Science of the Magical: A light look at what truth might lie behind tales of magic

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsScience of the Magical: From the Holy Grail to Love Potions to Superpowers by Matt KaplanScience of the Magical: From the Holy Grail to Love Potions to Superpowers by Matt Kaplan

I was wholly intrigued by the idea behind Matt Kaplan’s Science of the Magical — an attempt to lift the thick veil of myth and see if any of its typical magical elements (elixirs of immortality, love potions, oracles, etc.) might have any basis in reality. To be honest, I ended up a bit disappointed, finding the premise stronger than the execution, but Kaplan’s charmingly breezy voice and his willingness to dive right into his exploration went a good way to ameliorate my disappointment in the substance.

The content ranges pretty wide, with Kaplan delving into the magical realms of healing (including prayers, healing water), transformation (berserkers, shifts into animal form), longevity/immortality (philosopher’s stone, bezoars), weather and sky (navigation via sunstone, rain dances), prognostication (entrails reading, the oracle at Delphi), death and near-death experiences, enchantments (love potions, magic mushrooms), and extraordinary human abilities (sword swallowers, firewalkers).

A paleontologist by training, Kaplan is a science correspondent with The Economist, and has contributed as well to publications such as National Geographic, New Scientist, and Nature. His journalistic training is well in evidence through the clarity and fluidity of Science of the Magical as he moves seamlessly back and forth between quickly and efficiently retelling or summarizing myths and folktales and clearly explaining modern day research/scientific studies. An example would be how he shifts from tales of berserker warriors to an exploration of possible plants they could have used to engender such effects to further exploration through interviews and references to drug studies in order to find out what sort of modern chemical cocktails we might give to our soldiers to turn them into “super-soldiers” (a la Steve Rogers, one of the many comic book references he makes).

Another example is his story of the Chinese emperor who sought immortality. Kaplan runs through the various methods of the time to extend one’s life, such as eating crane’s eggs, tortoise shell broth, or certain animals’ urine/dung (one has to wonder if an extra few years is worth it for that last one), goes into somewhat more depth with regard to the chemical makeup of the mercury compound the emperor imbibed and mercury’s potential effects, and then shifts into discussion of modern day research into several lifespan-increasing techniques, including drugs and calorie restrictions.

Throughout each retold tale, summarized science study, or interview with an expert, one never feels at a loss in either the stories or the science. And each section ends with a clear signpost directing us on to the next; it’s all laid out for us in nice, neat fashion.

The voice, as mentioned, is light and breezy and frequently personal, as Kaplan throws himself into his task wholeheartedly, visiting a butcher to cut open and examine pig livers, sailing with a friend to see if he could use a Viking sunstone, chasing ravens to see if they’ll lead him to wolves, and in one of my favorite sections, procuring some arsenic to see if he and another scientist friend can figure out how to negate its effects when poured into wine (they didn’t test it on themselves). He has a good self-deprecating sense of humor, acknowledging that some of the questions he asked his experts are more than a little “whacky.” That humor runs throughout the book and even on into the footnotes (these actually contain the funniest lines). At times, albeit rarely, I’d say he slips a little too far into lightness; “crap” was an unfortunate choice of words at one for instance, but for the most part his writing style makes for a fast, enjoyable read.

I also appreciated the respect Kaplan offers for our forebears. As he puts it in his introduction to Science of the Magical:

It would be wrong to always portray people who lived long ago as the clueless ones. Things have sometimes gone the other way. In some cases our ancestors understood the world in remarkable ways that have been lost, or very nearly lost, to the ravages of time.

He then offers up as an example of one lost-for-a-while bit of knowledge: the aforementioned sunstone, which was long thought to be a fictional “magic” tool to help them navigate the seas but which has recently turned out to have actually existed.

Where I found myself a little too often disappointed was in the depth of some of Kaplan’s explorations and the solidity of some of his connections. Several of his attempts to connect magical thinking to actual science seemed either a bit obvious on the one hand or a bit of a stretch on the other, and I would have like to have seen more references to studies, especially those that might conflict or throw into question some of the ones he does cite. Those tenuous connections also lead to a lot of “Could this be…? or “Is it possible…“ or “It is conceivable…“ But lots of things are “conceivable” that also aren’t true or even likely, and I wanted some of those links to be more concrete in several spots.

That said, there’s more than enough here to cast a different light on the old stories and perhaps move us away from so casually and condescendingly dismissing the storytellers as “those silly stupid folks who thought lightning was Zeus being angry.” And Kaplan did enough to have me interested in picking up his similar look at mythical creatures, The Science of Monsters.

If you go in thinking of this more as one of those “Physics for Poets” university survey courses rather than Physics 303, then I think you’ll find the content, even if not quite as strong as what I was hoping for, combined with the charmingly engaging voice, make Science of the Magical almost always fun and often-enough informative.

Publication date: October 27, 2015. From the author of The Science of Monsters, this engaging scientific inquiry provides a definitive look into the elements of mystical places and magical objects—from the philosopher’s stone, to love potions to the oracles—from ancient history, mythology, and contemporary culture. Can migrations of birds foretell our future? Do phases of the moon hold sway over our lives? Are there sacred springs that cure the ill? What is the best way to brew a love potion? How do we create mutant humans who regenerate like Wolverine? In Science of the Magical, noted science journalist Matt Kaplan plumbs the rich, lively, and surprising history of the magical objects, places, and rituals that infuse ancient and contemporary myth. Like Ken Jennings and Mary Roach, Kaplan serves as a friendly armchair guide to the world of the supernatural. From the strengthening powers of Viking mead, to the super soldiers in movies like Captain America, Kaplan ranges across cultures and time periods to point out that there is often much more to these enduring magical narratives than mere fantasy. Informative and entertaining, Science of the Magical explores our world through the compelling scope of natural and human history and cutting-edge science.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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2 comments

  1. Wait, the key to immortality is “exercise and lose weight?” Gosh-darn it!

  2. This does sound interesting, if a little superficial.

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