Chemistry off the leash

Reading Sarah Rushton’s The Science of Life and Death in Frankenstein for New Scientist, 27 October 2021

In 1817, in a book entitled Experiments on Life and its Basic Forces, the German natural philosopher Carl August Weinhold explained how he had removed the brain from a living kitten, and then inserted a mixture of zinc and silver into the empty skull. The animal “raised its head, opened its eyes, looked straight ahead with a glazed expression, tried to creep, collapsed several times, got up again, with obvious effort, hobbled about, and then fell down exhausted.”

The following year, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein captivated a public not at all startled by its themes, but hungry for horripilating thrills and avid for the author’s take on arguably the most pressing scientific issue of the day. What was the nature of this strange zone that had opened up between the worlds of the living and the dead?

Three developments had muddied this once obvious and clear divide: in revolutionary France, the flickers of life exhibited by freshly guillotined heads; in Edinburgh, the black market in fresh (and therefore dissectable) corpses; and on the banks of busy British rivers, attempts (encouraged by the Royal Humane Society) to breathe life into the recently drowned.

Ruston covers this familiar territory well, then goes much further, revealing Mary Shelley’s superb and iron grip on the scientific issues of her day. Frankenstein was written just as life’s material basis was emerging. Properties once considered unique to living things were turning out to be common to all matter, both living and unliving. Ideas about electricity offer a startling example.

For more than a decade, from 1780 to the early 1790s, it had seemed to researchers that animal life was driven by a newly discovered life source, dubbed ‘animal electricity’. This was a notion cooked up by the Bologna-born physician Luigi Galvani to explain a discovery he had made in 1780 with his wife Lucia. They had found that the muscles of dead frogs’ legs twitch when struck by an electrical spark. Galvani concluded that living animals possessed their own kind of electricity. The distinction between ‘animal electricity’ and metallic electricity didn’t hold for long, however. By placing discs of different metals on his tongue, and feeling the jolt, Volta showed that electricity flows between two metals through biological tissue.

Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini, took these experiments further in spectacular, theatrical events in which corpses of hanged murderers attempted to stand or sit up, opened their eyes, clenched their fists, raised their arms and beat their hands violently against the table.

As Ruston points out, Frankenstein’s anguished description of the moment his Creature awakes “sounds very like the description of Aldini’s attempts to resuscitate 26-year-old George Forster”, hanged for the murder of his wife and child in January 1803.

Frankenstein cleverly clouds the issue of exactly what form of electricity animates the creature’s corpse. Indeed, the book (unlike the films) is much more interested in the Creature’s chemical composition than in its animation by a spark.

There are, Ruston shows, many echoes of Humphry Davy’s 1802 Course of Chemistry in Frankenstein. It’s not for nothing that Frankenstein’s tutor Professor Waldman tells him that chemists “have acquired new and almost unlimited powers”.

An even more intriguing contemporary development was the ongoing debate between the surgeon John Abernethy and his student William Lawrence in the Royal College of Surgeons. Abernethy claimed that electricity was the “vital principle” underpinning the behaviour of organic matter. Nonsense, said Lawrence, who saw in living things a principle of organisation. Lawrence was an early materialist, and his patent atheism horrified many. The Shelleys were friendly with Lawrence, and helped him weather the scandal engulfing him.

The Science of Life and Death is both an excellent introduction and a serious contribution to understanding Frankenstein. Through Ruston’s eyes, we see how the first science fiction novel captured the imagination of its public.



Nicholas, c’est moi

Watching Color Out of Space for New Scientist, 12 February 2020

Nicholas Cage’s efforts to clear his debts after 2012’s catastrophic run-in with the IRS continue with yet another relatively low-budget movie, Color Out of Space, a film no-one expects much of. (It’s in US cinemas now; by the time it reaches UK screens, on 28 February, it will already be available on Blu-Ray.)

Have you ever watched a bad film and found yourself dreaming about it months afterwards? Color Out of Space is one of those.

To begin: in March 1927 the author H. P Lovecraft wrote what would become his personal favourite story. In “The Color Out of Space”, a meteor crashes into a farmer’s field in the Massachusetts hills. The farmer’s crops grow huge, but prove inedible. His livestock go mad. So, in the end, does the farmer, haunted by a colour given off by a visiting presence in the land: a glow that belongs on no ordinary spectrum.

This is Lovecraft’s riff on a favourite theme of fin-de-siecle science fiction: the existence of new rays, and with them, new ways of seeing. The 1890s and 1900s were, after all, radiant years. Victor Schumann discovered ultraviolet radiation in 1893. Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays in 1895. Henri Becquerel discovered radioactivity in 1896. J. J. Thomson discovered that cathode rays were streams of electrons in 1897. Prosper-René Blondlot discovered N-rays in 1903 — only they turned out not to exist: an artefact of observational error and wishful thinking.

And this is pretty much what the local media assume has happened when Nathan Gardner, the not-very-effective head of a household that is downsizing after unspecified health problems and financial setbacks, describes the malevolent light he catches spilling at odd moments from his well. The man’s a drunk, is what people assume. A fantasist. An eccentric.

The film is yet another attempt to fuse American Gothic to a contemporary setting. Director Richard Stanley (who brough us 1990’s Hardware, another valuable bad movie) has written a script that, far from smoothing out the discrepancies between modern and pre-modern proprieties, manners, and ways of speaking, leaves them jangling against each other in a way that makes you wonder What On Earth Is Going On.

And what is going on, most of the time, is Nicholas Cage as Gardner. Has anyone before or since conveyed so raucously and yet so well the misery, the frustration, the rage, the self-hatred of weak men? Every time he gets into a fist-fight with a car interior I think to myself, Ah, Nicholas, c’est moi.

Even better, Cage’s on-screen wife here is Joely Richardson, an actress who packs a lifetime’s disappointments into a request to pass the sugar.

Alien life is not like earth life and to confront it is to invite madness, is the general idea. But with tremendous support from on-screen children Madeleine Arthur and Brendan Meyer, Cage and Richardson turn what might have been a series of uninteresting personal descents into a family tragedy of Jacobean proportions. If ever hell were other people, then at its deepest point you would find the Gardner family, sniping at each other across the dinner table.

Color Out of Space mashes up psychological drama, horror, and alien invasion. It’s not a film you admire. It’s a film you get into internal arguments with, as you try and sort all the bits out. In short, it does exactly what it set out to do. It sticks.