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This edition: Season 2, Episode 11: "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them"

Episode Details

Original tape date: February 18, 2016.

First aired: May 27, 2016.

In episode #211 of Science Goes to the Movies, Mark Norell, Chair of Paleontology & Macaulay Curator at The American Museum of Natural History, joins the show to talk about mythic creatures in J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, to be released in November 2016.

To start, Norell discusses his motivations for curating the exhibit, Dragons, Unicorns, & Mermaids: Mythic Creatures, including his interest in how nature is visually represented in history and mythology. Whether or not there are paleontological underpinnings to the persistent presence of dragons in mythologies from around the world is also talked about. Norell then distinguishes between different kinds of dragons, and different sources for the stories in which they appear, including how they can often be traced back to religious texts. In particular, Norell differentiates the dragons depicted in eastern culture from those in the west, and how in one part of the world dragons represent a loss of virtue while in the other they represent something much more beneficent. They also discuss the significance in Asian cultures of what are called chimeras, creatures composed of the parts of more than one animal.

How to define a mythical creature is next. Mermaids, as creatures that come more from folk tales than any religious text, are carefully considered, including how much they vary in depiction across cultures, and how Christopher Columbus, upon arrival, mistook manatees for mermaids and said they were much more ugly than anyone knew.

Next, Norell shares insight on the few cases in antiquity in which bones of mythical creatures were supposedly discovered, including the skull of the Cyclops from Greek mythology, and the source of the mythic creature called a gryffin, which is half eagle and half lion. The mistaken paleontological evidence for giants is considered next.

A definition of paleontology, and how it differs from archeology, serves as the basis for the next part of the discussion. What kind of work Indiana Jones does, relative to these terms, is assessed, as well as how he represents a certain phase in “museumology” that began with Napoleon stealing the Rosetta Stone. The question of who fossils belong to - their discoverers or the governments of the places in which the discoveries occur - is explored next.

The realism, given the scientific advances of the day, of recreating dinosaurs the way they’re seen in the film Jurassic Park, is also discussed. The scientific process of identifying the skin color of dinosaurs is carefully explained, as is the recent discovery that most dinosaurs had feathers.

The asteroid that is understood to have caused the extinction of dinosaurs is discussed next. Norell shares his view of whether or not we can really attribute the disappearance of the dinosaurs to that single event, or whether there are signs that extinction was already underway. Then he talks about the way in which today’s birds are closely related to dinosaurs.

Finally, Norell shares what happened on the single most exciting day of his career, when a certain fossil discovery was made in Mongolia, and what it is that accounts for the cultural fascination with dinosaurs.


Written and Produced by Lisa Beth Kovetz.

Science Goes to the Movies is made possible by generous support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Guest List

Mark A. Norell Chair of Paleontology & Macaulay Curator, American Museum of Natural History

Web Extras

How Did Dinosaurs Communicate?

Mark Norell explains how dinosaurs may have communicated and considers dinosaur neurology.

Pop Culture Dragons

Mark Norell and the hosts address the current popular perception of dragons and dinosaurs.

Are Birds Dinosaurs?

Mark Norell breaks down the similarities between birds and dinosaurs.
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