How Real-Life Science Inspired Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797–1851)
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797–1851)
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, published 200 years ago this year, is often called the first modern work of science fiction. It's also become a fixture of pop culture—so much so that even people who haven't read it know (or think they know) the story: An ambitious young scientist named Victor Frankenstein creates a grotesque but vaguely human creature from the spare parts of corpses, but he loses control of his creation, and chaos ensues. It's a wildly inventive tale, one that flowed from an exceptional young woman's imagination and, at the same time, reflected the anxieties over new ideas and new scientific knowledge that were about to transform the very fabric of life in the 19th century.

The woman we remember as Mary Shelley was born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the daughter of political philosopher William Godwin and philosopher and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (who tragically died shortly after Mary's birth). Hers was a hyper-literate household attuned to the latest scientific quests, and her parents (Godwin soon remarried) hosted many intellectual visitors. One was a scientist and inventor named William Nicholson, who wrote extensively on chemistry and on the scientific method. Another was the polymath Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles.

At just 16 years old, Mary ran off with poet and philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was married at the time. A Cambridge graduate, Percy was a keen amateur scientist who studied the properties of gases and the chemical make-up of food. He was especially interested in electricity, even performing an experiment reminiscent of Benjamin Franklin's famous kite test.

The genesis of Frankenstein can be traced back to 1816, when the couple spent the summer at a country house on Lake Geneva, in Switzerland. Lord Byron, the famous poet, was in a villa nearby, accompanied by a young doctor friend, John Polidori. The weather was miserable that summer. (We now know the cause: In 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted, spewing dust and smoke into the air which then circulated around the world, blotting out the Sun for weeks on end, and triggering widespread crop failure; 1816 became known as the "year without a summer.")

Mary and her companions—including her infant son, William, and her step-sister, Claire Clairmont—were forced to spend their time indoors, huddled around the fireplace, reading and telling stories. As storm after storm raged outside, Byron proposed that they each write a ghost story. A few of them tried; today, Mary's story is the one we remember.

THE SCIENCE THAT INSPIRED SHELLEY

lithograph for the 1823 production of the play Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein
A lithograph for the 1823 production of the play Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein, inspired by Shelley's novel.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Frankenstein is, of course, a work of fiction, but a good deal of real-life science informed Shelley's masterpiece, beginning with the adventure story that frames Victor Frankenstein's tale: that of Captain Walton's voyage to the Arctic. Walton hopes to reach the North Pole (a goal that no one would achieve in real life for almost another century) where he might "discover the wondrous power that attracts the needle"—referring to the then-mysterious force of magnetism. The magnetic compass was a vital tool for navigation, and it was understood that the Earth itself somehow functioned like a magnet; however, no one could say how and why compasses worked, and why the magnetic poles differed from the geographical poles.

It's not surprising that Shelley would have incorporated this quest into her story. "The links between electricity and magnetism was a major subject of investigation during Mary's lifetime, and a number of expeditions departed for the North and South Poles in the hopes of discovering the secrets of the planet's magnetic field," writes Nicole Herbots in the 2017 book Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds

Victor recounts to Walton that, as a student at the University of Ingolstadt (which still exists), he was drawn to chemistry, but one of his instructors, the worldly and affable Professor Waldman, encouraged him to leave no branch of science unexplored. Today scientists are highly specialized, but a scientist in Shelley's time might have a broad scope. Waldman advises Victor: "A man would make but a very sorry chemist if he attended to that department of human knowledge alone. If your wish is to become really a man of science, and not merely a petty experimentalist, I should advise you to apply to every branch of natural philosophy, including mathematics."

But the topic that most commands Victor's attention is the nature of life itself: "the structure of the human frame, and, indeed, any animal endued with life. Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed?" It is a problem that science is on the brink of solving, Victor says, "if cowardice or carelessness did not restrain our inquiries."

In the era that Shelley wrote these words, the subject of what, exactly, differentiates living things from inanimate matter was the focus of impassioned debate. John Abernethy, a professor at London's Royal College of Surgeons, argued for a materialist account of life, while his pupil, William Lawrence, was a proponent of "vitalism," a kind of life force, an "invisible substance, analogous to on the one hand to the soul and on the other to electricity."

Another key thinker, the chemist Sir Humphry Davy, proposed just such a life force, which he imagined as a chemical force similar to heat or electricity. Davy's public lectures at the Royal Institution in London were a popular entertainment, and the young Shelley attended these lectures with her father. Davy remained influential: in October 1816, when she was writing Frankenstein almost daily, Shelley noted in her diary that she was simultaneously reading Davy's Elements of Chemical Philosophy.

