Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 829:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 829.

Today, we read the book behind the movie. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I was in the first wave at the movie, Jurassic Park. I grooved on action and special effects until I was back in daylight. Then I realized I'd seen only a Reader's Digest version of Crichton's book. So I sat down to read the original.

The book is about two people. The optimistic old billionaire, Hammond, has cloned dinosaurs and built the Park. The acid Malcolm is the reigning expert on the mathematics of chaos. Malcolm is a pretty minor figure in the movie. But in the book he warns Hammond from the start: The Park is trouble.

The rest of the story -- dinosaur chases, industrial spying, and more -- is there only to frame their conversation. Actually, it's more of a Classical dialogue. Hammond is the foil for Malcolm's discourse on science and our place on Earth.

Your Park will be unstable, says Malcom. It's too complex. You can't predict its future. A synthetic ecology, made from Jurassic DNA and placed on present-day soil, will grow in any of a thousand unexpected directions.

The mathematics of living things harbors a terrifying truth. As predictions unfold, the tiniest change in input data alters the outcome completely. It's like the old poem about a kingdom that was doomed when a messenger lost a horseshoe nail.

Then Malcolm sounds a related note: Earth is a living whole. Every living thing depends on every other living thing. By recreating ancient beings Hammond will upset our balance of life in some totally unpredictable way.

The old man listens but will not hear. "I've built strong fences. Nothing can happen." Even as he speaks, his creation begins spinning into chaos. Like Prometheus or Victor Frankenstein, he's lit the fire of life, and it will not be put out. The horseshoe nail has been lost -- a strand of DNA misplaced -- and the Island Kingdom is doomed.

In the background, dinosaurs begin bending the 20th century to fit their 150-million-year-old needs. In the foreground, Hammond asks Malcolm, "You mean we have to save the environment?" "No, of course not." Malcolm snaps. "What then?" says Hammond, puzzled. "Let's be clear," says Malcolm patiently,

The planet isn't in jeopardy. We are in jeopardy. We haven't got the power to destroy the planet -- or to save it. But we might have the power to save ourselves.
Crichton utters a chilling message. It's not Earth we threaten, but ourselves. Life is here to stay, and we enjoy it on sufferance. We can survive only if we learn to honor our interdependence -- with every other thing that lives on Earth.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Crichton, M., Jurassic Park. New York: Ballantine, 1990.

See also Episodes Nos. 699, 700, 707 for more on the interconnection of living things. See Episodes Nos. 652 and 657 for more on the mathematics of chaos.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

Previous Episode | Search Episodes | Index | Home | Next Episode