When movie-goers watched “Jurassic Park” during a special screening at Mohawk Valley Community College, they were able to separate fact from fiction thanks to Nan Crystal Arens, associate professor of geosciences. Before the screening, Arens gave a lecture, titled “The Science behind Jurassic Park,” which gave her perspective and insights about all things Cretaceous to an audience ranging from area children to professors to senior citizens.
“During my talk, I discussed the science being invoked in the film and used to create the movie,” explained Arens. “The first topic I discussed was ‘Dino DNA’ and the big related questions: is it real? Can we do that? Right now, there are changing ideas about DNA. When Michael Crichton wrote his novel, ‘Jurassic Park,’ the forerunning theory was that DNA was like a book with chapters and pages missing. The thinking then was that if we had enough copies of the book damaged in different ways, then we could reconstruct and read the story, or DNA code.”
“A number of decades later, we see that although this theory based in nuclear DNA is essential, it’s not the only piece we need: cellular and epigenetic information are needed as well,” Arens said. “So it will clearly take more than plugging in a genetic code into an automated sequencer and implanting that DNA into a chicken egg, which is the basis for dinosaurs in the movie.”
However, Arens isn’t ruling out the possibility of dinosaurs being created by scientists. “I’ve seen things happen in science that I never thought were possible,” she said. “Change is especially possible in paleontology, a field which could be completely changed by something that a geoscientist, such as myself, finds in a rock.”
Arens also shared her familiarity with the latest theories of Jack Horner, a paleontologist who was one of the models for Crichton’s fictional paleontologist, Alan Grant. “Horner has a book coming out that proposes an entirely different idea about DNA,” Arens explained. “In his view, birds are essentially dinosaurs that survived the end of the Cretaceous period.”
While discussing the notorious tempers of dinosaurs, Arens cleared the air about the real star of “Jurassic Park”: the T-Rex. “The movie certainly got the look and the posturing of the T-Rex correct,” Arens said. “However, there’s a lot of controversy about whether the dinosaur was a predator or a scavenger. The movie portrays it as a predator, but science is starting to prove that the T-Rex was probably a scavenger and, in many ways, the lion of the Cretaceous period — it would probably eat something that was already dead.”
A member of the faculty since 2001, Arens earned her B.S. and M.S. from The Pennsylvania State University and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University. She is a member of Phi Beta Kappa.