When I was a kid, (not long ago), I remember my uncle coming over to visit us. He volunteered to tell the older kids a good bedtime story. I remember lying there in the dark listening to a tale about bizarre experiments regarding dinosaurs and DNA. Having always had a strong interest in dinosaurs and with a serious nerdy streak, I asked how they managed to get the DNA. “From mosquitos in amber,” he replied. I thought that was the most ingenious thing I had ever heard, and wondered when scientists would getting around to do just that. Obviously I was ignoring the rest of the plot.
I discovered the works of Michael Crichton when I was in middle school. I vividly remember borrowing collectible paperback editions of “The Andromeda Strain”, “Congo”, and “Sphere” from the shelf in my 7th grade English class. I hunted down “The Great Train Robbery”, the “Terminal Man” and “Eaters of the Dead” to round myself out. I was awed by these stories. I loved them. I had read of lot of great books as a kid, but Crichton was always different. He wrote about science, even impossible science, with such depth and captivation. I think he loved it.
Now, a decade and a half later, I am a professional scientist who has used that young, dorky curiosity and built it into an important part of my life. And today, my favorite fiction writer is dead, having lost a battle to cancer at the age of 66.
When I heard the news I was sad, almost inexplicably sad. I had wanted to meet him. Heck, I wanted to be him. I’ve considered how great it would be to have his job, to pick a fantastic scientific topic, go around the world talking to top people in their field, and then making an awesome action story out of it. And getting paid! I might still do it if I could actually write something longer than a blog post.
It’s strange, but I owe Michael Crichton a debt of gratitude. I don’t believe that the science in his stories was always accurate, nor did I like everything that he read. But, for many of us, he came to symbolize the possibilities of science that are within our reach. I never felt like I did with other great writers, like Asimov or Clarke, that what was being described was a millennium away. Everything he talked about seemed so possible, and so intriguing. It didn’t matter if it was practical. Practicality has never inspired anyone. In his universe, The Next Step in research was always a giant, magical leap that seemed to be not only obtainable by mankind, but by me personally. That sense of imminent wonder has never completely left me, and I hope it never does.
It seems ironic that the man whose last novel was “Next”, about the future of biotechnology, should be done in so early in life by biotechnology’s Enemy #1. If only he had lived in a time where some of the magical leaps he described were true (and if none of the gory destruction that he describes occurred), then he may have had more time to do surprise us. But, maybe if we have enough of his infectious scientific enthusiasm, it can be done for the next guy. In the mean time, I just might get my copy of Jurassic Park off the shelf again…and again.