Even Fiction Can Expand Our Understanding of Science

Andy Zucker was a senior scientist at the Concord Consortium who is now enjoying his retirement, including working with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO).  

Many people know Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park, in which he posits that humans used remnants of dinosaur DNA to imprudently create a modern theme park populated with dinosaurs. Crichton often used science as a takeoff point in his novels. But Harvard scientist George Church is currently working to revive woolly mammoths using DNA samples frozen for thousands of years.

A value of Crichton’s works is they remind us of the important role that data play in science. Science is not only an experimental science. It often relies more heavily than standard textbooks suggest on the accumulation of accurate data long before theories explain the data.

In the latest Crichton novel, Dragon Teeth, a newly discovered manuscript posthumously published nine years after his death, fossil hunters work in the American West in 1876. Although fictionalized, Dragon Teeth is based on a real-life rivalry between two remarkable, obsessive men—Edwin Drinker Cope of the University of Pennsylvania and Othniel Charles Marsh of Yale—who were responsible for finding fossils of more than 1,500 species. Their exploits were known as “the Bone Wars.”

The fictional protagonist is based on the real-life fossil hunter Charles Sternberg, who supplied superb fossils to scholars and museums around the world, and who wrote, “I could tell of a hundred narrow escapes from death.” Larger-than-life figures like Cornelius Vanderbilt and Wyatt Earp were alive in 1876 and play roles in the novel. It is easy to see how Crichton used authentic history to create a fast-paced adventure story.

Some ancient people thought dinosaur bones came from dragons, but it was not until the 1840s that the term “dinosaur” was coined. The first dinosaur fossil was discovered in America in 1858. The site where Custer and his troops met their ignominious end in 1876, Montana’s Little Bighorn, is not far from key locations where dinosaur fossils were collected.

Data collectors are the unsung heroes of science. Without the thousands of butterflies collected in the Amazon by Henry Bates, scientists would not have had direct evidence of the creation of a new species—a discovery that Darwin called the “beautiful proof” for natural selection. Johannes Kepler was the first to understand that the planets move in elliptical orbits; his theory relied on the data of others (e.g., Tycho Brahe). The photos of X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin were used by Watson, Crick, and Wilkins to establish that DNA has a helical structure. Our current understanding of dinosaurs and how they were wiped out by a meteor strike depends on data from fossils, but also from ancient pollen, geological finds, and astronomical data.

Dragon Teeth proves that even fiction can broaden our understanding of science and of the data collectors responsible for enlarging human understanding of the world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *