Michael Crichton (1942-2008)

John Michael Crichton was born in Chicago in October 1942, and took a strong interest in writing from a young age. Enrolling at Harvard in 1960, Crichton had intended to study literature, but after a disagreement with one of his literature professors, he switched his focus away from English and earned a degree in biological anthropology with honors in 1964. After graduation, he published his first full-length novel under his own name, The Andromeda Strain (1969), which was a bestseller and gave Crichton his first taste of the professional success he would enjoy for the remainder of his career.

Although Crichton wrote in numerous contexts, his most famous works—including Jurassic Park (1990)—combine contemporary technical and theoretical scientific findings with fast-paced, mystery or thriller plots. Crichton’s 28 novels have been translated into thirty languages, have sold over 200 million copies, and been the basis for numerous popular films. These novels include The Terminal Man (1972), The Great Train Robbery (1973), and his sequel to Jurassic ParkThe Lost World (1995). In 1973, Crichton wrote the original screenplay and directed the film Westworld, which far exceeded critical and revenue expectations and led to a sequel, Futureworld, in 1976. It was also the basis for the popular HBOMax series Westworld that ran from 2016 to 2022. Crichton also created and produced a wildly popular television series of the late 1990s, ER. In 2000, a newly discovered small dinosaur was named after him: Bienosaurus crichtoni.

Even though Crichton attained success after success in his life—first as a student, then a writer, later as a writer-director, and finally as the man behind the cultural phenomenon that Jurassic Park became—it would be a mistake to think that things came to him easily in life. Throughout his career, even after he’d obtained tremendous achievements, he was known to be a tireless and constant worker. He had suffered anxieties early in life when it became apparent that he was going to be unusually tall. (He ended up being somewhere around six feet and nine inches tall.) He eventually found relief and solace in meditation, which he practiced the rest of his life. Crichton was married five times and divorced four times. Early in 2008, he was diagnosed with lymphoma. Crichton was undergoing chemotherapy but was expected to recover when he died unexpectedly in November of 2008 at the age of 66.

Background on Jurassic Park

Like many of Michael Crichton’s best-known works, Jurassic Park merged technical and theoretical scientific findings with a thrilling story. This demonstrated the author’s story-telling talents as well as the depth of his scientific understanding resulting from his tireless research and his affinity for scientific topics. When Jurassic Park appeared in 1990, its key scientific plot points probably seemed far-fetched to readers not as in knowledgeable about technical research and theory as Crichton was. So, it is a testament to its author that within a relatively short number of years the scientific underpinnings of the novel proved to be well within touching distance.

By the end of the 20th century, computers had found a place in many American homes. The United States had harnessed nuclear power decades ago, doctors had long since discovered antibiotics, and the scientific community was ready for a new mammoth breakthrough. Genetic engineering loomed as an important field, wide open with possible applications in everything from medicine to cosmetics. Just seven years after the publication of Jurassic Park, British scientists successfully cloned a sheep. Although it certainly would have been impossible for a scenario like the one portrayed in Crichton’s famous novel to have actually occurred in 1990—and most scientists still regard the likelihood of ever successfully cloning dinosaurs slim—the novel gave many readers their first exposure to the possibilities of genetics and bioengineering.

Jurassic Park also popularized the mathematical field of chaos theory. For four centuries, the laws of physics implied a complete connection between cause and effect in nature. It was presumed that it was always possible to make accurate long-term predictions of physical systems, as long as one knew the starting conditions well enough. The discovery of chaotic systems in nature around the turn of the 20th century all but destroyed that notion. In Jurassic Park, Malcolm’s interpretation of chaos theory asserts that Jurassic Park, as a complex physical system, will progress in a drastically unpredictable manner that will inevitably result in disaster, regardless of the precautions that have been taken.

Chaos theory and bioengineering ethics were already nascent topics of discussion when Crichton took them on in Jurassic Park. The success of his novel, especially after its release as a major motion picture, vaulted these topics into the global spotlight. Crichton’s novel, however, critiques more than merely the large companies that have the potential to abuse the vast power of genetics. In the novel, John Hammond creates a park run almost entirely by the automation of a huge computer system. The system has bugs—defects that prove disastrous over the course of one 24-hour period. 

Jurassic Park, written at a time when the whole world was computerizing seemingly all aspects of daily life, is also a critique of such incessant modernization and automation. The novel was published just ten years before the predicted turn-of- the-millennium "Y2K" computer disaster had businesses across the globe scrambling to reassess their technological preparedness. Crichton seems prescient and wary of this trend. Malcolm’s chaos-theory calculations of catastrophe, in addition to showing off hip scientific lingo, serve as a warning for a society increasingly dependent on technology.