Like your typical zombie, the concept of Toronto author Helaine Becker’s new book is a no-brainer: take a half-dozen of the most gruesome monsters from movies, myths, and legends, and spell out their scientific plausibility. It’s an inspired idea – kids love to creep themselves out wondering whether Dracula or hordes of flesh-eating undead humans could exist. And it’s very much to Becker’s credit that Monster Science, while mostly falling on the side of skepticism, ultimately answers the question in its subtitle with a resounding maybe.
The six monsters Becker chooses are all classics: Frankenstein (the creature, not its creator), vampire, Bigfoot, zombie, werewolf, and sea monster. For each, Becker gives the most likely origins of the monstrous myth, then examines the beastie’s best-known traits in relation to scientific fact. This leads the book in some very interesting and unexpected directions. For example, assessing the plausibility of reanimating a human body through electricity, Franken-style, means giving a potted history of the Age of Enlightenment, the cultural concept of the “mad scientist,” the nature of electricity, and more. The discussion of Bigfoot and other elusive tall, hairy beasts includes Linnaeus’s standard classification of animals, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the notion of confirmation bias. Of course, Becker throws in some monster jokes, too – all of them groaners. (“What is a vampire’s favourite fruit? A neck-tarine.”)
The sheer amount of information Becker provides and multitudinous lines of inquiry she pursues could overwhelm a younger reader. In the vampire chapter, for instance, a kid in Grade 3 might find herself a little vexed by the concept of HeLa cells, “obtained [in 1951] from the cervix of a woman with cancer named Henrietta Lacks,” which continue to live and divide, and thus may be considered immortal. Older readers, however, will be all over this stuff like Dracula on a swan-like neck.