Jurassic Park and Its Scientific Foundation

For my personal blog, I chose to read Michael Crichton’s 1990 science fiction novel Jurassic Park, mainly because I enjoyed Steven Spielberg’s 1993 movie adaptation as a child.

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

In the novel, Crichton uses scientific themes surrounding genetic engineering, computers, and chaos theory to ultimately build a foundation on which he criticizes the dangers of technology and the irresponsible use of science in controversial endeavors. The novel’s themes tie into our class readings of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus and H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau and connect to our discussions on the creation of the atomic bomb, GMOs, and nuclear disasters.

Biography

On October 23rd, 1942, John Michael Crichton was born in Chicago, Illinois, and was the oldest of four children.

Michael Crichton (1942-2008)

He grew up in, “Rosyln, on Long Island, where his father was the editor of Advertising Age and later president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies” (Grimes). Following high school, Crichton attended Harvard University. Originally an English major at Harvard, “ Crichton switched to anthropology after a professor criticized his writing style” (Grimes). He would later, “graduate summa cum laude from Harvard” (John) and proceed to, “teach anthropology for a year on a fellowship at Cambridge University” before attending Harvard Medical School (Grimes).

He began writing, “to help pay tuition” (Grimes) while at medical school and even published, “his first best seller, The Andromeda Strain, before graduating” (John). At the time, Crichton wrote under the pseudonyms “Jeffrey Hudson” and “John Lange” and finished eleven novels, “one of which won an Edgar award”, before writing under his real name (About Michael). After graduating from Harvard Medical School in 1969, “Mr. Crichton moved to the La Jolla section of San Diego and spent a year as a postdoctoral fellow at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies” (Grimes) where he “was researching public policy” (John).

Crichton directing the film “Coma” in 1977

The following years lead to, “more than a dozen of his novels becoming movies, and he turned his hand to directing, screenwriting and producing for film and television” (Grimes). Crichton became immensely popular following the movie adaptation of his 1990 novel Jurassic Park by Steven Spielberg, which became, “one of the highest grossing films of all time” (John). In reflection on the novel, Crichton noted that during the writing of Jurassic Park, “[he] had come to rely on five or six people to read [his] drafts” and that “they all hated [it]” (Crichton). The original draft was written from a child’s point of view, “so [he] rewrote it as an adult story… and then everybody liked it” (Crichton). Crichton is also the creator of E.R., “a medical drama which ran for fifteen seasons from 1994 to 2009, and won him an Emmy, a Peabody and a Writer’s Guild of America Award” (John). As a doctor and a student of science, many of his novels “contained themes of scientific disaster and environmental destruction… and have been translated into more than thirty-six languages” adding to Crichton’s popularity around the world (John). In 2008, John Michael Crichton “ died at the age of 66 from cancer on November 4th in Los Angeles, California after a long struggle with illness” (Grimes).

Summary

            Jurassic Park begins with a helicopter bringing an injured workman from an island several miles off shore from Costa Rica to a doctor on the mainland. The people onboard the helicopter tell the doctor that the man was hurt in a heavy machinery accident during construction on the island, however, the doctor is not fooled; she can tell the individual is a victim of some kind of animal attack. Before the man passes away, he manages to struggle the word “raptor”.

Later, reports of attacks by an unidentified species of three-toed lizards in Costa Rica begin to surface. A sample specimen of a “lizard” is obtained and sent to Dr. Alan Grant, a paleontologist, and his research assistant Dr. Ellie Sattler.

Isla Nublar

The two suspect the specimen to be a dinosaur, but before they can do any tests they are flown off to the island of Isla Nublar, not far from Costa Rica, to do consulting work for a secretive bioengineering firm owned by the same man who funds Grant’s research; John Hammond. For the past five years, Hammond has been in the process of converting Isla Nublar into a zoo-inspired prehistoric theme park called Jurassic Park. With Hammond’s money, supercomputers and the work of scientist Dr. Wu, several species of dinosaurs have been cloned from blood found in mosquitoes that were preserved in amber.

Hammond’s lawyer Donald Gennaro, mathematician Ian Malcolm, Hammond’s grandchildren, and the programmer of Jurassic park’s security system Dennis Nedry, fly out to the island to determine if the park is safe to open to the public. Malcolm, who religiously refers to a principle known as chaos theory, expresses how he believes, based on his calculations, that Jurassic Park is destined for catastrophe before he even sets foot on the island.

Hammond created Jurassic Park with the goal to automate as many aspects of the park as he could, so the vast majority of the park is controlled by the same computer system. Nedry, who was secretly hired by a rival bioengineering company to steal dinosaur embryos, shuts down the island’s entire security system (along with the electric fences that keep the dinosaurs at bay) while most of the characters are on a tour of the park.

