"But ... The Rocks Are All Wrong"

by Richard Busch

Lithosphere (September 1993); Fallbrook Gem and Mineral Society, Inc.; Fallbrook, CA

[Ed. Note: This article won second place in the adult article competition in the American Federation of Mineralogical Societies in 1993.]

The next time you go to the movies, watch the reactions of the moviegoers to what appears on the screen. You'll notice that while the cat burglar deftly twirls the dial of the hidden wall safe and quickly opens it to reveal the priceless jewels within, all of the locksmiths in the movie theater shake their heads in disbelief. As the movie doctor operates to save the life of his dying "patient," the moviegoing real doctors in the audience roll their eyes to the ceiling.

Well, locksmiths and doctors are not the only people to have their fields of expertise misrepresented by the entertainment industry. Geologists and gemologists, too, frequently grit their teeth at the silent indignities perpetrated on the movie or television screen. True, a geological inaccuracy rarely contradicts the central plot of the drama; but to those people properly attuned, a geological error of fact can undermine the basic premise of the story.

Some errors are so egregious that the situation is laughable. Remember the old Superman series on TV? To this day, I remember an episode in which the Man of Steel takes a lump of coal in his hand and squeezes it with such force that it changes into a diamond. That's ok if you accept the basic premise upon which Superman is based; but when Superman opens his hand to reveal the newly created gem, we see that it is complete with facets -- round brilliant, as I recall.

Some geological errors are not so obvious. Lisa Rossbacher points out several in the February 1993 issue of Geotimes. If you saw the relatively recent movie The Last of the Mohicans, you'll remember the beautiful scenery -- rugged peaks and granitic rocks. The only problem was that the movie was supposed to take place in upstate New York where the Paleozoic sediments have been thoroughly glaciated to form rolling hills. The film was actually made in the Carolinas where the rocks are all wrong.

Ms. Rossbacher cites other examples of geological errors in films. Here are some: The Battle of the Bulge features an exciting tank battle that is supposed to take place in the snowy Ardennes region of Belgium; halfway through the battle, we see the tanks rumbling through the Mojave Desert. Rooster Cogburn and True Grit are supposed to be set in Oklahoma and Arkansas. Unfortunately, the glaciated mountains in the background were set in Oregon and Colorado long before any movie makers set up cameras; glaciers never quite made it to either Oklahoma or Arkansas. The movie Revolution featured the Battle of Yorktown being fought, not on the gentle southeastern coast of Virginia, but rather on some high, white cliffs that bore a striking resemblance to the famous ones located on the southern coast of England. Continental drift? Hardly.

Geological errors are not restricted just to movies and television shows. In 1969, a novel written by Michael Avallone and based upon a screenplay written by Clifford Gould hit the bookstores. The name of the novel, chosen by someone other than Mr. Avallone, was Krakatoa, East of Java. The true location of Krakatoa--southeast of Sumatra and west of Java--was not lost upon Mr. Avallone. In fact, he contacted the publishers and informed them of inaccuracy. Unfortunately, it appears that in some publishing and entertainment circles marketing takes precedence over geographical reality and, despite Mr. Avallone's efforts, the title of the book was not changed to reflect the truth. [Note: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that the book's title was the responsibility of Mr. Avallone. In fact, Mr. Avallone worked to correct the erroneous title that was created by another individual. I am pleased to set the record straight and apologize for previously questioning Mr. Avallone's diligence in researching his novel. -- RAB (1999)]

This brings us to the summer's megahit, Jurassic Park. Yes, we all know that Jurassic Park is a science fiction-fantasy-adventure film. But here's the way that science fiction is supposed to work: One or two (currently non-existent) scientific developments are assumed to have been made. Given those assumptions, the remainder of the film is supposed to operate logically and consistently within the framework of current knowledge and reality.

In Jurassic Park, the assumption is that science has discovered a way to recreate living organisms solely from a sample of their DNA. Fine, we'll accept that as the premise of the movie. The rest of the story should conform to established scientific fact. Too bad that it doesn't.

The most obvious scientific errors in Jurassic Park have to do with the sizes of the various 'saurs. Apparently Steven Spielberg likes his dinosaurs big. Both the gentle, vegetarian, Brachiosauri and the nasty ol' Velociraptors are depicted at about two to three times their real size. Not only that, but in one scene Spielberg has an especially plump brachiosaurus standing on its hind legs to munch veggies from a treetop. Impressive but, given the size of the creature, it probably should have collapsed into a heap due to the relative weakness of its leg bones.

But not all of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are portrayed as larger than life. The Dilophosauri are presented at about one-third of their real size, presumably to make this insidiously dangerous dinosaur look cute. Further, neither the Dilophosauri neck frills nor their toxic spit have been documented. As depicted in the movie, the Dilophosauri look more like "gremlins" than dinosaurs.

All of the above notwithstanding, the real error in Jurassic Park is that the rocks are all wrong. In the movie, the scientists get their dinosaur DNA from the belly of an insect that was found inside of a piece of amber. Ok -- no problem so far. But the movie goes out of its way to tell us that the amber came from the Dominican Republic; and this is where the error lies. Dominican amber has been dated at 20 to 40 million years. The dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago. Thus, the amber in the movie is at least 25 million years too young to contain remnants of dinosaur DNA.

Spielberg could have chosen Lebanese amber (115 to 135 million years old) or Siberian amber (80 to 115 million years) or New Jersey amber (90 million years) or Alaskan amber (80 million years) or Canadian amber (70 million years). But, no; he chose Dominican amber -- and got it wrong.

Well, don't let the above comments deter you from seeing Jurassic Park. The special effects are terrific and the action is heart-pounding. Go see it if you haven't done so already. Enjoy it, if you can. Just try not to think about the fact that the rocks are all wrong.

Copyright © 1993 by Fallbrook Gem and Mineral Society, Inc.

The preceding article was originally published in the September 1993 issue of Lithosphere, the official bulletin of the Fallbrook [California] Gem and Mineral Society, Inc; Richard Busch (Editor).

Permission to reproduce and distribute this material, in whole or in part, for non-commercial purposes, is hereby granted provided the sense or meaning of the material is not changed and the author's notice of copyright is retained.

Last updated: 18 September 2002