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Much like The Magic School Bus, Bill Nye the Science Guy was one of those shows that I watched a lot as a kid and really got me interested in science. If you’ve never seen the show before, the basic premise is that Bill Nye (The Science Guy) teaches different scientific subjects in a way that is easy for children to grasp and is also entertaining. Different comedy skits, music videos, activities for kids and pop culture references also help with the learning and making the science fun. It was a really good show, and I still find it entertaining to watch.
Being a show about science, it was inevitable there would be an episode about dinosaurs. And being a show that came out in the early 90’s, I thought it would be interesting to look back at it and see how the science held up. Going into it, I was expecting to see a lot of inaccuracies seen in educational dinosaur specials at the time. What I got was something….
The science in the episode really holds up, and if it were to air today, I think it would still be scientifically accurate enough to be educational. I think it’s because they don’t really talk about any particular species of dinosaur, but just dinosaurs in general: what fossils are, how they went extinct, when they lived, and so on. So I was pleasantly surprised, unfortunately, that doesn’t really leave me that much to talk about.
…how was your day?
I guess I’ll just start from the beginning.
The episode starts with Bill Nye at a fossil dig site, explaining to the audience what fossils are. He say’s the world fossil is Latin for ‘something dug up’. He then explains the fossilization process, in which a creature or plant is buried in water, mud, or ash and eventually forced underground due to erosion, and later turned into stone. We can tell from this that the episode isn’t really going to tell us about different kinds of dinosaurs, but instead the episode focuses on the science of learning about them from fossils.
We are then treated to a model of the dinosaur Maiasaura….
One of the poster boys of the Dinosaur Renaissance.
…and goes on to explain how we learn about dinosaurs from their fossils. We know that they laid eggs and cared for their young because we have found their nests, and we know what they ate because of the kind of teeth they had. I like how he shows that we infer things about dinosaurs by studying their fossils, and don’t just make things up out of the blue and call it fact (at least we shouldn’t). Instead of telling us facts, he demonstrates them, and that is one of the reasons this show is so great.
In the next scene, he specifies how fossils are made further. He uses a little Apatosaurus model to demonstrate this…
Pictured here for visual context.
…by walking it upon a little hill and then covering it completely in sand (while a little voice over quietly says ‘oh no’ while the dinosaur model ‘drowns’, which is actually quite hilarious in it’s delivery). He explains that the bones become ‘per-mineralized’, meaning they’ve completely turned into stone. Then a scientist, which he calls ‘Mary’ in the demonstration…
Hopefully not this Mary, she only found ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs and pterosaurs, not dinosaurs.
(That’s a little paleontology joke. Get it? No?)
…finds the fossilized bones after millions of years.
This whole demonstration was very visual and hands on, allowing kids to actually see the process with their own eyes. That’s one of the really good things about this show that stands out. There are even many segments with kids explaining activities they can do at home. like making their own ‘fossil’ with a sponge, salt water and some sand. This way they can see the fossilization process hands on.
Bill Nye then continues to explain how we know about dinosaurs (but not before seeing a little clip from ‘The Lost World)…
Isn’t this a little outdated for a show from the 90’s?
…by taking us to a bone bed, presumably in Dinosaur National Park in Utah. He points out bones embedded in the rock from a sauropod. He reiterates how fossils formed, but this time showing us an actual fossil buried in rock. This also really helps a young audience to grasp the information.
The next scene shows a couple of kids going through the brother’s messy room. They use the analogy of things lost in a messy room for dinosaur bones hidden in the earth. The older the bones are, the deeper they are in the ground, kind of like how in a messy room the older things are bound to be deeper in the piles of junk. That is a great comparison, and one easy for kids to relate to.
The next scene is in a segment called ‘Consider the Following’…
…where he explains to us the theory of a meteorite impact killing the dinosaurs. He uses a ball of pepper to simulate the asteroid. He launches it with a slingshot into a pit full of flour. When the ball hits, it creates a crater and flour is thrown into the air. This simulates the dust and debris that would have blocked the sun when the meteor struck, thus killing the plants and in turn the dinosaurs.
He even explains the layer of iridium found around the K/T boundary, which is pretty advanced stuff for grade school kids. He then says that asteroids hit earth all the time, and it can happen again, to which a background voice flatly asks ‘what?’ Even those little funny voices add a really good touch. The delivery in some of them is just really hilarious.
The next segment shows an old-timey black and white film with a man running away from a puppet Triceratops. A voice asks what is wrong with this picture, to which a kid replies that dinosaurs and people never lived together, in a somewhat angry and annoyed tone. This happens two more times in the show, with one clip from a classic Looney Tunes short…
Wait, how could they use a Warner Brothers clip if the show is made by Disney?
…and a scene from The Valley of Gwangi.
Each time these clips were shown, another kid comes out to remind us that dinosaurs and humans didn’t live at the same time. It would seem that they really were trying to get this point across. At first I thought it was to get rid of misconceptions from cartoons like The Flintstones and movies like 1 Million BC, but now knowing about Bill Nye’s ‘vocal’ opinion on Creationism, I think he was trying to convince a different group of people.
