Books: Your DNA's in the mosquito

Creating a modern dinosaur the 'Jurassic Park' way would be impossible, writes John Gribbin
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The Independent Culture
The Science of Jurassic Park and the Lost World Or, How to Build a Dinosaur by Rob DeSalle and David Lindley, HarperCollins, pounds 12.99

Perfectly timed both for the launch of the second Jurassic Park movie and for the season of beach reading, The Science of Jurassic Park manages to be both entertaining and informative. It is also sufficiently up to date to include a brief mention of the cloning of Dolly the sheep, which makes it a good seven years more up to date than the science in the movies that are its raison d'etre.

Those movies, in case you have been in a coma during most of this decade, are based on the premise that it would be possible to reconstruct a dinosaur (indeed, several different species of dinosaur) from the DNA in dinosaur blood in the stomach of a mosquito that has been trapped in amber for tens of millions of years. This unauthorised look at the science that would be involved belies its subtitle by showing that it would not be possible to build a dinosaur in this way.

But that isn't the point; the point is to poke gentle fun at the excesses of the movie-makers, while doling out a lot of real science in an accessible, easily assimilated form.

The ironic tone of the book is all the more surprising because David Lindley, a science writer, has previously written a couple of rather po-faced books about physics. But, in company with Rob DeSalle, of the American Museum of Natural History, he now seems to have found his metier. We learn a little bit about evolution and the blow from space that probably killed the dinosaurs, and a great deal about genetic engineering, DNA fingerprinting, and cloning - all more or less painlessly.

The deadpan way in which the authors chide the movie-makers for including DNA sequences from ordinary, present-day species (rather than real dinosaurs) in the "scientific" descriptions in the movies is a delight, and I particularly enjoyed the analysis of the inadequacies of the islands on which the movies are based as homes for these creatures. The calculation of how many goats would be needed to feed the beasts, how they would be shipped to the island, and how much pasture the goats would need while waiting to be fed to the dinosaurs is reminiscent of the classic description of the mountaineering expedition in The Ascent of Rum Doodle, and leads to the conclusion that the ideal base for Jurassic Park would in fact be Martinique - but taking over "a French departement already occupied by the resort homes of millionaires" is, as the authors point out, not on the cards. "Islands are hard to come by these days."

This is a fun, but informative, book, that will introduce a lot of people to some real science. But don't let it spoil your enjoyment of the movies, which operate on a different level. After all, your enjoyment of Superman does not depend on whether or not you really do believe that a man can fly.