Stanford folklorist and science historian Adrienne Mayor has a fascinating-sounding new book out, titled "Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology
." It's a survey of how ancient Greeks, Romans, Indian, and Chinese myths imagined and grappled with visions of synthetic life, artificial intelligence, and autonomous robots. From Mayor's interview
at Princeton University Press:
Who first imagined the concept of robots?
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Most historians of science trace the first automatons to the Middle Ages. But I wondered, was it possible that ideas about creating artificial life were thinkable long before technology made such enterprises possible? Remarkably, as early as the time of Homer, ancient Greek myths were envisioning how to imitate, augment, and surpass nature, by means of biotechne, “life through craft”—what we now call biotechnology. Beings described as fabricated, “made, not born,” appeared in myths about Jason and the Argonauts, the sorceress Medea, the bronze robot Talos, the ingenious craftsman Daedalus, the fire-bringer Prometheus, and Pandora, the female android created by Hephaestus, god of invention. These vivid stories were ancient thought experiments set in an alternate world where technology was marvelously advanced.
Modern sci-fi movies pop up in several chapters. How do they relate to ancient myths?
Some 2,500 years before movies were invented, ancient Greek vase painters illustrated popular stories of the bronze robot warrior Talos, the techno-wizard Medea, and the fembot Pandora dispatched to earth on an evil mission, in ways that seem very “cinematic...”
Movies and myths about imagined technology are cultural dreams. Like contemporary science fiction tales, the myths show how the power of imagination allows humans to ponder how artificial life might be created—if only one possessed sublime technology and genius.
Thersa Matsuura was born and raised in the USA but spent the past 25 years -- more than half her life -- living in a small Japanese fishing village with her husband and son. Read the rest
Readers of Neil Gaiman's essay collection The View From the Cheap Seats know how influential Jack Kirby's Mighty Thor and Roger Lancelyn Green's Myths of the Norsemen were on his work -- an influence that shows in books like American Gods and Odd and the Frost Giants -- so we were all excited when WW Norton announced that Gaiman would write a novelistic retelling of the Norse myths for them. Read the rest
See sample pages from this book at Wink.
If Walt Disney gave us the definitive picture of German fairy tales such as Cinderella and Snow White, first published in 1812 by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Kay Nielsen helped the world imagine the settings and characters found in the stories of Norwegian folklorists Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe. The lifelong friends were inspired by the Grimms, and like the brothers, the look of the stories they had collected came to life many years after they were published in 1841. In the case of Asbjørnsen and Moe, the catalyst was a London publisher named Hodder & Stoughton, which hired Danish artist Nielsen, in 1914, to illustrate a collection of the friends’ Norwegian stories called East of the Sun and West of the Moon.
That volume is reproduced in its entirety, with a gorgeous new layout by Andy Disl, in a new slipcovered book from Taschen. Like the Hodder & Stoughton version, Nielsen’s illustrations are the book’s stars. Unlike it, the Taschen package also includes illustrated essays about Asbjørnsen and Moe’s contribution to the 19th-century’s preoccupation with “indigenous literature,” as well as an overview of Nielsen’s career, which included a stop at Walt Disney’s studio to create the artwork for the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in the 1941 animated masterpiece, Fantasia.
Nielsen’s influences ranged from the Art Nouveau fantasies of Aubrey Beardsley, which can be seen in his earliest work, to Japanese woodcuts and the Ballet Russes, which dominate East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Read the rest
A most bizarre book from the late 18th century.
The Bigfoot Show is the best bigfoot podcast you're not listening to.
Wired's Matt Stone collects the monsters imagined by 19th-century lumberjacks in the wilds of North America. My favorite is the deranged splinter cat, reputed to headbutt trees, thereby causing shards of wood to fly everywhere.
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The Splinter Cat
Scientific name: Nasusossificatus arbordemolieus
Responsible for: shattered trees
This husky feline is an indiscriminate destroyer of hollow trees, which it mines for bees and raccoons. Climbing a tree, it propels itself off with powerful legs right into another, blasting the trunk with its wedge-shaped snout and reinforced noggin. The experienced frontiersman knows well “the moronic activities of the Splinter Cat,” writes Henry H. Tryon, who published his own Fearsome Critters in 1939, three decades after Cox’s encyclopedia. “If the Cat finds food in the ruptured trunk, he is temporarily appeased. If not, he goes immediately for another tree. And right there is the big trouble. The Cat doesn’t use any judgment in selecting trees, he just smashes one after another until he gets a meal.”
