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Fact and fiction: Publicity raises awareness
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The movie “Jurassic Park” and all of its sequels, including the new “Jurassic World,” have provided a big boost to the advancement of paleontology, the study of fossils. Even though the franchise got so much wrong – starting with the title, which more accurately should have been “Cretaceous Park” – scientists in the field say the movies spark interest in a way that real fossils cannot.

“Jurassic World” even has a monster that could have lived in Kansas during the Cretaceous Period (which followed the Jurassic Period, somewhere between 66 and 145 million years ago). It features an extinct marine reptile known as mosasaur. According to film critics who reportedly checked with scientists, the “Jurassic” mosasaur is a lot bigger than the real thing. Even so, if an action movie inspires a future scientist or even a future filmmaker or writer, that’s a good thing.

Author Kathy Reichs, a forensic anthropologist turned best-selling author, said virtually the same thing about her fictional character, Temperance Brennan, who is the central character in the TV series “Bones.”
“I like to think that my own novels played some part in raising awareness of forensic anthropology,” Reichs wrote nearly a decade ago.

Public figures who have little or no background in science can sometimes make a huge difference in our world, simply by spreading the word. This week, a global audience awaits Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment. The Pope has stressed that his message is not just for Catholics as he issues a warning that humans can affect climate change, and that we need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. At least, that is what he’s expected to say.

Now, just because the dinosaurs in “Jurassic World” appear lifelike doesn’t mean they are anything close to what real dinosaurs looked like. (The latest theory is that they had feathers.) Likewise, just because the Pope issues an encyclical that promotes protecting the environment and uplifting the poor (if that is what the encyclical actually says when it is released on Thursday) doesn’t mean the concept will suddenly be embraced in the United States or worldwide. But Papal encyclicals have sometimes changed history, and have the potential to reach a far larger audience than even a blockbuster movie. If nothing else, this should play some part in raising awareness. Maybe some will be curious enough to learn more about the subject.