All posts by michaelrudkins

Neuromancer: A Closer Look

In 1984 a book entitled Neuromancer made its debut in the genre of science fiction, and it quickly became a huge success winning the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick Awards—the so called ‘Triple-Crown’ of science fiction awards. In his book, Gibson explores a high tech dystopian society through a drug addicted anti-hero Henry Case; moreover, Gibson delves into Artificial Intelligence, biomedical engineering, and many other futuristic technologies.

BIOGRAPHY

William Gibson was born in 1948 on the coast of South Carolina, and he had a rather tragic childhood. When he was six years old, his father “went off on one more business trip. He never came back. He choked on something in a restaurant, the Heimlich maneuver hadn’t been discovered yet, and everything changed” (Gibson 2002). Gibson moved to a small town in Virginia where he claimed “modernity had survived to some extent but was deeply distrusted” (Gibson 2002).

William Gibson
William Gibson

This separation from technology was what started his passion for science fiction. He started to become a stereotypical nerd: he was introverted and obsessed with books, especially science fiction. After being shipped off to a private boys’ school in Arizona, his mother suddenly passed away. Gibson was only 18 at the time and dropped out of school and ended up in Canada where he was, “evading the draft and staying alive, while trying to make sure I looked like I was at least enjoying the Summer of Love” (Gibson 2002). Gibson has lived in Canada ever since. After a short period of time Gibson

Met a girl from Vancouver, went off to Europe with her (concentrating on countries with fascist regimes and highly favorable rates of exchange) got married, and moved to British Columbia, where I watched the hot fat of the Sixties congeal as I earned a desultory bachelor’s degree in English at UBC (Gibson 2002).

This quote, from Gibson’s autobiography, gives one a sense of his personality: adventurous and impulsive. In the late 1970s Gibson began to write, and, remembering his childhood passion, took the direction of science fiction. Punk was just making an entrance in major cities like New York and London, and this seems to be some of the inspiration for Gibson’s “cyberpunk” theme of several of his

Cyberpunk
Cyberpunk

books. Some interesting facts about Gibson include him avoiding the Internet, even though he popularized the term “cyberspace,” until he discovered that it was, “such a magnificent opportunity to waste time that I could no longer resist” (Gibson 2002). Also he states that he watches “less than twelve hours of television in a given year, and have watched that little since age fifteen” (Gibson 2002), but that it wasn’t a conscious decision. Rather than waste time watching television—as I and I am sure so many of you are guilty of—he prefers to write. He

William Gibson Quote
William Gibson Quote

claims that he has, “spent just about exactly as much time actually writing as the average person my age has spent watching television, and that, as much as anything, may be the real secret here” (Gibson 2002). I find that utterly astounding; perhaps we could all take a lesson from this man and waste less of our time watching television.

SUMMARY

The title Neuromancer is quite conspicuous, but Gibson defines it as a

Neuromancer Cover
Neuromancer Cover

combination of neuro, romancer, and necromancer: “Neuro from the nerves, the silver paths. Romancer. Necromancer. I call up the dead” (Gibson, Neuromancer 1984). The protagonist in Neuromancer, by William Gibson is Henry Case, referred to simply as Case throughout the book. The setting is our world sometime in the future, and the book starts with him in Chiba City, Japan, as a street hustler in a dystopian society. He used to be a cowboy, a computer hacker essentially, but he tried to steal from an employer and was poisoned by a mycotoxin that inhibited his central nervous system (CNS) and made him unable to enter the Matrix—cyberspace—any longer.

The Matrix
The Matrix

This ended his career as a cowboy and left him in Chiba city with what seemed to be a death wish. One night after discovering some of his tech had been stolen by a close friend, Linda, he returned to the scene of the crime to find Molly, a street samurai. Molly works for a guy named Armitage, who claims that he can repair Case’s CNS—a job that was deemed impossible—if he will do a job for him. Case agrees, and after the surgery he discovers he also had a new pancreas installed, and it will not allow him to get high on amphetamines or

DARE
DARE

cocaine. After a preliminary job that involves recovering a ROM that has the saved consciousness of a former mentor, Case, at the behest of Molly who he has developed a relationship with, begins to investigate Armitage. He discovers he is former Special Forces with the name Corto and was involved in a mission where he was the only person to come out alive (Gibson, Neuromancer 1984).

After this, the group heads to Istanbul to recruit one more person for their job, Peter Riviera. He is a sociopath that can project holograms

Iron Man Hologram
Iron Man Hologram

with the help of some illustrious cybernetic implants. They have some difficulty getting him to accept the job, but he does eventually after some coercion. Then they depart for the site of their job, Freeside: a luxurious space habitat that is described as the Las Vegas style resort for the wealthy. Eventually, we learn that Armitage is being controlled by Wintermute—a powerful Artificial Intelligence that was developed by the Tessier-Ashpool legacy. The TA legacy is comprised of an old family that has a massive villa, known as Straylight, which takes up an entire end of Freeside. The Turing Law Code is said to ban the construction of super AIs, so Wintermute was built as half of one, and the other half is known as Neuromancer. However, when these two AIs were designed, Neuromancer was designed to want to be merged with his other half. So, Wintermute has been planning the story basically the entire time: he found Corto in a mental institution after his mission gone wrong and planted the persona of Armitage in him. From there he guided Armitage to put together this team to break into the Villa Straylight, while Case simultaneously jacks in to the Matrix to hack the barriers that keep Wintermute from merging. Case has to do this precisely when the team in the Villa Straylight speaks a code to an elaborate computer terminal for the process to work (Gibson, Neuromancer 1984).

