Science Behind Science-Fiction – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

| | , , ,

Science and Science-Fiction are like a couple waltzing on the ballroom called our Universe. One does and the other reacts. Rather, one writes and the other creates. Science-Fiction, in particular, does have a visionary aspect to it. There are several novels that have speculated the future with astonishing acumen. One of them being Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.

So, what is Science-Fiction, what scientific concepts did Mary include in her novel and how are those concepts doing today? Spark up those neurons and read on!

Do note that contrary to popular belief, the creature in the novel has no name. It is the scientist, whose name is Frankenstein. Victor Frankenstein. The creature is simply The Monster.


What is Science-Fiction?

If there is one word to describe Science-Fiction itself and its motif it is ‘prophecy’. Science-Fiction is a work of art generally built from existent and imaginary scientific theories; exploring its characteristics, advantages & disadvantages, how it affects the world and individuals alike, etc. Hence, through speculation and the unveiling of the aspects of such worlds, Science-Fiction plays the role of connecting present and future or in other words, ‘what is’ and ‘what could be’.

Science-Fiction aims to be at the very least “plausible” by grounding itself to well established scientific and technological principles and even in cases such as time travel, aliens, cloning, etc it usually sets up rules and boundaries within its plot.

The term ‘science-fiction’ is considered to have originated during the 20th century and the genre itself only gained evident prominence after World War II. However, the stepping stones for this kind of literature were laid out far earlier, most noticeably by Mary Shelley a.k.a The Mother of Science Fiction with her novel Frankenstein.

Science Behind Science-Fiction

Mary and Percy Shelley often interacted with individuals of much distinction such as William Lawrence, Erasmus Darwin, Lord Byron, Humphry Davy, John Polidori etc. William Lawrence believed that every living organism contained within itself a force that kept the organism working and complete. During those times, questions of living matter and dead matter were significant topics of debate which compelled scientists to analyze the truth of the matter.

One such incident that sparked Luigi Galvani’s curiosity was when he electrocuted a dead frog’s leg, which to his surprise, twitched from the electric shock it received. Upon this observation, the possibility of reanimating dead bodies ran through everyone’s mind. Humphry Davy was a pioneer in electrochemistry. He was able to isolate elements using electricity. He would often give presentations of his work in public. Mary Shelley read all his experiments and noted them in her diary.

Andrew Ure, a Frankensteinian kind of scientist, was known for his continuous experimentations with cadavers. His usual technique was to attach rods to the body and conduct electricity through, resulting in the body agitating extremely unnaturally leaving the audience horrified and even unconscious.

Benjamin Franklin may have inspired the name, ‘Frankenstein’. Especially when, he was referred to as ‘The Modern Prometheus’ himself. Moreover, Percy Shelley used to re-do Franklin’s kite experiment. Mary Shelley described the imagery of her novel in her diary, writing it as a ‘waking dream’. Could she have triggered a lucid dream?

This novel was surely high on electricity, galvanism, anatomy, pulling out life from death, meaning of life and death etc.

In the novel

Alchemy has a long history. It was the most significant Science before The Age of Enlightenment. Victor Frankenstein was an avid follower of Alchemy. He would read texts of Cornelius Agrippa which also served as a source of inspiration for him. However, Alchemy, by then, had lost its charm because of the Age of Reason and branches of Natural Philosophy or Sciences such as mathematics, biology, physics, etc.

Victor’s father discourages him to continue with such readings and instead suggests that he study the Natural Sciences. Victor also notices lightning strike a tree into utter destruction. This influenced him to study Natural Sciences at Ingolstadt.

Fast forward, Victor raids morgues and stitches up a human body. His lab filled with tools of electricity. A jolt of lightning through the rods attached to the lifeless figure and there you have life.

The scrutinizing of the nature of life and death, to unravel its secrets is an element of Science-Fiction. Also, the fact that Victor attempts to shift absurdity to reality through technology is an aspect of Science-Fiction. Although, unbeknownst to him that his “quantum leap” was also his downfall into the depth of undying misery. The novel is a cautionary tale as well after all.

Looking forward

Frankenstein has inspired many scientists. Earl Bakken was one of them. He was the founder of Medtronic, a medical device company. A renowned fan of the novel, he aspired to mix electricity and medicine as well. Earl also invented the Pacemaker.

Life can’t be defined. Now, it looks like death can’t be either. Scientists have managed to re-activate certain parts of brains long dead (4 hours after death). The brains of pigs, known to be nearly as complex as our own. They used BrainEx, a system capable of mimicking blood flow. The “dead” brain restarted its metabolic functions, the immune system was working, and neurons could pass signals. Further brain activity may require electric shocks.

While it is true that consciousness wasn’t achieved, it has to be noted that they used anesthetics that stop such a process. In other words, they have yet to go further. Not to mention, all the ethical and philosophical dilemmas that come along with this. It’s a thin rope as always.

Finally, 3D printers, mechanical organs, and bionics will only push fiction to fact. So, embrace the future folks, whether utopia or dystopia. Death may not be the end.

Ammar Kachwala

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.