When asked whether he would give up sexual congress or his study of dinosaurs, Ross, a character on the hit sit-com Friends of the 1990s and 2000s, reluctantly conceded sex. While earning a cheap laugh from viewers at home, this incident highlights an interesting and important question: Why are dinosaurs, extinct for millions of years, still intriguing to us?
In how many museums is the skeleton of a dinosaur placed front and center? The Museum of Natural History in New York: an entire hall dedicated to the skeletons of dinosaurs, a Tyrannosaurus Rex in the welcoming auditorium. The Fields Museum in Chicago: front and center is Sue, the world’s largest and most complete T-Rex skeleton. The Zi Gong Dinosaur Museum in Sichuan province, China: more than 710,000 square feet of just dinosaurs. These ancient beasts unquestionably retain our attention.
However, excavating the bones of creatures that died over 65 million years ago, is not particularly pragmatic. Come to think of it, there are many fields of science that aren’t particularly useful . To answer our question, “Why are dinosaurs still interesting?”, it’s worth looking at those other fields of science as well.
Look upwards at the night sky: outer space. In the ever wise words of Commander Spock of Star Fleet from the popular TV series Star Trek “Space… The final frontier… [The] ongoing mission, to explore strange new worlds… to seek out new life forms, and new civilizations…To boldly go where no one has gone… before.” If there is anything that rivals our fascination with dinosaurs, it’s our fascination with space. For all the money that we spend digging up dinosaur fossils, we spend just as much if not more building telescopes and sending robots to other planets. While making sure that a massive comet doesn’t slam into our home planet is quite important, we spend a ridiculous amount of money learning about things that we can’t really apply. By the way the population of Bangladesh is 157 million. This will be important later. The parallels that exist between paleontology and astronomy are startling. We spend a lot of money. We learn a lot (most of which isn’t very useful). And we love it.
On August 6th, 2012, NASA’s youngest Mars rover, landed on the red planet. Its goal was to detect traces of water determine the possibilities of life on Mars. This rover serves an interesting intersection between the two fields of science that we love and waste a lot of money on. We are spending swimming pools of cash to dig for dinosaurs ON ANOTHER PLANET. Thankfully we have enshrined the reason that we are building telescopes and digging for bones in the dirt, in the name of that Mars rover: Curiosity
It is curiosity that has driven man to new heights. So far as we know (though the Mars rover may find something to say about it), humans are the only living, sentient species in the Universe. Humans are the only species to have built skyscrapers nearly a kilometer tall, the only species to look for old bones for more than food, and we are the only species to have developed philosophy, music and art. Our humanness, our curiosity, has driven society to become the ruler of its own collective destiny. Curiosity kindled the first embers of ingenuity and has brought us to the inferno of innovation that we know today.
History seems to agree. Edmund Burke, an Irish philosopher and statesman wrote the following in 1757: “[Curiosity] has an appetite which is very sharp… and always has an appearance of restlessness or anxiety.” We are seemingly unable to satiate our curiosity. Every time humanity makes any breakthrough in any field, it is quick to come up with a new question. When paleontologists first reconstructed the first dinosaur skeleton, the next questions was: “What might their skin look like?”
This desire to learn and garner new information is stronger than ever. George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in his “Psychology of Curiosity” elaborates on how curiosity influences people over time. He writes: “Although theoretical accounts of creativity, problem solving and scientific discovery tend to emphasize the cognitive dimension, personal accounts of the scientific process portray an important motivational component… Curiosity is influenced by cognitive variables such as the state of one’s knowledge structures but may, in turn, be one of the most important motives in encouraging [knowledge structures] formation in the first place.” Put simply, curiosity and knowledge are stuck in an endless, repeating, positive feedback loop. The more we know, the more curious we become, and the more curious we are, the more we yearn to know. Curiosity is indeed the character trait that has driven humanity to reach such amazing heights.
However wasteful finding fossils and combing the cosmos is, it is a necessary waste. In much the same way that we are willing to “waste” money on the arts, it is necessary that we are willing to “waste” money on dinosaurs, and yes, “aliens”. Very few on this planet of 7.2 billion would vote to scrap the Mona Lisa, burn the Stradivariuses and destroy Hamlet. The arts are an inherent part of our collective culture. Just as scientific discovery is. It makes us human. If we are to condemn those who destroy our art, we must also condemn those who wish to crush our inner spirit of curiosity. The United States House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, since 1966 NASA’s budget has dropped, adjusted for inflation, from $44 billion to just $20 billion in 2010. More telling however, is the percentage of the federal budget that this makes up. Space exploration and the study of our Universe has been put on the back burner. In ‘66, NASA’s budget represented some 4.4% of the Congressional fiscal plan. In 2010 it was just 0.5%. It would seem that the nation that has pioneered space exploration for decades is slipping. If you think that NASA, the pride and joy of America’s scientific community and the darling of humanity’s space programs, isn’t receiving enough federal money, think about how little money the paleontologists get.
In literature, and popular culture, for centuries curiosity has been given a bad rap. Adolescents are given a free pass for doing something foolish with the phrase: “Oh, they were just being curious.” We have discounted and discredited the meaning of being curious. While there might be more scientific papers being published today than in any other time in history, our society is not as curious as it once was. We encourage consumption over discovery and this is the reason why we will happily Google the population of Bangladesh, then forget it just minutes later. We no longer live up to the true intellectual promise of the word “curiosity”. To us, it means facts and figures whereas before it represented theses and endeavour. God willing, this will change.
Humans are frustrated by lack of understanding. It’s what drives our inner curiosity. This frustration has led to techniques and methods that can accelerate a sub-atomic particle to near the speed of light. It is this frustration that will keep our interest on things that we don’t know about. It fueled our imagination to such a degree that last year we had reboots of both Jurassic Park AND Star Wars. The reason that we still love dinosaurs is deep in our hearts. The answer to the question “why are dinosaurs, extinct for millions of years, still intriguing to us” is honored in the name of a small robot, puttering across the red, barren plains of Mars: Curiosity.