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…

Continue reading

Advertisements

Book review: Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?

2 Oct

To be fair, this book could have been given any number of equally provocative titles. Why do we have pubes? Why do some people fall in love with horses? What’s in a fetish? Because, as well as the eponymous love organ, Why is The Penis… covers an ambitious array of eyebrow-raising topics: bestiality, cannibalism, self-gratification… and that’s just for starters. The Cloudspotter’s Guide this is not.

Why Is the Penis… is a collection of essays about some of the more bizarre, dirty, and downright disturbing aspects of human nature. It’s the second book by the American writer and psychologist Jesse Bering and, true to the title, it spends a fair bit of time explaining how the penis obtained its peculiar physique. It also looks at the science behind semen (is it good to swallow?), the testicles (why do they hang in such an apparently vulnerable fashion?), and female ejaculate (what is it exactly?).

Jesse Bering – science writer and psychologist

But that’s just the light stuff. Elsewhere, Bering turns his attention to the taboos that most science writers would usually brush beneath the carpet. He explores the psychology behind sexual fetishes, delves into the history of cannibalism, investigates why humans are such prolific masturbators, and tries to understand why some people love animals. No, not just love them, I mean really love them.

In the hands of someone else, this might all have been rather trashy and gratuitous. Happily, though, Bering’s take on these controversial topics is refreshingly non-judgmental. Rather than sensationalising the subjects, he approaches them as a clear-headed psychologist; his rational, considered explanations make even the most bizarre behaviour seem strangely – almost disconcertingly – normal.

There are also some unexpected moments of poignancy scattered throughout the book. In one section, Bering addresses the issue of suicide and gives a harrowing insight into the mind of someone who’s contemplating ending their life. In another, the author describes going to a funeral parlour with his dying mother to make arrangements for her funeral. Disillusioned with the slick, commercialised ‘business of death’, Bering beautifully outlines his vision for an alternative burial tradition in which people are laid to rest underneath their favourite tree:

“Two massive walnut trees growing side by side with interlocking branches seem somehow more than mere trees when we learn that they’re actually growing upon what was once a husband and wife who lived centuries before.”

Bering is a brilliant writer with a bright, engaging style, and it’s this that holds Why Is the Penis… – otherwise just a collection of individual essays – together. The essays are grouped into themes, but there’s no overarching narrative – my one minor quibble. On the upside, though, this means that the book can be dipped into at any time, with each essay acting as a stand-alone chunk of text.

Going back to the book’s title, it’s perhaps a good job that Bering went with the one he did. After all, if he’d named his collection after one of the more provocative essays – ‘Podophilia for Prudes’, let’s say – Why Is the Penis… might have had a lot more difficulty infiltrating your local library or bookshop. And that would have been a big shame. So go and track it down – you’ll never look at your nether regions in the same way again.

This review first appeared in the October 2012 edition of Guru magazine, alongside an interview with Jesse Bering. Download the magazine for free here.

Songs of Science #7: Saint-Saëns

10 Sep

Camille Saint-Saëns was a French late-Romantic composer who’s probably best known for his The Carnival of the Animals suite – a lively musical journey through the natural world. Most of the suite’s 14 movements are inspired by a particular animal. “Tortoises”, for example, sees the strings play the can-can music (“Galop infernal”) infuriatingly sloooowly; “The Elephant” has a double bass playing a lumbering, comical melody; and “The cuckoo in the depths of the woods” features a clarinet mimicking the Common Cuckoo’s famous call.

One of my favourite movements is “Fossils”. I’m not sure what kind of fossils Saint-Saëns was imagining when he wrote it, but the clickety-clackety xylophone makes me think of dancing skeletons. The addictive melody still sounds as fresh and vibrant today as it must have done when it was first written in 1886. Listen out for the short snippet of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” – this may have been Saint-Saëns making a joke about those musical ‘fossils’ which we always dig up generation after generation.

“The Swan” is probably the most famous movement in The Carnival of The Animals, featuring a romantic cello solo floating gracefully over a surface of tinkling pianos. It’s nice, but a little on the melodramatic side for me. I prefer one of the other aquatic movements: the magical “Aquarium”. You might recognise this one – it’s been used in several films, as well as inspiring the soundtracks of countless others. It’s a beautiful piece of music, and it whisks me off to cloud cuckoo land every time I hear it.

Watch a virtuoso performance of the Carnival of the Animals suite on YouTube here.
For more of my ‘Songs of Science’ posts click here!