Like I’ve said before, I don’t like to crap on other people’s belief’s (as a reminder, any comment calling people who believe in evolution stupid or people who believe in religion are stupid will not be tolerated and will be deleted), and even though I definitely don’t agree with the Creationists teachings (like, at all), the dinosaur geek in me just can’t deny how awesome it would be if we used to live with dinosaurs.
Yeah, to bad it never happened.
OK, moving on.
The next scene interviews a paleontologist, who explains why it is important to study dinosaurs. It’s a very nice and informative segment, which makes it even stranger when the next scene is a Cheers parody.
You hear those distinctive piano notes from the theme song, but instead of the show we get a background of interchanging John Sibbick dinosaur paintings with the cast credits naming animals that have been around for millions of years but have changed very little in that time (horseshoe crabs, sharks, crocodiles). The familiar song’s lyrics are changed from ‘where everybody knows your name’ to ‘where everything has stayed the same’ and we get our title.
Get it? ‘Ferns’ instead of ‘Cheers’? Because ferns have changed very little over time as well?
We then get an appearance from JOHN RATZENBERGER!?
You know, star of Cheers. And all those Pixar movies.
Perhaps even this one!
So, I guess the ‘Cheers’ parody isn’t over yet.
John goes on a rant on how the world would be if the dinosaurs were still alive. He says that if he were a dinosaur, he would be a Brachiosaurus.
Pixar, please cast John as a Brachiosaurus.
He then goes on to say that chickens were like little dinosaurs with feathers (as opposed to what?), but then goes on to say that the chicken farmers know that our chickens are actually little dinosaurs, and are trying to cover it up. Which begs the question, what else do they know?
The next scene is another activity kids can try at home. It shows two kids dipping their feet in paint and making footprints on a long sheet of paper. The first time they run, then walk, and then hop, and so on and so forth. They compare the differences between the footprints in each way they moved. They explain this is how scientists find out how a dinosaur is moving when they find fossil footprints.
We then go to another science segment with Bill explaining exactly how we know dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago. He doesn’t just give the easy explanation, he actually explained the process of carbon dating; a scientific method that is hard for many adults to wrap their heads around, yet he still makes it understandable for kids. That’s another great thing about this show. Despite the silly sketches and funny sound effects, when it came to the science, Bill never talked down to the audience. That’s one of the reasons I felt so smart watching the show when I was a kid.
The next scene shows a field trip to Dinosaur National Monument and has a paleontologist talk to some kids. He tells them to act like dinosaurs, saying that some walked on two legs, some walked on all fours, some wrestled all the time, and some may have even howled at the moon?
HOOOWLLLLL!!! Dinosaurs of London…..
That’s a song reference. Look it up.
Anyway, the paleontologist says that anyone can become one, all they need is an interest in studying old lifeforms.
Mommy, mommy, I know all about dinosaurs! I want to be a paleontologist one day!
Sweetie, what’s 2+2?
Seven, the answer is seven!
I think you may need a little bit more then that.
Bill Nye returns, and asks why we need to study about dinosaurs, which is actually a pretty common question. There are some out there who think that paleontology is just pouring a lot of money and scientific research into something that doesn’t really benefit humanity. Bill goes on a little rant at the audacity of asking such a question, and answers it pretty well. He says that dinosaurs were animals, and animals lived in an ecosystem. But there ecosystem is now gone, and by piecing together the clues of their lost habitat, we can learn a little more about our own.
The next scene is a sketch involving a football game and using the football field to illustrate the passage of time in earth’s history. It’s a really clever idea, and one that easily puts into perspective how long the earth has been around. The zero yard line stands in for the very beginning of earth’s history, about 4.6 billion years ago. The 20 yard line stands in for the time primitive life appeared about 3 billion years ago, while the 20 yard line on the opposite side of the field stands in for the time fish first appeared over 400 million years ago. The 10 yard line signifies when dinosaurs first appeared 225 million years ago, while the 7 yard line shows when the dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago. During the game, the team tries to make a touch down but they fumbled the ball, and it lands centimeters just outside the zero yard line, about the time humans showed up. This is a really effective way to explain just how old earth really is to a general audience.
Too bad I know nothing about football.
The final sketch is a rap music video sung by a preteen kid about dinosaurs. It uses the Dinamation dinosaur animatronics in the background, which were traveling attractions from the 90’s than any dinosaur fan who grew up in that time knew about. I would love to do a review of them some day. However, the music video gets off on a bad start, because the first lyric is ‘This is a dinosaur…’ and the first thing the kid points to is…
Go on ahead.
You know what, that is a dinosaur.
This is also a dinosaur!
So is this!
Everything’s a dinosaur!
I’m a dinosaur!
Sorry, I got kind of carried away there.
After the rap, the episode ends with Bill Nye sending it off. Now, I know from just reading this it may seem like the show was all over the place (because it kind of was) but it really does work. I remember learning so much from this show, and this episode is no exception. Fascinating science, funny sketches, as well as good activities and analogies for the kids. I highly recommend it.
Join me next time as I do a Top 10 Best (And Worst) Dinosaur Documentaries.
Which one will top the list?