welcome to the spring 2009 edition of hsci 1133, "science and popular culture"! I'm glad you're enrolled, excited about getting started, and looking forward to exploring aspects of the class further here on the blog as we move along through the semester. Although the things I write about on the blog aren't confined to our class alone, the class is the heartbeat behind its existence, and during spring semester a great deal of what appears here will relate to course content.
Sometimes I'll post about a topic or issue that will be coming up soon on the schedule, and providing a sneak preview -- as you'll see below about dinosaurs as scientific icons. Other times I'll supplement our course materials by seeing what I can turn up on the web, just meandering down different avenues that allow you to do some extra exploration if you'd like -- as when we were looking at the history of conceptualizing the moon two years ago. Other times I may reflect on questions you all have raised in class or in your assignments -- this space gives me a place to work on my thinking about these questions at greater length outside of class (see, professors assign themselves homework, too!) Here's an example from a previous year, when we watched a 1950s television program that addressed evolution and religion. And there will be entries related to topics where there is so much interesting extra information to be found online, that I'll use this as a place to bring some of that together as a point of departure for those who might find particular areas interesting beyond what we've had time for in class or in the reading (for example, anyone up for pondering the relationship of medieval bestiaries and phenomena such as the Loch Ness Monster in the present day? Then you're in luck!). Or sometimes, stuff that is just fun (like history of science and Halloween.)
This week coming up we'll begin discussing the kinds of symbolic images that appear within popular culture relating to science -- as a kind of quick example, I passed out brochures last class that advertised the "Walking with Dinosaurs" extravaganza that rolled into OKC this weekend at the Ford Center downtown (here's a newspaper review and here's the official site where you can get a sense of the show and here's a review by a scientist, Brian Switek, at his blog Laelaps). Dinosaurs certainly loom large as scientific icons in the public sphere, and the idea of thousands of people gathering together in a darkened sports arena to watch million dollar mechanical/puppet/thingamajigs conjure dinosaurs back to the living world is certainly an interesting example of the intersection of science/education/entertainment/spectacle/commerce.
Trying to understand the ecology of dinosaur images as a social phenomenon even as it is a scientific one is part of our task in analyzing popular culture. For example, if the popular success of paleontology as seen by the arena rock status of "Walking with Dinosaurs" -- or the auction of the T. rex skeleton, Sue, in 1997 for 8.36 million dollars, and the busy schedule the copies of her bones have had in traveling around the US and the world -- are indicative of something powerfully significant, it would follow logically that paleontology would be a richly-endowed area of scientific research, with untold numbers of paleontologists-to-be clamoring to take part, right, with huge paleontological institutes part of the university landscape? Ummmm, not exactly. Discuss.
We'll also work on analyzing images themselves, and trying to discern the patterns of meaning that connect dinosaurian imagery -- as one example -- with other aspects of what's going on in particular cultures at particular historical times and comparing them with the present. We'll look at how it was that a prehistoric creature that seems relatively banal to us today -- the mastodon (how many kids run screaming through natural history museums demanding to see the mastodon fossils?) -- was the first fossil exemplar of the idea of extinction, and on whom we projected our images of a vicious, dangerous past. The newly-founded United States was especially pleased to claim this ferocious carnivore (!) as our own mascot: "huge as the frowning precipice, cruel as the bloody panther, swift as the descending eagle, and terrible as the Angel of Night." Such attention to big, cruel, meat-eating tyrants is still common two hundred years later. Exhibit one: Oklahoma's own state fossil, the Saurophaganax maximus [note the maximus!], ushered into state law with the following words:
"Because of the extraordinarily rich paleontological heritage of the State of Oklahoma, the Legislature hereby declares Saurophaganax Maximus to be the State Fossil of Oklahoma. This spectacular dinosaur, the 'greatest king of reptile eaters', once roamed this great land. It is only known from Oklahoma and has surpassed the Tyrannosaurus rex, the 'king of the dinosaurs', as the greatest predator of earth’s history."
We don't want no puny critter representing us, ha! Surpassing T. rex! And if you want to check it out, look no further than the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, where on the south campus you can see:
"The centerpiece exhibit in the Hall of Ancient Life, the Jones Family 'Clash of the Titans,' [which] shows an encounter between Oklahoma's largest Jurassic animals - the plant-eating sauropod Apatosaurus, which, at more than 93 feet long, is the largest of its kind in the world, and the carnivorous theropod Saurophaganax maximus, the largest of the Jurassic predators."
There's also a mammoth or two, and we'll take a look at how they're presented as well. Feel free to take a field trip of your own and get an early feel for what you think about all this!
If you'd like to explore dinosaurs as modern totems in greater detail, there's no better guide than W.J.T. Mitchell in The Last Dinosaur Book: The Life and Times of a Cultural Icon. Here's an interview with him about the book that will give you a sense of what kinds of questions scholars ask about popular phenomena like these and how they go about theorizing the answers. And there's a chapter excerpt as well: the counter-intuitive, "Why Children Hate Dinosaurs." Were you a dinosaur fan, foe, or indifferent to all the hoopla? Still feel the same today as an adult? Stay tuned, and we'll find out more from each of you.
For more: How do you think the general public view science/paleontology in your country? At paleontologist David Hone's public forum website at DinoBase, he asked the question and you can read the answers given by various scientists. For a quick piece on Oklahoma's dinosaurs, here's a report from News9 by Christian Price, "Oklahoma's First Residents" -- and note that down on the right side of the page in the green sidebar there are some nice video links. And will the whole king of beasts tag become extinct?: see the BBC's report, "T. rex: Warrior or Wimp?"
Image: Advertising from the producers, at http://www.zrock.com/zforum/about1044.html