Davy also believed in the power of science to improve the human condition—a power that had only just been tapped. Victor Frankenstein echoes these sentiments: Scientists "have indeed performed miracles," he says. "They penetrate into the recesses of Nature, and show how she works in her hiding-places. They ascend into the heavens; they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited Powers …"

Victor pledges to probe even further, to discover new knowledge: "I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown Powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of Creation."

FROM EVOLUTION TO ELECTRICITY

Closely related to the problem of life was the question of "spontaneous generation," the (alleged) sudden appearance of life from non-living matter. Erasumus Darwin was a key figure in the study of spontaneous generation. He, like his grandson Charles, wrote about evolution, suggesting that all life descended from a single origin.

Erasmus Darwin is the only real-life scientist to be mentioned by name in the introduction to Shelley's novel. There, she claims that Darwin "preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with a voluntary motion." She adds: "Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endured with vital warmth." (Scholars note that "vermicelli" could be a misreading of Vorticellae—microscopic aquatic organisms that Darwin is known to have worked with; he wasn't bringing Italian pasta to life.)

Victor pursues his quest for the spark of life with unrelenting zeal. First he "became acquainted with the science of anatomy: but this was not sufficient; I must also observe the natural decay and corruption of the human body." He eventually succeeds "in discovering the cause of the generation of life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter."

page from original draft of Frankenstein
A page from the original draft of Frankenstein.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To her credit, Shelley does not attempt to explain what the secret is—better to leave it to the reader's imagination—but it is clear that it involves the still-new science of electricity; it is this, above all, which entices Victor.

In Shelley's time, scientists were just beginning to learn how to store and make use of electrical energy. In Italy, in 1799, Allesandro Volta had developed the "electric pile," an early kind of battery. A little earlier, in the 1780s, his countryman Luigi Galvani claimed to have discovered a new form of electricity, based on his experiments with animals (hence the term "galvanism" mentioned above). Famously, Galvani was able to make a dead frog's leg twitch by passing an electrical current through it.

And then there's Giovanni Aldini—a nephew of Galvani—who experimented with the body of a hanged criminal, in London, in 1803. (This was long before people routinely donated their bodies to science, so deceased criminals were a prime source of research.) In Shelley's novel, Victor goes one step further, sneaking into cemeteries to experiment on corpses: "… a churchyard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life … Now I was led to examine the cause and progress of this decay, and forced to spend days and nights in vaults and charnel-houses."

Electrical experimentation wasn't just for the dead; in London, electrical "therapies" were all the rage—people with various ailments sought them out, and some were allegedly cured. So the idea that the dead might come back to life through some sort of electrical manipulation struck many people as plausible, or at least worthy of scientific investigation.

One more scientific figure deserves a mention: a now nearly forgotten German physiologist named Johann Wilhelm Ritter. Like Volta and Galvani, Ritter worked with electricity and experimented with batteries; he also studied optics and deduced the existence of ultraviolet radiation. Davy followed Ritter's work with interest. But just as Ritter was making a name for himself, something snapped. He grew distant from his friends and family; his students left him. In the end he appears to have had a mental breakdown. In The Age of Wonder, author Richard Holmes writes that this now-obscure German may have been the model for the passionate, obsessive Victor Frankenstein.

A CAUTIONARY TALE ABOUT HUMAN NATURE, NOT SCIENCE

Plate from 1922 edition of Frankenstein
A Plate from 1922 edition of Frankenstein.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In time, Victor Frankenstein came to be seen as the quintessential mad scientist, the first example of what would become a common Hollywood trope. Victor is so absorbed by his laboratory travails that he failed to see the repercussions of his work; when he realizes what he has unleashed on the world, he is overcome with remorse.

And yet scholars who study Shelley don't interpret this remorse as evidence of Shelley's feelings about science as a whole. As the editors of Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds write, "Frankenstein is unequivocally not an antiscience screed."

We should remember that the creature in Shelley's novel is at first a gentle, amicable being who enjoyed reading Paradise Lost and philosophizing on his place in the cosmos. It is the ill-treatment he receives at the hands of his fellow citizens that changes his disposition. At every turn, they recoil from him in horror; he is forced to live the life of an outcast. It is only then, in response to cruelty, that his killing spree begins.

"Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded," the creature laments to his creator, Victor. "I was benevolent and good—misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous."