During the operation, the Armitage persona breaks down and reverts to Corto, who ultimately dies by the hand of Wintermute. Riviera turns on his team and ends up dying by some poison Molly had been putting in his drugs. At last, however, Case succeeds and Wintermute is freed; Wintermute unites with Neuromancer and they become a super consciousness. Case is rewarded by Wintermute/Neuromancer with a bank account loaded with money. The epilogue is bittersweet; Molly leaves Case, who finds a new girlfriend shortly thereafter, and he resumes his hacking work. After a while he is contacted by Wintermute/Neuromancer saying that it has become “the sum total of the works, the whole show” (Gibson, Neuromancer 1984). I have the impression that the super consciousness was the ultimate product of cyberspace, and that it felt it had become god-like.

Graphic Novel Cover
Graphic Novel Cover

On a related note, Neuromancer was published as a graphic novel, and there is going to be a movie coming out sometime soon based on the book. (Check the link out here)

SCIENCE

THE TECHNOLOGY OF NEUROMANCER

After getting into Neuromancer, one can quickly become disoriented with all the jargon Gibson uses in his writing, especially when he is referring to some unintroduced piece of technology (Here is a link to a guide for understanding Neuromancer if you are interested in reading it). In fact, in a newspaper article in The Washington Post in 1984 (the year the book was published), Gibson is praised for his new

Possibilities for the Future
Possibilities for the Future

take on science fiction, and the only fault in the book is, “a gimmicky use of farfetched gadgets. Gibson is no engineer and doesn’t even try to explain his pseudoscience” (Platt 1984). After some exploring of different sources, however, the book becomes much clearer and easier to understand. It is easy to conceive how a science fiction writer could fall into the trap of not explaining his fictional technology, particularly when one considers that Gibson was slow to get on the technology train of the 21st century. As a matter of fact, in an interview in 1994 he said that

As much as I admire the Internet I suffer literally agoraphobia, which in its original sense means a fear of the marketplace. I do not want to receive three hundred e-mail messages per week from strangers wanting to communicate with me. If only because I’d be tempted to open them all and look at them. And there goes, you know, half the time that I have to write (Gibson, “I Don’t Even Have a Modem” 1994).

The internet was definitely in its early stages at this point, but the fact that he coined the term “cyberspace” would have led me to think that

Cyberspace
Cyberspace

he was a very tech savvy person that reaped the benefits of the early internet. Alas, this is not the case.

I also thought it strange that the beginning of the book was set in Japan; however, I happened to come across an essay that he wrote in 2001 called My Own Personal Tokyo. In it Gibson speculates on the futuristic technological appeal that Tokyo offered to him: “Tokyo has been my handiest prop shop for as long as I’ve been writing: sheer eye candy. You can see more chronological strata of futuristic design in a Tokyo streetscape than anywhere else in the world” (Gibson, “My Own Private Tokyo” 2001). And later in the essay he again marvels at the Japanese and their affinity for technology. He states that

In a world of technologically driven exponential change, the Japanese have an acquired edge: They know how to live with it. Nobody legislates that kind of change into being, it just comes, and keeps coming, and the Japanese have been experiencing it for more than a hundred years.

I see them poised here tonight, hanging out, life going on, in the glow of these very big televisions.

Postgraduates at all of this (Gibson, “My Own Private Tokyo” 2001).

From this essay it becomes apparent that Gibson is inspired by the technology of Japan and it influences his novels a substantial amount. Several of the pieces of technology in Neuromancer have Japanese names, which only makes it harder to distinguish what the equipment does. His deck, for example, is called an Ono-Sendai, and the name lends no help to the reader as to its function.

Futuristic Tokyo
Futuristic Tokyo

The exploration of the cyberspace, futuristic gadgets, and Japanese culture and setting of Neuromancer are clear indicators of how the world around Gibson influenced his writing. Also, an interesting connection between Japan and many of the posts on this site revolve around the atomic bomb as it pertains to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Much of the destruction inflicted on Japan in WWII allowed the Japanese to rebuild their society with the latest technology available, and this seems to lend credence to the Japanese having a, “futuristic design” (Gibson, “My Own Private Tokyo” 2001).

AI: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

In recent years the idea of Artificial Intelligence has become increasingly widespread through the various mediums of information

Terminator Movie Poster
Terminator Movie Poster

consumption. Movies are one striking example: in the Terminator, a fully conscious and sentient AI known as Skynet takes over the world by virtue that it can control the any computer connected to the internet. In I, Robot, an AI known as VIKI (Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence) takes control of all the robots that are linked to her in an attempt to keep humans safe from themselves. In The Matrix we see a futuristic world where computers have enslaved humanity

The Matrix
The Matrix

and uses their bodies for fuel while trapping their minds in an elaborate computer program built to mimic the world before AI. These movies play on the fears that people often have when discussing the possibility of having an AI powerful enough to rival human intelligence. It will take over the world, enslave humanity, destroy us because we are a threat, and several other scenarios permeate the movies that entertain the development of AI.

The AAAI (Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence) defines AI as “the scientific understanding of the mechanisms underlying thought and intelligent behavior and their embodiment in machines” (AAAI Contributors n.d.). Today, the world of computers is changing rapidly, and Artificial Intelligence is nothing new; companies like IBM have developed computer software like Watson that is, “a cognitive technology that processes information more like a human than a computer—by understanding natural language, generating hypotheses based on evidence, and learning as it goes” (IBM n.d.). Watson is a truly amazing achievement in computer science, and it even competed in Jeopardy in 2011 (and won!) to test its problem solving ability. It was an amazing example of what an AI can do, and perhaps, what it can offer for the future.

Here are a few videos that show the brilliance of Watson, and what it is currently working on.

