In August, I took my almost-four-year-old daughter to the dinosaur galleries in the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. The ceilings were lower and the clientele was shorter than I remembered from my own childhood, but the essentials were the same: the bones, the horns, the talons, and best of all, the enormous teeth. The better to eat you with, my dear. My daughter stood next to the disembodied T. rex skull and peered delightedly into its mouth, ready to climb in. “Holy cow!” she said.
As we left, she was quiet. And then she said, to no one in particular, “I don’t know whether to eat or be eaten.”
If you’ve spent any time around children, you know what happened next. Dinomania hit fast and hard, and within a few days my daughter was pronouncing hilariously long Latin words, gnashing her tiny teeth as she stalked the dog, and talking knowledgeably about the plant eaters and meat eaters that lived long, long, long ago — even before Grandma and Grandpa were born.
I write about science, but I haven’t spent much time thinking about paleontology since my own dinosaur phase, which ended at least 30 years ago. Dinosaurs have been sitting on my mental shelf like the Velveteen Rabbit, old and seemingly familiar and waiting patiently to be rediscovered. So I’ve returned joyfully to the age of the dinosaurs (children are excellent cover for one’s own immature behavior) — and, if anything, I’m even more amazed by them now than I was then.
Back then, after all, dinosaurs were amazing, but so were the school bus and the toilet. Now, life is pretty familiar, but dinosaurs are still damn incredible. Giant lizard-y creatures the size of your house, outfitted with a variety of wacky armor? Not something you see at Wal-Mart. In the last generation or so, science has also improved the dinomania experience: While the dinosaurs of my childhood were dull green and brown, some of the dinos of my daughter’s dreams are colorful and feathered and run in herds, like terrestrial flocks of parrots. (Dinosaur feathers, it turns out, are not at all popular with creationists.) I do miss Brontosaurus, but I’ve been consoled by all the festive plumage.
I like to think that dinosaurs have always fed our imaginations. Long before the Right Rev. Buckland examined a collection of bones from an English quarry and named them Megalosaurus, I imagine that people ran across huge, mysterious bones and told tales of dragons and giants. Today, dinosaurs give us stories that are not only amazing, but also true — or at least true to the best of our evolving knowledge. And the best thing about true stories is that their spell never breaks.
Photos of someone almost as cute as my daughter by Flickr user Clover_1. Creative Commons.