Face to Face With a Dinosaur

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When I was about six years old, a traveling exhibit of animatronic dinosaurs came to a nearby town. I knew that dinosaurs were extinct—my parents had taken me to see what was left of them at the American Museum of Natural History in New York—but the metal-and-plastic robots were the closest I would get to seeing a living dinosaur. I couldn't wait to go meet them in person.

I got my chance one weekend morning, and I was terrified. Even though the dinosaurs were all miniaturized to fit in the cramped exhibit space they were all still much bigger than I was. Sharp horns glinted in the low lighting and the Tyrannosaurus wore a wicked smile that said "I eat things like you for breakfast." I took refuge around the corner, watching the roaring and snorting beasts from a place of safety until my parents convinced me that it was safe.

I loved dinosaurs, and still do, but to see them come "back to life" was intensely frightening. The exhibit was meant to be educational but it is awfully hard to ignore a towering monster who seems to be eying you for its next meal. The Victorian cartoonist John Leech recognized this well. In 1855 Leech created a cartoon for the humor magazine Punch of a young boy being led through the sculpted menagerie of dinosaurs (as they were originally envisioned by the anatomist Richard Owen) at the Crystal Palace Park. The caption reads, "A visit to the antediluvian reptiles at Sydenham - Master Tommy strongly objects to having his mind improved." The original cartoon was just sold at auction.

There was some political context to Leech's cartoon, primarily about the "intellectual improvement" of the middle class as embodied by Master Tom, but the more literal interpretation still rings true. Cultivating an understanding dinosaurs and their world is a great way to teach science, but coming face to face with the creatures can be quite scary. Even skeletons, denuded of animating flesh and blood, can cause people to quicken their steps when the lights go out in the museums at closing time. No matter how much we learn about dinosaurs as the animals they truly were, they will always be monsters that are only separated from us by time.

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