Aquila Children's Magazine The Electric Issue - Page 16

Imagine a huge oak tree being struck by lightning in a storm, and left in shreds. Such energy in one bolt from the sky! Victor Frankenstein, the main character in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, is only about 15 years old when he experiences this, but it amazes him and launches him (and us) into a tale that mixes science with poetry, philosophy and even politics in an extraordinary way. Mary Shelley herself was only 19 when she began writing Frankenstein. In the summer of 1816, she and her future husband, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, were staying in Switzerland with Shelley’s fellow-poet and friend Lord Byron. It was so rainy that they amused themselves indoors by reading German ghost stories. That was when Byron challenged them to write ghost stories of their own. Mary was the only one to finish hers — and what a story it was! SHE’S ELECTRIC The story’s whole atmosphere is electric. The Romantic poets loved the mysterious and awesome aspects of nature, and Mary reflects that feeling when describing the dramatic Alpine – and later Arctic – scenery of the story. But she also reflects it in her young hero’s intense longing to grasp the secret of life. Victor devotes himself to studying science and at last starts his great project: to create a living person. Using bits and pieces scrounged from laboratories and elsewhere, he makes the figure extra large so that he can work on it more easily. How could Mary Shelley imagine such a thing? Even now, after so much scientific progress, Victor’s goal seems incredible. But people then were fascinated by early discoveries about electricity. In the late 18th century, Italian scientist Luigi Galvani had noted electrical impulses in the body. Then in 1803 his nephew Giovanni Aldini came to England. Aldini was also interested in the work of his uncle’s rival Alessandro Volta (hmm, I wonder what was named after him?), who invented the first battery. With this new knowledge, Aldini travelled to London, and staged a famous demonstration in Newgate Prison. In this demonstration he produced body movements by passing electric currents into the muscles of a dead person. These days, this knowledge has been put to good use in medical science. Targeted Muscle Reinnervation or TMR is a brilliant new technology that helps people control artificial limbs by using electrical impulses from the brain. Mary knew about Aldini’s experiments through her father, William Godwin’s friendships with leading English scientists of the day. Soon after reading those ghost stories and being given Byron’s challenge, she was haunted by such ideas in a ‘waking dream’. This became the basis for her tale. 16