Science of the Magical: From the Holy Grail to Love Potions to Superpowers

Science of the Magical: From the Holy Grail to Love Potions to Superpowers

by Matt Kaplan


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“Filled with cool cocktail-party tidbits, Matt Kaplan considers how things that were once the stuff of legends could one day become reality” (The Atlantic) in this fun scientific inquiry into the mystical places and magical objects of ancient and contemporary lore—from the fountain of youth, to love potions, to Super Mario’s mushrooms.

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, Matt Kaplan takes us on a journey spiced with the wonders of myth, history and art, leavened with impeccable research, endlessly fascinating. And the result is both a compelling read and a deeply thoughtful exploration of the world around us and the ways we seek to understand it” (Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner’s Handbook). 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 such as Captain America, Kaplan explores 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 is “a sprightly survey” (The Wall Street Journal) and “a joy to read…highly recommended” (Library Journal, starred review).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781476777115
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 10/25/2016
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 788,868
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.38(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Matt Kaplan is a science correspondent with The Economist. He has also contributed to National Geographic, New Scientist, Nature, and The New York Times. He is the author of the book The Science of Monsters. In 2014, Kaplan was awarded a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship which he used to study the sciences at MIT and folklore at Harvard.

Read an Excerpt

Science of the Magical

  • And some things that should not have been forgotten, were lost. History became legend and legend became myth.


    The Egyptian war chariots were fast approaching. With no weapons, few rations, and the scorching desert sun beating down upon them, the situation was looking dire for the fleeing Hebrews. Then things went from bad to worse as they found themselves at the edge of the Red Sea. Capture seemed inevitable. The chariots drew closer; all seemed lost; then it happened. Moses lifted up his staff and called upon God to aid the people in their time of need—and help them God did. The waters parted, the Hebrews ran to safety, and the Egyptians were drowned by the crashing waves as they tried to follow.1

    Told over and over through the generations and depicted in countless works of art, the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus is one of the most gripping supernatural moments in Western mythology. It is also an event that, like the ten plagues, archaeologists, historians, and Bible scholars have relentlessly dissected as they have sought to determine if fragments of fact are nestled among the fiction. Might such a story contain descriptions of natural events like earthquakes, floods, or storms that our ancestors witnessed but could not understand? Yes, but we need not only look to our most ancient myths to find bits of recorded history.

    Several years after accidentally being exposed to a high dose of radiation while working at a nuclear power plant, engineer Norton McCoy fathers a son named Hank. As the boy grows, he develops inhumanly long limbs, incredible strength, and apelike hands and feet. Due to his unusual body, he comes to excel at numerous sports at school but quickly meets with discrimination from other students on account of his being different. Hank soon discovers that he carries mutant DNA on account of his father’s radiation exposure, and while he is not alone, he is a minority in a world filled with people who both hate and fear him.2 He soon changes his name to a more appropriate alias, Beast, and ultimately joins the X-Men to fight for mutant rights.

    There is little doubt about what realities the X-Men comics were recording when they were first written in 1963. The Civil Rights Act was only months away from being signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. The issue of discrimination was on everyone’s mind, and the persecution of mutants as a metaphor for this issue was ideal. Yet not just racial tensions were captured by this modern mythology. Science was recorded too.

    Mutants were initially called the “children of the atom” for a good reason. The Cuban Missile Crisis, which is depicted in the movie X-Men: First Class, took place just a year before the comics were written. Anxiety about the effects of radiation on human biology was at an all-time high and was preserved in the X-Men comic series. The Hulk is much the same, appearing in 1962 and described as the result of gamma radiation dramatically altering Bruce Banner’s body. Spider-Man, also created in 1962, similarly gains his powers after being bitten by an irradiated spider.3

    It may seem jarring to throw comic-book superpowers into the same bin as the magical events of Exodus. From an early age most of us are taught to see magical acts performed by gods as somehow different from magical acts performed by mortals. But are they really all that different? Whether we call it divine intervention, a miracle, the supernatural, sorcery, or mutation, all of these things share a core similarity. They present the impossible as real while simultaneously recording information about what people were experiencing at the time these stories were created.

    We have an insatiable appetite for comprehending the world around us. When we see things that we do not understand, our brains immediately get to work trying to make sense of them. These can be minor matters, such as noticing that you sleep less well at the time of the full moon than you do when it is a crescent. They can also be monumental, such as a nonbreathing and pulseless patient suddenly coming back to life after five minutes of effectively lying dead on the surgery table.

    Fascinated and baffled, we find ourselves wondering. Is it really the full moon that is making me sleep so poorly,I or is it something that I’m doing at that time that is causing me so much trouble? Was there enough glucose and oxygen stored in that patient’s capillaries to keep the brain from suffering permanent damage during those five minutes? Was the person in some sort of deep hibernation and not actually dead? When none of these explanations seem acceptable, we turn to the supernatural. The moon casts a spell upon us. An angel stepped in and guided the departing spirit back to the living world.