Dilophosaur

As the infrastructure of the park begins to collapse in accordance with Malcolm’s theory, Nedry attempts to escape the island with the stolen embryos but becomes lost, and is ultimately killed by a venom-spitting dilophosour.

Meanwhile, the electric cars that were carrying Malcolm, Hammond’s grandchildren, Grant, and tour guide Ed Regis, have stopped working. This strands the characters right next to the Tyrannosaurus Rex enclosure. With the electric fence out of order, the T-Rex escapes and attacks the vehicles, killing Ed Regis and critically injuring Malcolm, who is later picked up by Gennaro and Jurassic Park’s game warden.

Grant and the children are relatively okay, and embark to escape the immediate danger of another T-Rex attack by heading back toward the Park’s main headquarters. On the journey back, Grant discovers that the dinosaurs, which were genetically engineered to all be female and incapable of breeding, had somehow managed to reproduce in the park. Grant and the children are stalked by the T-Rex and attacked by Cearadactyls but eventually make it back to the park’s main building.

Tyrannosaurus rex compared to Human

By now, Jurassic Park’s most intelligent and violent dinosaurs, the velociraptors, have also escaped from their cages and are hunting in packs. As employees attempt to restart the electric generators that power the park, the velociraptors manage to kill Dr. Wu and everyone else who is an expert at operating the complicated computer system. Eventually, Grant and Genarro get the generators up and running despite the velociraptors. Tim, Hammond’s grandson and now the most skilled with computers on the island, gets the security system back up just before the raptors can break through a barrier protecting Malcolm, Hammond and Sattler.

Velociraptor compared to Human

With the security system now running, Grant, Sattler, Genarro, and the park’s game warden head back out to try to find where the dinosaurs are breeding. Meanwhile, Hammond leaves Malcolm’s side to get some fresh air, but falls and breaks his ankle, and is eaten by a pack of Procompsognathids. The others find the velociraptor nest, but a National Guard helicopter that has just landed on the island scares off the dinosaurs. Everyone who has survived Jurassic Park gets on board, and the National Guard blows up Isla Nublar as the Helicopter flies away.

Once back at Costa Rica, Grant learns of suspicious “lizards” that have been destroying certain crops and moving in packs throughout the country’s jungles.

Genetic Engineering, Paleo-DNA, and Amber

            So how did they do it, how did they create the dinosaurs? In the novel, it is explained that Dr. Wu, the young scientist at Jurassic Park, “[extracted] fragmented paleo-DNA belonging to an extinct prehistoric creature…from perfectly preserved insects fossilized in amber”(Crichton 111).

Mosquito in amber

He would then insert the DNA fragments into, “Hamachi-Hood automated gene sequencers…run at very high speeds by Cray XMP supercomputers” (Crichton 112). Next, the computers used restriction nucleases, which are enzymes that “cut nucleic acid only at certain nucleotide sequences along a DNA chain” and allow it to be “joined together with other DNA fragments cut by the same restriction enzyme regardless of the origin of either DNA”(Orsay). The computers then made inferences as to the missing segments of DNA and filled in the gaps.

While this all might seem extremely far-fetched, Harvard Medical School graduate and author Michael Crichton knew what he was talking about.

Hood sequencing DNA

The “Hamachi-Hood” sequencers mentioned in the novel have a real basis; an actual DNA sequencer had been created by Dr. Leroy Hood in 1986 and was cutting edge at the time Crichton was writing Jurassic Park. Crichton also alludes to applications of DNA cloning through the character of Dr. Grant, who “was aware of serious speculation in laboratories in Berkeley…that it might eventually be possible to clone an extinct animal such as a dinosaur- if you could get some dinosaur DNA to work with” (Crichton95).

What Crichton is referring to is the research done by George Poinar Jr. and his wife Roberta Hess. He even acknowledges Poinar and Hess, “who formed the Extinct DNA Study Group at Berkely… for certain ideas presented in the text about paleo-DNA, the genetic material of extinct animals” at the conclusion of the novel (Crichton 449).

