Dinosuar Invasion! Science Center takes us on a Jurassic lark

UP FRONT

Exhibit: Creatures from the ancient past - and from more recent movies - are expected to draw big crowds

Dinosaurs Downtown: The Maryland Science Center revisits 'Jurassic Park.'

October 01, 1998|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

You read the dinosaur books. You lined up with the kids for the dinosaur movies, and you've tripped over their dinosaur toys.

Now, in case someone in your family still hasn't had enough, dinosaurs are back from the dead again, and they're camped on the second floor of the Maryland Science Center.

Don Lessem's $2 million exhibit, "The Dinosaurs of Jurassic Park and The Lost World," opens Saturday and runs through Feb. 1. And Science Center officials are bracing for a blockbuster.

"Dino" Don's traveling show features huge dino reconstructions and skeletons; informative, interactive displays; a multi-sensory "Extinction Theater" that evokes several scenarios for the dinos' last days; and a simulated fossil pit where visitors can excavate their own dinosaur bones.

The show has set attendance records elsewhere. About 340,000 people toured it in three months last spring at the COSI (Center Of Science & Industry) science center in Columbus, Ohio, and membership sales quadrupled.

"This was a blockbuster exhibit for us," the best-attended show since 1991, said COSI spokeswoman Cheri Smith. "Our visitors had nothing but positive feedback."

The Maryland Science Center, which is coming off its busiest summer in a decade, expects no less. And why not?

"They are cool-looking things; they're wicked awesome," said Lessem, a lean and boyish 47-year-old former science writer.

Lessem rekindled his boyhood fascination with dinosaurs while working on a story for the Boston Globe's Sunday magazine. He has since parlayed it into Dinosaur Productions Inc., which has spun out stacks of popular books, articles and TV documentaries.

He has been a consultant to the "Jurassic Park" movies, Universal Theme Parks, Walt Disney, Reader's Digest books, Microsoft and the Boston Museum of Science.

And it's all thanks to the durable appeal of terrifying, nightmarish animals that had been extinct for 64 million years before the first humans showed up.

"They're scary," Lessem said last week as Science Center technicians began to unpack his exhibit. "But we know it's a dream. They're not real. Or, they were real, but they're not under the bed anymore." Except in the movies.

The kids who fall in love with dinosaurs are at an age, he said, when they have begun to sort out what is fantasy and what belongs in the real world. And dinosaurs provide a perfect bridge from one to the other.

Dinosaurs continue to fascinate us as adults because scientific understanding of their exotic forms, their vanished world and their behavior is always being expanded, revised and updated.

Most Americans of a certain age learned as kids that dinosaurs were cold-blooded and sluggish; that the huge plant-eaters stood around in the water because they couldn't possibly have supported their own weight on dry land; that their brains were too tiny for their huge bodies; and that they vanished because they were too stupid to adapt to a changing planet.

Those notions have all proven false, overtaken by a flood of new discoveries.

As the Science Center exhibit makes plain, dinosaurs were enormously successful as a group. They emerged more than 225 million years ago from a mass extinction that pushed aside their reptilian forebears. They flourished and came to dominate the planet. Then, 65 million years ago, they disappeared in yet another mass extinction that cleared the decks for mammals. And us.

For 160 million years, however, they ruled the world, spanning three geological periods - the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous. Modern humans are upstarts by comparison, emerging barely 100,000 to 500,000 years ago by most accounts. A single species, Homo sapiens, has dominated for only a geologic instant and faces debatable prospects.

The dinos evolved into myriad species that filled every available niche of the terrestrial environment. (Flying and swimming reptiles of that time are not considered dinosaurs.) They are distinguished, Lessem said, chiefly by their posture - standing on their toes, with their legs beneath them, rather than splayed to the sides like a crocodile.

"Dinosaurs are more like ballerinas," he said. If that evokes images of the dancing hippos in Disney's "Fantasia," forget them. Lessem is serious.

"It was an adaptation that in general made them more agile than the other animals of their time," he said. It may have aided them in finding food, and it certainly was a design better suited to supporting great weight. "It might have been the factor that allowed them to grow that large."

Think dinosaurs, and you automatically think large.

At the Science Center, they will fill 10,000 square feet of exhibit space - the center's largest ever. And that doesn't count the 70-foot, 2,500-pound Mamenchisaurus on the front terrace - the world's largest dino model. The real critter weighed 100 tons and craned the longest neck the planet has ever produced - 33 feet.

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