Science of the Magical with Matt Kaplan ’15

The idea of a Holy Grail, a cup, dish or plate that gives its user special protective powers, might seem like a fantasy. But for Matt Kaplan, science journalist and former Knight Fellow (2014-’15), it also served as inspiration for scientific inquiry and for his latest book.

Trained as a paleontologist, Kaplan now works as a science correspondent for The Economist. There he’s written stories ranging from how some beanstalks use fungi to signal danger to its neighbors to how aircraft designers might learn how to better protect their designs from atmospheric dust by studying African desert scorpions. But it’s questions about the reality behind magic and legends that has led Kaplan to author two intriguing books: 2012’s The Science of Monsters and this year’s Science of the Magical, which hit bookstores on October 27.

In Science of the Magical, Kaplan explores the possible scientific origins of elixirs of life, love potions, and magical places. For instance, Kaplan investigates the idea that a chalice made of calcium carbonate, a sort of Holy Grail, might prevent arsenic poisoning, a homicidal method feared by many ancient rulers. To that end, Kaplan first consulted with a chemist, who said that such a cup could possibly draw arsenic out of a solution, forming a layer calcium arsenate on the surface of the cup. But Kaplan didn’t stop there. He then worked with a toxicologist and environmental engineers to test his hypothesis. And while the results of his tests did not prove his hypothesis, Kaplan’s curiosity remains. He now wonders if “the arsenic we had was different from the arsenic used to murder people hundreds of years ago.”

His work investigates this and many other questions raised by the intersection of science and tales of old time magic. Kaplan believes that “…mythology and science are actually two sides of the same coin,“[1], two different ways that people have tried to explain the world around them, and Science of the Magical explores this connection in depth.

For those interested in learning more, the Knight Science Journalism program will be hosting a book reading and discussion for Matt Kaplan and Science of the Magical at 5 p.m. on Thursday, October 29 in the KSJ conference room, room E19-623, 400 Main St., Cambridge, MA, on the MIT campus. The reading is also sponsored by MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society and MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing.

[1] Ted Ed The scientific origins of the Minotaur – Matt Kaplan