The room was dark, excepting for the spotlights lighting the temporarily assembled stage and the dim outlines of giant skeletons and hushed faces. The stage itself was almost entirely bare, with only a podium resting in the middle. But that did not mean the speaker was actually using the podium, instead walking across the stage and addressing the audience.
"Science can be seen as a land full of uncertainties. It is an enterprise built around knowledge, and how to attain it. In fact, some people say that the point of science is to ask questions. For one fact that we discover, there are ten other problems that emerge from it, waiting to be solved. Uncertainties are everywhere in the world today, and we try to make the uncertain certain using science. Despite what other people may want you to believe, there are actually very few true certainties in science – say, gravity, for example. But another is the notion that someday, somehow, the human race will no longer exist on planet Earth.
"As many of you are likely to know, when a species disappears it is termed to be that species' extinction. The thylacine, the quagga, the passenger pigeon – these and hundreds of other species have gone extinct in the past three hundred years alone. The golden toad became extinct as recently ago as the 1980s. But I like to think of extinction as an intriguing little scientific paradox. Excepting the recent cases in human history, the exact methods and triggers of extinction are very uncertain. But it is very certain that extinction can, will, and does happen.
"One of the problems is that the causes of extinctions are controversial and little known. Everybody talks about the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period, but what about the one at the end of the Permian, which wiped out in excess of eighty percent of all life on Earth? Or the Eocene-Oligocene extinction event? And all of those are mass extinctions, events where significant portions of the existing fauna and flora are eliminated. The vast majority of species die off one at a time, in what is called background extinction, and that is a phenomenon that is even more poorly studied."
The speaker, having reached one end of the stage, turned around and headed slowly back the way he came. "Not only are we uncertain of the causes of extinctions, but also exactly why some species go extinct. Upon first glance, well-adapted animals and plants seemingly have no good reason to go extinct. And yet they do. The oreodonts, a now-extinct group of even-toed mammals, persisted for thirty million years almost entirely unchanged. They weren't particularly large. They weren't particularly fast. They weren't particularly strong, or scary, or smart. And generalization is a fairly sturdy strategy against extinction. And yet, about five million years ago or so, they disappeared without a trace.
"Another example would be again, the dinosaurs. They simply dominated the planet for over a hundred and sixty million years, and then disappeared sixty five million years ago at the end of the Mesozoic era. Several theories, ranging from the plausible to the mundane to the ridiculous, have been put forth to explain this extinction, as I'm sure you're all aware of, and the current suggestion is that a large meteorite slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula, causing untold damage and loss of life around the globe. But that theory, like all the others, has its flaws. If the dinosaurs, the marine reptiles, and the pterosaurs were killed, why not the other large animals around at the time, like crocodiles or sharks? Amphibians, too, are particularly sensitive to changing environmental conditions. Hundreds of amphibian species can die at the drop of a hat if the change is sudden enough. But there is no record of a large amphibian die-off at the end of the Cretaceous. Why was it that this mass extinction was so selective in choosing its victims?
"My point is that there are so many unanswered questions about extinction out there. Because the topic is so difficult to study as a whole, even the most experienced and talented scientists have a hard time with it. There are believed to rough patterns determining extinction, but they are in no way clear, and certainly not yet proved. For the most part, the whole process seems to be overwhelmingly random." The speaker gestured to the skeletons surrounding the stage, and then turned to face the audience. "But will we ever unlock its mysteries? Is it possible that someday we might figure out the secrets of extinction, a force that has vanquished tens of billions of species and even these mighty dinosaurs themselves? To achieve such a feat, extinction itself might have to be more complicated than we now believe."
Ian Malcolm smiled and said, "It's the essence of chaos."
The Houston Museum of Sciences was a grand place by anyone's standards. To be invited to lecture inside the museum's newly renovated paleontology halls would be a great honor, even for the most distinguished paleontologist. But Ian Malcolm was hardly impressed by it.
Malcolm had been a prolific lecturer in mathematics and chaos theory for the past fifteen years now, and had published several books. In recent years, he had focused on extinction and theoretical ecology and how they were affected by the implications of chaos theory. It had become a popular field, and Malcolm was invited to speak about the topic to a wide audience, both scientific and non-scientific, to speak about it.
It was difficult to find a hidden pattern into the process of extinction, but Malcolm had been investigating other complicated theories and strategies. But even he could not find a meaningful answer yet.
That was exactly the reason why Malcolm had never put forth any certain hypothesis about the subject in his entire career, and was instead mentioning several equally viable and equally untestable possibilities. The trick was to find a theory that could be supported by evidence present in the fossil record, and in great enough quantities to be indisputable. But that was a task that nobody had yet set forth.
However, Malcolm was working on it.
Several hours passed, and Malcolm walked out of the museum doors. Pulling out his cell phone, he dialed his secretary.
"Hey Bev, I'm done over here. Any chance you could call the university and tell them I'll be back in the office tomorrow?"
"Sure thing." Malcolm could hear Beverly scribbling notes down onto a sheet of paper over the phone. "Oh, by the way Dr. Malcolm, a letter arrived for you today. It's from some symposium. Would you be able to read it when you get back?"
"Alright. Bye now." He hung up, and sighed, expecting yet another invitation to some museum.
Dear Dr. Malcolm,
You have been invited to speak at the 5th Annual Ostrom Memorial Paleontological Symposium, being held this year in Cleveland, Ohio, by an anonymous patron. Please RSVP within two weeks with your name, affiliation, and lecture title at our website (link at bottom of page). Having noticed your ventures and expertise in the field of studying extinction, we would appreciate it if your lecture topic correlates with this field somewhat. If you attend, you will be given special seating at table 32 with fellow colleagues, with complimentary dinner and wine tasting. More details about the symposium can be found at the website. We hope that you will attend and enjoy this event!
All the best,
Malcolm gave the letter a long, hard stare. Things like this usually didn't come up. In general, he tried to avoid places relating to paleontology, as none of the questions he got ever related to the lecture itself on those kinds of days. But this was something different…
He dialed the phone again. "Beverly? Hi. Would you be able to make a hotel reservation?..."