The edges of old maps, the gateways to parts unknown, are often said1 to have carried the words “Here Be Dragons”. At the dawn of the Scientific Revolution, there was plenty of room for those dragons to roam. Each human culture around the globe was surrounded by a fog of geographic and metaphysical unknowns. Since that time, science has destroyed the habitat of those dragons in a steadily process 2.
The central question of Matt Kaplan’s book, The Science of Monsters, is really focused, not on the monsters, but on us. Why did we populate that fog of unknowns with fabulous creatures that evoked fear and awe? Do we still tell similar stories after the fog has been lifted? If we do, how have the stories changed to reflect our new reality? The Science of Monsters is ultimately about our favorite monster – us. Continue reading
This week, Science for the People observes its annual holiday tradition, helping you find gifts for the science lovers on your list. Brian Clegg, John Dupuis, and Rachelle Saunders share their most-treasured science books from 2014, as well as classics to help fill out anyone’s science library. And they speak to writer/illustrator James Lu Dunbar about “The Universe Verse,” a scientifically-accurate rhyming comic book about the origins of the universe.
Visit the Science for the People blog for more information and links to the books mentioned in this episode.
*Josh provides research help to Science for the People and is, therefore, completely biased.
Gabriel Tarde’s The Underground Man (1896)
In the decades before the First World War, End of the World visions were influenced by major scientific discoveries of the 19th century. People became aware that the sun, the earth, and the human species itself were moving on a historical trajectory, one that would come to an end naturally, without any need for some divine entity to drop the curtain. The astronomer Camille Flammarion explored different natural scenarios for the End of the World in his 1893 novel La fin du monde, while H.G. Wells’ pathbreaking The Time Machine (1895) described the evolutionary deterioration of humanity and the gradual extinction of all life on earth under a dying sun.
But French sociologist Gabriel Tarde would have none of this cosmic fatalism. In his brief, bizarre 1896 novel, Fragment d’histoire future (published in 1905 in English under the title The Underground Man, with an introduction by none other than H.G. Wells), the extinction of the sun is the best thing that ever happens to us. Living deep underground, cut off entirely from nature, surviving humans have a perfect society where they go about nearly naked in the geothermal warmth, eat synthetic food, and devote all their efforts to happiness and aesthetic achievement. Continue reading
Representative image of the precautions needed to protect my creative endeavors. Surviving photograph shows use of a primitive Lite Brite
When I was young, I used to build elaborate castles out of wooden blocks. Then, my younger brother Ben, would come running through and smash it all to pieces. Ben was a metaphor for the way my high school history book1 presented a variety of groups like the Mongols, the Huns, the Vikings, and the Sea Peoples (oddly not the Conquistadors, etc.) as nightmarish, irresistible, and bent on wanton destruction. Like my brother, they were external forces of chaos that swept in, pushed “Western Civilization” to the breaking point, and then mysteriously vanished. Of these groups, the Sea Peoples distance in the past made them, by far, the most mysterious.
In Eric H. Cline’s 1177BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed2 does not set out to clarify the record on the Sea Peoples – they remain pretty clouded in the mists of time. Rather, Cline walks us through what historians know, suspect, and argue about. Cline’s goal is to help us understand what collapsed at the end of the Bronze Age, what “collapse” actually meant, why it was so important, and what were the factors that caused this change. Continue reading