Sunday, May 29, 2011

Jurassic Park, Part II: But What About the Science?

Title: Jurassic Park
Author: Michael Crichton
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (1990)

Since I'm about to nit pick like nobody's business on this novel I must first re-iterate how much I love it. Also, I think Crichton got one thing very right science-wise and I'll mention that last so stick around or skim down for it if you get tired of all the crabbing.

Jurassic Park, Part I: One Fan's Love Affair
Jurassic Park, Part II: But What About the Science?
Jurassic Park, Part III: TMT

In case you're interested in following along, I'm including page numbers from this edition:

I've worn many hats as a biologist but the one most relevant here is my molecular biology hat so I'm mostly focusing on those aspects, conveniently that's a large part of the science.

This list is crazy-long so it's under the cut.

p. 19 "...preliminary fractionation showed several extremely high molecular weight proteins of unknown biological activity."

Fractionation is a technique of separating proteins by size so the first part is right but what does this have to do with activity? And if you are somehow able to simultaneously assess activity (and this is possible) do you have a test for activity in every protein found in saliva? And do you keep these tests in stock and do you run every one of them on every sample? Improbable.

p. 24 "A piece of frozen flesh struck the table..."

You've been asked to identify animal remains due to the possibility of communicable disease and you aren't working in a biological safety cabinet? Improbable and against safety regulations.

p. 26 "...molecular mass of 1,980,000."

He actually means molecular weight which is expressed in Daltons.

p. 26 "...although more primitive in structure."

Ha! I know people who'd kill TODAY to get a structure and compare it to other structures in ~2 months much less in 1990.

p. 27 "...technicians assumed it was a lab contaminant and did not report it..."

Oi! Remind me not to use this lab! What shoddy work! Also, you have an enzyme around that is so ubiquitous you just assume it can contaminate pretty much anything and you haven't taken any measures to fix this problem? Hmmm.

p. 42 " molar strengths from 5 to 30 percent."

Molarity is measured in moles per liter not percent. Percent solutions are defined as 1% = 1g/100ml. In any case, the strength of an acid solution is usually expressed in normality.

p. 44 "Every biologist knew that the threat of a hoax was omnipresent."

This is just a bit of over-statement. I know a lot of biologists and I've never had a discussion about hoaxes. I would think the greatest fear out there is either getting scooped or not getting your grant funded.

p. 65 "...without obtaining the proper FDA protocols."

In this context, you do not obtain protocols from the FDA. You submit a protocol you wrote and ask for permission to implement it.

p. 66  "...InGen bought an obscure company called Millipore Plastic Products in Nashville, Tennessee."

I would guess this was a funny coincidence because Millipore is not obscure (and wasn't even in 1990) and is not in Nashville.

p. 98 "...peering into double-barreled stereo microscopes..."

This isn't incorrect, just redundant. A stereo scope is defined as having two ocular devices.

p. 99 "...most soluble protein..."

Mr. Crichton plays fast and loose with the interchangeability of DNA and proteins here. In fact, these are not interchangeable making this passage extremely confusing or just plain wrong.

p. 100-103 There is so much wrong here that it makes my brain fizz a bit.

Dr. Wu shows the group a DNA sequence that is about 1.4kb long. He describes it as seeing the "actual structure" which is misleading because "actual" makes you feel like you're really seeing something rather than letters which represent primary structure.

"...typical example, because you see the DNA has an error, down here in line 1201."

That should say in the line beginning with 1201 because those numbers don't represent lines they represent bases (I told you I was nit picking!). Also, sequencers can't identify errors. Sequencers simply tell you the order of bases for the strand of DNA they are analyzing. To identify errors, sequences have to be compared to each other with an alignment program. Once several sequences are aligned then you can identify if a section is missing. (It would show up as a blank not as a fuzzy letter.) So for Dr. Wu to find an error he'd have to already have a database of DNA sequences from this organism, or a database of sequences from similar organisms, with which to compare his new sequences. This is not an impossible task just a huge one. And he's not simply wanting to make one protein; he wants to make an organism so he needs entire genomes for comparison. He wouldn't have been able to create the database he needs in the time he's had so far.

Dr. Wu would also like us to believe that fixing that error is as simple as going to the DNA file cabinet and pulling out the correct strand that has already been restriction digested and prepped for ligation. And maybe he does have every piece of various genomes prepped and ready to go but there's the little problem of restriction sites occurring in many places throughout the genome and if you mix DNA with restriction enzymes they will cut all the sites not just the two flanking your error. Trust me, much time is spent poring over restriction site maps trying to determine the best way to chop up and recombine DNA.

p. 105 "...take an unknown piece of DNA and determine roughly, by computer, where it fits in the evolutionary sequence."

