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From myths to physics



1 .Read each of the additional resources. (PDF files.)
2. Choose one myth from each resource. Identify the name of story, culture it is from, and summarize it.
3. State which physical phenomenon the myth was describing (lunar eclipse, earthquake, tsunami, whirlpool, mega-eruption, etc.)

Native American Oral Tradition Tsunamis

Solar Folklore and Storytelling


Physics lets us discover answers to questions that our ancestors speculated about.

What is the universe made of?

The ancient idea of four basic elements:




Why would ancient thinkers believe that there were only four elements? Think of what they observed: If you burned a piece of wood, what would you see? Fire being released, also smoke (“air”) and after the burning was done you would have ashes (“earth”).
Water being the opposite of fire would extinguish it, so you could even make rudimentary chemical equations to justify your theory:

Wood (earth/air/fire) —> Earth (ashes) +air (smoke) + fire (flame)

In physics we learn how our universe is made of elements,
and how each of the elements is made of sub-atomic particles.


Cycles of the Sun and the Moon

Our ancestors developed many ideas to explain the motion of the Sun and Moon. Richard Dawkins illustrates this idea.

The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True [Richard Dawkins]

The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True [Richard Dawkins]

In physics we learn how the motions of the moon, Earth. and Sun follow Newton’s law of universal gravitation.

Newton's universal law of gravitation Earth Moon

What causes rainbows?

The Sumerian hero Gilgamesh traveled the world in search of a way to cheat death. On one of his journeys, he came across an old man, Utnapishtim, who told Gilgamesh a story from centuries past. The gods brought a flood that swallowed the earth.

The gods were angry at mankind so they sent a flood to destroy mankind. The god Ea, warned Utnapishtim and instructed him to build an enormous boat to save himself, his family, and “the seed of all living things.” He does so, and the gods brought rain which caused the water to rise for many days. When the rains subsided, the boat landed on a mountain, and Utnapishtim set loose first a dove, then a swallow, and finally a raven, which found land. The god Ishtar, created the rainbow and placed it in the sky, as a reminder to the gods and a pledge to mankind that there would be no more floods. See the text Epic of Gilgamesh: Sumerian Flood Myth.

HistoryWiz Sumarian Flood Myth

A similar story, with theological changes, is in the Hebrew Bible as the story of Noah and the ark

The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True [Richard Dawkins]

The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True [Richard Dawkins]

An artist’s rendition of a global flood.

Noah global flood

In physics we will learn how rainbows are produced by electromagnetic radiation .

http://www.rebeccapaton.net/rainbows/formatn.htm Copyright 1999 Rebecca McDowell.

Copyright 1999 Rebecca McDowell.


Where does lightning come from?

Lightning BBC africa thunerstorm plasma

Lightning are bolts of energy hurled down from to Earth by Zeus, the Greek king of Olympian Gods (also known as Jupiter, in the Roman world.)

Images from Wikipedia

Images from Wikipedia

Jupiter de Smyrne Zeus Lightning Wikipedia

In later centuries many people believed that God in Heaven killed people with lightning bolts as a form of heavenly punishment.  As such, when Benjamin Franklin developed lightning rods to save people’s homes and lives, some clergy spoke out against science as thwarting the will of God.

Benjamin Franklin Lightning Rod Stealing God's Thunder
In physics we will learn how lightning is an electrical phenomenon, explained by Maxwell’s Equations.


What causes earthquakes?

In Algonquin mythology, the Earth is supported by a noble tortoise. Earthquakes happen when the tortoise shifted around to find a more comfortable position. (Image via OPUS Archives & Research Center)


Image via OPUS Archives & Research Center

Image via OPUS Archives & Research Center

In the Indian subcontinent, Hinduism held that the world was carried on the back of four giant elephants, who themselves were stabilized on the back of an even larger turtle, endlessly flying through space.  Earthquakes were held to be causes by the motion of these animals.

Indian World on Four Elephants on Turtle Back

In physics we learn that earthquakes can be studied with Newton’s laws of motion, studying stress and force within Earth’s tectonic plates.

Earth Science, Tarbuck & Lutgens, Chapter 8

Earth Science, Tarbuck & Lutgens, Chapter 8

What causes whirlpools?

