SEAN MCCABE (PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONS); ISTOCKPHOTO/GETTY IMAGES (CAMERA); BETTMANN/GETTY IMAGES (FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER); SCOTSPENCER/GETTY IMAGES (ELECTRICITY); FRANCISBLACK/GETTY IMAGES (MACHINE); ISTOCKPHOTO/GETTY IMAGES (ALL OTHER IMAGES)

STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: PS3.A    

CCSS: Writing: 1    

TEKS: 6.2E, 7.2E, 8.2E, I.5F

Dissecting Frankenstein

Two centuries ago, science helped inspire a classic horror story—and the tale still haunts research today

ESSENTIAL QUESTION: How might scientific research have unintended consequences?

MARY EVANS PICTURE LIBRARY (MARY SHELLEY); CATNAP72/GETTY IMAGES (FRAME); ISTOCKPHOTO/GETTY IMAGES (ALL OTHER IMAGES)

On a dark, chilly night some 200 years ago, a dreary rainstorm kept 18-year-old Mary Shelley and her friends stuck indoors. They passed the time reading ghost stories to one another. One member of the group, the poet Lord Byron, challenged the others to write spooky tales of their own.

That friendly competition gave rise to one of the great horror stories of all time: Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which the young student Victor Frankenstein fulfills his obsession of bringing the dead to life. Using human and animal body parts, he builds a human-like form. Seeing his creation awaken, he is horrified and abandons it. Lonely and rejected, the creature kills everyone Victor loves and then runs away to die at the North Pole.

It was a dark, chilly night some 200 years ago. A gloomy rainstorm kept 18-year-old Mary Shelley and her friends stuck indoors. They passed the time reading ghost stories to each other. The poet Lord Byron was one member of the group. He challenged the friends to write spooky tales of their own.

One of the great horror stories of all time came from that friendly contest. It was Shelley’s Frankenstein. In this story, the young student Victor Frankenstein is determined to bring the dead to life. He uses human and animal body parts to build a human-like form. When he sees his creation wake up, he is horrified and leaves it. The creature feels lonely and rejected. It kills everyone Victor loves. Then it runs away to die at the North Pole.

CREATING A MONSTER

At first, Shelley struggled to come up with an idea for her scary story. While mulling over what to write, she and her friends discussed some recent science experiments that had captured their attention.

One area of research they talked about was the role of electricity in animals’ bodies. About 40 years earlier, in 1780, Italian scientist Luigi Galvani had found that when he applied an electric spark to the legs of dead frogs, the muscles twitched and moved. By the early 1800s, scientists like Galvani’s nephew Giovanni Aldini took the experiments further, applying electricity to the dead bodies of larger animals like oxen to observe their movements. Eventually, they even tested the effects of electric current on the bodies of deceased humans.

Shelley tried hard to come up with an idea for her scary story. She and her friends thought about what to write. They discussed some recent science experiments they had heard about.

Scientists were doing research on electricity in animals’ bodies. That was one thing the friends talked about. The Italian scientist Luigi Galvani had done experiments about 40 years earlier, in 1780. He sent an electric spark into the legs of dead frogs. The muscles twitched and moved. By the early 1800s, Galvani’s nephew Giovanni Aldini and other scientists took the experiments further. They sent electricity into the dead bodies of larger animals like oxen. Then they watched their movements. After some time, they even tested the bodies of dead humans.

The research led people to debate whether it might be possible to bring dead animals or people back to life. “Mary Shelley had a good grasp of the emerging science of the time,” says William Gannon, the director of research ethics at the University of New Mexico. Gannon evaluates whether scientific research is conducted responsibly and fairly, and he also teaches young scientists to think about the ethical implications of their own research. He discusses Frankenstein in courses he teaches. “To people following the experiments with electricity by Galvani and others, it made sense to wonder if one could literally spark new life,” he says.

After Mary Shelley and her friends talked late into the night about electricity and questions of life and death, she went to bed. But Shelley couldn’t sleep. She saw an image in her mind of a scientist assembling a strange creature and bringing it to life. That vision formed the basis for her now-famous tale.

The research made people wonder. Could it be possible to bring dead animals or people back to life? “Mary Shelley had a good grasp of the emerging science of the time,” says William Gannon, who works at the University of New Mexico. He’s the director of research ethics. He looks at whether scientific research is done responsibly and fairly. He discusses Frankenstein in courses he teaches. “To people following the experiments with electricity by Galvani and others, it made sense to wonder if one could literally spark new life,” he says.

Shelley and her friends talked late into the night about electricity and questions of life and death. Then she went to bed. But she couldn’t sleep. She saw a picture in her mind. It was a scientist putting together a strange creature and bringing it to life. The image was the start of her now-famous tale.

MAD SCIENCE?

When Frankenstein was published in 1818, the book shocked early reviewers but fascinated readers. Two centuries later, the novel has inspired countless movies and TV shows. And the narrative of a determined experimenter who loses control of his creation still reverberates across science, technology, and engineering.

What is it about this tale that still haunts us today? “Even if you’ve never read it yourself, you kind of know the story, and that reflects its cultural importance,” says Ed Finn of Arizona State University. He’s the co-editor of a newly released version of the novel annotated with notes specifically for scientists and engineers.

