Teaser Tuesday: 1491

Like the Farmer’s Almanac predicting even more snow for Eastern North Carolina, the Wheel of Time has turned ’round to Teaser Tuesday.

A few weeks ago I read Frankenstein as part of the Science Friday book club. This week I’m reading 1491 by Charles C. Mann, this time for an online book club run on the SYSK Army Facebook page. This is the official fan page for Stuff You Should Know, a biweekly podcast covering everything from the sun to impeachment to hang gliding.

I suppose I should also point out that in this case “biweekly” means twice a week. Furthermore, the show just ran its 1,000th episode, so there’s plenty to catch up on if such a thing strikes your fancy.

The Goodreads Blurb:

A groundbreaking study that radically alters our understanding of the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans in 1492.

Traditionally, Americans learned in school that the ancestors of the people who inhabited the Western Hemisphere at the time of Columbus’s landing had crossed the Bering Strait twelve thousand years ago; existed mainly in small, nomadic bands; and lived so lightly on the land that the Americas was, for all practical purposes, still a vast wilderness. But as Charles C. Mann now makes clear, archaeologists and anthropologists have spent the last thirty years proving these and many other long-held assumptions wrong.

In a book that startles and persuades, Mann reveals how a new generation of researchers equipped with novel scientific techniques came to previously unheard-of conclusions.

Mann sheds clarifying light on the methods used to arrive at these new visions of the pre-Columbian Americas and how they have affected our understanding of our history and our thinking about the environment. His book is an exciting and learned account of scientific inquiry and revelation.

The Truly Random Number Generator sends us to page 273:

Maya polities were not large enough to maintain standing armies; instead both Kaan and Oxwita' mustered short-term militiamen to fight wars. Wearing cotton armor and wooden helmets, brandishing lances, hatchets, and maces, and carrying great painted litters with effigies of their gods, the two militias marched on Mutal.    

1491 cover

Four Stars to Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I chose to read this book as part of the 200th anniversary of its publication.

frankenstein coverI have often wondered why Frankenstein the novel hasn’t stayed in the public eye the same way the film adaptations have. The simple answer is this: the movies are nothing like the book. In the novel, Shelley uses a style of language that sounds melodramatic and somewhat foreign to the 21st century English speaker. In addition, the movies have focused mainly on external conflicts in man-against-monster. However, the novel focuses heavily on internal conflicts, as Frankenstein reacts to his creation and “the monster” reacts to a world that has rejected him. To be sure, there are external conflicts in the novel, but these are treated mostly as secondary to the narrative.

I also chose to read this novel as part of Science Friday’s book club, which encouraged listeners to find themes or messages for the modern day. In other words, how does Shelley, through Frankenstein, continue to speak to us today?


In considering this question, I was struck by the novel’s subtitle: “The Modern Prometheus”. Prometheus, according to mythology, stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind. Accordingly, we see the theme of light throughout the novel. In the opening lines, Wilson (the ship captain) writes the following “What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?” The optimism is palpable: science will save us all.

And yet, light proves to be the undoing of the major characters.

Frankenstein seeks knowledge – an enlightenment, if you will – yet that knowledge does not bring wisdom. In early editions, he employs mathematics and chemistry to bring his creation to life. Later editions speak of a “spark” – electricity, the bringer of life – as the catalyst.

Reborn through this light, the creature lives in darkness, seeking the light. And yet, seeking the light brings about his own destruction. It is when he makes himself known to the cottagers that have (inadvertently) taught him to speak that he descends into murderous rage. Coming out of the shadows and into the light, he is rejected.

The theme of light plays throughout the rest of the novel until the last pages, when Frankenstein finally succumbs to exhaustion in the glaring light of the Arctic, and his creation perishes in a pyre of his own design.

Light has created; light has destroyed.

To me, this speaks of the limitations of science. Science can tell us how to do something, but cannot tell us whether or not we should. I’m reminded of the film version of Jurassic Park (which I’ve long said is nothing more than Frankenstein with dinosaurs), where Ian Malcolm says “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

I’m also reminded of the danger of focusing too heavily on STEM in education, which is all too often a focus on skills and knowledge without actual context. STEM may have its place, but HEART is timeless: humanities, ethics, art, rhetoric, and teaching benefits man in ways STEM never can, and in this far surpasses it.


What are you reading today?


2 thoughts on “Teaser Tuesday: 1491

  1. Interesting and great reviews.
    Like a popular scifi show said “the truth is out there” – some just haven’t bothered to look. Archeological knowledge has gotten a great deal of support from satellite imaging. Confirming for some and enlightening others about prior civilizations and their histories.
    I wish school stopped compartmentalizing knowledge (focusing on what ever edu trend is in vogue). How students working with a building size human world timeline featuring the entire globe and listing all the events and accomplishments including literature, poetry, nonfiction of the time, art, religions, medicine/health, countries/cultures (and their guiding philosophies), battles, explorations, including also the math and science mainstream at that time? Might take all 12 years to cover that….
    Love your last paragraph. – without humanities we just get human robots and the herd mentality

    Liked by 1 person

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