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Close Encounters with Science: Picks

By Liam McKenna

When I was a child, everything about dinosaurs fascinated me. I would run through the forests around my parent’s property, crouching to avoid the imaginary beasts that populated it, marvelling at their gargantuan size and seemingly extraterrestrial diversity. I loved science fiction, but the most completely realized world presented to me came from not from the mind of man: the world of dinosaurs was completely alien, completely original and very real.

A few weeks ago, I was doing some extraneous reading on my favorite childhood subject and made a startling discovery. Although in my youth it had been widely accepted that modern birds had evolved from creatures that coexisted with the dinosaurs, it was now scientifically decided that modern birds were direct descendants of the dinosaurs themselves. All those days I spent sitting on the bus on the way to school, watching birds flit back and forth and wishing a dinosaur would burst out of the woods and really send them flying - those were spent in ignorance that I was actually watching dinosaurs themselves. I had spent my childhood watching dinosaurs eat garbage right in front of me, and I didn’t even know it.

I look at birds only slightly differently now that I possess this information. If I stop and really concentrate, I can see subtle dinosaurian elements in their movements. But even when the exercise is successful, I see more bird than terrible lizard. My imagination doesn’t run away with me; it struggles to muster a light jog. Scientists now say that toward the end of their lengthy turn on this planet, many dinosaurs had developed fur or feathers, distancing them even further from my childhood imaginings - which, although certainly fanciful by nature, were at the time quite scientific.

I would ask my father about dinosaurs, but as he was employed at a veterinary hospital he was more concerned with animals that were alive and possibly bleeding in front of him. His conception of dinosaurs was even further from the modern truth than mine: he had known the creatures as plodding, big-bellied alligator relatives, slow and stupid and deserving of death by meteor.

Dinosaurs evolved slowly over a period of some 200 million years into a diverse array of species. In the past forty years they have evolved at a rate unknown to any species before or since, and before our very eyes. Suddenly the world is populated with dinosaurs, and I can’t see them. I don’t have any children, but I am sure when I do they will see a world full of dinosaurs and, in the manner of well-informed children, will be dismissive of that fact. Everybody knows that birds are dinosaurs, they will say, and I will regret their inability to experience dinosaurs in the same magical way that I did.  I will again regret, somewhat selfishly, that I can’t experience dinosaurs in the same way I did as a child. Sometimes, the facts are the facts, and we all suffer for their truth.

Liam McKenna is from Charlottetown, PEI

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