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*Cue Jurassic Park theme song.* Author and science historian Elizabeth Jones recently released her newest book, Ancient DNA: The Making of Celebrity Science, which reveals how films like Jurassic Park and other popular media influenced the rise of ancient DNA research over the past 30 years. Pretty dino-mite, no?
Now, you’re probably wondering: What is “celebrity science?” Jones, an NC State alumna, explains it as a type of science that exists and evolves under the media’s spotlight and scrutiny, and one that’s inherently interesting to the public. After all, everyone loves dinosaurs! “But it’s much more than that,” she adds. “It’s a way of doing science too. In a celebrity science, the media provides scientists working in or around the field of interest with opportunities for publicity, but scientists are also pragmatic in making their own opportunities for visibility. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship between the two.”
Jones’ inspiration for Ancient DNA started right here in Raleigh while she was at NC State majoring in history and philosophy as an undergraduate. She took a class on dinosaurs for the same reason that any undergrad might take a random class—to fulfill a general science elective. But she ended up having a famous paleontologist as her professor—one of the first and few people to publish on the discovery of ancient dinosaur proteins—and developed a keen interest in the why, when and how these proteins could be preserved in a fossil record, as well as what motivated scientists to extract DNA from fossils and how they did it.
With the help of Dr. William Kimler in NC State’s history department, Jones got on the “history of science” research bandwagon, combining her “new and kind of weird passion for paleontology with the history of it all,” and is still on it.
Jones says that understanding the relationship between media and ancient DNA research is important because “without that part of the story, or without an accurate portrayal of it, we risk not understanding how ancient DNA research came to be a scientific discipline in the first place. It’s also about people’s motivations, experiences, influences and interactions that play a role in the making of scientific discoveries and controversies.”
And while science and the media have often intertwined throughout the history of ancient DNA research, Jurassic Park—both the book and Steven Spielberg’s movie adaptation of it—is perhaps the most famous and beloved example, not to mention they both coincided with the rise of the field in the early 1990s.
“Most ancient DNA researchers have little or nothing to do with bringing extinct creatures like dinosaurs or mammoths back to life, but the media’s interest in this, among other topics, played a key role in the [celebrity science] discipline’s development,” says Jones. So while her book won’t inform you how scientists are hoping to bring back dinosaurs (bummer!), it will take you behind the scenes of some pretty rawr-some scientific history and influences. amazon.com
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