Thursday, October 29, 2015

Review: Science of the Magical From the Holy Grail to Love Potions to Superpowers by Matt Kaplan

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.

I was on the fence about requesting this book because I wanted to take a break from reading non-fiction books, so I'm glad I decided to give a try.

In Science of the Magical From the Holy Grail to Love Potions to Superpowers, we take a look at legends and stories from literature and elsewhere, and see if they are actually possible or have a basis in fact.

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised, but I didn't really expect such a detailed and scientific book. For a lot of the topics here, there were studies that explained the possible mechanisms and explanations behind things like limb generation ala Wolverine, the ten plagues of Egypt, plus plenty of Greek myths. The author even conducted his own experiments (with experts guiding him) for some of the stories. I was definitely impressed by that.

I learned a lot of things from this book, and I think members of the scientific community, as well as those who aspire to be researchers, scientists or doctors in the future, should read this book as well. Why? Because aside from explaining how our ancestors possibly came up with certain elements in their legends, the book also brings up certain ideas, findings or studies that  could be very useful and should be explored further.

One example that stands out because it could be quite groundbreaking is a study in mice that could pave the way for an autism treatment. Autistic mice who were given the drug did not behave differently from regular mice, but the effect disappeared once the drug had disappeared from their system. The drug isn't a long-term solution, though, because it has toxic effects over time, but it does show scientists a good path to explore.

Overall, I thought this book was quite fascinating, and even though it did contain a lot of material and explanations taken from scientific studies and interviews/consultations with experts, I was not bored at all. There was something light and almost conversational about the tone the author used, so it felt a little bit to me like I was just discussing scientific articles with my college classmates.

Thanks to NetGalley and Scribner for the e-ARC.


  1. You'll learn a lot.
  2. It includes the results of several studies that have very interesting real-world applications.
  3. The scientific ideas and explanations are presented in a way that doesn't feel like you're reading a textbook for school. 


  1. Some may feel that it can get too technical at times. 


  1. You've wondered if myths and legends have a basis in reality.
  2. You like science, especially medicine and chemistry.
  3. You like learning new things. 




Note: This post contains Amazon and Book Depository affiliate links.

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