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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Column: Imaginary science

My boyfriend once asked me, “Do mermaids have swim bladders?” I didn’t think so, but my mermaid biology is a bit shaky. Do mermaids carry live young or lay eggs? They appear to have mammary glands, yet the naughty bits are on the fish half. Do mermaids have sex, or do the mermen just swim by and spray sperm on the mereggs? No wonder Ariel wanted to be human.

Mythical biology is a fun thing to ponder. I’m not the only one who spends brainpower trying to figure out an imaginary world. Find me a geek who hasn’t scrolled down the “Physics and Star Trek” Wikipedia page.

It’s also fascinating to think about how much mythology is rooted in scientific fact. Dragons make a lot of sense when you think about dinosaur bones. Angry gods and fire-breathing lizards weren’t fiction in the olden days – mythology explained how the real world worked. Life made sense with sea serpents and Zeus wreaking havoc.

Sea serpents are particularly interesting, because the mariners of old weren’t wrong. There are giants beasts haunting the depths. There are giant Pacific octopi weighing 600 pounds off the coast of Oregon. A 57-foot giant squid did wash ashore in New Zealand in 1887, as Richard Ellis wrote in The Search for the Giant Squid. Back in the day, a giant squid’s tentacles seen thrashing from the water were viewed as a swarm of giant sea “worms.” Makes sense. Even the shyer giant squid stares through the fathoms with eyes 15 inches across.

Stories of ships wrecked by sea monsters were taken seriously in the olden days – and some of the tales were probably true. We know that in 1819, a whaling ship called the Essex sank after being rammed by a pissed-off sperm whale, as Nathaniel Philbrick wrote in The Heart of the Sea. The true tale inspired Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

When I was 13, my family visited Scotland. We drove down to the shore of Loch Ness and I looked across the water, waiting for something to happen. I’d seen the Discovery Channel documentaries where they use sonar and spot a mysterious shape that could be either Nessie or a sunken log, and I had always hoped it’d be Nessie.

I don’t know how she could survive in a lake for so long – sightings date back until at least AD 565, when St. Columba tried to banish the monster – but I love how the myth of Nessie has developed as science has advanced. Now that we know more about dinosaurs, my fellow hopefuls hypothesize that Nessie is a relative of the extinct plesiosaur. Nessie doesn’t exist. I can write that and still wonder how a fictional creature has earned so much press. People devote research money to a myth.

I was hesitant to touch the water standing on the bank of Loch Ness. I wanted to collect some rocks to pose for my own Nessie hoax photograph. I stacked the stones so one tall rock could be the long neck, and a flatter stone could be the head. In the photograph, my monster just looks like a pile of carefully arranged rocks, but I remember how I really wanted to be part of the myth. My little brother and I looked across the wide lake, wondering if the ripples came from a giant creature under the surface.

I understand what the ancient Greeks were thinking when they used Zeus to explain lightening. Science, like mythology, gives us comforting explanations for the mysterious.

But I don’t want a world without mystery. Until 2006, no one had ever photographed a live giant squid, according to nationalgeographic.com – and I liked it that way. There should always be debates over sunken logs or plesiosaurs.

MADELINE McCURRY-SCHMIDT took a break this week from writing about insects. If you have more column ideas, e-mail her at memschmidt@ucdavis.edu.

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