Author Talks Scientific Realities Behind Mythology

The line stretched out the door of the Harvard Museum of Natural History on Saturday for Matthew Kaplan’s lecture on the “Science of the Magical," which explored scientific realities of modern and ancient mythology and drew a crowd of more than 150 people.

Kaplan, a science correspondent for The Economist, spoke to a packed auditorium about his most recent book, "The Science of the Magical." His research focused heavily on the intersection of folklore and mythology and the sciences.

“Science is so often ignorant of folklore and mythology because they don’t study it,” he said referencing the disparity between the size of Harvard’s Folklore and Mythology department and that of the multiple departments in science.

Kaplan focused on Assyrian legends as well as on myths from the Vikings, ancient Greeks, and the Renaissance. He mentioned scenes from Harry Potter as well. He used these stories to illuminate traces of scientific truth in myth.

“Way, way back when, it was the habit of our ancestors to cut open a goat or sheep and look at the liver to decide, ‘Hmm, is Uncle Petroneus to survive this current bout of disease?’” Kaplan said, pointing to an image of an ancient sculpture of a liver. “To someone trained in sciences, this seems absolutely preposterous.”

Kaplan said that the practice dated back to the Assyrians, who would slaughter goats and examine their livers to decide if a field was suitable for farming. He contacted Bruce A. Rideout, a veterinary pathologist at the San Diego Zoo, to ask if the liver of a goat could possibly show anything about the field that the goat inhabited.

Kaplan summarized Rideout’s analysis. “Livers are a lot like tree rings, if you look at the liver of an animal it tells you about its historic bouts with disease, drought, and other nasty conditions,” he said.

Kaplan’s lecture also capped off a successful semester’s worth of talks at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. According to Director of Public Programs for the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture Diana X. Munn, the attendance at this lecture was twice the usual size.

“This is twice as much as we usually get in the fall semester,” said Munn. “We’ve had really awesome programs.”

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