    One of the most dramatic, and tragic, examples of this phenomenon comes from the world’s recent struggle with Ebola. Patient Zero, the first person during the 2013–2014 epidemic to catch the disease, was a little boy named Emile living in the rural village of Meliandou, Guinea. He quickly developed a high fever with vomiting and bloody stools and died. A few days later, his sister caught the disease and passed away as well. Shortly thereafter, Emile’s pregnant mother fell ill and started bleeding heavily. Late in the night she suffered a miscarriage and died. Three women from the village came to clean up the mother’s blood, and they too perished. Only Emile’s father survived. Regional medical clinics were baffled. Locals were terrified. In the wake of all the fear and uncertainty, the people of the village—including the ill—came together to perform rituals that they believed would protect them against the black magic of the curse that had struck their community. These magical rituals were a terrible mistake. Multiple new cases followed the ceremony, and the disease spread like wildfire from there.4

    The situation for our ancestors was much the same. While many of us today look at the fiercest of thunderstorms and explain the chaos as the result of pressure systems and temperature changes, our ancestors were not equipped with such information. They looked at the lightning bolts, deafening thunder, and devastating hail and came to the only conclusion that they reasonably could: Thor, Baal, or Zeus was angry. Similarly, when our ancestors found the bones of fish and the shells of clams stuck in the rocks of mountains thousands of feet above sea level, it would have been reasonable for them to speculate that there had once been a great flood. Yet it would be wrong to always portray people who lived long ago as the clueless ones. Things have sometimes worked in reverse, with our ancestors understanding the world in a remarkable way that has been lost, or very nearly lost, to the ravages of time.

    Legend tells of the Vikings possessing an artifact called the sunstone, which allowed them to successfully navigate the Atlantic Ocean centuries before the invention of the magnetic compass. For decades, historians dismissed the sunstone as mere fantasy, but evidence is now emerging from the fields of physics, mineralogy, and archaeology that this object actually existed.5 Similarly, stories in The Odyssey portray the Greeks as aware of plants with powerful medicinal properties. They considered them to be magical herbs and often connected them to fantastic stories of the gods. For centuries such tales were disregarded as nothing more than fictions, but recently a number of scientists and historians have started to think that the Greeks were onto something.6

    As these examples and the many others in this book suggest, magic can function a bit like a fossil. Just as we can look at the bones of animals that lived long ago and use the evidence to deduce what the past was like, we can look at the magic of our ancestors to hypothesize about what they may have dreamed of and what they might have seen in the world around them. In a sense, Galadriel’s words were accurate: history can become legend and legend can become myth.7 Nevertheless, it would be wrong to suggest that all magic arises from our struggle to comprehend the complexities of the surrounding world. Sometimes we just imagine amazing things and then try to make them real.

    Guided by beliefs and dreams, we have a natural tendency to try to make magical things happen. I didn’t try parting any bodies of water as a child, but on a fair few boring afternoons in elementary school, as a Star Wars junkie, I tried to use the Force to move a pencil on my desk just a few inches closer. . . . It never worked. On a more somber note, I vividly remember sitting at my grandmother’s grave shortly after her death and desperately wishing I could speak with her one last time. Of course, I am hardly alone.

    Every year at Halloween hundreds of people gather at Harry Houdini’s former house expecting him to one day find a way to escape death. Hundreds of thousands carry around “lucky” rabbit’s feet,II countless millions pray for God to intervene in their lives, and newspapers around the globe still print astrology sections that many take seriously. None of these behaviors are new.

    Long ago, people put requests for the gods on lead tablets and tossed these messages into sacred pools, put wax dolls resembling real people into sexually explicit positions to create feelings of lust in targeted individuals, or, my personal favorite, put nails through the hearts of chickens stuffed with hairs from the heads of enemies and left these abominations on doorsteps to cast curses.8 Sounds about as divorced from science as you could possibly imagine, and in many cases this stuff was utter nonsense . . . but not always.

    Healing rituals in ancient temples involved some techniques that we now know yield health benefits; drinking out of holy grails crafted from specific rocks found in the caves where saints lived may truly have granted a longer life under certain circumstances; and the search for the stone of ever-lasting life, known as the philosopher’s stone, led to major findings in what would eventually become chemistry.9

    To this day, illusions drawn by artists such as Maurits Cornelis (M. C.) Escher and stage performances by modern magicians are helping to guide neuroscientists as they figure out how the human brain makes sense of the complicated world that we live in.10 So while much magic tiptoes its way into the world of science, a lot of science pushes—or, dare I say it, bulldozes—its way into the world of magic.