But Victor does not act to ease the creature's suffering. Though he briefly returns to his laboratory to build a female companion for the creature, he soon changes his mind and destroys this second being, fearing that "a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth." He vows to hunt and kill his creation, pursuing the creature "until he or I shall perish in mortal conflict."

Victor Frankenstein's failing, one might argue, wasn't his over-zealousness for science, or his desire to "play God." Rather, he falters in failing to empathize with the creature he created. The problem is not in Victor's head but in his heart.

10 Facts About the Dwarf Planet Eris

An artist's rendering of the dwarf planet Eris
An artist's rendering of the dwarf planet Eris
ESO/L. Calçada and Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org) // CC BY 4.0

Far beyond the orbit of Pluto exists a celestial body that’s a little smaller, a little colder, and a little denser—the dwarf planet Eris. In Greek mythology, Eris is the goddess of strife, and never was there a more appropriately named body in the solar system. When astronomer Mike Brown of Caltech and his team discovered Eris in 2005, the finding set off a chain reaction that would see the planetary status of Pluto called into question. Here are 10 things you might not know about Eris.

1. An Eridian day is just slightly longer than Earth's.

If you were an astronaut, you wouldn’t find an Eridian day, at 25.9 hours, too disconcerting. This compares favorably with, say, Venus, whose day lasts 5832 hours (admittedly, it's an outlier). An Eridian year is a bit longer than what we're used to, with the dwarf planet completing an orbit of the Sun every 557 Earth years. And that orbit is not along the relatively flat plane with the orbits of most of the other planets of the solar system. Imagine your elementary school solar system model of planets on wires around a light bulb: Instead of a path neatly aligned with the other planets, Eris’s orbit is tilted at a 44 degree angle.

2. Eris was once thought to be bigger than Pluto.

After Eris’s discovery, the best measurements then available placed it as slightly larger than Pluto, with a radius of 722 miles. But after the initial spacecraft reconnaissance of Pluto by New Horizons in 2015, Pluto’s ranking as the ninth-largest planetary object orbiting the Sun was restored; it is now known to have a radius of 736 miles. In comparison, Earth’s Moon has a radius of 1079 miles. Ganymede, Callisto, Io, and Europa (Jupiter’s largest moons), Titan (Saturn’s largest moon), and Triton (Neptune’s largest moon) are also bigger than Pluto. On the other hand, Eris is 34 percent denser than Pluto.

3. Eris is responsible for the big debate over the definition of "planet."

When Brown’s team discovered Eris, it was initially hailed as either the 10th planet of the solar system, or a big problem for scientists who like nicely ordered celestial objects. The discovery of Eris came on the heels of the discoveries of Sedna and Quaoar, both beyond the orbit of Neptune. Astronomers were looking at the possibility of a dozen planets in the solar system or more, because—based on these three—who knew how many Pluto-sized bodies were out there? The International Astronomical Union eventually defined a planet in our solar system as something that has achieved hydrostatic equilibrium (in other words, it's round), orbits the Sun, and has “cleared its neighborhood” (i.e., is gravitationally dominant in its orbit). Yet the debate continues [PDF].

4. It has its own moon.

Eris has a moon called Dysnomia that circles the dwarf planet every 16 days. In Greek mythology, Dysnomia is the name of one of Eris’s daughters and means “anarchy.”

5. Initially, Eris was called Xena.

Before it was called Eris, it was called 2003 UB313 (a provisional designation by the International Astronomical Union). But before that, Brown’s team of astronomers named it Xena—yes, of Warrior Princess fame. “We always wanted to name something Xena,” Brown told The New York Times in 2005 after the discovery. Among Brown’s colleagues, Dysnomia was called Gabrielle, who was, of course, Xena’s sidekick.

6. Its surface is like Pluto's heart.

The primary way to analyze the composition of the surface of a celestial body is through spectroscopy, which is basically looking at an object and seeing how much light comes back at you as a function of wavelength. Many materials have characteristic absorptions of light at certain frequencies, and so less light will come back to you at that frequency.

“Eris has very, very strong methane ice absorption bands,” Will Grundy, a planetary scientist at Lowell Observatory and a member of the New Horizons team, tells Mental Floss. “They are much stronger than Pluto’s, and of course we’ve seen methane all over the place on Pluto, so I think it’ll be more ubiquitous on Eris’s surface.” The implication is that Eris is more than just a dead ice rock in space, because methane degrades very quickly in a space environment, darkening and forming heavier hydrocarbons. “The fact that it’s bright and covered with methane ice says it’s refreshing its surface relatively rapidly, and there are any number of ways it can do that. One is the methane just periodically sublimates underneath the atmosphere and then re-condenses somewhere else, just sort of painting on top of whatever dark stuff that forms,” Grundy says.

