Sunday, September 11, 2011

Jurassic Park

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by Michael Crichton

There was the novel before there was the movie, but I was captivated by the movie before I read the book, and even then, the novel itself still managed to enchant me. When the title Jurassic Park appeared on TV ads, I was filled with joy, for I was the ultimate fan of those thundering beasts that once roamed the face of our planet. The ferocity of T Rex frightened me and the craning necks of Brachiosaurus ensorcelled me, and before long, I was begging to watch them on the silver screen.

The Story

Everyone knows of the concept of safari, with wildlife roaming beyond the safe confines of the vehicle and participants marveling at life at its own natural habitat. Jurassic Park is that kind of theme park, combining the concept of safari and zoo along with recreation of extinct dinosaurs to enchant families and kids, while earning big bucks at the same time.

The original story in the novel is slightly different from that in the movie (or should it be the other way around?) although the core concept that is delivered remained the same. The main story delivered the tale of man vs nature, and how in his arrogance, man fails to understand that nature always find a way and will always prevail against man's control.

The creator of Jurassic Park, John Hammond invited reviewers to Isla Nublar, a privately owned isle off the coast of Costa Rica after an incident triggered concern to the financiers of the theme park. Jurassic Park was unveiled to them as a theme park of dinosaurs, in which the thundering lizards roamed the island them park after being created through bioengineering technology from extracted DNA.

It was under the creator's impression that he had thought of everything and that the theme park was under his control. Unfortunately, the dinosaurs had been extinct for tens millions of years; they were unpredictable and finally proved to be uncontrollable when incident after incident took the lives of the people on the isle.

The People

Jurassic Park is a story of man's arrogance, of how he sought to control nature only to have nature fighting back. John Hammond was the avatar of that arrogance, thinking that he had thought of all the steps in controlling the dinosaurs so that he could open his theme park to rich people. A man of science, he believed in the power of technology and believed that everyone else was overly worried about a species that were extinct longer than human was on Earth. He was also not popular with his employee - he was not one who listen to suggestions and only felt that his thoughts were the only ones which mattered. Even when the park went wrong, he was still thinking of the same thought: "It was supposed to be simple", in which Dr Malcolm responded: "Then why did it went wrong?"

A story of dinosaurs could not go without a paleontologist, which was where Alan Grant came in. Joining the team of reviewers was an Ian Malcolm, one of my favorite characters of all time. While Grant had been in action within the whole story, Malcolm was unfortunately decapitated early in the story and the character was left to explain the science to readers throughout the story. Since he was an paleontologist, Grant constantly compare what he observed from the dinosaurs to his paleontology knowledge and animal behaviors.

Malcolm was a mathematician who specialized in Chaos Theory and explained why Jurassic Park was bound to be a failure from the beginning. He was another arrogant man but his arrogance was based in mathematical realities, explaining why and how humans failed to understand that nature could not be sought to be controlled by any means.

Among the other dramatis personae of Jurassic Park, most of them were employees who took care of the theme parks operation, and mostly shared Hammond's believe that they had the dinosaurs under control, except a gamekeeper who knew nature enough not to share that illusion. Again, these were people who once more represent man's arrogance towards nature, believing that the latter could be controlled by means created by man.

The Science

If you think that Jurassic Park is a work on paleontology, please put those aside. Of course, paleontology is abound in the story, with all those dinosaurs running around, but it is by no means the only main ingredient. Crichton shows himself off as a knowledgeable author, with the book dabbling in mathematics, biology, paleontology, animal behavior, and computer programming, as well as a variety of different fields.

As an engineer and a science aficionado, I especially appreciate how he explained, through Malcolm, why certain assumptions in the story by Jurassic Park handlers were wrong. For instance, a certain type of dinosaur's height distribution was shown to fit the Poisson curve, used as prove by the handlers that no dinosaurs were missing, as well as a computer counting algorithm which showed that all dinosaurs were accounted for. Unfortunately, as Malcolm pointed out, the dinosaurs were introduced into the system in 3 batches, so there should be 3 Poisson curves, each with its own peak, instead of just 1 curve. The counting algorithm was also problematic - since the programmers were so concerned with missing dinosaurs, the algorithm will only flag an alert if there were less than the expected number of dinosaurs. So what happened if there were more than the expected number of dinosaurs? And why did the Poisson curve showed a peak instead of 3?

Although there was a bad guy, which wasn't exactly the villain here, the whole story revealed how man's trust in science and control was usually too optimistic, and that things could always go wrong in a lot more ways than could be predicted.

The End

Although this is not Crichton's first or last book in science fiction, it is the one I loved the most. Its involvement of science facts to explain why Jurassic Park went wrong is particularly interesting, especially when it used basic assumptions which even I thought should be correct (refer to the Poisson curve above) when actually that should not be the outcome. The introduced dinosaurs enchanted me through my childish love of those thundering beasts. Although the theme park did not fare well in the end, the story still did leave a deep impression within me.

And as an engineer, the questions raised in the book deeply influenced me. How many of our scientific and mathematical assumptions were correct? When we went for cost cutting, these were the assumptions which influenced how we reduce our design from a robust product to a barely safe item for sale. And science may taught us how to build a nuclear plant, but it does not tell us not to build it for the sake of mankind. So this leaves the question for us to ponder: how much longer could we put our blind faith in science?

PS: Although the park was named Jurassic Park, most of the dinosaurs were from the Cretaceous era, so why choose the term 'Jurassic'...? Interesting question, eh?

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