Mythology in Science

Laocoön and His Sons. Image by LivioAndronico (2014) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

LAOCOÖN, n. A famous piece of antique sculpture representing a priest of that name and his two sons in the folds of two enormous serpents. The skill and diligence with which the old man and lads support the serpents and keep them up to their work have been justly regarded as one of the noblest artistic illustrations of the mastery of human intelligence over brute inertia.
—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

This week we’ve seen literature, film, and music referenced, but how often do myths crop up in Nature Magazine?

For example, there’s a reference in An Achilles heel for kidney cancer, but Achilles heel is a recognised OED term and is no longer properly thought of as the Trojan hero who was dunked into the Styx while held by a heel.

I found no obvious mythological references in the general section. However, the specialised, cutting-edge research articles yielded some interesting terminology:

  • Argonaute proteins,
  • Asgard archaea,
  • and the volcanic Loki Patera on the moon Io.

As you know from posts like Playing Detective: Hamlet and the n-dimensional Hyperplane, I enjoy tracking down wellsprings. So here goes …

Argonaute proteins

The science: Argonaute proteins were observed in a plant that reminded researchers of an octopus called Argonauta argo, which itself had gotten the name from a (never-observed) method of propulsion along the surface of the sea that resembled a boat with sails.

The myth: Jason and the Argonauts were the Greek heroes of legend who went to steal the Golden Fleece. The Argonauts were named after the ship they sailed on, Argo (which makes Argonauta argo a pleonasm).

Argonauta argo by Comingio Merculiano (1896)


Asgard archaea

The science: Asgard archaea are a newly named superphylum (2017), thought to bridge the gap between eukaryotes (complex organisms, e.g. us, formed from complex cells) and bacteria (simple cells). Their first representatives were found in an Arctic hydrothermal vent called Loki’s castle, and therefore designated Lokiarchaea, kickstarting the naming convention. Loki’s castle (discovered in 2008) was so called because it resembled a castle and it was tricky to locate.

The myth: In Scandinavian mythology, Asgard is a celestial realm containing Valhalla. Within the same mythology, Loki is a god, traditionally (although disputably) thought of as a trickster.

Loki’s Castle, Source: Centre for Geobiology (University of Bergen, Norway) by R.B. Pedersen.


Loki Patera

The science: Io is a moon of Jupiter, and Loki Patera is a volcanic depression on Io. The word patera means a broad, shallow, bowl-shaped planetary feature with a scalloped or irregular edge. I don’t know why it was called Loki, but mythological consistency went unobserved in naming pateras on Io, as there is an Amaterasu Patera (after a Japanese sun goddess) and Manua Patera (after a Hawaiian sun god). The naming of Io goes back to the early seventeenth century and Johannes Kepler.

The myth: Io was a nymph taken by the thunder-god Zeus, the head god in Greek mythology, later renamed to Jupiter or Jove in the Roman pantheon. In The Not-So-Mild Hallucinations of a Musk-Ox, I wrote about the modern reimagining of Io as a musk-ox in Anne Carson’s verse-novel Red Doc>. (And Inspired by the Ordinary has my short story featuring Jove’s earthly presence.)


What’s your favourite mythological reference?

7 responses

  1. Facsinating read. I’ve just been reminding myself about the Golden Fleece and putting it in the context of what is now understood about Bronze Age society, and now I shall have a lot of fun reading up on the newly discovered Asgard archaea. I was taught the great new (at the time) idea of splitting life into the 3 domains of Eukarya, Bacteria and Archaea. I have not been keeping up to date but you have stimulated me to look into this latest research. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • What is the difference between pleonasm and tautology.
      A (rhetorical) question?
      And ‘free gift’ …
      A long time ago someone elaborated on this when I asked a similar question (not in a biblical sense): there is no such thing as a free gift. All gifts come attached; the giver expects something in return—another gift, gratitude, or just a sense of the giftee’s indebtedness to be called upon at a convenient time. It was a hard slap of cynicism when I first heard that. Of course, nowadays the idea has been taken further: if you give, you expect to feel good, you expect good karma, you expect to “rid yourself of negative energy”, you expect to be remembered, and so on.

      I’m tempted to say that one way to give a genuinely free gift is to instantly forget you gave anything at all. This does, however, risk making you look callous. (“How can you not remember you gave me X for Christmas last year …”)


      • Yes. I had a similar discussion with my friend Ian, who died a year ago, about whether there is a genuinely unselfish person. You cannot act totally selflessly because you will get a positive feeling when you do that, and that in itself is the reward.

        Liked by 1 person

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