Playing with fire

By Daniel Holz | March 29, 2011 8:22 am

Last week I saw a performance of Frankenstein at the National Theater in London. I watched it in a beautiful venue in Santa Fe; the play was an HD video stream from a performance a few hours earlier. Frankenstein is directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), and his stamp was evident throughout. The play starts with a desolate and dark stage. You eventually become aware that a placenta-like bag towards the back has a body inside. There are some bright flashes of light, and a monstrously disfigured man emerges. For what seems an interminable length of time, the monster grunts and flops around the stage, eventually learning how to stand and stagger. No words. No plot. Just a creature, all alone, trying to find his way. Finally Frankenstein appears, is horrified by what he has created, and the creature is cast out into the darkness.

Frankenstein is one of the great scientific novels. Mary Shelley wrote it in the early 1800s, when the study of electricity was at the forefront of science. It was considered, quite literally, the spark of life. In the play this science was represented by hundreds of lightbulbs hanging over the audience. The birth of the creature arrives as a brilliant electric spark, with all the bulbs burning simultaneously, so bright as to wash out the rest of the world (and, momentarily, saturate the digital projector). I saw the play a few days after the Sendai earthquake and tsunami, as the nuclear incident was unfolding, and fear and uncertainty hovered over Japan. The parallels with the play are unmistakable. The full title for the novel is Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. It was Prometheus who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity. For his crime he was condemned to have his liver eaten by a giant eagle every day, only to have it grow back at night (the Greeks were nothing if not creative). Frankenstein “steals” the spark of life, bringing the gift of creation to humanity. For this, he suffers at the hands of his creation. Now, as we struggle to contain the nuclear fire at the center of the Fukushima reactors, there is a similar feeling of dread. What monster have we unleashed on the world?

The novel only remotely resembles the conception of Frankenstein in the popular imagination. It is not a gothic horror story, so much as a comment on science, humanity, and society. The story is a beautiful and thoughtful reflection on what it means to be human. The monster is sympathetic and compelling, in a similar manner to Satan in the unadulterated genius of Milton’s Paradise Lost (a poem which Frankenstein’s monster reads and is profoundly affected by). One forgets that “Frankenstein” is not the name of the monster, but rather the name of the scientist and creator. This misconception is perhaps appropriate, since in many ways Frankenstein is indeed the true monster. He denies and betrays his own creation, and is incapable of showing him love or understanding. His creation becomes a complete outcast, being the only one of his kind on Earth, instantly loathed and detested by all who see him. Frankenstein, by casting out his child, creates a monster where none was present before.

Despite the dangers of fire, we would not turn our back on Prometheus’ gift. Frankenstein’s creation is not inherently evil. He is endowed with the spark of life, and becomes twisted into a dark and inhuman creature through mistreatment, abandonment, and neglect. The nuclear spark is similarly indifferent. Although it can have terrible consequences, it also offers the ability to power our civilization without warming our planet. The dangers attendant with nuclear power almost certainly pale in comparison with the dangers of global warming. The challenge is to learn to control our discovery, rather than become engulfed by it.

  • JimV

    I understand the metaphor you are using, and agree with your point about nuclear power, but my poorly-researched opinion of “Frankenstein” is that it was profoundly anti-science, based on a prejudice against Jewish doctors who dug up cadavers in order to study anatomy. I’ll be somewhat happy if you or other commenters can convince me that this is historically wrong.

  • Georg

    Jewish doctors at around 1810?
    When the “Emancipation” of Jews was not jet started?
    This thing with stolen corpses for anatomy was a specialty of
    Britain, nowhere else, and there were no Jewish doctors in
    Britain then (or elsewhere).
    when a rather “popular” robber/murderer (Schinderhannes)
    and some of his companions were decapitated in Mainz in 1803
    some scientists got the corpses and did experiments with
    “Voltaic” electricity on them. The idea of reviving dead people
    by “electricity” was not an idea of Mary Shelley, this was “around”.
    Think of the movement of the dead frog legs in Galvanis experiments!

  • David W. Miller

    The analogy I used the other day to describe my reaction to the horrible situation in Japan was very similar:

    Suppose a terrible traffic accident is caused when a rather lackadaisical driver loses control of his car due to a rusted-out axle and a half flat tire (or even more appropos, a 40 car pile-up on I80 due to someone without snow chains). The response isn’t that cars should be banned or that automobiles are inherently harmful or even that the industry itself is bad, regardless of how you actually feel about cars and GM. The correct response, im my opinion, is that the protections in place to keep people from driving under unsafe conditions failed in this circumstance and need to be scrutinized.

    I believe these sorts of analogies describe the situation of the accident in Japan well. We need nuclear power. Certainly Japan needs nuclear power. Let’s make sure its used safely.

