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Frankenstein: the Birth of a Monster

30 Oct

When it comes to horror stories, Frankenstein is probably the most famous of them all. Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece has sent shivers of fear through generations of readers, inspired countless adaptations, and become the gold standard for tales of terror and suspense. It’s a story that becomes even more unsettling, though, when you realise it was inspired by twitching corpses, violent volcanoes and disturbing nightmares…

Mary Shelley’s famous novel barely needs an introduction. Its protagonist, Dr Victor Frankenstein, is fiction’s original ‘mad’ scientist, dedicating himself to chemistry at university so that he can learn how to create life out of inanimate matter. The being he cooks up, however, is repulsive:

“His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black and flowing; his teeth of pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, … his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.”

Dr Frankenstein looks with horror upon his monster (credit: Theodore Von Holst’s frontispiece to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein)

Disgusted, Dr Frankenstein deserts his horrible creation – but the monster will come to haunt him for the rest of his life. First, it murders Frankenstein’s little brother; then, when the scientist refuses to create a female companion for it, it kills his closest friend and beloved wife too. Distraught, Frankenstein vows to take revenge and pursue his monster until one of them is dead. But the scientist fails in his mission and, after months of pursuit, he dies from pneumonia near the North Pole.

When Mary Shelley began to write her spine-chilling story, she was just 18 years old and without a novel to her name. So what inspired her nightmarish tale? In an introduction to the book’s third edition in 1831, Shelley finally explained how she “came to think of and to dilate upon such a hideous idea”. As it turns out, the true story behind Frankenstein is even more intriguing than the novel itself, involving electrified frogs, reanimated corpses, and a rather strange summer holiday…

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Imagining the year 2000 (in 1900)

19 Aug

The other day, I stumbled across these brilliant French illustrations imagining what life would be like in the year 2000. Issued between 1899 and 1910, they were enclosed inside cigarette/cigar boxes or sent as postcards, and the first series was produced for the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900.

It’s pretty funny now to look back at some of the artists’ predictions – one can’t help but think they might be a little bit disappointed with today’s lack of flying firemen and ever-present robots. But I wonder how many of our predictions for the year 3000 will come true (according to Busted, we’ll all be living underwater with lots of naked, triple-breasted women).

Anyway, here’s a few of the retro-futuristic illustrations by Villemard and Jean-Marc Côté (view the full set here):

Gravity-defying firemen

A conductor operates his mechanical orchestra

Madame at her toilette

Croquet in diving helmets!

A lazy teacher feeds textbooks into his pupils’ heads

Not all of them are so far-fetched though. This one is essentially Skype, albeit with vintage equipment…

Skype, retro-future style. Check out that hat…

And I’d be very grateful if anyone could explain this one to me. Some kind of equine theatre maybe? A fully-clothed version of Equus?

A horse on a stage. No idea what this one’s about…

Superhero Science: Tomorrow’s caped crusaders

6 Jun

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org

Everyone loves a good Hollywood ending. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as seeing a masked hero finally dispatch an evil villain. But aren’t flying men with super-strength a bit passé? Maybe it’s time for some new, cutting-edge superheroes…

Introducing… Corner Woman, Neutrino-man and Camo-Kid (credit: Dave Gray for Guru magazine)

Science and superheroes have a surprisingly intimate history. Pick any of the well-known protagonists from the Marvel or DC comic books and the chances are you’ll be able to trace their history back to science.

Spider-Man, for instance, came into existence when geeky high school student Peter Parker was bitten by a (radioactive) spider during a science demonstration. Some superheroes were even fully-fledged scientists before freak accidents gave them their powers – Bruce Banner (the Incredible Hulk) and Reed Richards (Mister Fantastic from the Fantastic Four) are two examples.

The X-Men, whose superpowers developed from mutations, were undoubtedly inspired by the theory of evolution. Of course, it’s highly unlikely that anyone in the real world is going to start growing claws out of their hands, but mutations are known to play an important role in natural selection, in which a random mutation, if beneficial, can eventually become a new characteristic of a species.

