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Physical Chemistry

The Role Of Myths

March 19, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 12

I enjoyed Howard Lovy’s defense of myth in “Deciphering the Magic of Reality” (C&EN, Jan. 9, page 36). Indeed, myth is one of humankind’s most valuable teaching tools. However, I was disappointed that he recognized myth only as a valuable tool to preserve culture. Myth is much more valuable than that. In one telling section, Lovy discusses feeling “strangely defensive” of myths and concludes that he values them because “they are an important part of the way my parents raised me.” He goes on to cite a conversation with his son where they conclude that “Star Wars” is different from “The Legend of Sleeping Bear” because nobody makes truth claims about “Star Wars.” This is where Lovy misses the point.

Of course, myths are not factual. In fact, in most cases, the culture that created them did not intend them to be factual stories. But myths, including modern-day fantasy and science-fiction films, are true in a very important sense of the word. The truth in myths is very different from scientific truth, which seeks mostly to reveal factual knowledge. Myths explore those unobservable and, for the most part, unquantifiable aspects of the human experience that exist beyond the reach of ordinary language.

One such example is the depth of a mother’s love for her children, as we see in “The Legend of Sleeping Bear.” There is, to be sure, a scientific truth regarding that kind of love that is exceedingly valuable. There is also a deeper feeling of that love that science does not adequately explain and that humans have searched throughout history for the words to explain. It is precisely that sort of truth that myth handles best, and the sleeping bear legend is a great example. Both truths are valuable.

In my opinion, the appropriate response to young Max’s comment that nobody makes truth claims about “Star Wars” would have been that although nobody says that anything in “Star Wars” actually happened or even could have happened, it nonetheless reveals truth about the human condition. That is what makes “Star Wars” and other stories like it, including myths, worthwhile. Finally, to Howard Lovy, your defense of myth is not strange and, I suspect, does not arise strictly because of your childhood. Your soft spot for myth is the same soft spot that humans have felt for all of time—myths help us explain our human connections and relationships in ways that are beyond mere words and numbers. That is okay, even for scientists.

By Ross Lovely
Duluth, Minn.

I had no sooner finished reading Dava Sobel’s “A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos” than I picked up my C&EN to read the review of Richard Dawkins’ new book in Max and Howard Lovy’s “Deciphering the Magic of Reality.”

Copernicus lived in the geocentric world of Ptolemy, a “myth” that had persisted for 1,500 years. A lifetime of meticulous measurements caused Copernicus to slowly realize that Ptolemy’s construct had to give way to a heliocentric model. Likewise, many of the myths cited by the reviewers of Dawkins’ book had to bow to the scrutiny of new knowledge and better observations. Let us keep in mind, however, that the myths of the past were attempts of thinking human beings to make sense of the world they lived in using the means at their disposal at the time, often just their five senses.

They deserve more than dismissal with “a wink and a nod.” The myths were the cutting-edge thought constructs of their time embedded in traditions and cultures of varying worldviews and, as such, deserve respect, not contempt. We also have to ask if our present models of the universe and all that it contains will persist as long as Ptolemy’s, or might we see some of them crumble within our lifetime?

By Mary Virginia Orna
New Rochelle, NY


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