1982 Vol. 215 Science Magazine

Poinar and Hess’ abstract was published in Science magazine during 1982, just eight years prior to Jurassic Park being released. It reads as follows:

“ [The] examination of the ultrastructure of preserved tissue in the abdomen of a fossil fly (Mycetophilidae: Diptera) entombed in Baltic amber revealed recognizable cell organelles. Structures that corresponded to muscle fibers, nuclei, ribosomes, lipid droplets, endoplasmic reticulum, and mitochondria were identified with the transmission electron microscope. Preservation was attributed to inert dehydration as well as the presence of compounds in the original sap, which functioned as natural fixatives. This evidence of cell organelles in fossilized soft tissues represent an extreme form of mummification since Baltic amber is considered to have formed about 40 million years ago” (Poinar and Hess)

The work of Poinar and Hess is clear inspiration for how Crichton explains the creation of dinosaurs within the novel, but what he did not know is that the science surrounding amber and the insects that it has preserved would soon reach a breakthrough. In 1992, Poinar, his son Hendrick, and Raul J. Cano of California Polytechnic State University “were able to extract genetic material from the muscle tissue of a 25 million year old extinct stingless bee entombed in amber”, amplify it by polymerase chain reaction, and “[discover] the molecular sequence of the specific gene that carries the bee’s code for a protein essential to make ribosomes” (“Prehistoric Bee”).

This inclusion of relevant science in the novel is a theme that connects to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus. Both Shelley and Crichton created science fiction novels incorporating some of the leading scientific discoveries during the time they were writing.

T-Rex and Frankenstein’s Monster

As we discussed in class, Shelley’s novel alluded to the works of Galvani and Volta, who were prominent eighteenth century scientists that studied electricity. The theories set forth by these scientists are suggested as means by which Dr. Frankenstein was able to create life, much like how Crichton acknowledges the work of Poinar and Hess as influence toward how dinosaur life was created in Jurassic Park.

Both novels also express the authors’ concerns with science, or rather scientists, going too far. In Jurassic Park, this is expressed through the character Ian Malcolm, who says:

“Scientists have an elaborate line of bullshit about how they are seeking to know the truth about nature. Which is true but that’s not what drives them… Scientists are actually preoccupied with accomplishment. They are focused on whether they can do something. They never stop to ask if they should do something… If they don’t do it someone else will… So they just try to do it first” (Crichton 316).

Victor Frankenstein becomes so obsessed with creating a living being that it is not until after he is finished and the monster becomes alive that he realizes the horror of what he has done.
 This parallels the way Dr. Wu and Hammond become so enthralled with recreating prehistoric creatures for an amusement park that they fail to see the flaws in their system or the dangers they created until after the fact. A connection can also be made to the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb. In Fallout by Jim Ottaviani, it is illustrated how the mad dash to create an atomic weapon before any other country hindered some of the scientists from reflecting on the morality of their work.

Chaos Theory and Computers

The recurring theme of chaos theory is introduced in the novel by the character of Ian Malcolm, whom Crichton based off the French mathematician Ivar Ekeland and the American historian of science and author James Gleick, both of which have described this “theory of disorder in nature” (Basbanes).

Throughout the novel, Malcolm references chaos theory to support his prediction that Jurassic Park is inherently doomed for disaster. Malcolm explains chaos theory in a rant to Genarro as follows:

Do you know why computers were first built? [They] were built in the late 1940s because mathematicians like John von Neumann thought that if you had a computer-a machine to handle lots of variables simultaneously- you would be able to predict the weather. Weather would finally fall to human understanding… They believed that prediction was just a function of keeping track of things. If you knew enough, you could predict anything. That’s been a cherished scientific belief since Newton…Chaos theory throws [that] right out the window. It says that you can never predict certain phenomena at all. You can never predict the weather more than a few days away…its as pointless as trying to turn lead into gold…because in fact there are great categories of phenomena that are inherently unpredictable” (Crichton 177-178)

 

Malcolm warns that Jurassic Park will certainly fail because it tries to control nature, which is ever changing and unpredictable. As it turns out he is right. The irony is that chaos theory involves “complex systems, which are systems that contain so many different elements that computers are required to calculate all the various possibilities” yet ultimately the inability of Jurassic Park’s computer system to account for any change is what allows things to reach total chaos on the island (Uittenbogaard).

Images of fractals derived from chaos theory are illustrated at the start of each section of Jurassic Park

Computers are also behind why the dinosaurs are able to replicate. As mentioned, the DNA recombination techniques used on the Island were more or less dependent on large supercomputers. Dr. Wu left so much responsibility on the computers that he was not aware that amphibian DNA was incorporated into the genomes of the dinosaurs. This would eventually allow them to replicate because “In some species of amphibians, females can change into males if males are in short supply and vice-versa” (Pamboukian).

Crichton essentially sends the message that nature is unpredictable and that it is irresponsible to rely solely on science and technology to control or predict aspects of nature and life. Some things are just unpredictable.