"Hearsay: Artists Reveal Urban Legends" is a new group exhibition at California State University, Fullerton's Begovich Gallery where artists were asked to create pieces about modern day myths that resonate with them in some personal way. More than three dozen artists participated including Boing Boing favorites like Ransom & Mitchell, Jeffrey Vallance, Robert Williams, and Victoria Reynolds. Above, Chris Farling's "Sewer Gator." Below, Lew Delport's "The Goatman" and Ransom & Mitchell's "Teke Teke." (Thanks, Bob Pescovitz!) Read the rest
I'm really enjoying Jason Colavito's reviews of The History Channel's hilarious/infuriating hit show Ancient Aliens. What makes them better than the average blog? Colavito is an author who has written extensively about the anthropology of pseudoscience, and the connections between pseudoscience, religion, and science fiction. So his recaps are less about debunking the claims made on Ancient Aliens (because, really, that's just too damn easy) and more about exploring where those claims come from, pop-culturally, and what makes them so appealing, to begin with. Fascinating stuff. Read the rest
"Born in the caul" is a phrase that's connected with a lot of cross-cultural myths and superstitions — babies born in the caul are supposed to be destined for lives of fame and fortune (or, possibly, misfortune and grisly death, depending on which legends you're listening to). Biologically, though, it refers to a baby that's born with part of the amniotic sac — the bubble of fluid a fetus grows in inside the uterus — still attached. Usually, a piece of the sac is draped over the baby's head or face. These are called caul births, and they're rare. But, about once in every 80,000 births, you'll get something truly extraordinary — "en-caul", a baby born inside a completely intact amniotic sac, fluid and all.
There's a photo of a recent en-caul birth making the rounds online. The photo is being attributed to Greek obstetrician Aris Tsigris. It's fascinating. But it's also pretty graphic, so fair warning on that. (If the sight of newborn infants and blood gives you the vapors, you might also want to avoid most of the links in this post, as well.) Read the rest
The creators of ElfQuest liked my artwork for our interview with them so much, they put it on a T-shirt! You should buy this t-shirt now: secrets from the lost decade will be conferred upon anyone I meet wearing one of them. It's available in coffee, cream and olive (pictured), from S to XXXL. Close-ups of the design (in the form of desktop and tablet wallpapers) are after the jump. Read the rest
The Golden Ratio — that geometric expression of the Fibonacci sequence of numbers (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, etc.) — has influenced the way master painters created art and can be spotted occurring naturally in the seed arrangement on the face of a sunflower. But its serendipitous appearances aren't nearly as frequent as pop culture would have you believe, writes Samuel Arbesman at The Nautilus. In fact, one of the most common examples of mathematical perfection — the chambered nautilus shell — actually isn't. Even math can become part of the myths we tell ourselves as we try to create meaning in the universe.
Image: Golden Ratio, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from ernestduffoo's photostream
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OK, I know that I promised to never post anything ever again about a certain hypothetical disaster that rhymes with Schmapocalypse MiffyMelve, but hear me out. This really isn't about that. Instead, I want to highlight an excellent profile of a scientist whose work and interactions with the public have been affected by that unnamed bit of urban mythology.
David Morrison is a 72-year-old senior scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center. He runs NASA's "Ask an Astrobiologist" column, and considers it his way of following in the footsteps of Carl Sagan. In this story, written by Dan Duray at The Awl, we learn about Morrison's deep commitment to communicating science to the public ... a commitment that has led him to spend the last eight years answering a increasingly heavy flood of letters about the end of the world. It's an interesting look at the effects pop culture has on real people.
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The questions that Dr. Morrison receives circle around a surprisingly cohesive set of theories, each grounded in some kind of real science that then veers off in a wild direction ... It's possible that many of the people who write to Dr. Morrison are trolls, or have Kindle books to sell, or want to garner enough YouTube views to merit an ad before their videos (some of the "Nibiru exposed" videos now feature a pre-roll for the conspiracy movie Branded). But his younger questioners certainly aren't faking it. He read me some of the more serious emails over the phone:
"I know that everyone has been asking you the same question but how do I know the world is not going to end by a planet or a flood or something?
In 1937, someone from the Worker's Project Administration interviewed an aging cowboy, L.M. Cox of Brownwood, Texas, as part of an effort to record America's oral history.
At the Ptak Science Books blog you can read the full interview with Mr. Cox and get a rare, inside look at what life was really like in the Old West. This is why oral history is interesting to me. It's a chance to capture what life was really life, without the varnish (or at least as much of the varnish) that you'd find in a novel, or a movie, or even a formal letter. It allows us to consider someone else's everyday life, outside the mystique of their time. Cool stuff.
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"The usual ride was sixteen hours per day. No Union hours for them. It was from daylight until dark with work, and hard work as that. One cowboy complained of having to eat two suppers, so he quit, packed his bed and left. In about three months he returned, carrying only a bull's-eye lantern, saying that where he had been working he needed only the lantern and had no use for the bed.
... "In the late 80's and early 90's came the covered wagons and then the sheepman. We stood the covered wagons pretty well but it took a long time to get on friendly terms with the sheepman. They were sure enough trespassers in the cowman's eye. One sheepman got his flock located on some good grass and the cowmen came along and ordered him off their premises.