'Thor' Blends Myth And Science

Originally published on May 11, 2011 1:22 pm

Myths never die; they just find new ways to be told.

In the modern era our most ancient myths have to be recast in a vocabulary we understand and that means science. Watching Thor, the newest addition to Marvel's universe of comics turned into movies (and its next step towards the long awaited Avengers movie), you can see the explicit binding of mythic and scientific narratives. Equally apparent is a second kind of movement: the use of myth as an artistic expression that can open new perspectives on scientific truths.

For all its melodrama, Thor is a broad (and very liberal) "retelling" of Norse mythology. It even includes the great world-shaking battle between Asgard and the realm of the frost giants, Jotunheim. Elements of the classic Norse cosmos are retained, such as the Rainbow Bridge and the nine realms (Asgard, Jotunheim, Earth, etc.). And even though the writers have completely changed the relationship between some characters (Loki was not, as far as I know, raised by Odin as brother of Thor), the basic mythic narrative of good, evil, duty and trust remain.

As the great scholar of myth Mircea Eliade recognized, Hollywood's business has always been myth propagation. From coming-of-age stories to narratives of the hero's journey, writers can't help but return to the themes of human experience first explored in the worlds vast and interwoven storehouse of myth. These stories have to be told because every generation needs to hear them.

What is both new and fascinating, however, is the way myths now become braided with the language of science (consciously or unconsciously) so that we in a scientific culture can hear them. Freud's Oedipus complex, with all its modern scientific psychological overtones, can be seen as nothing more than the myth's clever repurposing of itself into a vocabulary modern society can access.

In Thor the writers were quite conscious of what they were doing. Astrophysicist and blogger Sean Carroll served as scientific advisor to the film and the writers did well to take his advice. Thus Bifrost, the "burning rainbow bridge" linking realms becomes a mix of divine architecture and an element of general relativity (a worm-hole or Einstein-Rosen bridge). In this way the ancient narrative of brothers and their jealously (Cain and Abel), power and self-sacrifice (the Buddha and the tigress Pataki tale) and the epic battle for cosmic dominance (Zeus vs. the Titans) find modern expression in the form of Norse myth, comic book super heros and distortions of the space-time continuum.

That, however, is not the end of the story.

It's not just that myth can find new expression in the language and concepts of modern science. The narratives of science itself can also find new ways of making themselves known to the culture through myth.

As I have written elsewhere (including my first book), in our modern culture science functions as myth in the sense that it provides us with narratives of origins and endings that set our individual lives into a cosmic context. But how do those narratives move outward from the observatory, the laboratory and the lecture hall into the culture? Movies like Thor, provide one answer to that question.

When you watch the film, be particularly mindful of the stunning visualization of Asgard — realm of the gods. Hanging above the golden realm is a starscape that is, literally, right out of modern science.

As an astronomer, I couldn't miss the variegated interstellar clouds in hues of cobalt and magenta that make up much of the film's cosmic background. They are taken right out from images captured by telescopes like Hubble, Spitzer and Herschel. Best of all (for me at least), at the end of the movie the filmmakers take us on a long, rolling journey through these light-year long sculptures.

Visualizing star-forming clouds in this way is more than just entertainment. It's a process by which the fruits of scientific cosmos building move from the rarified realm of theory into the imaginative resources of the culture as a whole.

Now everyone who sees Thor kick some frost-giant butt also knows what star-forming clouds look like, even if they never have to explicitly recognize it. That is the new power of myth.

It has become a gateway for the universe of science (our own cosmic mythology) to find its way into human-sized cosmic stories and, therefore, into our imaginations. That last step is the most important for it's in the imagination that we will invariably build the realms of our future from the stories of our past.

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