… that was Hammond’s mistake.”
The SciFlix movie of the month, Jurassic Park, was shown last night at the Edwards Campus of the University of Kansas to a good crowd of 50 attendees. (The numbers make me happy because that’s a 40% increase from the first night and more than enough to encourage me to continue pushing onward.)
It’s ironic to me that Dennis Nerdry (seriously, his name is actually ‘Nerd’ – I’m glad I didn’t invite any computer scientists onto my panel this month!) would complain that John Hammond’s chief mistake in building Jurassic Park was to underpay the person who seems to be single-handedly in charge of nearly everything on the island. Especially in light of Hammond’s (played by Richard Attenborough) repeated insistence that they spared no expense in creating his life’s dream.
Jurassic Park is Michael Chrichton’s monument to the 1990s dreams of future limited only by the imagination all created by modern advances in biotech. Simultaneously, he warns that the monsters we make will not necessarily feel so obliged to cooperate.
Panelists, Craig Sundell, a Paleontologist at the Santayana Institute; Brendan Mattingly, a Professor of Molecular Biosciences at KU Edwards Campus; Ben Wolfe, a Geology Lecturer also at KU Edwards; Greg Burg, the Director of Undergraduate Biosciences at KU; and, finally, B.J. Auch and Steve Klein, Senior Curators at the Cedar Cove Feline Conservatory and Sanctuary were all on hand to answer questions following the film.
Overall, the panelists agreed that Jurassic Park is a beautiful spectacle that holds up well after 23 years and that, in many ways, it does a reasonable job in portraying the science behind cloning animals. That said, everyone also agreed that there are a number of glaring misrepresentations of science throughout that are important to recognize.
Drs. Mattingly and Burg took questions on the reality of cloning animals, including descriptions of what has already been done and what may, or may not, be going on now. The consensus on this centered around the unlikelihood of obtaining usable DNA from dinosaurs, but that more modern extinct species may be reasonable targets for de-extinction. Questioners were apt to hone in on the availability of surrogate host species capable of carrying cloned organisms to term as a central issue. Perhaps African Elephants can function in this regard for a Wooley Mammoth, but there would be more difficulty in finding a surrogate for a Brachiosaur. After all, even for oviparous organisms, something needs to provide an environment for the early development of the egg.
Mrs. Sundell and Wolfe provided excellent answers to a number of questions around the age of the Earth, the ages of the Earth, and the life as we know if throughout that history. Together, they also set the stage for much of the discussion directly surrounding the dinosaurs themselves and what was accurate or not in their depictions on screen. I was particularly interested in the emphasis Mr. Sundell placed on how even what we think we know best about these animals is tentative because of the vast expanse of time between the time they walked the Earth and the present day.
Ms. Auch and Mr. Klein provided more of a look into how utterly insufficient the enclosures were in containing the dinosaurs. The fences at Cedar Cove, Ms. Auch assured us, are also electrified, but if that electricity were to fail, the fences themselves are built to contain their animals physically. Not the case for the 10,000 Volt enclosures responsible for keeping one of Earth’s most massive and dreaded carnosaurs in place. With these, a failure of electricity leaves them as little more capable than a string of police tape surrounding the habitats. Mr. Klein echoed Laura Dern’s character, Ellie Sattler, in his concern that animals do not exist in isolation from their habitats. Rather, ecosystems are created from the interaction of many species with their physical environment, and to expect to have one without the other is wholly unrealistic.
A few thank yous to those who helped make the night possible
I’d like to thank the panelists again for volunteering their time and knowledge to this event. I could easily have remained interested in another hour or more of conversation with each of them. While that was not possible to do in a single night, I do hope that attendees, panelists, or anyone else interested in discussing the science behind this film will use this space as a starting-off point to continue the conversation online.
Thank you again to everyone who made this event possible, from the IT, facilities, and hospitality at KU Edwards, to the event space managers who donated the space and refreshments, and to the administration at KU who underwrote the film licensing and provided prizes for me to give away to our guests. My Son Harry and his friend Garrett were great helpers in handling all the setup and breakdown of refreshments and tables and chairs for our panelists – Thank you very much to them! And lastly, a big thank you to my wife, Laura, for putting up with me being a general nuisance through the planning and execution of the whole event.
I also wanted to thank Apex Climbing Gym who also donated prizes for the giveaway, and to Cedar Cove for all the good work they do in preserving part of our world’s heritage. I encourage you all to visit both of these supporters for the good of your own mind and body.