Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Michael Crichton (1942-2008)

"Life is too short, and DNA too long."
-- Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park
Author Michael Crichton unexpectedly passed away yesterday at the age of 66 after a battle with cancer. His novels usually focused on the dangers of scientists pursuing research without restraints and science run amok, as the article reporting his death points out:
"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," his family said in a statement.

Crichton's works often focused on the use and abuse of emerging technologies which spiral out of control and endanger people, as was the case in "Prey," "Sphere," "The Andromeda Strain" and "Timeline." The author's medical background also played a role in his work, leading to the award-winning television series "ER." His most recent novel, 2006's "Next," dealt with genetics and law.
Crichton received an MD from Harvard, despite the fact that he found himself more interested in writing than practicing medicine, at least according to his his autobiographical book Travels. After receiving an MD, from 1969-1970 he was a postdoc at the Salk Institute in San Diego, before leaving both science and medicine for writing and Hollywood. It's not surprising with his background that many of his novels featured biotechnology, usually with deadly unintended consequences.

Even though the science in his novels often wasn't very accurate, I actually found it fun to read (and later watch) stories where the actual process of doing science was portrayed. Take Jurassic Park, for example. Crichton's suggestion that the "gaps" in dinosaur DNA be replaced with frog sequences was grossly unlikely, and the actual DNA sequences published in the novel turned out to be from bacterial expression vectors rather than related to genes found in vertebrates. But the science got biogeeks like me talking about it. And the portrayal of the bio lab in the movie version of Jurassic Park was recognizable as a molecular biology lab, down to the Falcon tubes and the pulling of ethidium bromide-stained bands of DNA from a CsCl gradient (even though that particular method was becoming obsolete). Even though wasn't great science, but it was science being portrayed. And even though Crichton's biotechnology usually spins out of control, I would bet it has inspired many a youngster to find out more about the real science. Who wouldn't want to clone a dinosaur?

A selection of his biology-based novels:

The Andromeda Strain (1969) was Crichton's first bestselling novel. A military satellite collecting upper atmosphere microorganisms to exploit as bioweapons falls back to Earth carrying a deadly extraterrestrial bacterium. A team of scientists races to find a way to stop the deadly plague.

The Terminal Man (1972) is the story of Harry Benson who suffers from psychomoter epilepsy. He has an experimental procedure in which electrodes and a minicomputer are implanted in his brain to control his seizures. Instead of curing him, the treatment ma turns Benson into a homocidal sex fiend.

In Congo (1980) competing groups of explorers race to find an extremely valuable deposit of diamonds deep in the rain forests of the Congo. They unexpectedly meet a band of killer gorillas (which are possibly gorilla-human hybrids) which were bred by the natives in prehistoric times to guard the diamond mines.

In Jurassic Park (1990) dinosaurs have been recreated from prehistoric DNA extracted from amber in the hopes of making an island off the coast of Costa Rica into a sort of wild animal theme park. The dinosaurs turn out to be much more dangerous than their creators anticipated. Even worse, the biological controls on the dinosaur population - lysine deficiency and an entirely female population - also fail. That brings us to the sequel, The Lost World (1995), in which dinos have escaped from their tropical island and wreak havok on the mainland.

The dangerous technology in Prey (2002) is very small, rather than very large. Nanorobots by genetically modified E. coli bacteria escape from the laboratory and into the desert, where they form predatory swarms, eventually evolving the ability to infect and take over people.

In Crichton's most recent novel, Next (2006), is the ultimate in scary biotechnology. The villain is BioGen, a biotechnology that decides their legal rights to a cancer survivor's cells also gives then the right to harvest cells from the survivor's daughter and grandson, who flee. Meanwhile, BioGen has created a gene therapy treatment that cures drug addiction, and the scientist in charge of the project is unsure whether he should spread the news before understanding the side effects - which turn out to be rapid aging and death. There are also a cast of transgenic animals, from glow-in-the-dark turtles to a human-ape child.

In addition to his techno-thriller-scifi novels, Crichton also wrote, directed and produced movies and TV shows, including the movies Coma and Westworld, and the television series ER.

Related posts:
Thanks to Guy Plunkett for the Jurassic Park quote and for reminding me of the popularity of Jurassic Park amongst the biosci set.

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  1. Its really a great loss and we are also sad -If anyone is to be given a sole credit to popularize science fiction in India and take this genre to even gullible masses through his epoch-making writing -- Jurassic Park, it is no one else than Michael Crichton.

  2. Anonymous11:37 PM

    Great piece on Michael Crichton. I think Jurassic Park was my first proper exposure to him, but ism probably most fond of Andromeda Strain. Even though the science was a little "dodgy" I guess you could say, he always seemed to be able to elicit an excitement, and a sense of "yeah, but what if..." He will be missed.

  3. Anonymous10:37 AM

    Chriton was fun and it's rare to have a science fiction author garner so much of a popular following. I've always found the "beware your creation" plot that dominated his work to be a but uninspired.

  4. Crichton's books are fun, and that's probably why scientists enjoy his work along with non-scientists. Although it does seem like he shifted into crankery with his anti-global warming stance. And I do think it's weird how politicians love to get science fiction/thriller writers like Crichton to advise them, as if telling an entertaining story makes them experts. Crichton had no special expertise in climate science, and yet he met with President Bush, presumably because he was saying what the President wanted to hear.


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