Double rod pendulum displaying chaotic motion

The work of Hammond and Wu leads to disaster because “[one] cannot make an animal and not expect it to act alive. To be unpredictable. To escape. But [they] didn’t see that” (Crichton 317). This theme is consistent with aspects of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. In Wells’ novel, the character of Dr. Moreau moves to an uninhabited island to conduct experiments with vivisection. Really, his goal is to turn an animal into a human like creature, but he too could not predict how his creatures would come to act in the future. Both the characters of Dr. Moreau and John Hammond met their demise from creating life forms that became unpredictable. In any case, Jurassic Park could perhaps be looked at as “The Island of John Hammond”.

Chaos theory and Jurassic Park also relate to our class on the topic of nuclear disaster. In 1986, four years before the publication of Jurassic Park, “a flawed reactor design that was operated with inadequately trained personnel” led to the catastrophe at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (“Chernobyl”).

Chernobyl

Crichton points out that “the disaster at Chernobyl is an example of chaos theory… all the safety systems were shut off” similar to what happened with the security systems in Jurassic Park (Basbanes). More speculation as to why Crichton may have emphasized computer systems failing could be that circa 1990 and the years that followed, many feared that sophisticated computer programs would all crash with the coming of the year 2000.

In Conclusion

I believe the purpose Jurassic Park was to criticize the dangers of the irresponsible uses of science and technology in controversial endeavors. This idea is perhaps most clearly given by the character Ian Malcolm, who states:

“Through science, billions of us live in one small world, densely packed and intercommunicating. But Science cannot help us decide what to do with that world, or how to live. Science can make a nuclear reactor, but it cannot tell us not to build it. Science can make pesticide, but cannot tell us not to use it. And our world starts to seem polluted in fundamental ways…because of ungovernable science” (Crichton 350)

 This statement parallels the themes of science in the novel surrounding genetic engineering, computers, and chaos theory. Ultimately this connects Jurassic Park to our class readings of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus and H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau as well as to our discussions on the creation of the atomic bomb and nuclear disasters.

Works Cited

“About Michael Crichton.” MichaelCrichton.com | About Michael Crichton. Constant C Productions, 2013. Web. 30 June 2014. <http://www.crichton-official.com/aboutmichaelcrichton-biography.html&gt;.

Basbanes, Nicholas A. “Telegram & Gazette.” Editorial. New York Times 2 Jan. 1991, ALL ed., Entertainment sec.: D5. Globe Newspaper Company, Inc., 15 Sept. 2011. Web. 29 June 2014. <http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.lib.ou.edu/docview/268400393?accountid=12964&gt;.

“Chernobyl Accident 1986.” The World Nuclear Association. World Nuclear Association, Apr. 2014. Web. 1 July 2014. <http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/chernobyl-accident/&gt;.

Crichton, Michael. Jurassic Park. Mass Market Edition ed. New York: Ballantine, 2012. Print.

Crichton, Michael. “Notes from Michael Crichton; Jurassic Park.” MichaelCrichton.com. Constant C Productions, 2013. Web. 30 June 2014. <http://www.crichton-official.com/books-jurassicpark-mcnotes.html&gt;.

Grimes, William. “Michael Crichton, Author of ‘Jurassic Park’ and Other Thrillers, Dies at 66′” The New York Times 6 Nov. 2008: A31. Print.

“John Michael Crichton.” Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, 2014. Web. 30 June 2014. <http://www.biography.com/people/michael-crichton-381010#death-and-legacy&awesm=~oIII1OTCd4P1Jx&gt;.

Orsay, Jonathan. “DNA Technology.” MCAT Biology. New Jersey: Osote Publishing, 2013. . Print.

Pamboukian, Sylvia. “Sex Changes In Nature: Yes, It Does Happen!” A Moment of Science. Indiana Public Media, 23 Aug. 2012. Web. 02 July 2014. <http://indianapublicmedia.org/amomentofscience/sex-nature-happen/&gt;.

Poinar, George O., Jr., and Roberta Hess. “Ultrastructure of 40-million-year-old Insect Tissue.” Science 215 (1982): 1241-242. Web. 30 June 2014. <http://www.sciencemag.org/content/215/4537/1241.full.pdf&gt;.

“Prehistoric Bee Provides A Dna Link.” Chicago Tribune. Chicago Tribune News, 24 Sept. 1992. Web. 2 July 2014. <http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1992-09-24/news/9203270145_1_bee-researchers-poinar&gt;.

Uittenbogaard, Arie. “Chaos Theory for Beginners; An Introduction.” Abarim Publications. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 July 2014. <http://www.abarim-publications.com/ChaosTheoryIntroduction.html#.U7N4hBZU1g0&gt;.

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