Percy Jackson Sea of Monsters 2013 Charybdis

Deepest Hole in The Ocean! (Whirlpool) Saltstraumen, 10 kilometres (6 mi) south-east of the city of Bodø, Norway.

The World’s Most Powerful Maelstrom, at Saltstraumen, Norway.

Where do whirpools come from?

“Scylla and Charybdis were mythical sea monsters noted by Homer; Greek mythology sited them on opposite sides of the Strait of Messina between Sicily and the Italian mainland. Scylla was rationalized as a rock shoal (described as a six-headed sea monster) on the Italian side of the strait and Charybdis was a whirlpool off the coast of Sicily. They were regarded as a sea hazard located close enough to each other that they posed an inescapable threat to passing sailors; avoiding Charybdis meant passing too close to Scylla and vice versa. According to Homer, Odysseus was forced to choose which monster to confront while passing through the strait; he opted to pass by Scylla and lose only a few sailors, rather than risk the loss of his entire ship in the whirlpool.”


Another image

In physics we will learn that Newton’s laws of motion apply to all matter, including liquids such as water. Whirlpools involve phenomenon such as pressure and centrifugal force.

The physics behind whirlpools


Blood red moon during a lunar eclipse

In central and south America, some Native American tribes (Mayans, Incans) “believed that lunar eclipses were when a jaguar would eat the Moon, which is why a blood moons look red. The Incans also believed that once the jaguar finished eating the Moon, it could come down and devour all the animals on Earth, so they would take spears and shout at the Moon to keep it away.” (Wikipedia)

Sky & Telescope illustration

Sky & Telescope illustration

The Jaguar

Nazca jaguar god of eclipse

Suggested reading

The Beginnings of Western Science

….presents a unified account of both ancient and medieval science in a single volume. Chronicling the development of scientific ideas, practices, and institutions from pre-Socratic Greek philosophy to late-Medieval scholasticism, David C. Lindberg surveyed all the most important themes in the history of science, including developments in cosmology, astronomy, mechanics, optics, alchemy, natural history, and medicine. In addition, he offered an illuminating account of the transmission of Greek science to medieval Islam and subsequently to medieval Europe.

Physics The Human Adventure Holton and Brush

from the publisher: Physics, the Human Adventure …was the first modern textbook in physics to make full and effective use of the history and philosophy of science in presenting for both the general and the science-oriented student an account of the nature of physical science. ..In the new edition, each of the chapters has been reworked to further clarify the physics concepts and to incorporate recent physical advances and research. The book shows the unifying power of science by bringing in connections to chemistry, astronomy, and geoscience. In short, the aid of the new edition is to teach good physics while presenting physical science as a human adventure that has become a major force in our civilization.

The Birth of a New Physics Cohen

from the publisher:

The earth circles the sun every year and rotates on its axis every twenty-four hours. The earth does not stand still. These are notions so basic to our view of life that we take them for granted. But in the seventeenth century they were revolutionary, heretical, even dangerous to the men who formed them. Culture, religion, and science had intertwined over the centuries to create a world view based on a stationary earth. Indeed, if the earth moved, would not birds be blown off the trees and would not an object thrown straight up come down far away?

Then came the Renaissance and with it Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Huygens, and Newton: giants who courageously remade the world into an earth which actually moves 100,000 feet a second while revolving 1,000 miles an hour around an object 93,000,000 miles away. And yet birds perch unruffled and an apple will fall straight down. All of this we think we know. But how well do we know it? In the twenty-five years since its first publication, The Birth of a New Physics has become a classic in the history of science. Here expanded by more than one-third and fully updated, it not only offers us the best account of the greatest scientific revolution but also tells us how we can know we live in a dynamic universe.

Learning standards

2016 Massachusetts Science and Technology/Engineering Curriculum Framework
PS2. Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions

WHI.33 Summarize how the Scientific Revolution and the scientific method led to new theories of the universe and describe the accomplishments of leading figures of the Scientific Revolution, including Bacon, Copernicus, Descartes, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton. (H)

Common Core State Standards Connections: ELA/Literacy
WHST.9-12.2 Write informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events, scientific procedures/ experiments, or technical processes. (HS-PS1-2)

Next Generation Science Standards
HS-PS2 Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions

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