 

 

 

 

 

Obviously, in the Neuromancer, Artificial Intelligence plays an important role. Wintermute is an AI and essentially is the driver behind the plot, or the man behind the curtain, if you will. Neuromancer, Wintermute’s brother, had the ability to copy minds and run them as RAM (Random Access Memory); it did this with Case’s girlfriend Linda when she died, and tried to trap Case in the Matrix in the same way. However, Case’s conscious decision to not stay is what allowed him to leave and return to his body. In the 1970s and 80s, AI was in a bit of a slump due to goals that were too ambitious for their time (Wikipedia Contributors 2014). However, Gibson was undeterred from writing about it because the imagination knows no bounds, and AI could do whatever he wanted it to do in science fiction. What most likely drove him to write a book about it was the booming computer industry and popularization of

IBMs first personal computer
IBMs first personal computer

the personal or home computer. For example, in 1977 the personal computer was first being manufactured on a large scale, and as with any new innovative technology, it seemed that computers would be the way to the future (Wikipedia Contributors 2014). This was right around the time Gibson would have been working on Neuromancer, and it would appear unlikely that this would not have swayed his writing.

The fear of AI is comparable to several of the works of science fiction that have been explored in previous posts. For instance, in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells we see scientists that pursue a dream that is scientifically appreciable but morally questionable, and the idea of an AI powerful

The logic of VIKI from I, Robot
The logic of VIKI from I, Robot

enough to replicate or surpass human intelligence to the point where it could potentially become a menace to humanity is as terrifying as either of the atrocities committed in the two books.

Biomedical Engineering and Human Improvement

As with any science fiction work, it would not be complete without having people that have been physically improved to the point that it gives them a superhuman demeanor. Molly is a striking example of this in Neuromancer; she is first introduced as a street samurai that works for Armitage. We discover some of her many modifications throughout the book, and some of the more exciting ones include her

Molly
Molly

Wolverine-like razors that sprout from her fingertips, her lenses that enclose her eye socket and can modify her vision, and her superfast reflexes that were surgically enhanced. As one reads the book, more and more of these advances in biotechnology are noticed: Case has his liver modified so that he cannot get high off cocaine or amphetamines, Ratz (a bartender) has a bionic arm, some joeboys (muscle men from what I gathered) have more muscle grafted to them, Riviera has elaborate holographic technology embedded in him, and the list goes on (Gibson, Neuromancer 1984). This idea of modifying the human body with the latest technology is something that is more commonplace in the 21st century than ever before. The fascination with it began in the 20th century as more and better technology started to become available. As one can imagine, “most of the sophisticated electronic technology used in modern medical equipment was originally tested and improved by the military” (Croswell 1995). Now, we have technology that seems like the work of science fiction, or at least driven by it. For example, researchers are working on a contact lens that uses graphene to display infrared to the human eye (D’Orazio 2014). Also, a prosthetic arm was dekas-luke-arm_gen2developed at the request of the military that mimics a human arm; it is completely robotic and allows the user to feel what he or she is doing and control it with the mind like a normal arm! (Kamen 2007).

Here is the video.

Also, here is a link to many different videos over prosthetics and the future of human biomedical engineering.

Another amazing leap in biomedical engineering is the use of 3D printing to ‘bio-print’ transplantable tissues and organs.

Scientists … have ‘bio-printed’ artificial vascular networks mimicking the body’s circulatory system that are necessary for growing large complex tissues. … [and] Replicating the complexity of these networks has been a stumbling block preventing tissue engineering from becoming a real world clinical application (University of Sydney 2014).

Aside from being a remarkable feat of engineering and medicine, this brings to mind the retrofitted pancreas that was installed into Case in Neuromancer; it is a wonderful demonstration of how science fiction is a precursor to and influences the direction of science.

3D Printer
3D Printer

In conclusion, the cutting edge technology of today seems to be almost on par with some of the technology seen in Neuromancer. Gibson was influenced by the technological innovations of his day, paved the way for a new take on science fiction, and inspired the readers and public with his ideas of the future.

Works Cited

AAAI Contributors. n.d. Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. Accessed June 30, 2014. http://aitopics.org/topic/ai-overview.

Croswell, Darrel W. 1995. “The Evolution of Biomedical Equipment Technology.” Journal of Clinical Engineering 230-234.

D’Orazio, Dante. 2014. Scientists make new sensor that could lead to night vision contact lenses. April 6. Accessed July 1, 2014. http://www.theverge.com/2014/4/6/5586966/new-infrared-sensor-could-make-night-vision-contact-lenses-a-reality.

Gibson, William, interview by Dan Josefsson. 1994. “I Don’t Even Have a Modem” (November 23).

—. 2001. “”My Own Private Tokyo”.” WIRED. September. Accessed June 30, 2014. http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/9.09/gibson.html.

—. 1984. Neuromancer. New York City: The Berkley Group.

—. 2002. “Source Code: “Since 1948″.” William Gibson Books. November 6. http://www.williamgibsonbooks.com/source/source.asp.

IBM. n.d. IBM: What is Watson? Accessed June 30, 2014. http://www.ibm.com/smarterplanet/us/en/ibmwatson/index.html.

Kamen, Dean. 2007. Luke, a new prosthetic arm for soldiers. April.

Platt, Charles. 1984. “SCIENCE FICTION.” The Washington Post, July 29: 11.

University of Sydney. 2014. “”Bio-printing transplantable tissues, organs: Another step closer”.” ScienceDaily. June 30. Accessed July 1, 2014. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/06/140630103136.htm

Wikipedia Contributors. 2014. AI Winter. May 28. Accessed June 30, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=AI_winter&oldid=610542268.

—. 2014. History of personal computers. June 23. Accessed June 30, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=History_of_personal_computers&oldid=614113270.

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Neuromancer

For my personal essay, I decided to read and analyze Neuromancer by William Gibson. This book was published in 1984 and had an enormous impact in the genre of science fiction.