This is correct but the database you would need to do this did not exist in 1990. (Hell, in some cases it doesn't exist today. I spend a lot of time at NCBI trying to do just this - well, not with dinosaurs - and I still have to send out results sometimes that say "unable to identify.") That means he would have had to create his own database and he would not have been able to do it in the time frame of the research depicted here.

p. 107 " transform the growing embryo into a male."

Sex is determined before the "growing embryo" stage.

p. 114 "The females are the real hunters."

How would you know this? You only made females. There is no point of comparison.

p. 115 ..."raptors were large-brained, more intelligent..."

It's implied here that the brain size is correlated with intelligence. That's not true.

p. 130 "'And if one got off the island?' 'It'd die in less than twenty-four hours.'"

This is the lysine bit and I just have to ask: you have multi-billion dollar animals that you keep so close to the brink of malnutrition that they would die in 12-24hrs without supplements? Doubtful! And, anyway, if they were this close to death due to malnutrition I think they would not be doing quite so well out in the Park.

p. 131 "You want to see the big rex's health file? His vaccination record?"

Vaccination record? Against what? T-rex's are susceptible to modern day illnesses? Ok, maybe, but then how many T-rex's did you use to determine side effects? It's hard to imagine that the appropriate commensal bacteria would be around for these guys much less that current vaccines would fit the health bill.

p. 133 "I'm sure the tour will make everything clear," Malcolm said.

This isn't scientific but why the hell did Malcolm go on this tour when he knew what the problems were? Bizarre!

p. 145 Another unscientific aside - the sunburn thing on this page is hilarious.

p. 155-157 "...she could see the very fine silvery blisters. 'Microvesicles,' Ellie said. 'Interesting.' 'We've had a difficult time with these stegos,' the vet said. 'They're always getting sick.' 'What are the symptoms?' Ellie asked."

After this exchange Ellie and the vet proceed to talk about the symptoms and examine the surrounding flora. Ellie discovers what looks like gizzard stones and then voila! She's got it figured. That's great and all but this is a trained vet she's talking to and she's a paleobotanist. Why would she know this stuff and not the vet? And then, on p. 247, Harding is described as "the world's leading expert on avian care." And gizzard stones are characteristic of "many birds" according to the book.

p. 165 Comparing the two graphs

What I didn't mention the first time the compy growth curve was depicted is that if you actually read the graph (btw, reading graphs is a skill sorely under-taught in US public schools) you'll notice that it represents 65 animals. Why would the computer have popped up the health specs on dinos it wasn't counting? But, ok, maybe that's how it was programed, it wasn't limited to only spitting out specs on expected dinos, so why didn't any one of the trained scientists notice that the graph had data on more compys than should have been in the park?

Now looking at the second graph, it represents 100 animals. Hunh? Where did these extra compys come from? Extra compys aside, from what has been described so far one must assume that each group is as likely to breed as the others. So that means that the first group released (that would be the farthest right on the graph) would have started breeding first and its juveniles would be older (and so taller) than the group released last (farthest left). This means that the growth curve for the entire population would still look like the growth curve for the released population just with more animals comprising each of the separate peaks.

p. 175 "...and opened the walk-in freezer marked CONTENTS VIABLE BIOLOGICAL MAINTAIN -10C MINIMUM."

This should say MAXIMUM as it's a freezer and you want to keep it cold. Also, I was surprised that embryos wouldn't be kept colder so I did a quick search of embryo storage (btw, did you know a bunch of companies are quite pleased to store your eggs, sperm and/or embryos?) and they are stored in the vapor
phase of liquid nitrogen which is about -150C. But mostly I'm nit picking the min/max thing.

p. 209-210  There's a lot here that doesn't ring true but I don't feel like looking up accurate numbers so I'll just focus on the "DNA Incorporating RANA Fragments."

I feel like a broken record here but I've got to bring up the ole databases again. To use bits of the Rana genome then you would need to have sequenced a Rana genome to have those sequences in your database for comparison so that you would know the appropriate bits to substitute in your incomplete dino genome. If you click on over to the list of genomes in the database at NCBI you'll see that Rana is not one of them and Xenopus, a different frog genus, was just sequenced last year. That means that along with all the dino genomes Dr Wu had to sequence (after extracting the DNA, of course), he also had to sequence a bunch of other genomes for comparison and substitution. He might have had the resources but he didn't have the time.

p. 254 "...the adults watched indulgently."

