Robert Bakker:
dinosaur hunter

An interview by Tom Knapp,
November 1994

Robert Bakker isn't a movie actor or an MTV video star. To nearly 1,000 elementary and middle school students at Millersville (Pa.) University, he was something better: a dinosaur hunter. Better yet: he had inside information on upcoming sequels to Jurassic Park.

Bakker, author of Dinosaur Heresies and curator of the University of Colorado Museum in Boulder, was at Millersville for the university's 10th annual Brossman Science Lectureship. His visit included an afternoon talk with students and a public lecture Thursday evening.

When he wandered into MU's packed Lyte Auditorium about five minutes before his afternoon speech, the paleontologist was instantly surrounded by a clamoring crowd of young fans and autograph seekers. He shatters the stereotype of the traditional, conservative scientist, fitting more comfortably into the scuffed shoes of an Indiana Jones. The "bonedigger" sauntered into the auditorium with an easy gait, a tangle of wild beard heavily sprinkled with gray and long, wavy hair pressed flat under a white cowboy hat. With heavy boots and a thin string tie, he looked fresh from a dig.

It's an image he loves. Not content to ride on his laurels as one of the world's premier dino-experts, Bakker spends at least five months of each year in the field. He also found time to be a consultant on the blockbuster film, Jurassic Park, and he helped director Steven Spielberg turn the action-adventure flick into something of a lesson in prehistory.

That opportunity will come again -- Bakker said Hollywood has plans for at least two Jurassic sequels (one of which has since been filmed).

Bakker said Hollywood has always had the ability to create future scientists from an audience of awed adolescents. Dinosaurs, he said, are "nature's special effects." His own life was influenced by a golden oldie among dino films, the 1933 black-and-white King Kong.

"I don't divide science into the stuffy boring stuff and movies," he said. A film like Jurassic Park is "stealth science," he said. "You go to be entertained, but you actually learn a fair bit." Of course, not everything the movie teaches is true. For instance, he said, the tyrannosaurus rex had an excellent sense of smell and the dilophosaurus didn't spit goo.

On the other hand, Bakker said, the movie pumped up the size of velociraptors to make them more frightening. Since the film's release, one of Bakker's students proved the lie by finding a movie-sized raptor skeleton.

During a lively afternoon talk, Bakker debunked old notions that dinosaurs were stupid and slow. The T-Rex, for instance, had a large brain for its era and could sprint up to 44 mph. "T-Rex was a giant roadrunner from hell," he said of the 4-ton carnivore. It was no Einstein, certainly, but the T-Rex was a genius when compared to its Jurassic predecessors. The stegosaurus? Dumb. Brontosaurus? Dumb. Bakker said the Jurassic should be renamed the Moronozoic.

Bakker gave a similar lecture Thursday evening. However, he admitted the evening talk was "dumbed down" for the adult crowd. It is the youthful passion for dinosaurs that makes them the perfect tool for exciting education, he said during an afternoon interview. Properly harnessed by parents and teachers, that passion can lead into exciting fields of learning in almost any area of science, writing or art. "We in the adult world are boring kids," he said. "Our big goal should be to stop boring students. If you stop boring them, you're exciting them, and that's the end-all of education."

Scientists have been placed on a pedestal away from excitement, he complained. They are taught to "eschew the public" and "write in obfuscatory prose." That's hogwash, Bakker said. "The first duty of a scientists is to share (knowledge) with as many people as possible." A disinterested-looking man in a tie and lab coat isn't going to spark much interest, he said. Science lessons shouldn't be "a syllabus of chemical formulae to memorize ... or icky stuff that blows bubbles and turns green in your test tube. ... The two things that don't bore kids are space and dinosaurs."

With plain speech and a quick wit, Bakker urged students to explore science in any way possible, such as dissecting a chicken wing to find dinosaur-like fingers. Paleontology is a thriving field, he said, noting that six new species of dinosaur were discovered in America over the past year, more than a dozen worldwide. Many are discovered, "not by Ph.D. guys," but by amateur volunteers.

[ by Tom Knapp ]