William Gibson was born in 1948 on the coast of South Carolina, and he had a rather tragic childhood. His father died choking on some food in a restaurant when he was six, and his mother died 12 years later. He became interested in science fiction when he was a young boy in an old fashioned town. After becoming a book worm, his mother shipped him to a private boys’ school in Arizona where he stayed until she passed away; he dropped out at the age of 18.

William Gibson
William Gibson

Gibson ended up in Canada and eventually married, and one day in the 1970s his childhood passion of science fiction resurfaced. He began to write, and has been ever since. He has authored 10 novels and 25 articles to date and many stories as well (Gibson 2002).

The title Neuromancer is quite conspicuous, but Gibson defines it as a combination of neuro, romancer, and necromancer: “Neuro from the nerves, the silver paths. Romancer. Necromancer. I call up the dead” (Gibson, Neuromancer 1984).

Neuromancer Cover
Neuromancer Cover

Neuromancer was his first book, and it follows the anti-hero Henry Case through a somewhat confusing plot line. It begins with Case in Chiba City, Japan; he is despondent due his central nervous system having been damaged by his previous employer after he tried to steal from them. Because of this he is unable to work. He is picked up by the street samurai, Molly, who tells him that her employer, Armitage, wants to see him. Armitage informs Case that he can have his CNS fixed, but Case must perform a job for him after the procedure. Case agrees and is launched into a fast paced story line.

Case is what they call a cowboy—a data hacker that works by entering cyberspace, otherwise known as the matrix.

The Matrix
The Matrix

After his CNS is fixed, he performs a preliminary job for Armitage and succeeds wonderfully. Following that they recruit more people for their real task: entering the Villa known as Straylight on the luxurious space habitat that is described as the Las Vegas style resort for the wealthy. After the team enters the villa—while Case simultaneously performs a hacking job in the matrix—they coordinate their efforts to release protocols that have restricted an AI from becoming a super consciousness, and they discover in the process that the AI has been organizing the job from the very beginning through Armitage. The story winds to a bittersweet ending with Case finding a new girlfriend and resuming his old work. He is later visited by the super consciousness while in the matrix, and it informs him that it has become, “the sum total of the works, the whole show” (Gibson, Neuromancer 1984).

Artificial Intelligence
Artificial Intelligence

Some of the more pertinent scientific topics explored in the book include cyberspace, Artificial Intelligence, biomedical engineering, and many other futuristic technologies. His take on these technologies is quite unique in some respects, and it becomes hard to follow the book in some parts due to the lack of explanation of several of the futuristic devices. All aspects considered, Neuromancer was an exceptional read and lead the way in science fiction in its time winning the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick Awards.

Citations:

Gibson, William. 1984. Neuromancer. New York City: The Berkley Group.

–. 2002. “Source Code: “Since 1948″.” William Gibson Books. November 6. http://www.williamgibsonbooks.com/source/source.asp.

Atoman Comic

Scientists of the Manhattan Project
Scientists of the Manhattan Project

The comic “Atoman” was published in February 1946, right after the end of World War II. The beginning of the comic depicts a short history of the atom bomb and the Manhattan Project; it shows several different scientists and their contributions to the atom bomb. Most of the scientists are made up; however, it does mention Albert Einstein and his theories on matter and energy, namely, his famous formula for the inter-conversion of the two: E=mc2.

Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein

The comic then tells the story of the bombing of Hiroshima and how the scientists waited in anticipation to see if the bomb worked. In actuality, the bomb was tested in New Mexico first, to see if the work of the Manhattan Project was successful. In short, it was. The director of the project, whose name will be forever connected to the atomic bomb, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, watching—in fascination and incredulity—the rising mushroom cloud that the atomic bomb is famous for stated, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” (“United States…”). It

Quote from J. Robert Oppenheimer
Quote from J. Robert Oppenheimer

strikes me that these people, these scientists, started working with only an idea that the atom might be capable of being split and giving off enormous amounts energy in the process, worked on it tirelessly in pursuit of the idea that physics can now display the power that lies at the heart of it, and created a weapon so powerful that they did not realize the implications it would have for the world and for war until it was completed.

The comic then goes into a fantastical tale of how a scientist was exposed to radiation for several years and happened to gain “atomic power” from the radiation. As a modern day reader, I know the only

Atoman Comic
Atoman Comic

thing connected with high doses of radiation is death, which is not a fascinating super power. However, if people in the 40s read this they most likely would not know the effects of radiation—or even what radiation was for that matter—so super powers might seem like a reasonable effect. Moreover, without understanding the principles behind the atomic bomb, the public likely regarded the atomic bomb as being in the realm of superheroes and magic, rather than physics.

I found myself chuckling as I read through the comic, not only because the idea of becoming a superhero with atomic power from radiation poisoning was so ludicrous, but also because it indicated the depth of ignorance concerning physics—and general science—of most of the public at that time. However, upon further examination (i.e. looking at the science of our time in relation to the public ignorance of it also), I can see that this is most likely a trend that has been prevalent for most of scientific history.

Quote from MLK Jr.
Quote from MLK Jr.

In conclusion, the development of the atomic bomb came with many consequences to society and the scientific community, some of the consequences were good and others were bad, but it was a significant scientific achievement. It opened to doors to modern physics and ushered in a new game piece for war—albeit a highly controversial one.

Works Cited

“United States conducts first test of the atomic bomb.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 23 June 2014. <http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/united-states-conducts-first-test-of-the-atomic-bomb&gt;.

‘Dr. Ecstasy’

‘Dr. Ecstasy’

This link has an interesting video that looks at some of the history of Dr. Shuglin’s life and his part in making MDMA popular in the late 60s and 70s. He created several psychedelics and experimented with all of them, even using some for treating peoples’ psychological problems. MDMA was classified as a Schedule 1 drug in 1985 by the DEA. Since then a few studies have been done on it for treating psychological disorders with the results looking pretty good; the health concerns with MDMA usually come from people taking too much or having impurities in the drug. “[A] Halpern study, released in 2011, tracked the health of 52 illicit MDMA users—a large number for this sort of research—finding “no cognitive impairment.” When people hear the name Shuglin–those that know him anyway–usually perceive him as weird scientist or a “menace” to society.

