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Medusa's Gaze and Vampire's Bite: The Science of Monsters [Hardcover]

Matt Kaplan
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)

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Book Description

October 23, 2012 1451667981 978-1451667981 1ST
We all know “there’s no such thing as monsters,” but our imaginations tell us otherwise. From the mythical beasts of ancient Greece to the hormonal vampires of the Twilight saga, monsters have captivated us for millennia. Matt Kaplan, a noted science journalist and monster-myth enthusiast, employs an entertaining mix of cutting-edge research and a love of lore to explore the history behind these fantastical fictions and our hardwired obsession with things that go bump in the night.

Ranging across history, Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite tackles the enduring questions that arise on the frontier between fantasy and reality. What caused ancient Minoans to create the tale of the Minotaur and its subterranean maze? Did dragons really exist? What inspired the creation of vampires and werewolves, and why are we so drawn to them?

With the eye of a journalist and the voice of a storyteller, Kaplan takes readers to the forefront of science, where our favorite figures of horror may find real-life validation. Does the legendary Kraken, a squid of epic proportions, really roam the deep? Are we close to making Jurassic Park a reality by replicating a dinosaur from fossilized DNA? As our fears evolve, so do our monsters, and Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite charts the rise of the ultimate beasts, humans themselves.

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Editorial Reviews


“In this insightful guide to mythic monsters, Matt Kaplan not only tracks the likely ancient origins of terrifying beasts, but predicts how these nightmarish creatures are evolving today and might manifest themselves in our future.”—Adrienne Mayor, author of The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times

“Kaplan merges his incisive wit and clever pen into what can only be described as a delightfully seductive little monster.”—Eli Finkel, Professor of Psychology, Northwestern University

"A wonderful read for movie and history buffs that will leave you believing monsters are real!"—John Carls, Producer of Where the Wild Things Are

About the Author

Matt Kaplan is a science journalist, regularly contributing to National Geographic, New Scientist, Nature, and The Economist. His writing has also appeared in The New York Times. When not chained to a desk, Kaplan travels the wilds of the world as part of a London expedition team. He lives in London.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; 1ST edition (October 23, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1451667981
  • ISBN-13: 978-1451667981
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.4 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #496,477 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Matt Kaplan's "Medusa's Gaze and Vampire's Bite: The Science of Monsters" is an engaging, lightweight survey of the origins of various mythical monsters like the Minotaur, Rok, Medusa, dragons, demons, vampires, ghosts, spirits and others. This is not a book about crytpozoology, and scarcely a word is said of Nessie, Bigfoor, Yeti or other modern legends. Instead, Kaplan's book is a fun romp with lots of speculation about how beasts as diverse as fire-breathing dragons and Frankenstein's Monster came to occupy a place in the mythic imagination. For better or worse, the book is a bit like a long and informative magazine article, not a scholarly work.

For meatier entries in the same genre, you might want to take a look at Vampire Forensics: Uncovering the Origins of an Enduring Legend (a thorough explanation of the origins of various vampire legends); When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth (a fascinating book about the origins and uses of myths); and The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times (New in Paper)(how fossils inspired the Greek and Roman myths of mighty monsters).
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
An excellent read! My 15 year old grandson said it was great and could he please have another like it. I thoroughly enjoyed it as well.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting read, even if you are not a monster fan. November 21, 2012
I got this book as a gift and must admit I never really considered the reasons behind the existence of monsters. Thanks Matt Kaplan for explaining to me how fear can take different shapes. I particularly like he has taken his job seriously and done his research. It is an entertaining read for those of us who are into science and not necessarily into monsters.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Monsters Reveal Our Humanity November 14, 2012
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
After hearing Matt Kaplan's interview on NPR's Science Friday, I immediately purchased the book for my Kindle. I devoured it that weekend. I love mythology and legends, and I'm always fascinated by the origins of stories. I found Kaplan's book accessible and engaging, especially for a general audience. I really enjoyed how he balanced his scientific information with a discussion of how the monster or legend has been depicted in art and developed through storytelling, even in modern films. However, I did appreciate that he did not dilute or disguise the scholarly nature of his sources.

I very much enjoyed the book though I wish it had been longer, more developed and detailed. I would like to know more about the research into zombie creation or the historical circumstances leading to the rise of the vampire and werewolf legends. However, Kaplan's purpose is to entertain as much as to inform, so I understand the need to keep the book balanced. His list of sources is extensive; I have every confidence that I'll be able to sate my appetite for more information.

This book is a wonderful introduction into how monsters reveal our humanity.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Rationalizing the Origins of Monsters December 4, 2012
In a fascinating romp through history, ancient as well as recent, and using a healthy dose of human psychology, the author attempts to reconstruct the origins of various mythical monsters. From ancient myths such as the Nemean Lion, the Chimera, the Griffon, the Minotaur and Medusa through medieval ones such as the Dragon and on to more recent creatures such as vampires, werewolves, zombies and aliens to name a few, the author has covered much territory. In each case, he tries to understand how the "birth" of such a creature could have taken place and how it has evolved over time.

