‘Jurassic Park’ Novelist Dies at 66

American author and speaker Michael Crichton speaking at Harvard.
American author and speaker Michael Crichton speaking at Harvard. Wikimedia Commons

I will simply assert that because of its pure brilliance, Jurassic Park will be the best remembered work by Michael Crichton, who died of cancer on November 4 at age 66, unexpectedly, according to a family statement. He was a physician, the author of more than two dozen novels, the creator of the smash TV series ER, a news media critic and a science pundit, not to mention something of a Hollywood prince, admired for his intellect and especially his creative cunning, which his 1990 dinosaur thriller had in abundance. It was, of course, made into a blockbuster movie directed by Steven Spielberg, who said in a statement that “Michael’s talent outscaled even his own dinosaurs."

In some ways, Jurassic Park is a thrill in spite of its sometimes preachy dialogue and totally conventional premise: a mad genius's unthinking or unscrupulous tinkering with technology unlooses the monsters (think Frankenstein or Jekyll-Hyde). Yet in Crichton's hands this seemingly predictable sci-fi setup is still great fun--I still remember how my heart raced when the velociraptors were at large.

But the real breakthrough in the book was Crichton's ingenious intellectual synthesis, the way he created an amazingly plausible story out of a couple of different strands of then-new science. One strand was the analysis of ancient, even fossil DNA, pioneered in the mid-1980s at the University of California at Berkeley.

The other strand was the emerging and controversial image of dinosaurs as energetic, intelligent, colorful, fast-moving, maybe even hot-blooded animals—animals, as it happens, that are a lot more exciting than the torpid giant reptile-like creatures of old. That new picture of dinosaurs was being advanced most prominently by the paleontologists Robert Bakker and John Horner, both of whom, if I recall, Crichton acknowledged (in the movie version, Bakker is acknowledged in a back-handed way, when the main character, played by Sam Neill, slams a door on the little kid who's pestering him with a question about Bakker). The way Crichton put those two ideas together — the dinosaurs come home to roost after an unthinking theme-park entrepreneur clones dinosaur DNA extracted from mosquitoes that had bitten dinosaurs and were preserved in amber — was a once-in-a-lifetime stroke.

The thing that always struck me as paradoxical, though, was that Crichton was such a smart, skeptical, hyper-rational, science-savvy thinker who nonetheless played on people's fears and seemed to be saying that it was wisest or most prudent not to mess with Mother Nature, which is rather an unscientific worldview. Or am I missing something?

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.