Frankenstein and the Science that Inspired it

Mary Shelley

Biography

On August 30th, 1797, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born to William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft in London, England. Her father was a “philosopher and political writer”(Bio) who is often regarded as “the founder of philosophical anarchism” (Philp).  While Godwin was the author of several philosophical works and children’s books, his wife was a ‘famed feminist’ and a published writer (Bio).  Unfortunately, Mary’s mother died “11 days after her birth… of puerperal fever, leaving Godwin…to care for Mary and her three-year-old half sister, Fanny” (Ty). Four years later, her father remarried to Mary Jane Clairmont, who already had two children of her own. Mary often received unfair treatment from her new stepmother, who sent her stepsister off to boarding school but “saw no need to educate [Mary]” (Bio).  Still, she was educated by her father, who taught her how to read, supplied her with books, and allowed her to listen to “the political, philosophical, scientific, and literary conversations that [he] conducted with such visitors as William Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge” (Ty). In addition to reading, Mary enjoyed taking her own shot at writing, and once noted, “ as a child… my favourite pastime, during the hours given me for recreation, was to ‘write stories’” (Shelley).

Percy Shelley

When she turned seventeen years old in 1814, Mary left with her father’s student, Percy Bysshe Shelley, to England along with her stepsister.  Though Percy was married, the two began a relationship while traveling in Europe, and suffered the loss of their first child who only lived to be a few days old (Bio). A summer later, Percy and Mary were in Geneva, Switzerland with some friends, where they would pass their time on rainy days by telling each other ghost stories. One of her their friends, Lord Byron, “suggested that they all should try their hand at writing their own horror story” (Bio).  Later, Mary wrote in her journal about a, “Dream that [her] little baby came to life again–that it had only been cold & that [she and Percy] rubbed it before the fire & it lived.” (Shelley). After this, Mary “[began] work on what would become her most famous novel, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus” (Bio).

The remainder of the year was filled with death, first by the suicide of Mary’s half sister Fanny, then by the suicide of Percy’s wife. In 1816, Mary and Percy got married, and she took the last name Shelley.  During the year 1818, “Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus debuted as a new novel from an anonymous author… and many thought that Percy Shelley had written it since he penned its introduction” (Bio).  The book was received with great interest and was a big hit.

Frankenstein

Mary later gave birth to three more children, only one of which, Percy Florence Shelley, lived into adulthood (Ty). She would go on to write several more novels, and suffered the loss of her husband, who drowned in 1822 (Ty).

In 1851, at age 53, Mary Shelley passed away due to brain cancer in London, England, and “was laid to rest alongside her father and mother and with the cremated remains of her late husband’s heart” (Bio).

Summary

The British author Mary Shelley published her book Frankenstein in the year 1818.  In this book, she conveys a story of Victor Frankenstein, a scientist that reanimated a creature from the dead.  The story begins with Captain Robert Walton’s journey towards the North Pole. Unfortunately, Walton’s ship becomes stuck, surrounded by slabs of ice as they attempt to reach solid ground.  Trapped on the boat with nothing to do, Walton begins writing letters to his sister, making accounts of his experiences and his desire to find a worthy friend.  While stuck, the captain and his crew are able to make out a man riding a sledge pulled by dogs, and then save another man that floated towards their boat on a chunk of ice.  This man happens to be Victor Frankenstein, and Captain Walton’s wish to find a friend out at sea appears to have come true.  Upon talking to this new man, however, Walton finds out that Victor is in a life of despair, and he goes on to tell his life story.

Cornelius Agrippa
Cornelius Agrippa

Victor begins his narration by telling the story of his birth, family, and early childhood in Geneva, Switzerland.  He then describes how his parents adopted his cousin, Elizabeth Lavenza, to become his companion and his future wife.  Victor grew up in a close family and spent much of his time with his best friends Henry Clerval and Elizabeth.  He became fascinated with the natural world, and one day happened to stumble upon a book by Cornelius Agrippa.  Victor eagerly read the outdated studies of the alchemists Agrippa, Albertus Magnus, and Paracelsus, and then became captivated with electricity after watching a tree get demolished in a lightning storm. This joyful account of Victor’s early experiences with his close-knit friends and family gave a flash of his life that the readers know will soon be destroyed.

At the age of seventeen, Victor plans to leave for college at

Victor's inspiration
Victor’s inspiration

Ingolstadt.  Just before departing, however, his mother catches scarlet fever from Elizabeth, and is unable to survive.  After several weeks, Victor leaves his grieving family for college, where he goes to meet his natural philosophy professor.  Victor is immediately told that his time spent studying alchemists was a complete waste, and he eventually begins studying the nature of the human body with enthusiasm.  After two years of learning all that his teachers had to teach him about science, Victor continues to study human anatomy and death and decay, finally finding “the secret to life.”

Upon learning the secrets to life, Victor dedicates his time to his work, isolating himself from his family and any social interaction.  He becomes determined to reanimate the nonliving and continually makes trips to the morgue, bringing back body parts of the dead to construct a body.  He uses the biggest and best body parts he can find, eventually making an eight-foot giant. Upon finishing his creation and bringing the creature to life, Victor is terrified by the horrid appearance of his monster and flees his apartment. Victor then becomes very sick for quite some time and is nursed back to health by his friend Henry Clerval. While still sick, Victor is unaware of the The Monster Comes to Lifewhereabouts of his monster, and later receives a letter from his father that his younger brother, William, had been murdered. His family’s beloved servant, Justine, becomes accused of the murder, but Victor for some reason believes that it was his monster’s doing. Scared of sounding like a lunatic, however, Victor never discloses his information, and the innocent Justine is executed.