I found this book to be quite captivating. The author's prose is clear, lively, quite accessible and even, on occasion, quite humorous (especially in the footnotes). I did find one error, though. On page 58 where radiocarbon dating is discussed, the author states that "... carbon 14 loses energy and slowly degrades into carbon 12". This is incorrect. Although I found this particular discussion to be a bit awkward, the fact is that carbon 14 decays by beta(-) emission to become stable nitrogen 14. Thus radiocarbon dating involves looking at the ratio of carbon 14 to carbon 12 in (non-living) organic matter, since this ratio decreases over time following the death of the organism.

But despite this shortcoming, I found this book to be most fascinating and a pleasure to read. It can be enjoyed by anyone, especially those interested in human psychology, science, history and, of course, monsters.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This was another gift. It, too, was just what I wanted. Gift receiver says maybe now she can understand what her young daughter is talking about when she speaks of Zombes, Vampires, and other popular monsters.:-)
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great January 11, 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Excellent for anyone who likes psychology and mythology in one book. Not too cumbersome in length. Well bound and thick pages.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An incredible tour de force December 4, 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
To give credit where it is due, my attention was drawn to this book by a Public Radio interview. Although I have made a fairly firm commitment to not purchase new books for myself (with a few rare exceptions), it was immediately obvious from the discussion that this would be an ideal gift for my teenage grandson who is a voracious reader. He hasn't received it yet, because I needed to read it first, but I believe my analysis of his interest will prove to be correct.

Kaplan has accomplished an incredible tour de force in terms of blending myth, science, psychology, his own expertise in paleontology, and historical investigation to produce a completely cohesive discussion of the "monster phenomenon". By the way, DO NOT skip the footnotes! Kaplan's exquisite tongue-in-cheek humor comes out most brilliantly there.

The paleontology comes into play as Kaplan discusses various mythical beasts like the Chimera and Griffon, which combine the improbable body-parts of different animals, and his discussion of the possible involvement of fossilized remains, especially those found in tar pits, is completely delightful. Likewise, his explanation of the association of fire-breathing dragons with hidden hoards, especially in burial chambers, is exquisite.

However, what I believe lifts this book beyond the level of simply fascinating to the realm of extremely insightful is the theme of the interplay of human fears as they evolve. In his conclusion, he explains: "People have always looked to the horizon and feared that which they did not understand." He goes on to point out that the horizon has been continually expanding: from the edge of the forest to the darkness of the sea to the vastness of space. But this is not, contrary to Star Trek, the "final frontier".
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic
Cannot fault this book, such a good read. It really feels like Matt Kaplan is just chatting to you, all the ideas are laid out clearly showing both the ideas he has accepted and... Read more
Published 3 days ago by Veronica
4.0 out of 5 stars An Easy and Interesting Read
Kaplan uses modern science to speculate about how various mythical monsters, such as the chimera, Medusa, vampires, werewolves, and even Jaws came about, and why they appeared when... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Lindsey
4.0 out of 5 stars The Logic Beyond Our Myths
An entertaining look at the monsters and mythical figures that have been part of the collective human memory from the beginning of our history to the present pop culture, and how... Read more
Published 6 months ago by Heather K. Michon
5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful gift for those who are really into Halloween and such!
This was a gift for my son last year. Perfect for any person who's really into this kind of stuff.
Published 7 months ago by Carolyn E. Mulhall
4.0 out of 5 stars Legends of past and the present.
This was our October Science Book club choice and I will say it's a fine choice. It's got some interesting historical facts and inferences. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Jeffrey
2.0 out of 5 stars Here there be monsters
_Medusa's Gaze_ was recommended by The Economist (1-year auto-renewal), for whom Kaplan is a frequent contributor as a science writer. Read more
Published 12 months ago by doc peterson
5.0 out of 5 stars gift
i gave this as a holiday gift
person found it to be an easy and yet interesting read
i would recommend it
Published 14 months ago by david conway
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting popular work
I was hoping for something a bit more scholarly but it is entertaining. If you are looking for indepth inquiry or academic insight, seek elsewhere.
Published 15 months ago by Eleanor Latham
3.0 out of 5 stars Tabloid Science
I found this book condescending. I always say I like popular writing, but this book takes the pop style too far. Read more
Published 16 months ago by R. Golen
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting approach to the origins of monsters
Kaplan nimbly delves into psychology, microbiology, palaeontology and history (to name just a few fields) in order to guide the reader on an enjoyable journey to explore the... Read more
Published 16 months ago by Lukmar
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