Thursday, December 4, 2008

Butler Lecture: Fossils and Mythology

In school, I was always the girl who loved English class and dreaded science and math. But, as odd as it seems, I just can't get enough of the J. James Woods science and math lecture series at Butler University.

Last year, the series brought us Michael Pollan, and the lecture topics never fail to intrigue me: the psychology of cognitive dissonance, the nature of dark matter, the forensics of evolution.

Last night's lecture didn't disappoint, either. Adrienne Mayor, a folklorist and historian of ancient science, discussed how early fossil finds influenced Greek mythology. After all, what were those ancient Greek farmers supposed to think when they plowed up gigantic bones? The largest animal they'd ever seen was a horse, so they naturally assumed the bones belonged to mythical gods and monsters.

One great example: the legendary griffin, with a lion's body and a bird's beak and wings, was probably inspired by a common dinosaur fossil in the area. Same goes for the Monster of Troy, which was painted in the image of another giant fossil.

What I really love about the Woods lecture series is this: You probably haven't spent much time thinking about ancient fossils, dark matter or cognitive dissonance. But this lecture series manages to make the topic not just interesting but also relevant to the way you view the world. Now, that's really something.

Next up: biologist and deep-sea explorer Edith Widder, who will discuss our methods of observing deep-sea environments (7:30 p.m., March 4).

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