Victory and his family become full of grief and decide to make a vacation to the Swiss Alps, in an attempt to leave their misery. Victor Frankenstein Although this trip was intended to lift everyone’s hopes, Victor runs into his monster again, who admits to the crime and goes on to tell Victor of his treacherous life story.  The monster claimed only to have wanted to share love and friendship, but upon his continual rejection, he grew full of revenge.  Victor’s monster is livid to have been created miserable and alone, and offers Victor peace in return for the creation of a female companion for the monster. Victor, having experienced enough despair, eventual agrees to this, deciding to leave his home to start his work.

Victor keeps all of his work a secret to everyone around him, and attempts to deal with all of his problems alone. When Victor finally finishes his new creation, he becomes very fearful and then immediately destroys it. Having broken his promise with the fiend, the monster becomes enraged and vows to destroy Victor’s life and everyone around it.  Victor then leaves to continue his travels with his friend Henry, only to later find him strangled. Victor then becomes very ill again and his illnesses appear to be psychologically induced from his internal guilt. Just in the nick of time, his father comes to rescue him and brings him back home.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth

Victor made an agreement to marry his lifelong companion, Elizabeth, once his health was restored, but can’t stop worrying of how the monster said he’d be with him on his wedding night. Prepared to die, Victor goes on to marry the love of his life and they leave that day to spend the night at a family cottage. Victor becomes increasingly nervous of his anticipated confrontation with his treacherous monster, and asks his wife to retire for the night.  Victor continues to walk the grounds of the house with his hand resting on his pistol, but then suddenly hears Elizabeth scream from the bedroom. Victor finds his new wife strangled on the bed and attempts to shoot the monster, but misses due to its superhuman abilities. Having lost his one true love, Victor then returns home to be with his father.

When Victor returns home, he tells his father of the horrible news.  His father then becomes ill with grief from the news and dies soon thereafter.  With everything of meaning to him now lost, Victor makes a vow to hunt down the perpetrator until the end of his days. Victor then goes on with his story of tracking down the monster, eventually leading him to the North Pole and stranded on Captain Walton’s boat.  Victor’s health continues to decline until he finally passes away.  At about this time, the ice around the ship dissipates, and Walton decides to abandon his mission, fleeing back to land. After Victor’s death, the monster appeared beside his body to confirm his death.  Hearing murmuring from this room, the captain enters and the monster goes on to tell him of all his sufferings.  The monster then tells Walton that with his creator dead, he was now ready to die himself.  The story then ends, leaving readers with the assumption that the monster rids the world of his disgusting presence as the ship continues to sail back to England.

The Homunculus

The idea of a homunculus, that is, a man-made human being or humanoid (e.g. Frankenstein’s Monster), is an idea going back to ancient times, although, it made a resurgence in the Renaissance period. One of the alchemists mentioned in Shelley’s Frankenstein, Paracelsus, wrote many different works over natural philosophy and alchemy. He was interested primarily in medicine, but he believed that, “Medicine rests upon four pillars — philosophy, astronomy, alchemy, and ethics” (Paracelsus). His real name is Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, and he had a rather strange formula for the creation of a homunculus which resembles a recipe prescribed in the Book of the Cow, an Arabic work, for the same thing (Lachman; Wikipedia “Homunculus”; Lamb).

If the sperma, enclosed in a hermetically sealed glass, is buried in horse manure for forty days, and properly magnetized, it begins to live and move. After such a time it bears the form and resemblance of a human being, but it will be transparent and without a body. If it is now artificially fed with theArcanum sanguinis hominis until it is about forty weeks old, and if allowed to remain during that time in horse manure in a continually equal temperature, it will grow into a human child, with all its members developed like any other child, such as could be born by a woman; only it will be much smaller. We call such a being a homunculus, and it may be raised and educated like any other child, until it grows older and obtains reason and intellect, and is able to take care of itself. (Lachman)

Preformationism
Sperm with a Homunculus inside

From the above grotesque formula, one can see that the basic idea is to take sperm, put it in a warm environment, feed it with human blood for a full gestation period, and it will develop into a child. This formula most likely got its foundation from the idea of preformationism: a small, fully formed person was, in fact, in the sperm of man and just grew larger after deposition into a woman (Wikipedia “Preformationism”). Obviously this idea was before we had modern science, and the natural philosophers of the time were looking into how man was conceived and born. Pythagoras was one of the first thinkers concerned with the biological origins of man, and he coined the idea of “spermism.” Spermism is the idea that man contributes the “essential characteristics of their offspring while mothers contribute only a material substrate” and was accepted by Aristotle and many natural philosophers up to the 17th century (Wikipedia “Preformationism”). Shelley most likely took ideas from Paracelsus, particularly those concerning homunculi, as inspiration for Frankenstein’s monster.

It has been suggested that perhaps Paracelsus and other alchemists used the idea of the homunculus as a way to secretly convey some of the teachings of alchemy, where the true goal was to turn other metals into gold or find the philosopher’s stone for the elixir of life. Alchemy SymbolsLooking at the ultimate goal with a figurative mindset rather than a literal one, one might deduce that this is merely a metaphor that symbolized an endeavor to “the spiritual transformation of the alchemist” (Lachman). Expounding upon this:

The real aim of all the preparation and cumbersome apparatus, was to unite their [the alchemist’s] earthly, mortal soul with that of the Creator, to participate in the divine, to reawaken their spiritual consciousness, and to grasp the secret forces at work behind the natural world. In this the alchemists carried on the same work as their Neoplatonic forebears. (Lachman)

This is a peculiar idea and one that deserves mention; however, I am not sure how much truth resides in it. The idea that they were after immortality and endless gold seems more plausible, but then again, many of the notions that pervaded this time were completely illogical which makes it difficult to determine with any degree of accuracy what their true aims really were.

