Ancient Myths and How They Influenced Science

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On the left: Pinax of Persephone opening the “Liknon Mystikon”.
Found in the holy shrine of Persephone at Locri in the district Mannella.
Locri was part of Magna Graecia and is situated on the coast
of the Ionian Sea in Calabria in Italy. Now – in the Museo Nazionale Archeologico
at Reggio Di Calabria in Italy. (source: wikipedia.org)
On the right: a screenshot of a Persephone protein entry
in the STRING database.

Science explores things around and inside us and often it needs an inspiration to recognize and classify the profound splendor of our Universe. Ancient myths are not just a vast source of thought-provoking stories but they also provide names for molecules, cells, phenomena and many other subjects/objects of the scientific investigation.

Proteins are a popular object of such naming especially in invertebrate animals. A proteome of a fruit fly Drosophila contains proteins such as Persephone, Thor, Argonaute and Ariadne.

Certain mythical characters inspired entire fields of science. You may have heard of a Titan called Prometheus, a Greek mythology character who created humans from clay and gave us the fire. For that he was punished by Zeus who ordered to chain Prometheus to a rock and everyday an eagle came around and fed on the prisoner’s liver. Next day, the liver was regenerated and the eagle returned to devour it, and this has been going on ever since, unless you trust another source (a myth as well) telling us that Hercules freed Prometheus and they lived happily ever after in a civil partnership. ;-)

Prometheus gave his name to a radioactive element promethium. The self-renewing liver of our hero has been an object of inspiration for folks working in the field of regenerative biology and studying cirrhosis (pun intended).

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My favorite example of the myth-driven science is Chaos, which is, according to Greek myths, the primal void, the emptiness, the amorphous matter (probably preceding The Big Bang) that gave birth to the whole world of ours.  We routinely perceive chaos as a lack of any order, a random state of things or processes.

In mathematics, however, chaos is useв to denote a type of deterministic systems, which may be erroneously perceived at first glance as stochastic or random, but they are not. These chaotic systems or processes are dynamic and highly dependent on slight changes of the initial conditions (on the so-called butter-fly effect), which makes prediction of their behavior extremely hard.   But not impossible – so scientists came up with chaos theory, read on it if you are not scared of math.

A simple yet complicated example of a chaotic system is climate or weather. To us, weather is hardly predictable, climate change is a subject of controversy, and a weatherman has to better look at the sky than at the computer screen to tell the weather even nowadays. In fact, climatic events are deterministic processes; they just depend on the awful lot of things, which are hard to take into account.  The same thing can be said about tectonics and quakes prediction by seismologists. Hard, but not impossible. Better computers and better math models gradually improve our understanding of such systems.

Ovid described Chaos as “a rude and undeveloped mass, that nothing made except a ponderous weight; and all discordant elements confused, were there congested in a shapeless heap.”  With all due respect to Ovid one cannot pick up the particle physics from reading Metamorphoses. Yet, his statement about Chaos poses an interesting scientific question – did Chaos exist as a pre-Big-Bang matter in a “shapeless heap” state or it had a structure?

Go and figure out.

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