Kids love dinosaurs. When you’re three feet tall and can’t have dinner unless somebody brings you food, the idea of enormous, powerful creatures that have fangs to defend themselves and claws to capture their own meals seems pretty great.
I loved dinosaurs as much as anyone, but eventually I grew tall enough to get my own dinner, and my interest in dinosaurs waned.
My friend Nathan Myhrvold, though, never stopped loving dinosaurs. Actually, there are a lot of things Nathan never stopped loving—he’s published best-selling cookbooks and essays on bioterrorism, among other things—but if you ask him about his longest-running obsession, he’ll tell you it’s dinosaurs. His office is full of dinosaur bones, some of which he dug up himself, along with a model of a dinosaur whose tail moved so fast it broke the sound barrier.
Because he’s so curious, Nathan can take what he knows about these great reptiles and apply it to fields that seem completely unrelated—fields like childhood nutrition, one of the most important and misunderstood areas in all of development.
Here’s a short video in which he explains the connection:
Dinosaur growth rates, it turns out, are hard to study. There may be only thirty fossils of a particular dinosaur species in the world, and none of them may be complete. So how do you know whether a bone is shaped a certain way because that’s how triceratops grew or whether your particular specimen just had a funny-looking head?
In poor countries, children’s physical development is also hard to study, though for different reasons. For one thing, measurements are notoriously inaccurate. 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?
What that means is that in both areas, dinosaur growth and childhood growth, you end up with problematic data; with children, it’s messy, and with dinosaurs, it’s sparse. In both cases, though, the problem is the same: looking at the data from the wrong angle gives you the wrong answers.
Nathan thinks he’s figured out a systematic way to look at the growth records from the right angle. Since we started working with him he’s shared some promising ideas about how to measure children’s growth accurately, analyze the trends, and take action on the analysis. For example, some researchers recently looked at the relationship between gross domestic product and childhood stunting and, to everyone’s surprise, they found no correlation—until Nathan pointed out that they were using the wrong statistical methods to analyze the information. The methods he suggested instead—based on his work on dinosaurs—showed that the relationship was actually even stronger than many people in the field had thought. And that could have a big impact on how policymakers and health-care workers approach the problem of childhood nutrition.
This is a great example of a trend I hope we’ll see a lot more of: taking scientific advances from lots of different fields and using them to solve problems in global health.
Ever since dinosaurs were discovered, kids have showered them with love. Thanks to this work, we may have found a way for dinosaurs to pay them back.
Here’s a longer video where Nathan explains the thinking behind his work in detail: