How myths and magical beliefs may provide the first glimmers of scientific discovery.
Economist science correspondent Kaplan (Medusa's Gaze and Vampire's Bite: The Science of Monsters, 2012) begins with a provocative comparison of the Bible to the popular X-Men comics series. “The parting of the Red Sea in Exodus,” he writes, might reflect frightening “natural events like earthquakes, floods, or storms that our ancestors witnessed but could not understand.” The author's intent in making the comparison is not to deride religious belief but to illustrate how, by presenting the impossible as real, they record “information about what people were experiencing at the time when these stories were created.” This is exemplified by the theme of the X-Men, the fight for the rights of mutants. The comic was first published in 1963, one year after the Cuban missile crisis, when fears of nuclear radiation were high and the Civil Rights Act was soon to be signed into law. The author suggests that the well-documented healing benefits from positive thinking and the placebo effect may account in part for the popularity of pilgrimages in search of a cure. Similarly, astrology may contain hidden gems of wisdom. Our destiny is unlikely to be shaped by the stars, but disturbances of our circadian rhythms by jet lag or working alternating day and night shifts do affect mood and alertness. Also, shifts in the migratory patterns of birds may indicate changing weather patterns and predict the onset of infectious diseases—e.g., new strains of the influenza virus, which they carry. More fascinating is Kaplan's explanation of why prophecies based on reading the entrails of sacrificial animals were not entirely fanciful. The shape and color of an animal's liver reveals information about the environment. With a host of fun examples, Kaplan shows how “science and magic are not as much at odds with each other as we tend to think.”
A charming romp through the history of science.