  • HP

    @JimV — There are whole libraries out there on the genesis and background of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. A few things off the top of my head you might want to consider: Mary’s father, William Godwin, was a friend and colleague of both Erasmus Darwin and Sir Humphrey Davy. As a child, Mary read Davy’s manuscript of what was eventually published as “Electrochemistry.” Mary’s mother was a pioneering feminist, and her partner Percy Shelley was a British Radical and atheist apologist.

    Matters are somewhat complicated by the fact that there are two authorized editions of Frankenstein, the original published in 1818, and a second published in, IIRC, 1828. The first edition is generally pro-science and strongly humanistic. By 1828, Mary had changed her politics and gotten involved in the Anglican Church, and, influenced by the then-popular stage play, incorporated some anti-science language into the second edition. However, the second edition is hardly “profoundly” anti-science, but more of a concession to the emerging Victorian moral climate.

    Georg is quite right about the influence of Galvani’s work, but Humphrey Davy was arguably a stronger influence on Mary’s ideas about science. There is also the generally Gothic influence of the alchemical mysticism of John Dee and Paracelsus that fascinated Romantics like Shelley and Byron.

    One important detail of the novel is that the Creature is not crafted from stolen body parts. Victor Frankenstein does obtain cadavers, but he used them primarily to study anatomy and taphonomy. The Creature is basically Enlightenment engineering with a bit of alchemical magic to speed things along.

    I don’t think grave-robbing was especially potent in the British imagination until the Burke and Hare case exploded later in the 19th c., after Mary’s time.

  • Truly Anomalous

    Very nice analogy, and it captures the way I feel about nuclear power. Now that you mention it, I have Frankestein in my bookshelf and I will read it soon.

  • Truly Anomalous

    For the record, in regards to the use of nuclear power I fully agree David W. Miller’s viewpoint (#3).

  • Jimbo

    You did not respond to my earlier request about any(?) info the national labs might be providing to aid the Japanese, so I do not expect a response here either. My response to your obviously biased, & black/white outlook on energy is to simply echo the overwhelming sentiment voiced by the American people 30 yrs ago, more valid NOW than ever:
    NO NUKES !!!
    Why ?
    1. Non-economically competitive w/fossil fuels.
    2. NO waste disposal plan agreed upon after 50 yrs, & still rejected by all 50 states.
    3. Much more severe short & long-term global & local biohazards than any fossil fuel plant.
    4. Terrorist target of choice.
    5. Lousy track record of human screw-ups causing accidents.
    6. Quake-prone to failure, regardless of technology.
    Their wisdom echoes resoundingly around the world, in the aftermath of
    Fukushima Dai-Ichi, drowning out the traditional backers of fission energy, Obama/Chu/DOE/Nuclear Power Industry, etc., whose naievete & tunnel vision surrounding the fission power track record is simply mindboggling, until one realizes they are all sleeping in the same bed. Small wonder many US reactors are sitting on a time bomb, with spent fuel rods lying in open pools of water, primed to release radiation & poison the ground water at Twenty US reactors, which until recently was unknown by the public:
    A complete lack of vision stops the govnt. from funding A `Manhattan Project’ to develop & deploy the Solar Power Satellite system first conceived by the physicist Gerard O’Neill in the late 1970s, & now in feasibility studies at PGE in Calif., & Wash.St.U. It could be operational in years, not in Decades, like the 60 yr-old physics experiments to demonstrate nuclear fusion called NIF & ITER, which like their predecessors, have remained irrelevant to the practical generation of electrical power, since Project Sherwood in the 50s.
    Its way past time to pull the plug on fusion, & refocus the nation’s awesome technical talent on a non-nuclear solution.

  • Skrim

    Nonsense. Yet another one of those fallacious anti-fusion posts that go on about how fusion research was slower than expected in the past and will therefore it will keep failing in the future, and therefore we should give up and sit down.

    And you claim that freaking solar power satellites, which have NEVER been built or tested before, could be done faster than fusion, which has been steadily refined for half a century and is still progressing at a slow but measured rate, and safer than fission, which is in successful use already with only a tiny number of (highly exaggerated) failures? Gee, whiz…

    (Not that the SPS is itself a bad IDEA, but it’s certainly no reason to quit fusion and in no way more practical than nuclear energy from the present-day standpoint)

  • croghan27

    “The challenge is to learn to control our discovery, rather than become engulfed by it.”

    Great idea if the learning curve did not entail leaving huge tracts of radiated land barren for hundreds of thosands of years – and seriously effecting the health of some peiople thousands of miles away. A nuclear ‘accident’ is a long way from an automobile collusion – the large social consequences ensure that.

    If nothing else, it is time to ‘rethink’ reliance on nuclear power generation.

    Unfortunately you are beginning to sound like “clean coal” – it does not exist, has not existed and probably will never happen – but the advocates (or their well paid toadies) insist “If we can just ______ (fill in the blank), all will be fine.” Promethetus is a fine myth and Mary Shell’s work an entertain bit of romantic literature – but to have an entire society dependent upon either one is a jump too far.

