05 August, 2009

Why Science Needs Dinosaurs

1) Dinosaurs are cool.
2) Little kids (and adults) think dinosaurs are cool.
3) If we use dinosaurs as a vehicle for communicating science, more children become interested in science at an earlier age, which is a net win for both science and the kids.

The first time I heard about deoxyribonucleic acid, it was from a film within a film, enthusiastically described and explained by an animated firefly that the lead character scientist grudgingly sat through. I was 7 years old at the time, and I had to forfeit a loose but stubborn milk tooth in order to get to go see it at the local AMC theater. I'm fairly certain that my mother quickly regretted taking me to see it at all as the proportion of sentences involving dinosaurs that poured from me in an unstoppable flood increased dramatically. I'd been previously building wooden models of dinosaur skeletons, and I had several inflatable dinosaurs in my room. I knew many of the dinosaur species by name, although I've now forgotten, and I was fascinated by the sheer scale of them. When I was 4 and again at 5, I'd gotten to see a fully articulated Brontosaurus skeleton in the Smithsonian, and even been allowed to revertentially touch a real dinosaur bone that they had on display. When my mother tried to tell or read me bedtime stories, I firmly rejected any story that didn't involve a dinosaur of some kind. In fact, I was so utterly obsessed with dinosaurs that my little brother, who became self-aware just at the peak of my obsession when I got Jurassic Park on VHS and as a game for the Sega Genesis, later developed a crippling phobia of dinosaurs. He was sincerely terrified that a Tyrannosaurus rex was going to come back to life in the middle of the night, sneak between the houses, break into his 2nd story room, and summarily eat him. He was not reassured when I pointed out that the Ozarks had been an ocean at the time such dinosaurs roamed. Come to think of it, he also was not convinced when I showed him the coral, sea shell, and worm trail fossils that the local stream beds were chock-full of.

As an adult, my obsession with dinosaurs is gone because immunology is much more complex and chaotic and therefore much more interesting to me. The evolutionary dynamics of bone morphology are still damn cool, though, and the prospect that we might one day recreate an extinct species through the Dark Arts of our biological sciences is absolutely captivating.

But that's not my point.

Imagine if this creepy, feel-good hippy marshmallow fluff excuse for a dinosaur

Had instead been a smart, endearingly disheveled scientist dinosaur instead?

Even if he was incredibly annoying, Barney was also incredibly popular and he taught an entire generation of American children...something. He did teach stuff, right? Nonetheless, the fact of the matter is that the singing purple dinosaur generated huge viewership and made a tremendous impression upon young children as well as some deep product marketing for PBS. Imagine if instead of peddling self-esteem, there had been a relatable dinosaur mascot dishing out some awesome, intelligible science! Consider the depth of the impact that that might have had! Instead of a smarmy self-confident generation of young adults now, we'd have a science-literate generation of young adults who found self-confidence through knowledge and understanding instead of songs and dancing! And that would be incredible! Not just for us as scientists, but for society as a whole because even some basic familiarity with the principles of scientific thinking and research structure can make tremendous impacts upon the operations of very diverse fields.

And yes, Bill Nye the Science Guy was indeed on simultaneously as the blobby excuse for a dinosaur, but he never got the kind of veneration that the dinosaur did, even though he did have a talking rat for an assistant. Dinosaurs are alien enough to children that they hold a distinct appeal, while children already know that rats are bad.

So why couldn't we have a talking dinosaur educating youngsters about science now? I can't think of any reason we cannot, even if cartoons in general have been shifting in favor of robots and monkeys. Maybe if the dinosaur professor had a robot monkey assitant we could grab both demographics in one fell swoop?


Becca said...

a robot monkey... grad student?

Also, Bill Nye < Beakman. Science requires penguins.
Also, can we have a GIRL dinosaur already? Cause I could get into that.

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

I love it when I hear little kids who can barely form sentences listing dinosaur species, with perfect pronunciation!

We need to be careful though, the creationists also use dinosaurs to hook the kiddies!

quietandsmalladventures said...

i loathe and despise the singing purple craposaur. really the developers of that schlock need to go the way the way of the Mooby the Golden Calf guys.

as a kid i was fascinated by land of the lost reruns on saturday mornings. nothing like watching dino-riots under a fort with kiddy coffee that my dad would make (mostly milk and sugar, enough coffee to make it tan).