Posted for Heidi Ledford
Famed novelist Michael Crichton died Tuesday of cancer at the age of 66. Crichton is perhaps best known for authoring Jurassic Park and for creating the television show ER (a show that, astoundingly, is still on the air fourteen years later).
He was a creative and prolific writer who influenced public discussions (and perceptions) of science, and today’s round of obituaries are glowing, if at times a touch hyperbolic.
The NY Times has set up a one-stop shop for all of their Crichton coverage. The Guardian called him “the father of the ‘techno-thriller”. (Wikipedia modifies this phrase in ways that strike me as important: a father of the modern techno-thriller.) And the Chicago Trib quotes a biographer who lumps Crichton together with some of science fiction’s greatest: Asimov, Bradbury, and Heinlein—a comparison that made me wince, but perhaps that’s a matter of personal taste.
His family has issued a statement saying, “Through his books, Michael Crichton served as an inspiration to students of all ages, challenged scientists in many fields, and illuminated the mysteries of the world in a way we could all understand.” But I have to wonder if scientists considered themselves to be ‘challenged’ so much as ‘nettled’.
For all of his commercial success, Crichton’s reputation among scientists—especially following his novel, State of Fear—was less than stellar. It was inevitable perhaps: Crichton’s favourite topic was ‘science gone horribly wrong’ and he applied that theme to genetics, nanotechnology, medicine, and climate change. Jurassic Park has been credited with thrusting cloning into the public eye, but in 1993, a critique of Jurassic Park in Nature Biotechnology bemoaned the lack of scientific accuracy in the movie, and fretted that “some people may take it as fact”. Crichton responded in a letter: “As Alfred Hitchcock used to say, ‘It’s just a movie.’”
A fair defence, but one that Crichton himself seemed to abandon in later years. In State of Fear, Crichton presented climate change as a fraud perpetuated by activists and scientists. The author cited his own selective reading of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report (summed up nicely by our own Phil Ball in 2004) as grounds for his scepticism. Crichton was trained in medicine and said he was therefore qualified to evaluate the body of climate research. Sufficed to say, he found it lacking. And when President George Bush invited Crichton to swing by the White House for a chat about climate change, I don’t recall hearing the author protest, “hey, but it was just a novel”.