The Sciences

Playing with fire

Cosmic VarianceBy Daniel HolzMar 29, 2011 5:22 PM


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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.

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