Even Superman – “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound” – is not quite as unscientific as you might think. In 2007, Dr Chris Stanley at London’s Natural History Museum discovered a mineral with the chemical formula ‘sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide’. He soon realised that this composition was remarkably similar to the description of a rock containing Kryptonite in the 2006 film Superman Returns. The real mineral, however, is white, powdery and harmless – quite unlike the green, radioactive material that blights Superman throughout his adventures.

Superman plays with himself (credit: JC Hancock)

Clearly, then, there’s a fair amount of science in the world of superheroes. But what type of superhero, I wondered, could be born from today’s cutting-edge scientific research? I decided to browse through some of the recent science news stories and create three science-inspired superheroes of my own. This trio probably won’t be gracing a Marvel comic or Hollywood blockbuster anytime soon, but I hope you’ll take them into your heart anyway.

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An Exceedingly Curious Bestiary

13 Feb

Somewhere in deepest, darkest Australia lurks a most terrifying assortment of animals. Shark-helicopter hybrids patrol the skies. Mechanically-enhanced rats wage war against robotic beetles. The bones of long-dead animals are reanimated into hideous configurations. And that faint sound of trickling water? That’s the sound of David Attenborough wetting his pants.

A Pilot Fish, guided by its fishy co-pilots (credit: Kaitlin Beckett)

For the past five years, Kaitlin Beckett has been bringing this nightmarish ecosystem to life. Based in Melbourne, Kaitlin makes artwork that is inspired by anatomy and the natural world, but with a distinctly dark and surreal twist. I couldn’t resist posting up some of her work, so scroll down for a selection of these weird and wonderful beasties, as well as an interview with Kaitlin herself.

Say hello to the Beetle Walker (credit: Kaitlin Beckett)

Kaitlin, when did you begin your magnificent bestiary?

I started painting seriously about 5 years ago, though I’ve been drawing and sketching all my life. I’ve always loved watching nature documentaries and sci-fi films so my bestiary started to develop from these. I’ve also been collecting gas masks and goggles for a while now so these pop up on my creatures all the time.

What’s your usual process for creating the artworks?

I normally turn an idea around in my head for a while before I sketch it out. Sometimes once it’s sketched I’ll work on it straight away. I create larger sketches, test colours and composition, and once I’m happy I’ll transfer it to canvas and ink in the outline. I add the colour next with my airbrush and some hand painting, then there are several layers of ink splats, pastel and ink linework before it’s finished.

A wise old Samurai Tubfish (credit: Kaitlin Beckett)

Do you have any favourite artists? Terry Gilliam sprang to mind when I first saw your work…

I am a fan of Terry Gilliam! A few of my all time favourite artists are HR Giger, Beksinski, Escher, Mucha, Lempicka, Kahlo, Bacon and of course Dali…too many to name!

Although the creatures are quite fantastical, their anatomy is often very detailed and intricate. What is it that appeals to you about mixing the real and the imaginary?

I think it’s an artist’s job to share a bit of their imagination and to look deeper into things, to reimagine and reinterpret. While I appreciate the technical skill behind photorealistic art, I can’t get excited about paintings that look like photographs, unless there’s a twist or a surprise, or some element of fantasy or surrealism. My creatures have an almost cartoon-like look, though I adore fine detail and texture so I’m trying to combine these elements in my work.

The Longhorn Octopus…possibly quite friendly (credit: Kaitlin Beckett)

If you were a mad scientist for the day, which of your creatures would you bring to life?

Perhaps not the fell beasts – they would eat me! I’d perhaps like to hitch a ride in my Pilot Fish shark helicopter, and my Longhorn Octopus could possibly be friendly.

Finally, what are your plans for 2012?