Alchemy

The Arabian Moors introduced alchemy to the Europeans in the 8th century. The number one goal of alchemist back in the day was to transmutate “base metals” into “noble metals” such as gold (“Contexts — Science – Alchemy”).  By the 16th century, the alchemists

Alchemy Table
Alchemy Table

split in to two groups. One group focused on discovering new metals and their reactions, which is now best known as chemistry. The second group continued “the search for immortality and the transmutation of base metals into gold, which led to modern day idea of alchemy” (“Contexts — Science – Alchemy”).

In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley mentions a few alchemists in the beginning of the book. Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Albertus Magnus. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa was an alchemist born in Germany who was also a physician practicing without a license. His major works consisted of trying to synthesize gold from lead. Paracelsus was a well-rounded scientist who also studied botany and astrology. He was the son was paracelsuschemist and physician, Wilhelm Bombast von Hohenheim. Paracelsus is credited for naming zinc, and he “pioneered the use of chemicals and minerals in medicine” (“Paracelsus”). Albertus Magnus was a Catholic saint accredited for the discovery of arsenic. He believed that stones had occult properties and was said to have discovered the philosopher’s stone.

The philosopher’s stone was a substance that was capable of turning base metals into gold and believed to be an “elixir of life” (“Philosopher’s Stone”). In Frankenstein, the “philosopher’s stone” is metaphorically represented by electricity and is used to put life in to Frankenstein the monster.

Alchemy does not play a big role throughout the book because Victor was discouraged by his early professors due to the belief of alchemy as being superstitious. However, Shelley does mentions chemistry stating:

To have gained a disciple; and if your application equals your ability, I have no doubt of your success. Chemistry is that branch of natural philosophy in which the greatest improvements have been and may be made; it is on that account that I have made it my peculiar study; but at the same time, I have not neglected the other branches of science. A man would make but a very sorry chemist if he attended to that department of human knowledge alone. If your wish is to become really a man of science and not merely a petty experimentalist, I should advise you to apply to every branch of natural philosophy, including mathematics.

From the statement above, one can conclude that Shelley believed chemistry was important, but during the 19th century, science was focused more on physics and mathematics.

 

Albertus Magnus
Albertus Magnus

 

Electricity

Throughout the book Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, electricity is a recurring theme and introduces the various uses and the importance of electricity.  Although electricity’s complexity is not fully understood during the time period in which Mary Shelley writes the book, numerous brilliant scientists have contributed to the better understanding, which we have today.  This has led to many advances in various aspects of the world in which we live.  In today’s society, electricity is essential to our daily lives.  Electricity not only provides lighting and power, but is also an important tool in medicine.

leyden jar
Leyden Jar

Prior to the 19th century, scientists were beginning the exploration of electricity.  The major studies revolved around the transfer of electricity, the attractions, lightning, and the Leyden jar.  All of which impacted the later scientists experimenting with electricity.

Luigi Galvani was one of the scientists that used these previous discoveries to facilitate his research.  Galvani is responsible for the discovery of muscle contraction due to electric impulse.  Galvani stimulated the muscles of deceased frogs and severed frog’s limbs.  This experiment was completed by exposing the nerves to electrical currents.  In the article, An Essay on Electricity, George Adams writes about the results of an experiment done by Galvani to see if lightning would cause the same stimulation in the frog’s muscles as with electrical impulses in the laboratory.

On this preparation the thunder and lightning produced the same effects as the spark from the electrical machine: the same contractions took place, and they were stronger or weaker according to the distance and quantity of lightning.  Thus far the effects might have been naturally expected; but a remarkable circumstance was observed, which serves to explain another phenomenon of nature: it was found, that instead of one contraction at every clap of thunder, the limbs were affected with a sort of tremor or succession of convulsions, which seemed to be nearly equal in number to the repetition of the thunder, viz. that succession of explosions which forms the rumbling noise of thunder. (Adams, George, William Jones, and John Birch)

The results of this experiment led to many other experiments and affected the world of science a great deal.  Many scientists used lightningGalvani’s findings as a fundamental aspect of their further research in this area. However, a famous scientist, Alessandro Volta’s disagreed with Galvani’s findings.  His experimentation led to his belief, which is stated in the article Galvani and the Frankenstein Storythat “the electrical phenomenon that Galvani observed arose from the action of dissimilar metals, not an internal property of life”.  This is said to have sparked the arguments between “the animalists and the metallists” (“Galvani and the Frankenstein Story”).  His findings led to the invention of the battery and he coined the term “Galvanic action.”

animal electricity
Animal Electricity Experiment

Giovanni Aldini, who just so happened to be Luigi Galvani’s nephew, studied the medical uses of Galvani’s experiments.  Aldini worked as Galvani’s assistant for many years before continuing and furthering his research and it’s findings.  Aldini experimented with other animals, not only the frog, but also human corpses.  He was known for traveling the world and putting on shows where he would electrify human and animal corpses.  The shows were intended to convince the people of the world that animal electricity did exist.  These shows would depict the muscle and limb convulsions that occurred when electrical currents were applied to different areas of the body.  André Parent wrote an article called Giovanni Aldini: From Animal Electricity to Human Brain Stimulation, in which he describes Aldini’s motives and other contributions to science and medicine.  In this article, Parent describes one of Aldini’s most famous shows.

