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

4.2 out of 5 stars 52 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1451667981
ISBN-10: 1451667981
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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 correspondent with The Economist. He has also contributed to National Geographic, New Scientist, Nature, and The New York Times. He is the author of the book The Science of Monsters. In 2014, Kaplan was awarded a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship which he used to study the sciences at MIT and folklore at Harvard.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner (October 23, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1451667981
  • ISBN-13: 978-1451667981
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (52 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #620,040 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By William Holmes VINE VOICE on February 10, 2013
Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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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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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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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