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Dinosaurs, the Media and Andy Warhol

Keith Thomson

Dino-stories

Just why dinosaurs have always been so prominent in the public imagination, and why they fascinate a particular age class of (mostly male) children, has long perplexed scholars. An old Philadelphia museum guard gave me a good answer: "They're half real, and half not real." When Richard Owen, who coined the term dinosaur in 1842, and Waterhouse Hawkins erected the first life-size reconstructions of dinosaurs—half real, half wrong, as it happened—for the Crystal Palace exhibition of 1854, they were openly courting the sort of public mania that has persisted ever since. In the first half of the following century, the fictional Professor Challenger of Conan Doyle's The Lost World was echoed in real life by people like Roy Chapman Andrews and his American Museum of Natural History expeditions to the Gobi Desert, and a host of lesser but equally colorful characters.Figure 1. This conceptual artwork shows a feathered dinosaur . . .Click to Enlarge Image

For today's hungry media, a cornucopia of new dinosaur science and new-style paleontologists, some marketing themselves as a cross between Indiana Jones and the mountain men of the Old West—with beards, boots, silly hats, unwashed shirts and unedited opinions—have been a gift from heaven. One is forced to ask, however, whether some of those who have leapt onto the back of this particular tiger might not be finding the ride uncomfortable and whether more sober paleontologists might feel that their work suffers something of a taint by association. If one had a truly sensational discovery, one might in fact feel like hushing it up, lest the media convert it into something quite appalling in order to sell another day's newspapers, only to drop the subject equally abruptly. On the other hand, in this media-driven world, grant funding may require publicity.

The whole dinosaur publicity business got a boost from the famous discovery of the iridium spike in the Earth's crust and its evidence for an asteroid impact at the end of the Cretaceous. Here was something whose fame could last more than 15 minutes. But once again, the public-relations aspect was dreadfully overblown. The public was given the impression that at one moment there were millions of dinosaurs, in their full diversity, doing their Mesozoic thing, and then at the next moment all were extinct. The reality seems to be that any dinosaurs made extinct by the impact were the stragglers of an already dwindling group, whereas the real extinction story was in less glamorous taxa.

In a neat example of journalistic excess, the London Times of October 30, 1998, carried a story headlined: "Rock solid proof that comet killed dinosaurs." The facts of the case, which the article blithely laid out, were quite different. Two scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography had discovered a chromium spike at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary, the isotopic signature of which suggested an extraterrestrial origin. Their work simply confirmed that there had been an asteroid impact, and nowhere did they use the word "dinosaur." Apparently the newspaper could not resist adding that the scientists had proved that the asteroid killed the dinosaurs. They hadn't. But it made a better story.








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