7. Pluto data enriches our understanding of Eris.

Pluto data returned from the New Horizons spacecraft give scientists new ideas about the processes that might be at work on Eris. “One of the things the Pluto flyby showed us that nobody really talked about, even in wild speculations, was something like Sputnik Planitia: this big, bright, teardrop-shaped region on the encounter hemisphere. Volatile ices there are trapped in a deep basin and they are just convectively overturning, like a simmering pot of soup,” Grundy says.

That process might be happening writ large on Eris. It might be, in a sense, an ice lava lamp planet. “I’ve called it a Sputnik planet,” Grundy says, “but nature is much more clever than scientists at coming up with new ways of doing things with the same old ingredients. Who knows, we might get there and find out it’s doing something completely different than Pluto was doing to refresh its surface. The real lesson is that activity on a lot of different timescales is possible, even on a tiny little planet that’s at frigid temperatures, far away from the sun.”

8. Its neighborhood is a potential gold mine of information.

In comparative planetology, scientists use planets to understand other planets. By studying Venus, which is similar to Earth in terms of size, mass, and basic composition, scientists can better understand how our planet operates and evolved. The objects in Eris’s celestial neighborhood work the same way. “The Kuiper Belt”—a region rich in rocky and icy objects beyond Neptune’s orbit—“is an incredibly rich environment for comparative planetology because there are so just many of these tiny planets out there,” Grundy says. “It’s going to take a while to discover them all, let alone explore them all, but that’s what is exciting about it.” The New Horizons data from Pluto are helping planetary scientists develop models to tease out the secrets of Eris.

9. Geologists could learn a lot, too.

“If you work out the surface area of, say, objects there that are bigger than 100 kilometers, based on extrapolation, the Kuiper Belt has more solid geology surface area than of all of the planets in the solar system—including the terrestrial planets—combined,” Grundy explains, adding that it holds true even if you wanted to include the ocean floor on Earth. “If you like geology—and especially if you like exotic, cryogenic temperature geology—this is the place to explore, and there’s just so much territory to explore out there.”

10. A mission to Eris will take a while.

It took New Horizons, one of the fastest spacecrafts ever built, nine years to get to Pluto. Eris is currently three times farther from the Sun than Pluto (though due to a highly elliptical orbit, this number changes), so if a mission is ever approved, don’t expect to find out how it all ends. “It takes decades to pull something like that together, so if you want to be around to see the results, you’ve got to start young,” Grundy says. A possible future Kuiper Belt mission might be part of a flyby mission to Uranus or Neptune, after which the spacecraft would continue into that region of space. It will be a very long time before technology allows an Earth-centric telescope—in space or otherwise—to take pictures of the geology of Eris.

Bizarre New Giant Salamander Species Discovered in Florida

There’s something in the water in Florida, but it’s not the swamp monster locals may have feared. According to National Geographic, scientists have discovered a new species of giant salamander called a reticulated siren, and you can find the 2-foot-long amphibian in the swamps of southern Alabama and the Florida panhandle.

Locals have long reported seeing a creature with leopard-like spots, the body of an humongous eel, and axolotl-like frills sprouting out of the sides of its head, but its existence wasn’t described in scientific literature until now. Researchers from Texas and Georgia recently published their findings in the journalPLOS ONE.

“It was basically this mythical beast,” David Steen, a wildlife ecologist and one of the paper’s co-authors, tells National Geographic. He had been trapping turtles at the Eglin Air Force Base in Okaloosa County, Florida, in 2009 when he caught one of the creatures by chance. After that encounter, the researchers set out to find more specimens.

Colloquially, locals have long been calling the creature a leopard eel. Because the reticulated siren only has two tiny front limbs, it's easy to mistake it for an eel. Its hind limbs disappeared throughout the course of millions of years of evolution, and it also lacks eyelids and has a beak instead of the teeth that are typical of other salamander species.

They belong to a genus of salamanders called sirens, which are one of the largest types of salamander in the world. The second part of the species’ name comes from the reticulated pattern seen on all of the individuals that were examined by researchers. The reticulated siren is also one of the largest vertebrates to be formally described by scientists in the U.S. in the last 100 years, according to the paper.

There are still a lot of unknowns about the reticulated siren. They lead hidden lives below the surface of the water, and they’re thought to subsist on insects and mollusks. Researchers say further study is urgently needed because there's a chance the species could be endangered.

[h/t National Geographic]

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