Academic journal article Western Folklore

Science, Bread, and Circuses: Folkloristic Essays on Science for the Masses

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Science, Bread, and Circuses: Folkloristic Essays on Science for the Masses

Article excerpt

Science, Bread, and Circuses: Folkloristic Essays on Science for the Masses. By Gregory Schrempp. (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2014. Pp. x + 167, acknowledgments, introduction, references, fi lmography, author bio, index. $26.95 paperback.)

Following on the heels of his earlier work, The Ancient Mythology of Modern Science (2012), folklorist Gregory Schrempp here turns his attention to ten instances of popular science writing and their impact-or potential impact-on the reading public. His approach is to examine how certain suasive aspects of modern science are presented for the general (i.e., non-technical) reader using rhetorical techniques that he sees as drawn from mythology. He looks at how writers compare astronomic magnitudes to homely and familiar experiences ("if the Earth were the size of a baseball, then..."), using what he considers a "proverbial" approach; how learning to think like science "heroes" such as Leonardo da vinci and Copernicus can improve the intellect (a theme continued with an essay on science gurus such as Carl Sagan); Richard Dawkins's notion of ideas that "go viral" (memes), as applied to fairy tales; how science writers create a cosmic mythology as a way of providing "bread and circuses" (the term originates with the Roman writer Juvenal) for a populace supposedly adrift in a cold and unfeeling universe; the "Capra-Corn Cosmos" as sketched in the science-education films produced by Frank Capra in the 1950s; the homely and emotionally charged musings of Garrison Keillor and Carl Sagan about planetary imagery; the "lessons" of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster; a "mythological reading" of Stoppard's play Jumpers; and a look at Lucretius as the popular science writer of his day.

In all these essays, Schrempp focuses on particular writers as exemplary of the general theme of a "science for the masses" that makes use of a rhetorical scaffolding that one finds in classical mythology to convey a message for our time. His take is generally careful and slightly ironic (less slightly in some instances), and the interpretations make sense, though they are of course his own. To write about anything is to interpret it; to read what is written adds another layer of interpretation; to transcribe one's interpretations adds at least one more layer; and to read another's interpretation is to add yet another: thus, in reading this review, you are adding still another layer, and one could go on and on. …

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