  • sjn

    “The dangers attendant with nuclear power almost certainly pale in comparison with the dangers of global warming.”

    They also pale in comparison with the detonation of a nuclear weapon in a populated area, however that might come about (e.g., terrorist attack, preemptive strike, accidental launch, etc.). I’ve long thought that the passion displayed by the anti-nuclear crowd was misplaced – what is vastly more scary is the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the possibility that they may someday be used. The consequences would make the Japan disaster look pathetically insignificant.

    Of course, when assessing the dangers of nuclear power, a little perspective is always useful. If one wants to compare the impact on lives and health of coal burning versus nuclear power, both direct and indirect, there is absolutely no contest, and it’s likely to remain that way. Thousands of coal miners die worldwide every year from industrial accidents and the cumulative effect of breathing dirty air from coal-burning plants on the health of the millions has got to be profound.

  • Pa/Ma

    The dangers only pale as long as there’s no catastrophe.

    Your view is as blind as your mistaken analysis of the Frankenstein story suggested it was likely to be. No small part of the message of Shelly’s Frankenstein is a warning about acting in hubristic enthusiasm before thinking. In that story the very act of creating the creature, while in no way the creature’s fault, is a mistake of hubris on the part of a smart man who knows what he can do, but not why he shouldn’t do it.

    What does one do with the waste which will be dangerously radioactive for longer than will be the climate damage done by the CO2?

  • MNP

    Here is why I am against expanding nuclear power.

    In the US it will be done by private companies. These companies will have one concern, money. To earn more money they will cut corners on safety in design and in training or hiring trained personal to run the plants. The government which will be the one who regulates the plants, will not do its job. The companies will instead spend a great deal of money on lobbyists and direct campaign contributions as well as hirings to engage in a full on regulatory capture of the inspection regime.

    Thus there is nothing inherently wrong with nuclear power, we can make it fairly safe, but we won’t. Because we’re Americans, and what business wants, business gets in this country. And if people die? Well that’s freedom.

  • Jimbo

    Skrim (they don’t call you that in person, do they ?), You remind me of what the SUSY people will be demanding after the LHC fails to evidence sparticles. “More Money, please, someday it’ll happen…just another 30 yrs funding”…Yeah, right….
    The Feds have LIED to the American public, & misled congress for FIVE decades on this pipe dream, to keep the money flowing. DOE has funded fusion, first magnetic, then inertial confinement. Tokamaks were gutted by the early `90s after 30 wasted years of physics expts., & then lasers were touted as the ultimate fusion technology back when `Shiva’ was the savior. Now we have NIF, aka `Stockpile Stewardship’, which got funded primarily to comply with SALT treaty restrictions, so that nuclear warheads can continue to be tested for reliability. The promise of fusion as a safe alternative to fission, is the hood ornament on a ColdWar jalopy, which still can’t make it out of 3rd gear.
    It would not be hard to beat the tortoise-pace of fusion toward the holy grail of delivering electric power to the consumer. No new physics is required, just engineering on a grand scale. Guess what: That’s doable. At least Pacific Gas & Electric thinks so, but they’re trying to move forward on a pittance of what the Feds could provide if they were not shoveling Billions into NIF, yr after yr, with nothing to show for it but more physics papers.

  • Dan

    This is a bit of an aside, but anyone who finds the story of Frankenstein remotely interesting might want to check out Stephen Jay Gould’s wonderful essay on the subject titled “The Monster’s Human Nature”, which appears in Dinosaur in a Haystack.

  • Skrim

    “The Feds have LIED blah blah blah…”
    Right, and so many other nations have lied to their people and funded fusion too – JET, ITER, KSTAR, all lies. A nice big conspiracy we have here, no? And, of course, you’ve seen through the wool and come to enlighten all of us. Hurrah.

    So… lets see what happens first, fusion or SPSs. If the latter happens first and becomes widespread, you’re right. Surely if there’s so much energy to be had so (relatively) easily, why wouldn’t there be efforts to do it? If the efforts do crop up, and if it is indeed practical, it should become real while fusion is still lingering in the pipeline.

    In the end, only time will tell.

    Oh, and by the way, before killing NIF and the U.S’ ITER stake in favor of a (much more expensive) SPS program, why not try cutting the funding for, say, a new class of aircraft carriers, or those glorified stealth cruisers, or one of any number of white elephant weapons programs out there? Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see SPSs out there as much as the next guy, I just don’t think fusion research should be killed to fund it.

  • God

    Nuclear power in its current state is far too expensive to serve as a good solution to solve global warming. It only exists because of massive government subsidization. Plus, costs skyrocket as we want more safety measures in place.

    We need more research, not the same old expensive power plants that have failed in the free market.

    The fact that there are lots of idiots who overhype the dangers of nuclear power does not automatically mean that nuclear power is a cost-effective method of electricity generation.

    For more technical analysis see the Union of Concerned Scientists. The folks there know A LOT more about the economics of current-generation nuclear power than you do:


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