Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Dinosaurs: Fact, Fiction, and Guesswork

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Dinosaurs: Fact, Fiction, and Guesswork

Article excerpt

THE dinosaurs are coming.

Or they have already arrived.

It depends on how you look at it. Or on how much imagination you have. Or on where you live.

In Europe, where I live, the movie "Jurassic Park" hasn't been released yet, so we have a few more weeks of freedom - of dinosaurlessness. We are still peacefully sure that dinosaurs are extinct.

But how alive dinosaurs are to you (even though they have been extinct for 65 million years) may also depend on how old you are. Some people, probably between the ages of about 3 and about 15, have been dinosaur-crazy since who knows when. They haven't been waiting for Steven Spielberg to make his film. They're already experts.

They are already surrounded - at least in their imaginations - by dinosaurs.

They probably know more about dinosaurs than they do about their own grandmas. Vulconodons may even mean more to them than the family dog.

Their bedroom walls are likely to be plastered with dinosaur posters. They'll have dinosaur rulers and dinosaur erasers. They eat dinosaur cookies. Their shelves display rows of scale models of Protoceratops and Triceratops. Their T-shirts have Oviraptors on the front and Velociraptors on the back. There's no doubt about it. Dinosaurs can get hold of some people. Have they gotten hold of you?

I've never met him, but I have a great-nephew, age 8, named Sam. He, I am informed, has been learning about such animals as Parasaurolophus and Carcharodontosaurus more or less since birth. When other kids build sandcastles on the beach or splash about in the surf, Sam draws dinosaurs in the sand with seaweed stems. Then he tests the adults nearby. "Identify!" he cries.

The adults all pretend they haven't heard him. This is because just about the only dinosaur they can remember is Tyrannosaurus rex! And they don't even know how to spell it. They have no idea what it looks like.

It's a puzzle, really. You'd expect old, old things like prehistoric reptiles to be very appealing to old, old things like parents, but mostly it seems to be young, young things who like them best.

Did you know that "Jurassic Park" was a book before it was a film?

Written by Michael Crichton, it first came out in 1991. It wasn't written for kids. (Some concerned people believe that the film is not for kids either because of its excessive violence.)

The book has a serious side to it as well as being gripping. Although it is science fiction - that is, not true at all - it is based on something that some physical scientists consider theoretically possible (but other scientists call impossible): that humans might be able to make living clones of extinct creatures. It's an aspect of what is called genetic engineering. And Crichton is pointing out, through his novel, that playing around cleverly with biology in this way could be very dangerous indeed.

Everything we know - or think we know - about dinosaurs comes from fossilized bones or even footprints, remains in rocks that were once buried deep but now are closer to the surface of the earth. Imagine footprints that millions and millions of years old! Some are large enough for a small child to sit in. Some are thought to show where and how a mother dinosaur and her baby went for a walk. Some scientists have decided that dinosaurs - and they were both very large and surprisingly small - were quick moving and lively. (Scientists used to think they were slow and cumbersome.)

Paleontologists have been studying dinosaur remains for only about 150 years. New dinosaur remains keep being discovered and uncovered. Previously unknown kinds of dinosaurs are all the time being pieced together and given names.

The first one ever to be named was the Megalosaurus (which means "giant reptile"), in 1824, by Willam Buckland, the professor of geology at Oxford University, England. He worked out what he thought this prehistoric creature must have been like from a small collection of bones found in a nearby village - a jawbone with long teeth, some limb bones, ribs, and vertebrae: That's all. …

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