Anthropomorphize much?

p. 279 "...furry bodies..."

According to the American Museum of Natural History, this'll have to be a push even if I think "furry" was probably over doing it.

p. 284 This is the page on which my favorite quote can be found but also the part where Malcolm is full on raging with his diatribe about scientists (of which he is one but he doesn't really mention that) and where he sort of loses me due to over-stating all his points. A good argument gone bad. *sigh*

p. 292 "...the sheer drop of fifty feet down to the surging pool below."

Uh, yeah, if you fall fifty feet into water and you aren't properly positioned you are going to get seriously hurt. (wouldn't a MD know this?)

p. 302 "Five hours. Those animals could be out."

There are 29 extra raptors on this island and you're still worrying about these five????

p. 303 "They don't die fast, even with a direct hit to the brain."

This is scientifically reasonable according to his previous statements but am I supposed to believe he was given a few multi-billion dollar animals to hunt enabling him to learn this?

Phew! I've finished picking my nits! So I'll revisit the last few comments I made from Part I as an example of one thing Mr. Crichton got very right:

"an awesome aspect of this book that I don't think gets a lot of comment is its highlight of how the expected can hinder one's ability to observe."

Dr M and I were chatting about this and he has very similar thoughts to mine. When you form a hypothesis and set up an experiment, if everything goes as expected, there is great temptation to say a silent prayer of thanks to the gods of science and move on to the next set of experiments. However, any set of experiments needs to be rigorous and thorough. (I think we can all understand the inconvenience of extra dinosaurs.) When experiments fail we're forced to act more thoroughly to arrive at an answer that explains the results. It is this habit that one wants right out of the gate as a scientist. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that most scientific training works to eliminate the tendency to quickly accept what is expected rather than look critically at evidence to find the accurate answer.

Even after making this list, I'm still looking forward to my next read-through. Jurassic Park is awesome!

See you soon for Part III.


  1. That was thorough! Reading the book (years ago now) I was impressed with the amount of info Crichton provided -- of which, more than enough went over my head.

    "p. 114 "The females are the real hunters."

    How would you know this? You only made females. There is no point of comparison.

    I remember this part [perhaps because I'm male and I've watched a lot of PBS, Nat Geo nature documentaries through the decades ;-)]. But what was the male's role? For instance, female lions are the primary hunters for the pride, males rarely join in this. But they do have a function (beyond reproduction) -- they protect the pride's territory from other predators (including other lions). Not exactly unimportant.

    Okay, that's the extent of limited, TV influenced science (and probably has enough holes to drive a truck through). An enjoyable post, Rachel. Looking forward to the next. Thanks.

  2. I think you make a valid point here. Usually there are important female and male roles that improve the fitness of organisms (fitness in this case used with the fancy sciencey meaning behind it of overall health of organisms and their ability to produce progeny) and some species have extremely involved roles. In this case it's not possible to know exactly what those roles would be (simply because the mixed sex populations were not written about) and I wonder how accurate a picture you would get in a zoo setting anyway. Much of what animals spend a lot of their time doing ends up being done for them in a zoo. I would imagine it alters some traditional responsibilities. I'm not really an animal behaviorist though so I'm just guessing, too.

  3. Oh my goodness, SGW, I don't even know where to start! Great review (set of reviews, actually)!!! It's super-entertaining to hear a real scientist's take on a book like this (which is also one of my all-time favorites) and know that it still holds up despite its flaws. Thanks!

  4. Hey, Brooke, thanks! It certainly holds up for me because I think it's such a great yarn. I think Crichton does just enough to make it sound good but then if you look close, er, well, the science breaks down. Best not to over-examine things, huh? Well, except in this case cuz it was fun.

  5. Wow! I'm so glad I had you to help me with my horse facts (among other things) for my book! Talk about thorough. I have to share this with Reg, since she'll understand the science stuff a little better than I do. I listened to this book and its sequel on audio, though my favorite Crichton book is Next. I'm sure that has just as many factual errors, but like this, a good read and some great ideas.

  6. Hey Jed! I say anyone who finishes a book should be so lucky as to have someone want to take the time to pick it apart!!! That means you've made it, right? ha!

    NEXT didn't pull me in like most of Crichton's books did. Not sure why...