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
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
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
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
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