HBO’s new series Westworld–which takes place in a futuristic theme park populated by android townspeople, bandits, and lawmen–is but the latest adaptation of the work of the late Michael Crichton, whose 1973 film of the same name served as the new show’s inspiration. Even if you weren’t aware that Crichton scripted and directed that film, it’s a safe bet that you’re familiar with his other work, notably the science-fiction franchise that started with Jurassic Park and the long-running medical drama ER. What you might not know is that Crichton didn’t pull these stories from his fantastic imagination alone but was helped immensely by his extensive medical and scientific background, making him the latest of our Secret Science Nerds.
Despite being well-known these days for his contemporary science-fiction classics and techno-thrillers, Crichton’s career did not start out with any sort of scientific pursuits in mind. His interest in writing, however, started at an early age with Crichton publishing a travel column in The New York Times at the age of 14. He pursued literature studies during his time as an undergraduate at Harvard; this is where his career took a fateful turn. Disagreements with Harvard’s English department led Crichton to change his area of focus to biological anthropology, a major in which he graduated summa cum laude in 1964. For the year that followed, Crichton acted as a visiting lecturer to the U.K.’s University of Cambridge after receiving a Henry Russell Shaw Traveling Fellowship.
Upon returning to the States, Crichton then enrolled at Harvard Medical School, paying his way through school with the publication of novels under the pseudonyms of John Lange–to the tune of eight novels in six years–and Sir Jeffrey Hudson. Hudson’s medical detective story A Case of Need won Crichton his first Edgar Award for Best Novel in 1969, the same year that he received his medical degree and started his year-long post-doctoral fellowship at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. However, 1969 was also the year in which Crichton would write his best-selling breakthrough novel The Andromeda Strain, and by this time his decision to be a writer rather than a doctor was already cemented.
What followed was a storied career full of best-selling books, blockbuster movie adaptations, and groundbreaking television shows. And at the core of all of this success was a rock-solid foundation in science and a life-long interest in technology. Well before the publication and subsequent big-screen adaptation of Jurassic Park, the biotechnological thriller that made Crichton a household name, he also wrote The Great Train Robbery, Congo, and Sphere, each of which were also adapted as feature films. Crichton saw, arguably, the height of his career in 1994 when his works held the #1 chart positions for TV (ER), film (Jurassic Park), and book sales, with Disclosure.
The core traits of Crichton’s published work throughout his career were very descriptive and detailed explanations of the technology at work in each respective story, which were balanced by a cautionary tale warning against misuse or outright dangers of said technology. This outlook anchored a number of speeches and editorials made by Crichton over the years, including a 1993 delivery to Washington, D.C.’s National Press Club that predicted the decline of traditional media; a 1999 article about the misunderstandings among scientists, media, and the general public; a 2005 argument on the side of skepticism over Global Warming; and a 2005 address to Congress on the politicization of science, which you can watch below:
Like many of our other Secret Science Nerds, Crichton was a very bright individual with a background in science that helped to inform his art. That doesn’t mean that his words were gospel or that his opinions should be your opinions, but rather than an analytical and curious mind will attempt to view a given topic–cloning, computer viruses, sentient androids, climate change, etc.–from all conceivable angles, eventually settling on the one best supported by available evidence, if their commitment to the scientific method is an earnest one. If only Crichton had won his battle with lymphoma in 2008, we may well have been treated to some of the author’s best work yet, but the bright side is that his wealth of publications and adaptations exist for current and future generations to enjoy.
And if you enjoyed this installment of Secret Science Nerds, be sure to suggest another celebrity for us to profile in the future!
Images: Jon Chase photo/Harvard News Office, MGM