I woke up Tuesday thinking about dinosaurs. Again.
They’ve been plaguing me lately. Some are in the Senate. Some are in the judicial system. For one reason or another (you’d have to buy me several glasses of the finest Lebanese wine to reveal all) they’ve been stomping around my head of late.
Yet the original dinosaurs still fascinate children with an awe and wonder. They frighten them too, but mostly in a good way.
It so happened that I stumbled upon a February 24 blog post by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. In it, he explained that his original fascination with dinosaurs stemmed from the fact that he was so small and they were so big.
The minute he was tall enough to get his own food, he said, his interest in the creatures receded. However, he explained that dinosaur research isn’t just about natural historians piecing together bones so that people will pay more money to visit museums.
He said that his friend Nathan Myhrvold, CEO of Intellectual Ventures, believes that studying dinosaur remains can help us understand how children grow, and therefore learn how to better prevent malnutrition.
Gates explained the problem like this: “If you’re measuring a crying, squirming baby who doesn’t want a cold tape measure pressed up against his body, you might not get the numbers exactly right. There’s also a host of reasons a child could be short. Is this girl short because she’s malnourished? Is she from a short family? Or has she just not hit her growth spurt yet?”
Gates posted to YouTube a video in which Myhrvold said that when he looked at growth rates in dinosaurs, the methods that other researchers had used were wrong. Hence, the conclusions they emitted were wrong too.
For example, T-Rex’s growth rate had been overestimated by a factor of two. After discussing his findings with the Gates Foundation, Myhrvold was asked to perform the same analysis when it comes to child development.
Myhrvold said: “Dinosaur growth, as crazy as it sounds, does give you important insights.” These, he said, were at the policy level and individual level too.
In dinosaurs, Myhrvold looks at so-called “lined of arrested growth.” These aren’t dissimilar to tree rings. Yes, animals have tree ring-like lines too. As do some mammals.
Looking at these lines — caused by the fact that there’s no growth in the winter compared to the other seasons — you can compare size with trajectory. (There’s a longer video accompanying Gates’ blog post in which Myhrvold offers a deeper explanation of his work.) This work taught him that researchers needed to select the right variables to approach the right answers.
Gates explained that recent research had suggested that there was no relationship between the gross domestic product of a country and childhood growth rates.
However, once Myhrvold looked at the data and the researchers’ methodology, he put it through the same analysis he used on T-Rex growth. What he found was a greater-than-ever correlation between GDP and child growth.
Clearly such news might be disturbing for those, like a group called, who believe that dinosaurs never existed. And research can sometimes claim certainty when the truth is far murkier.
It’s heartening, though, that apparently crazy notions might bring a greater understanding and save children’s lives.
It’s also heartening that dinosaurs can actually be useful.