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Q&A: Paleontologist Jack Horner — Bringing Science to the Big Screen


jack horner 119.jpgCinema-savvy paleontologist Jack Horner is bringing back dinosaurs any way he can. He helped Hollywood do it as a consultant on the Jurassic Park films and now, using DNA, he’s taking a scientific approach. He spoke to us about the latest in science, appreciating science fiction and the future of dinosaurs in film.

Q: What’s your favorite sci-fi movie that doesn’t deal with dinosaurs?

A: 2001: A Space Odyssey . It starts out with the ape guys hopping up and and down and ends with the embryo; it really does get you thinking about evolution. There aren’t many movies that do that.

Q: Does the accuracy of the science affect your opinion?

A: At least it had science in it. Since Jurassic Park came out, my view of science in movies has changed quite a bit. Jurassic Park has a lot of science in it — and a lot of it is wrong — but if it was all accurate, it would be a documentary. I was very critical of science fiction films when I was younger but came to appreciate the fact that they’re not accurate. It’s part of making the movie exciting, especially when you can integrate science and science fiction to the point where people aren’t really sure which is real and which isn’t. After Jurassic Park, people really weren’t sure whether you could or could not clone a dinosaur using DNA.

Q: But you are using DNA to try and make a dinosaur. How?

A: We all have genes that come from our ancestors that aren’t used
— they’re not turned on. So we actually carry ancient genes with us.
If you could figure out how to turn those on, you could resurrect
ancient characteristics from our ancestors. Birds, whose ancestors are
dinosaurs, have a bunch of genes that just need to be turned on in
order to resurrect some of their ancient characteristics.

Q: So it’s not about extracting DNA from a mosquito preserved in amber, it’s about the dinosaur DNA animals carry with them today.

A: It’s an easier place to get it.

Q: Thanks to Jurassic Park, do you think you’ve seen what dinosaurs really looked like?

A: They
were very accurate for the time we made them, but we keep learning
things. We know now that the Velociraptors should have had more
feathers on them and that all dinosaurs should be more colorful than
they were. This is where Steven [Spielberg] and I had some conflicts.
He was afraid if they were colorful, it would look less nasty. People
think those kind of colors, gray and brown, make an animal look more
vicious. I wanted to make them very bright colors.

Q: Do we have any ideas what the colors really would have been?

A: Not
really. But we can make some very educated guesses based on the fact
that most dinosaurs have a lot of keratin on their faces. Keratin can
be very colorful, as we see in birds. We’d expect dinosaurs to be very
colorful because they basically invented the characteristics we see in
birds. All reptiles, including birds, are very visual. Color is very
important to them, so we would expect dinosaurs to be very colorful and
you will see that in the upcoming dinosaur movie.

Q: What movie?

A: I am working on it, but we can’t talk about it.

Q: Are you talking about a documentary?

A: Definitely not documentary. It will be very colorful. Let’s put it that way.

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