I had a crazy year last year with a solo show plus a few big group shows so in 2012 I’m taking it easy and focusing on getting better at airbrushing and sculpture. I’m taking part in a joint show in September with a very talented artist (my beasts meet vigilantes!), so I’m looking forward to that.

Frigate Bird – one of Kaitlin’s first sculptures

Now that Kaitlin’s beginning to work on sculptures, maybe it won’t be too long before the Curious Bestiary gets its own zoo. Let’s just hope the cages are securely locked…

Visit Kaitlin Beckett’s Curious Bestiary here!

Europa: Life in our Solar System?

2 Feb
This article first appeared in the February 2012 edition of an awesome new science magazine called Guru. You can download the magazine for free here.

Please listen carefully. There is life on Europa. I repeat: there is life on Europa…like huge strands of wet seaweed, crawling along the ground…Imagine an oak tree…flattened out by gravity…Tendrils, stamens, waving feebly…”

Europing for a miracle

Tendrils, stamens, waving feebly (credit: George L Smyth)

Professor Chang is stranded on Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa. His air supply is rapidly running out and he’s got no chance of being rescued; all he can do is die with dignity and hope that somebody hears his final radio message.

“I’ve only two requests to make…When the taxonomists classify this creature, I hope they’ll name it after me. And – when the next ship comes home – ask them to take our bones back to China.”

Fiction becoming fact

If this sounds like science fiction, well, that’s because it is. This gloomy scenario takes place near the beginning of 2010: Odyssey Two, Arthur C. Clarke’s sequel to his most famous novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In Odyssey Two, Clarke imagines Europa to be teeming with extraterrestrial life, sustained by a liquid ocean beneath the moon’s surface. He was undoubtedly inspired by images sent back by the Voyager space probes during the late 1970s, which revealed Europa’s surface to be covered with a smooth shell of ice, raising the possibility of an underground watery ocean.

Europa has since become one of our Solar System’s most enigmatic bodies. Evidence now points to a huge ocean under its icy surface, possibly containing twice as much water as all of the Earth’s oceans combined. And where there’s water, life is often not too far away. Suddenly, Arthur C. Clarke’s story doesn’t seem quite so outlandish… Continue reading

When Google Doodles Scientists

13 Jan

Ever since 1998, Google has been brightening up its homepage with “Google doodles”, playfully customised logos which celebrate a current event or the birthday of a famous person. The first ever doodle was created when the Google founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, attended the Burning Man festival and wanted to let Google users know that they were “out of office”.

Since then, the Google doodle has become a bit of a pop culture phenomenon. There have now been over 1,000 doodles, celebrating events ranging from the anniversary of the ice cream sundae to Freddie Mercury’s 65th Birthday (this one needs to be seen!).

A couple days ago, being the geek that I am, I got quite excited by a science-themed doodle – a strati-tastic version of the Google logo in celebration of Nicolas Steno, an important figure in modern geology.

So, noticing that Google keeps an archive of all of its doodles, I thought I’d find out which other scientists had been honoured by Google’s creative bods. Turns out there’s quite a lot… Continue reading

‘Out of this World’ at the British Library

21 May

A science fiction exhibition opened yesterday at London’s British Library: ‘Out of this World: Science Fiction, but not as you know it’. I’ve not been yet, but some of the items on display sound rather intriguing, such as the Codex Seraphinianus book – a visual encyclopedia for a fictional world, written in an (as yet) undeciphered language. The illustrations are legendary. With copies of the book very hard to come by, I was chuffed to find the entire thing online – praise be to internet citizens for their unfailing industriousness!

A drawing from Luigi Serafini's 'Codex Seraphinianus' book (1976-1978)

Here are a couple other favourites from the exhibition website

The Martians from H G Wells’ 'The War of the Worlds', illustrated by Henrique Alvim Corrêa for the Belgian edition (1906)

A Tony Roberts illustration for 'Spellsinger', a series of fantasy novels written by Alan Dean Foster

‘Out of this World’ runs until September 25th 2011, and entry is free.

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