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December 1, 2012 @ 5:17 pm

Episode 52: Luke Harmon

Today’s episode might sound as though I am ragging on the writers of fantasy for varnishing their tales with a thin veneer of scientific lingo. That is not so. My view is, We gotta start somewhere. Human children are not turkeys, or dragons. They don’t hatch knowing the scientific method, and it can’t be imprinted on them, either, as much of our educational system seems to assume. At that stage, especially,

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

-Albert Einstein

There’s actually a really good story where a time traveler tries to speed up scientific progress by trying to teach the modern scientific method in its full complexity to the Greeks, with sample sizes and statistics and the whole replicability shebang. The example I remember from the story was that Aristotle repeatedly said women have fewer teeth than men, but never bothered to actually open a woman’s mouth and count. Like most time travel stories, it didn’t work. The Greeks rejected the modern scientific method as too much trouble. Little kids are the same way. A little imaginary sugar makes the science go down smoother.  I think of it as a developmental stage, but hell, even a professional science geek like Luke Harmon thinks the scientific literature is boring, and he writes the stuff.


Here’s a recent and super-fun example of how the real-life Vikings were better traders than they were scientists. They never discovered the secret of making crucible steel for themselves; once they lost the trade route, they lost the metal. Though I guess the engineering of the armor-piercing shapes of the blades should count for something.

There is one thing that the dragon movie nails, beautifully. There’s a moment when Hiccup says to Toothless, “Everything we know about you guys is wrong.” That’s the very essence of science, and my intuition is that such moments have become more common in pop culture. How would we test that?

References from the show:

Dreamworks Dragons: Riders of Berk


Cressida Crowell, author of the How to Train Your Dragon books


Spiderwick Chronicles (the field guide, particularly)


Three Hearts & Three Lions


Glory Road


The Dragon & the George


Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law (scroll way down)


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