Frankenstein was published in 1818. The book shocked early reviewers but fascinated readers. Two hundred years later, the book has led to countless movies and TV shows. And the story of a determined experimenter who loses control of his creation is still timely. It relates across science, technology, and engineering.

Why does this tale still haunt us today? “Even if you’ve never read it yourself, you kind of know the story, and that reflects its cultural importance,” says Ed Finn of Arizona State University. He’s the co-editor of a new edition of the book. It’s annotated, or marked with notes, for scientists and engineers.

SCIENCE SOURCE/SCIENCE SOURCE (FROG); CATNAP72/GETTY IMAGES (FRAME)

Frankenstein remains closely linked to science in the public imagination, says Finn. It introduced ideas we still draw upon today. Take Victor Frankenstein, the researcher at the center of the novel. He may be the original “mad scientist”—an experimenter driven by extreme ambition or curiosity whose work is dangerous or disturbing.

But the word “scientist” never appears in the book. In fact, it didn’t even exist yet. The term first appeared shortly after the novel’s publication. “The Frankenstein myth is so powerful in part because it emerged just as the idea of a scientist was first coming into public awareness,” says Finn. “Before we even had a word to describe a professional researcher, we had this deeply flawed depiction of one.”

Frankenstein is still closely linked to science in the public imagination, says Finn. It presented ideas we still use today. Take Victor Frankenstein, the researcher in the book. He may be the first “mad scientist.” That’s an experimenter who is extremely determined or curious, but whose work is dangerous or disturbing.

But the word “scientist” isn’t in the book. It didn’t even exist yet. The word first appeared shortly after the book’s publication. “The Frankenstein myth is so powerful in part because it emerged just as the idea of a scientist was first coming into public awareness,” says Finn. “Before we even had a word to describe a professional researcher, we had this deeply flawed depiction of one.”

IT’S ALIVE!

Finn and his colleagues created their recent edition of Frankenstein because the story holds important lessons for anyone tinkering with life or inventing new technologies that could mimic it. One reason Frankenstein remains so relevant today is that “a lot of scientific possibilities that were pure fantasy then are now very real,” says Finn (see Frankenstein’s Monster Today).

Modern scientists can alter the hereditary material of living things to create genetically modified organisms. They research synthetic biology, which involves engineering artificial biological compounds and possibly even artificial life. And they’re developing artificial intelligence—machines that can learn, solve problems, and make decisions, almost as if they have a mind of their own.

Finn and his co-workers made their recent edition of Frankenstein for a reason. The story holds important lessons for anyone tinkering with life or inventing new technologies that could imitate it. One reason is that “a lot of scientific possibilities that were pure fantasy then are now very real,” says Finn (see Frankenstein’s Monster Today).

Today, scientists can change the hereditary material of living things to form genetically modified organisms. They research synthetic biology. This involves making artificial biological compounds and maybe even artificial life. And they’re developing artificial intelligence. That includes machines that can learn, solve problems, and make decisions. It’s almost like they have a mind of their own.

“There are so many areas where we’re creating what can be thought of as different forms of life,” says Finn. “We’ll need to wrestle with making the best choices about them for the future.” People often refer to Frankenstein in these discussions: When someone wants to make a new scientific development sound scary, they often apply the prefix franken- to emphasize its unnaturalness, as in “frankenfood” for crops that have been genetically modified.

Gannon, the research ethicist, adds that Frankenstein’s lessons also apply to technological advances, from social media to robotic aircraft known as drones, with potentially unexpected effects on society. Just as Victor Frankenstein didn’t anticipate the results of his creation, he says, “we don’t fully understand or appreciate the consequences of many new technologies.”

Ultimately, Frankenstein isn’t about giving up on scientific progress. It’s about creating responsibly. “Mary Shelley wasn’t anti-science,” says Finn. “Victor Frankenstein’s great sin wasn’t bringing his creature to life. It was failing to consider the consequences and take responsibility for his work. That’s the lesson we hope people take away: We can’t turn our backs on innovation, but we need to think carefully about the consequences of our actions.”

“There are so many areas where we’re creating what can be thought of as different forms of life,” says Finn. “We’ll need to wrestle with making the best choices about them for the future.” People often point to Frankenstein in these discussions. To make a new scientific development sound scary, people often use the prefix franken-. This shows that it isn’t natural. For example, “frankenfood” is used for genetically modified crops.

Gannon, the research ethicist, says that Frankenstein’s lessons also apply to new technologies. Everything from social media to robotic aircraft known as drones could have unexpected effects on society. Victor Frankenstein didn’t expect the results of his creation. In the same way, Gannon says, “we don’t fully understand or appreciate the consequences of many new technologies.”

In the end, Frankenstein isn’t about giving up on scientific progress. It’s about creating responsibly. “Mary Shelley wasn’t anti-science,” says Finn. “Victor Frankenstein’s great sin wasn’t bringing his creature to life. It was failing to consider the consequences and take responsibility for his work. That’s the lesson we hope people take away: We can’t turn our backs on innovation, but we need to think carefully about the consequences of our actions.”

CORE QUESTION: Do scientists and engineers have a responsibility to ensure new research or technologies won’t cause harm? Explain why or why not.

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