If you think today's kids are dumber than yesterday's, try getting anything past some precocious little dinosaur geek. Try to tell him or her that a Mamenchisaurus is a plain old Brontosaurus, or an Albertosaurus is a good old-fashioned Tyrannosaurus rex, and you'll see rolled eyes and weary head-shaking.
The reason kids who might not be able to point out Arizona on a map can tell you whether a given dinosaur was saurischian (lizard-hipped) or ornithischian (bird-hipped) is, of course, Hollywood money. Hollywood has demonstrated over and over how profitable dinosaurs are, and corporations, not missing a trick, have thus been generous to paleontological researchers -- though not generous enough, the researchers would no doubt say. As a result, dinosaur discoveries have come fast and furious over the last few decades.
These discoveries have quickly found their way into the movies. Jerky stop-motion puppets, or hapless lizards inflated by rear-projection to strike ersatz terror into the hearts of sheepish-looking actors, just aren't going to cut it anymore. So real paleontology is used as a design basis for movies like Jurassic Park and its sequel The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Even when the special-effects folk on such films knowingly employ their imaginations for dramatic effect, they're departing from scientific evidence, not from romantic myth.
If you go now, you can see a great example of this uneasy union of science and moviemaking commerce: "The Dinosaurs of Jurassic Park: The Lost World." This "largest traveling dinosaur exhibition in America" remains on display through Sunday, May 20, at the Arizona Science Center, 600 East Washington. Its most impressive feature is actually outside the building: an enormous life-size statue of a Mamenchisaurus, one of those long-necked, long-tailed, quadrupedal jobs. It gives one a startling, up-close sense of just how huge the freakin' things ran.
Inside the museum, the effect of the exhibit is very much like a walk-in movie trailer. TV monitors on the walls offer clips from the films, along with interviews with paleontologists and narration by franchise star Jeff Goldblum. There's an attraction called "Extinction Theatre," in which Goldblum explains the various theories of how the creatures met their demise, while the benches beneath our butts vibrate with Sensurround-like effect. The main attraction is an array of skeletons -- all of them castings -- of more than a dozen dinos, displayed in various dramatic poses. In the midst of all this are a few actual fossils, affixed to horizontal panels, which visitors can touch. There's even a coprolite.
What? "Coprolite" never came up for dispute in Scrabble? It's a fossilized dinosaur turd. Yep, that's what you're missing if you miss "Dinosaurs of Jurassic Park": your chance to touch dinosaur crap.
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