1. Education

The Geology of Godzilla (Gojira)

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When I wrote about the climate-disaster movie "The Day After Tomorrow," comparing it to the monster movies of the previous generation, I said, "Learning more about Godzilla is learning trivia, but learning more about the climate system is gaining real knowledge." I want to amend that statement, because the "Godzilla" series did have a tissue of geological science veiling its true metaphor. My comments are based on the original Japanese version, "Gojira," from 1954 (issued on DVD in 2004 and well worth seeing).

Early in the movie, after the creature Gojira's deadly visit to fictional Odo Island (played by Toshi Island, near Toba), we see the foremost paleontologist in Japan, Prof. Yamane, as he learns three things about the monster: its footprints are enormous, it dropped a fresh trilobite from between its toes, and everything it touched is intensely radioactive. Later, he reports to the authorities. First, he prepares them for the startling news by telling them that Earth has many secrets in its unexplored and deep hidden places. Then he notes that Gojira stands 50 meters tall, that it is a creature from the Jurassic Period "two million years ago," and that the strontium-90 it contaminated the ground with is exclusively a product of nuclear explosions. From this Yamane deduces that atomic testing has transformed Gojira and disturbed it from its former life hidden in a seafloor pocket off the Japanese coast.

OK, first the errors, then the truths.

  • Trilobites and dinosaurs never coexisted: The last species of trilobite perished at the end of the Permian Period 252 million years ago, long before any of the large dinosaurs came to be. But trilobites are probably the only small fossil creature that the average person recognizes.
  • The Jurassic Period was not "2 million years ago," but more like 200 million (201 to 145 million to be exact). This appears to be a deliberate choice in the original script, made so Gojira's survival seems less incredible. (The commentary, by a pair of American film scholars, misplaces the Jurassic at 110 million years, which is merely ignorance.)
  • There are no secret pockets in the Earth where ancient life survives. That's an old idea, familiar from "lost world" stories during the Victorian age of exploration that gave rise to Tarzan, King Kong and similar turn-of-the-last-century fiction and popular factoids. The notion got its last serious jolt of life in the 1930s, when the Loch Ness monster first became a sensation and when a creature thought extinct since the Cretaceous—the coelacanth—was found swimming in the waters off South Africa. The idea of a prehistoric refugium still had enough resonance in 1954 that the writers of "Gojira" could lean on it to make the story work. (Believers in Sasquatch and the Yeti and other legendary creatures would say the truth lives on.)

And the truths:

  • We really can infer the animal—or a lot about it, anyway—from its tracks. An animal that stands 50 mters tall has never existed, not even in the Jurassic, but if one did its footprints would tell us so.
  • There really are fossils that disappear from the fossil record, sometimes for millions of years, and then turn up again looking just the same. They have the technical name of Lazarus taxa. The popular term "living fossil" is used to describe species, like the coelacanth or the ginkgo tree, that look just like their fossil ancestors. But "living fossil" must not be taken literally: species continue to evolve even as their looks stay the same.
  • There really are remote places of mystery where surprising new discoveries can still be made. They may be found on the surface of a rock, or in the acid waters of a boiling spring, or inside a familiar genome, or under a new kind of microscope. They're remote in the sense that no one has paid them close attention yet. And the best geologists take care to keep that awareness close, because it keeps their eyes and vision fresh.
  • Professor Yamane was a realistic scientist, within the fictional bounds of "Gojira." There was nothing of the Euro-American style "egghead" stereotype. He calmly presented his audience with physical samples, chemical evidence, journal papers and sound logic. He didn't fling his arms around and shout; there was no preposterous "AHA!" display. His audience gave him polite applause, just like a real science talk (OK, that was probably a Japanese stereotype of scientists). And like a real scientist he grasped an opportunity that others could not see—by studying Gojira instead of blindly destroying it, he hoped to learn how humans could live with the radiation that made Gojira a monster.

I try not to scoff at things in movies if they're sincerely done. Practicing science is said to demand an open mind while watching a movie is said to demand the suspension of disbelief. Those two things aren't so far apart. Your average ten-year-old dinosaur lover can spot the errors in the Godzilla story, but "Gojira" wasn't made for children.

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