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Science Check: Jurassic Park January 25, 2012

Posted by Maniac in Editorials, Science Check.
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Back in 1993, when the first Jurassic Park movie released to theaters, my family took me to a local museum which had an extensive collection of dinosaur fossil exhibits.  The museum was getting quite a lot of attention following the release of the movie and was more than happy to pass out pamphlets filled with scientific information about the dinosaurs that fascinated us.  Inside the pamphlet I clearly remember reading an entire page entitled “Why Jurassic Park Would Not Work”.  Well, a brand new Jurassic Park game has been released by Telltale Games and I found myself enjoying it quite a bit.  Playing through the game twenty years after the first movie released made me think back to just how plausible a concept Jurassic Park was.  I’m sure like a lot of other people, they are wondering just how accurate the science and technology of Jurassic Park was.  Well, have a seat because there is plenty to talk about.

Sometimes, you’re forced to make some severe leaps of logic as to just how plausible a video game’s grounded reality can be.  Some things we’re willing to take for granted, like enemies will simply just carry health and ammunition supplies with them at all times, and you will be immediately able to make use of them.

But then sometimes there will be moments in gaming which skirt the bounds of reality and you are forced to ask yourself…COULD THAT REALLY HAPPEN?  Fortunately for me, I happen to have a bunch of friends on speed dial with science backgrounds and when I ask them questions, they have no problem filling me in on just what reality would do in these situations.

So this is Science Check, where I take a look at the leaps and bounds of scientific logic that games have made over the years and check if it would indeed work, or if you tried doing it in the real world, you’d be totally screwed.

Now I want to mention that I’m going to be talking about the whole of the Jurassic Park movie franchise.  I will sprinkle in facts taken from the various Jurassic Park games and if needed anything presented in either of the bi-coastal theme park rides.  I’ve never actually read any of Michael Crichton’s original books, but I am familiar with a few factoids in them that did not appear in the movie when applicable.

For those of you who have not seen the Jurassic Park movies (seriously, go watch the first movie, its one of the greatest movies of all time), here’s the concept behind it.  A theme park was able to create living dinosaurs by extracting DNA from intact blood left behind in fossilized mosquitos.  Mosquitos existed alongside dinosaurs 65 million years ago and would bite them.  Sometimes the mosquito with this dinosaur blood still inside would land on a tree and get stuck in its sap.  The sap would fossilize after millions of years, preserving the mosquito and the dinosaur blood inside it.  Jurassic Park scientists would find the fossils inside massive mines, extract the blood from the mosquito and use it to create dinosaurs.  Using the DNA of a frog they filled in any gaps in the gene sequence.  It was similiar enough and saved time, had they used a complete intact DNA strand it would have taken much longer.  With a complete genetic code, a dinosaur could be created inside an empty ostrich egg.

The whole park was monitored by an automated system programmed by Dennis Nedry.  The animals were kept enclosed inside electrified pens to keep them from getting out (or other animals getting in).  The point of the movie was to show that even with the most sophisticated control system imaginable you can’t keep living creatures under control, especially ones that don’t belong in modern day.

While I don’t have the museum’s pamphlet with me any more (I was 9 when I went to see Jurassic Park for the first time) I do clearly remember the case that the museum made as to why the cloning of dinosaurs on the scale that Jurassic Park used would not have worked.  The museum did not deny the possibility that fossilized amber could hold intact DNA from fossilized mosquitos. They did argue however that with the technology available at the time, it would have taken fifty years to go through all the DNA and create a dinosaur with it. If there was any mistake, they would have to start the process all over again.  In fact the Jurassic Park movie clearly stated that if you looked at a fast moving screens of genetic codes once per second for eight hours a day, it would take two years to read the entire DNA strand.  They claimed that using “virtual reality” (yeah that was big at the time) they could break down a strand in minutes and show the scientists where the gaps were in the DNA sequence.

Here’s the thing.  These numbers were crunched based on 1993 figures (or 1987 figures if you want to base it off of the book’s timeline) of computing power.  In the game Trespasser, John Hammond did confirm that InGen spared no expense to the computing power for the genetic scientists and had access to multiple Cray supercomputers, which were used for the gene sequencing.  At a cost of about fifteen or so million dollars a piece, they had about half the power of an original model Xbox.  Computing power was still very low, and even if Jurassic Park spared no expense with what kinds of computers they were able to buy, they were still limited by the computing power of their day.  Nowadays a current model iPhone costing around 300 dollars is about ten times more powerful than a computer costing fifteen million dollars was back in 93.  Would it take less time now?  Well, we were able to map the human genome in less than fifteen years, and during the time it was being worked on there were already other organizations trying faster methods to do it in less time.  I’m sure if you put some of today’s fastest and most expensive supercomputers in the world at the task they would be able to do it in a hell lot faster than fifty years.

The funniest part I found after watching these movies nowadays is that the computing technobabble (most of it spouted by Dennis Nedry) is actually quite accurate for the time.  He made it clear that any changes he made to the park’s code base would use up the memory and cpu cycles used by other portions of the park while it was operating.  This was quite accurate.  With software as complex as what it took to fully automate Jurassic Park with a minor staff, its software would take a while to debug, reprogram and compile.  The computing hardware that would be available to the park at the time was limited by today’s standards but accurately used.  Nedry had his own set of Macs to debug and build the park’s computer code.  In the movie they mentioned the park used a UNIX system designed for SGI workstations.  Back in the day, SGI workstations were considered the cream of the crop when it came to design power.  I’ve seen plenty of people online use them to replicate the interface Jurassic Park used, so it’s quite possible they can operate as shown in the movie.  To provide the computing power needed, Nedry networked together eighteen connection machines, which is typical for that kind of system.  If the server drives which contained the park’s operating system was set to read only, resetting it would clear out any changes made to it since it was installed, however it would have been a lot simpler and safer to restore a working backup.

As far as I can tell, if there was one thing the movies got completely wrong it was the electrified fences.  Modern electric fences, like the ones that are used to keep animals penned in wild preserves are only dangerous when touched by something grounded.   This still would be effective against ground based animals (I can’t imagine a T-Rex or Triceratops would be jumping very high).  However, Monkeys are notorious for violating electrified pens like this by simply jumping onto the fences.  There was no way Tim would have been shocked while climbing the perimeter fence, but he would have needed to jump off once it had turned on.

So that’s Jurassic Park, science checked.  If you haven’t seen Jurassic Park yet, you really should.  The Jurassic Park game is out for purchase on the Xbox 360, PC or Playstation 3.  You can find the PC version for download on Telltale’s site, the Xbox 360 version at retail and the PS3 version for download through the PSN.