Operation Doorstep or: How to Nuke a Family of Mannequins

29 Aug

For me, there’s something profoundly creepy about mannequins. It might be those soulless, I’m-going-to-kill-you-in-your-sleep eyes. Or those smiling, impossibly unwrinkled faces. Or it might just be a side effect of my early childhood visit to a wax museum on the Isle of Wight, which still haunts me this very day. (It was like someone had purposefully set out to create the weirdest museum on Earth, complete with a terrifying Chamber of Horrors, several inexplicably naked female figures, and a truly nightmarish taxidermy collection of winged monkeys, two-headed lambs, and cats dressed as Victorians – I kid you not.)

But I digress. Mannequins. What could be worse than a mannequin? Well a whole blimmin’ community of them for starters. And on 17 March 1953, several families of these glassy-eyed dummies gathered together deep within the Nevada desert for a rather unusual occasion. They were about to experience the full force of a nuclear attack.

A mannequin mother and children await the nuclear attack

This strange mannequin community was the brainchild of the US Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA). Close by was a 15-kiloton nuclear weapon (‘Annie’) that was about to be detonated – the latest in a series of tests carried out by the US Atomic Energy Commission. The location – the Nevada Test Site – had been used for nuclear testing many times before, but this test was different. ‘Operation Doorstep’ was its official name, and it was designed to show what would happen if a nuclear bomb hit a typical American suburb.

About 1km from the explosion, the FCDA built a simple wooden-frame house with two storeys and a basement, kitting it out with government surplus furniture. An identical house was built further away, at a distance of nearly 2.5km from ground zero, and mannequins were placed in the rooms and basements of both houses. Several bomb shelters were also scattered around the site, as well as a selection of vehicles of various shapes and sizes.

Mannequins wait in one of the basement shelters

“This car will go thru the atomic blast”

More than 600 people watched the test, which exploded with around the same energy as the bomb that had been dropped on Hiroshima 8 years earlier.

The ‘Annie’ nuclear explosion (top) is watched by bedazzled onlookers (bottom)

Unsurprisingly, the house nearest the explosion collapsed in dramatic fashion: the ground floor was completely demolished, the first floor collapsed, and the roof was ripped off. The house further away, on the other hand, stood firm, though its doors, windows and interior were badly damaged. The best protection was provided by the bomb shelters dotted around the test site, which sustained hardly any damage even when located just a few hundred metres from the blast.

The explosion lights up the nearest house (top), which is heated by the thermal radiation and torn apart by the subsequent blast wave. The elapsed time between the first and last photos is less than 2.5 seconds

And the mannequins? They had mixed fortunes. Those in the top two floors of the house closest to the explosion were buried under debris and didn’t stand much of a chance. The mannequins in the more distant house suffered a weaker shock, though many of them were injured by debris. “Heads of the mannequins were generally pockmarked and clothing was cut by flying glass,” notes an FCDA booklet published after the test. “Some … had evidence of more serious injury, such as holes the size of a quarter.” The mannequins in the basements of the two houses fared better, coming through the blast unmoved and unharmed.

A silent dinner party in house #2 is rudely interrupted

The living room is turned into a disaster area

Judging from these photos, Operation Doorstep was a pretty vivid demonstration of the devastating power of nuclear weapons. However, it’s somewhat debatable whether blowing up a dummy village can tell us much about the real-life effects of a nuclear bomb. Even if they survived the initial blast, someone this close to ground zero would likely be affected by radiation sickness, either from the initial radiation or from the radioactive material that drifted to the ground after the explosion (the nuclear fallout).

Luckily for mannequins, though, they don’t need to worry about the long-term effects of radiation. This means that they’d probably last longer than us during a nuclear holocaust – maybe that’s what they’re all smiling about…

Photos courtesy of the National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office. Click here for a peek inside the now-closed Brading Waxworks  – probably the weirdest museum on Earth.

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…

A wee update

1 Aug

Things have been a bit quiet here lately, so I thought I’d post a quick update with some of the stuff I’ve been up to.

First off, I’ve contributed an article about gunshot forensics (the idea of using the sound of a gunshot to help solve a crime) to the new issue of Guru magazine, out today. This issue also features articles about GM foods, social media, and the Fukushima disaster, and you can download it for free here.

I’m probably slightly biased, but I reckon Guru does a great job of making science accessible and easy to digest. The magazine is now in its 7th issue, and it’s really exciting to watch the number of writers and followers  growing by the month.  Good work, Dr Stu and co.

Elsewhere, I’ve written a piece for the current issue of BBC Focus magazine about the history and future of television (cool fact: the first TV viewers in the 1930s were called ‘lookers-in’), and I’ve also been writing regular blogs for the magazine’s website. Finally, I recently covered a news story for physicsworld.com about one of the most controversial debates in geology – how hotspot volcanoes such as the Hawaiian Islands are formed.

Anyway, that’s all for now folks. There’ll be another (more interesting) blog post before too long. Toodle pip.

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.

Continue reading

%d bloggers like this: