hubris/comeupance plot lines.

Dinosaur paleontology, for those of us who are experts, is a rigorous science with many insights to offer us in the present. And, yes, many of us have been enraptured with this science since childhood. There is nothing wrong with that. But understanding how stereotypes about our science and about us as scientists play in the larger world are equally important to recognize. We have an important message about the past and our future to impart to the public. Let’s not dilute our energies on the trivial details of an expensive and silly monster movie.

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Combining physics and vertebrate paleontology

Often, students in biology and paleontology wonder why it is that we “force” them to take physics.  I ought to know — I was one of those students!  It wasn’t until later in graduate school that I began to appreciate the application of physics to matters of dinosaur movement.  I believe part of this reticence among many future biologists and paleontologists to embrace and understand physics is that they feel (as I once did) that it was mostly the arena of engineers and cosmologists.

Yet, the questions we are often so interested in about living organisms and those in the fossil record relate to physics.  How did they move?  Were they moving in water?  How could their heart pump blood to their head?  How did a giant sauropod move, let alone stand, without breaking its bones?  So, if you are interested in dinosaurs and other magnificent animals of the past in the context of how they went about their daily lives, then you are interested in physics.

When I first began teaching vertebrate paleontology back in 2003, my goal then as now was to communicate to biology and paleontology students how modern vertebrate skeletons and body form are related to their function.  Too often, in my opinion, we tend to emphasize taxonomy and relationships over how, as scientists, we reconstruct paleobiology.  To be clear, taxonomy and the study of evolutionary relationships (systematics) are hugely important — they provide the context in which we test evolutionary hypotheses.  However, I wanted to strike a balance in my courses of teaching how the vertebrates were related in combination with how they lived their lives and responded to the physical world.

Today in my vertebrate paleontology course at Richard Stockton College, I hope a new group of students has begun to appreciate this intersection among biology, paleontology, and physics.  In the lab, students used a small wind tunnel and “smoke” from a fog machine to test how three different fossil fishes may have moved through the water.  I have found it is one thing to talk about Bernoulli’s Principle or discuss friction and pressure drag.  It is a whole other kettle of fish (pun intended) to see for one’s self how body shape actually changes the fluid around it.

Each group of students was assigned a fossil fish to research and model out of clay in lab.  Then, after hypothesizing how they thought their particular fish would behave relative to the water current (or in this case, the air current with “smoke”), they put their models in the wind tunnel, turned on the smoke, and put their hypotheses to the test.  They will later present their findings to the class.  My hope in all of this is that these students appreciate that our hypotheses about past life rely heavily on our models of the present flesh, bone, and physical laws.

Student group modeling and studying the effect of body shape on fluid movement in the early chondrichthyan, _Cladoselache_.

Student group modeling and studying the effect of body shape on fluid movement in the early chondrichthyan, _Cladoselache_.  Our wind tunnel can be seen in the background, upper left.

The _Cladoselache_ model sculpted by students based on data from fossils.

The _Cladoselache_ model sculpted by students based on data from fossils.

The student group studying the heterostracan (jawless fish) _Drepanaspis_.

The student group studying the heterostracan (jawless fish) _Drepanaspis_.

_Drepanaspis_ model.

_Drepanaspis_ model.

The student group studying the osteostracan (jawless fish), _Hemicyclaspis_.

The student group studying the osteostracan (jawless fish), _Hemicyclaspis_.

The _Hemicyclaspis_ model.

The _Hemicyclaspis_ model.

The _Hemicyclaspis_ model in our wind tunnel, sitting on a box of clay to prop it into the (faintly visible) stream of "smoke."

The _Hemicyclaspis_ model in our wind tunnel, sitting on a box of clay to prop it into the (faintly visible) stream of “smoke.”

I want to dedicate this short post to the following people at Richard Stockton College.  First, having a wind tunnel and smoke machine would not have happened at all were it not for the help of our shop staff in the Natural Sciences — Bill Harron, Mike Farrell, and Mike Santoro.  They worked on this small scale wind tunnel with my input, and helped give our students a wonderful lab experience.

Second, Christine Shairer was invaluable for her help with getting me the materials my students and I needed to do this small-scale experiment.

Finally, third, Dr. Jason Shulman in physics who is a colleague, research collaborator, and one of the few physicists willing to put up with a paleontologist who is constantly asking what I can only assume are ignorant and humorously simple questions.  If only I had had such an enthusiastic professor when I was questioning why I had to learn physics all those years ago!