Thursday, 19 February 2015

Frankenstein and the frog legs

I prepared myself for a multitude of reverses; my operations might be incessantly baffled, and at last my work be imperfect, yet when I considered the improvement which every day takes place in science and mechanics, I was encouraged to hope my present attempts would at least lay the foundations of future success.
Mary Shelley, "Frankenstein" (1818), chapter 4. 

This fragment perfectly describes the day to day of any scientist: even the experiments that fail are useful in order to know what does not work and what not to do next time, thus contributing to future success (luckily, as otherwise we'd all be severely depressed). 

I remember to have spent the first year of my PhD feeling frustrated because nothing I tried would work. So far, it's been my least productive year ever, considering the results obtained -which were none. Yet it was productive in terms of defining the limits of the subject I was studying, knowing what not to do in the future, and what methods wouldn't work. This was not only useful for myself but so that people who would eventually work on the same topic in the future didn't waste time -I had wasted it for them already! Discovering what is not, what does not cure an illness, what star does not rotate around a planet, or what mechanisms are not to do with the development of cancer, is another form of scientific discovery. Something similar happened with Galvani's discoveries: despite (or thanks to) being wrong, he set up the basis for the invention of batteries, and his experiments not only inspired other scientists but also the creation of one of the major characters in literature. 

In the mid-18th century, many scientists were focusing their efforts on the study and understanding of the nature of electricity. They had already learned how to generate static electricity by then, and they also knew it caused muscular spasms and contractions in live animals. In 1781, after dissecting a frog, the physician Luigi Galvani touched one of the legs nerves with a scalpel that had just been in touch with a static electricity generator, and the leg moved. He repeated the experiment several times, always with the same result, and Galvani concluded that he could make a frog leg "jump" whenever he touched a nerve with an electrostatically charged piece of metal. He then observed that frog legs would move every time he put them in touch with two pieces of different metals at the same time. Given that for his experiments, he had built a device in the shape of an arc in which both metals were attached to each other, he concluded that it was working as a conductor of the electricity which resided in the frog itself, and he named this form of electricity "animal electricity".

Galvani's experiments

Later, another scientist called Alessandro Volta, wondered if it would be the other way around and the electricity actually came from the metals, whereas the frog leg was acting as the mere conductor. Indeed, when he replaced it by a cardboard disc soaked in brine, he noticed that the electricity would be conducted anyway, and he therefore reached the conclusion that it was the saline solution what conducted electricity. By building a stack of discs made of two different metals, separated by cardboard soaked in brine, he was inventing the first battery. Nowadays, we know that voltaic batteries work thanks to the electron transfer between the different metals; that the transfer happens through an electrolite such as brine, that frog legs, since they contain electrolites, can play the same role brine plays in a battery, and that the fact of "jumping" is due to the relationship between electricity and muscular contractions. But back then, the topic was controversial and Galvani's and Volta's supporters wouldn't agree with each other.

Galvani's nephew, Giovanni Aldini, devoted much of his time to experimenting with animals other than frogs in order to show his uncle was right, and he toured Europe doing public demonstrations of the medical applications of electricity, such as making human corpses move by using the same method he had previously used with animals. These experiments convinced many people that dead bodies could be "reanimated" thanks to electricity, and that the boundaries between life and death were not as clear as it had been believed. Despite not existing a way back for "absolute death", there was another sort of death, the "incomplete death", that had been unknown until then but could be reversed from then on thanks to the new techniques. This caused as much hope as stress among people, as many became terrified by the possibility of being eventually buried before their "proper" death.

Dogs, cows, men... Nobody could escape Aldini's experiments!!!

Mary Shelley was fascinated by these new methods, and they became a recurrent topic in her conversations with Percy Shelley and Lord Byron during their stay in Villa Diodati in the summer of 1816. The Shelleys, Lord Byron, his physician, and a fan of Lord Byron who would try so hard to make a move on him (and ended up succeeding, yeah) spent in Switzerland the most productive holidays of the history of recent literature -indeed the holidays I wish I could have watched even only through a hole in the wall. Since the weather was quite shitty and there were no other options but staying in, trying substances and discussing science and literature, Lord Byron organised a ghost story competition as a result of which the wannabe authors Mary Shelley and John Polidori wrote, respectively, "Frankenstein" and "The Vampyre" -that some years later would inspire Bram Stoker's "Dracula". I wish I could tell the full story but this is supposed to be a science blog...

I've always loved not only the story Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" tells but the way it is told, as it is scientifically very accurate, considering the limitations and the knowledge of electricity by then. Electricity and its prospective medical applications were the basis for the book. In fact, Mary and Percy Shelley believed that dead bodies could go back to life thanks to electricity, to the extent that they themselves wrote about how their ill three year old child was reanimated after his "incomplete death" by a skilled doctor who applied electricity to him, as a consequence of what he was able to live for further four days before completely dying.

Dr Frankenstein, bringing the spark of life to his monster

Likewise, Frankenstein's monster built with pieces of human corpses, was brought to life thanks to the most advanced scientific techniques that were being studied and published at the moment by so many scientists. This may sound quite incredible nowadays, since we now know that electricity will never bring the dead back to life. However, the scope of the book was somewhat different by then, as the story it tells was in some way a possibility rather than just science fiction, and the science described on the book is very accurate and properly described in the same way other science fiction books consistent with the science described in them would be written in the future. After the electricity, techniques such as cloning or robotics have also been used by fictional scientists in order to create custom made living beings, and the fact that these applications cannot be done in reality, does not mean the science they talk about is not consistent with real science.

More info on the science of Frankenstein

The experiments of Giovanni Aldini

The story of Villa Diodati 

And for your mom's sake, read Frankenstein!

1 comment:

  1. I really like this article an the pictures are wonderful and very interesting.