    Seeing in the dark was once an ability that only cats and sorcerers could wield; now anyone with the right set of goggles can manage it. Reading minds was once the territory of oracles and Charles Xavier, but technology is on the verge of granting us the ability to detect what completely paralyzed patients who have lost motor control of their mouths are thinking. In days long gone, the idea of flying on a carpet or broom was strictly the stuff of fantasy. Now we have individuals, such as Yves Rossy of Switzerland, who dart through the skies via jet-propelled devices similar to the flight system used by Tony Stark in Iron Man.

    Such developments are not limited merely to the world of engineering. While love potions were once only found in Shakespearean plays and the workshops of witches, we now have a veritable cornucopia of pharmaceuticals that can do everything from messing with sexual arousal to making two people more likely to become friends during an initial encounter. On a more frightening level, while it was once the remit of the Viking god Odin to possess the minds of his followers on the field of battle and transform them into the raging berserker warriors of legend, we are now starting to understand which compounds these men were consuming and have the potential to use them to create biochemically altered soldiers who feel neither pain nor fear. Many ethical issues arise here for sure, but all of these magical transitions into reality raise a much larger question about the nature of magic itself.

    Does knowing how something magical works make it into something other than magic? I had no idea when I set out to write this book. I had a long love of all things magical found in our mythology, but as a paleontologist by training and a science journalist by profession, I also had a passion for understanding the realities underlying complex systems. After spending two years poring over the myths, beliefs, and rituals of our ancestors, I was still unsure. The question itself proved cloaked in illusion. If I considered just one or two isolated examples, it seemed deceptively simple to answer. However, the more I pondered the matter, the harder it became to grapple with.

    Long ago, when faced with perplexing questions, our ancestors trekked for hundreds of miles to gain wisdom from the great oracle at Delphi. When the FASTEN SEAT BELTS sign illuminated on my flight from London to Las Vegas, I realized that I was on a similar pilgrimage. To truly understand how knowing shaped magic, I needed the help of a magician.

    Onstage, Teller may be the silent half of the magic and comedy duo Penn & Teller, but he is hardly silent behind the scenes. He has a sharp philosophical mind, and while he speaks quietly compared to his towering companion, his every word is valuable.

    As I asked him about the relationship between knowing and magic, he quoted his magician friend Mike Close as saying, “Magic is the gift of a stone in your shoe. You leave with something that you can’t quite figure out and just can’t stop thinking about.” That seemed to fit perfectly with what I knew of modern stage magicians. Keeping audiences guessing was pivotal to their profession. However, just moments later, Teller added, “To any enlightened dweller of our century, knowing increases wonder. I don’t just think this, I know it. If you believe, you oversimplify in the way a child might initially believe there is no complex evolution of life. That simplification in no way increases your sense of wonder. If, however, you know how life came to be on our planet, the wonder is immense!”

    His answers were a riddle worthy of the oracle herself. If magic depended upon a viewer’s not knowing how the magic happened, and if knowing was directly tied to a sense of wonder, was Teller saying that being duped by a trick was not as wondrous as knowing how the trick was done? That couldn’t be right. Could it?

    What the answer is, or whether there even is one, will, I hope, become clear as we embark on this exploration of the ways in which magic through the ages has been wielded, crept into our stories, guided our research, and in many cases come to be much more than myth.

    I. Just in case you were wondering, it is the full moon and not that shot of espresso you had before dinner. Well, the shot wouldn’t help, but the moon does seem to mess with our sleep patterns. More on that later, though.

    II. Incidentally, the ever-vigilant gaze of the rabbit was thought to provide protection against the “evil eye.” However, rabbit eyeballs don’t do too well after a few days on the end of a key chain. In contrast, fluffy feet hold up for years and have the added benefit of retaining cheap pink dyes rather nicely.

  • Table of Contents

    Introduction 1

    1 Healing: Prayers, Sacred Pools, Regeneration, and Holy Eyeliner 9

    2 Transformation: Into Animals, Berserk Warriors, Super soldiers, and the Other Gender 31

    3 Immortality and Longevity: Elixirs of Life, Holy Grails, and Distilled Alchemist Pee 53

    4 Supernatural Skies: Sunstones, Plagues, the Power of Planets, and Summoning Storms 74

    5 Animals and Plants as Omens, Guides, and Gods: Odin's Wolves and Ravens, Death Cats, Talking Forests, and Birds That Predict the Weather 101

    6 Prophecy: Liver Readers, "High" Priestesses, and Mind-Reading Devices 129

    7 Beyond the Grave: Underworld Gateways, Guardians of the Dead, and Near Death 147

    8 Enchantment: Love Potions, Sleeping Drafts, Mind-Altering Fruit, and Penises Pierced with Stingray Spines 163

    9 Superhumans: Savants, Buddhist Monks, Sword Swallowers, Firewalkers, and Stage Magicians 186

    Conclusion 211

    Acknowledgments 215

    Notes 217

    Index 237

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