My Jurassic Park nostalgia: on women in science and de-extinction

9 Apr

Jurassic_Park_3DJurassic Park. Ah my childhood. Jurassic Park was the first movie I saw in a theatre, so even though I am in principle against 3D movies, I had to see it for nostalgia reasons.

(spoiler alert – if you have never seen the movie before, you are forewarned)

The movie was directed by Steven Spielberg based on a novel of the same name, written by Michael Crichton and published in 1990. Interestingly, it feels even more relevant to me now than before  (or perhaps for little Theresa back in the days, all that really mattered was cool dinosaurs on the screen).

The movie has two great female characters – a female scientist Dr. Ellie Sattler (paleobotanist), and Lex Murphy, a teenage girl who turns out to be a hacker and manages to reactivate the computer-controlled locks and phones on the premises (apparently her brother is the computer-intelligent one in the book). While I really could use less of Lex’s screaming (seriously girl?), these two characters and the roles they play are critical in the movie. Even now, it is difficult to find good female scientist characters in films or on TV. And, there are incredibly few women in computer science, both in films/TV programs and in reality. This movie is rather forward thinking in this perspective.

The movie also touched a bit on sexism and feminism:

In a conversation where John Hammond expresses guilt as he implies that he should be the one heading out to turn on the power for the compound because he is a man,  Ellie responds, “We’ll talk about sexism in survival situations later.”

When Dr. Ian Malcolm, a mathematician, says, “God creates dinosaurs, God kills dinosaurs, God creates men, men kills God, men brings back dinosaurs,” Ellie follows with, “Dinosaurs eat men…Women inherits the earth.”

I couldn’t stop laughing.

The movie is based on the idea that we are able to bring back species that went extinct long ago (de-extinction). In fact, the debate for de-extinction is very much alive now more than ever. Before you get excited about seeing dinosaurs for real – that’s not going to happen, because unlike what the movie suggests, it is not possible to preserve dinosaur DNA for 65 million years, even in the best possible environment. The focus of the discussion, at the moment, is mostly around bringing back species that went extinct more recently. It was perhaps purposely timed (?), but Stewart Brand had a TED talk about it in February:

Is it really that easy? David Ehrenfeld didn’t think so, as he explained during the TEDxDeExtinction Conference; his molecular biologist friend Jerry Langer suggested a clever way to test our ability to actually revive extinct species:

And, it can be more than just the science itself, as discussed by Hank Greely (he also wrote an article in Science on this):

Interested in learning more? In March, the National Geographic published a feature on de-extinction to discuss the pros and cons. There are also two podcasts, one from the Guardian and the other from the National Public Radio (an interview of Carl Zimmer) that you want to listen to. At the moment, I am personally not a fan of de-extinction. It does seem like a cool thing to do, but whether or not we have the right environment to support the species is a huge question in my mind. We will see – maybe I will change my mind after reading both sides of the argument, maybe not.

Whether you have seen this movie before or not, I highly recommend that you see it (again). And do keep in mind the real issues and discussions that are happening right now.

Update (May 3): parasitediary (see comment below) recommended this article in Cell by Robert P. Kruger on the scientific ideas within the movie. If you have access to the journal, make sure to check it out as well!

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4 Responses to “My Jurassic Park nostalgia: on women in science and de-extinction”

  1. parasitediary May 2, 2013 at 8:11 am #

    Excellent thoughts! I believe this recent editorial from Cell could also be added to your collection of links. He looks back at the ‘scientific’ ideas of the book and the movie (like using frog DNA or sex change) with today’s knowledge to see if the claims make sense or not. A fun read for sure.
    http://www.cell.com/abstract/S0092-8674(13)00398-X

    • Terrific T May 3, 2013 at 10:44 am #

      Thanks for the link! Will definitely take a look 😀

    • Terrific T May 3, 2013 at 10:52 am #

      Added to my post! Thanks again!

  2. Sameer December 13, 2013 at 5:42 am #

    Damn, you’re right. It’s imperative that we have more women in science. The men who get credit deserve it, but women getting it too would mean greater and more holistic scientific progress.

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