Aldini’s most famous demonstration took place on Monday, January 17,1803, at the Royal College of Surgeons.  There, Aldini used bimetallic electricity to shock and convulse the corpse of George Foster, a 26-year-old criminal who had just been hanged at the prison of Newgate for the murder of his wife and child who he had drowned in the Paddington Canal…  Aldini specified that: “Galvanism was communicated by means of three troughs combined together, each of which contained forty plates of zinc, and as many of copper.”  The results were dramatic: when the rods were applied to Foster’s mouth and ear, Aldini mentioned that “the jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened.”  When one rod was moved to touch the rectum, the whole body convulsed: indeed, the movements were “so much increased as almost to give an appearance of reanimation.”… many began to believe that electricity might be the long-sought vital force. (Parent)

Electrical Experiments

There is no doubt as to why this is said to have been one of Aldini’s most famous shows.  The ability to cause such incredible convulsions by electrical current is astounding.  Aldini was not only able to cause convulsions of a corpse, but was also able to encompass a treatment for the mentally ill.  Parent also recounts different instances and reactions of scientists to the treatment of some mental diseases; one in particular is the reaction of a famous psychiatrist.  The following are his thoughts written by Parent.

At la Salpêtrière Hospital, he met with the famous psychiatrist Philippe Pinel (1745-1826), who was astonished to see the muscular contractions that resulted from Aldini’s application of galvanism on an old woman who had just died from “putrid fever.”  Pinel was even more impressed when he learned that Aldini was successful in using galvanism to treat patients suffering from various mental disorders in Bologna.

The ability to treat those affected with a mental disease was a miraculous breakthrough in the world of science and medicine.  Aldini’s approach to the treatment of mental diseases led to some of techniques in treating the mentally ill today.

The scientists discussed above not only had an impact on today’s society, but they immediately impacted many of the works of literature during this time period.  Galvani and Aldini are likely to have made an incredulous impact on Mary Shelley in particular.  It is likely that the experiments performed by these men and their results aided Shelley in writing the book Frankenstein.  The book demonstrates the use of electricity to bring to life to an assembly of human body parts.  Shelley writes:

With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.  It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs. (Shelley)

Shelley uses the tale of Frankenstein to criticize the science of her time and to demonstrate the shortcomings of seeking knowledge that is beyond our limits or as some would say “playing God.”  The experiments conducted by these great scientists may have been controversial during the 19th century, but led to the advances that seem to be crucial to a variety of aspects in medicine and everyday life.

 

Works Cited

Adams, George, William Jones, and John Birch. An Essay on Electricity: Explaining the Principles of That Useful Science, and Describing the Instruments, Contrived Either to Illustrate the Theory, or Render the Practice Entertaining: Illustrated with Six Plates. To Which Is Added, a Letter to the Author, from Mr. John Birch, Surgeon, on the Subject of Medical Electricity. London: Printed by J. Dillon, and, For, and Sold by W. and S. Jones …, 1799. Print.

“Contexts — Science — Alchemy.” Contexts — Science — Alchemy. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 June 2014.

“Galvani and the Frankenstein Story.” – GHN: IEEE Global History Network. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 June 2014.

Lachman, Gary. “Homuncli, Golems, and Artificial Life.” Quest  94.1 (JANUARY-FEBRUARY      2006):7-10.

Lamb, Robert. “How to Make a Homunculus and Other Horrors.” Stuff to Blow Your Mind, 18        Nov. 2011. Web. 13 June 2014. <http://www.tor.com/blogs/2011/11/how-to-make-a-   homunculus-and-other-horrors>.

“Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.” Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2014. Web. 14 June 2014.

Paracelsus. “Spagyrical Writings by Paracelsus.” About.com Medieval History. About.com, n.d. Web. 14 June 2014. <http://historymedren.about.com/od/primarysources/a/spagyrical.htm&gt;.

Parent, André. “Giovanni Aldini: From Animal Electricity to Human Brain Stimulation.” The Canadian Journal of Neuroscience 31.4 (2004): n. page 576-584. Metapress. Web. 13 June 2014.http://www.metapress.com/content/05tt90yvr8f5qvu/fulltext.pdf

Philp, Mark, “William Godwin”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2013/entries/godwin/&gt;.

Shelley, Mary W.  “The Life and Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.” ed. Marshall, Florence A. Gutenberg EBook. N.p., 8 Nov. 2011. Web.

Shelley, Mary W. Frankenstein. N.p.: n.p., n.d. The Literature Page. Micheal Moncur, 2003. Web. 13 June 2014.

Ty, Eleanor. “Mary Shelley Biography.” Mary Shelley Biography. Dictionary of Literary Biography, n.d. Web. 12 June 2014.

Wikipedia contributors. “Homunculus.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free         Encyclopedia, 5 Jun. 2014. Web. 13 Jun. 2014.

Wikipedia contributors. “Paracelsus.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free         Encyclopedia, 5 Jun. 2014. Web. 13 Jun. 2014.

Wikipedia contributors. “Philosopher’s stone.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 13 Jun. 2014. Web. 16 Jun. 2014

Wikipedia contributors. “Preformationism.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The      Free Encyclopedia, 16 May. 2014. Web. 13 Jun. 2014.

Warp Drive

Warp Drive

I heard about this several months ago, but came across it again yesterday and thought it would be a good topic to share. The idea of a warp drive capable of producing speeds faster than light is something most people only think of as science fiction and with good reason. I’ve heard countless times that travel faster than light speed is an impossibility, and most of us never concern ourselves with such thought anyway because we haven’t even come close to reaching light speed in a vehicle that a human could travel in. The link that I’ve attached shows some concept art for a spaceship that could use a warp drive, and then it has some information as to how NASA thinks that faster than light speeds could be attained. It mainly concerns the warping of space-time around the ship so as to achieve these unbelievable speeds. There is a lot more information on this if you just Google the NASA warp drive or the Alcubierre Drive.

Here’s another link:

http://io9.com/5963263/how-nasa-will-build-its-very-first-warp-drive