So far, it looks like they’ve managed a single robotic finger. I expect it will take a great deal more work before an entire robotic hand is covered in living skin. BTW, I have a few comments at the end of this post.
From action heroes to villainous assassins, biohybrid robots made of both living and artificial materials have been at the center of many sci-fi fantasies, inspiring today’s robotic innovations. It’s still a long way until human-like robots walk among us in our daily lives, but scientists from Japan are bringing us one step closer by crafting living human skin on robots. The method developed, presented June 9 in the journal Matter, not only gave a robotic finger skin-like texture, but also water-repellent and self-healing functions.
“The finger looks slightly ‘sweaty’ straight out of the culture medium,” says first author Shoji Takeuchi, a professor at the University of Tokyo, Japan. “Since the finger is driven by an electric motor, it is also interesting to hear the clicking sounds of the motor in harmony with a finger that looks just like a real one.”
Looking “real” like a human is one of the top priorities for humanoid robots that are often tasked to interact with humans in healthcare and service industries. A human-like appearance can improve communication efficiency and evoke likability. While current silicone skin made for robots can mimic human appearance, it falls short when it comes to delicate textures like wrinkles and lacks skin-specific functions. Attempts at fabricating living skin sheets to cover robots have also had limited success, since it’s challenging to conform them to dynamic objects with uneven surfaces.
“With that method, you have to have the hands of a skilled artisan who can cut and tailor the skin sheets,” says Takeuchi. “To efficiently cover surfaces with skin cells, we established a tissue molding method to directly mold skin tissue around the robot, which resulted in a seamless skin coverage on a robotic finger.”
To craft the skin, the team first submerged the robotic finger in a cylinder filled with a solution of collagen and human dermal fibroblasts, the two main components that make up the skin’s connective tissues. Takeuchi says the study’s success lies within the natural shrinking tendency of this collagen and fibroblast mixture, which shrank and tightly conformed to the finger. Like paint primers, this layer provided a uniform foundation for the next coat of cells—human epidermal keratinocytes—to stick to. These cells make up 90% of the outermost layer of skin, giving the robot a skin-like texture and moisture-retaining barrier properties.
The crafted skin had enough strength and elasticity to bear the dynamic movements as the robotic finger curled and stretched. The outermost layer was thick enough to be lifted with tweezers and repelled water, which provides various advantages in performing specific tasks like handling electrostatically charged tiny polystyrene foam, a material often used in packaging. When wounded, the crafted skin could even self-heal like humans’ with the help of a collagen bandage, which gradually morphed into the skin and withstood repeated joint movements.
“We are surprised by how well the skin tissue conforms to the robot’s surface,” says Takeuchi. “But this work is just the first step toward creating robots covered with living skin.” The developed skin is much weaker than natural skin and can’t survive long without constant nutrient supply and waste removal. Next, Takeuchi and his team plan to address those issues and incorporate more sophisticated functional structures within the skin, such as sensory neurons, hair follicles, nails, and sweat glands.
“I think living skin is the ultimate solution to give robots the look and touch of living creatures since it is exactly the same material that covers animal bodies,” says Takeuchi.
Researchers from the University of Tokyo pool knowledge of robotics and tissue culturing to create a controllable robotic finger covered with living skin tissue. The robotic digit had living cells and supporting organic material grown on top of it for ideal shaping and strength. As the skin is soft and can even heal itself, so could be useful in applications that require a gentle touch but also robustness. The team aims to add other kinds of cells into future iterations, giving devices the ability to sense as we do.
Professor Shoji Takeuchi is a pioneer in the field of biohybrid robots, the intersection of robotics and bioengineering. Together with researchers from around the University of Tokyo, he explores things such as artificial muscles, synthetic odor receptors, lab-grown meat, and more. His most recent creation is both inspired by and aims to aid medical research on skin damage such as deep wounds and burns, as well as help advance manufacturing.
“We have created a working robotic finger that articulates just as ours does, and is covered by a kind of artificial skin that can heal itself,” said Takeuchi. “Our skin model is a complex three-dimensional matrix that is grown in situ on the finger itself. It is not grown separately then cut to size and adhered to the device; our method provides a more complete covering and is more strongly anchored too.”
Three-dimensional skin models have been used for some time for cosmetic and drug research and testing, but this is the first time such materials have been used on a working robot. In this case, the synthetic skin is made from a lightweight collagen matrix known as a hydrogel, within which several kinds of living skin cells called fibroblasts and keratinocytes are grown. The skin is grown directly on the robotic component which proved to be one of the more challenging aspects of this research, requiring specially engineered structures that can anchor the collagen matrix to them, but it was worth it for the aforementioned benefits.
“Our creation is not only soft like real skin but can repair itself if cut or damaged in some way. So we imagine it could be useful in industries where in situ repairability is important as are humanlike qualities, such as dexterity and a light touch,” said Takeuchi. “In the future, we will develop more advanced versions by reproducing some of the organs found in skin, such as sensory cells, hair follicles and sweat glands. Also, we would like to try to coat larger structures.”
The main long-term aim for this research is to open up new possibilities in advanced manufacturing industries. Having humanlike manipulators could allow for the automation of things currently only achievable by highly skilled professionals. Other areas such as cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and regenerative medicine could also benefit. This could potentially reduce cost, time and complexity of research in these areas and could even reduce the need for animal testing.
Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,
Living skin on a robot by Michio Kawai, Minghao Nie, Haruka Oda, Yuya Morimoto, Shoji Takeuchi. Matter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.matt.2022.05.019 Published:June 09, 2022
This paper appears to be open access.
There more images and there’s at least one video all of which can be found by clicking on the links to one or both of the news releases and to the paper. Personally, I found the images fascinating and …
Frankenstein, cyborgs, and more
The word is creepy. I find the robot finger images fascinating and creepy. The work brings to mind Frankenstein (by Mary Shelley) and The Island of Dr. Moreau (by H. G. Wells) both of which feature cautionary tales. Dr. Frankenstein tries to bring a dead ‘person’ assembled with parts from various corpses to life and Dr. Moreau attempts to create hybrids composed humans and animals. It’s fascinating how 19th century nightmares prefigure some of the research being performed now.
The work also brings to mind the ‘uncanny valley’, a term coined by Masahiro Mori, where people experience discomfort when something that’s not human seems too human. I have an excerpt from an essay that Mori wrote about the uncanny valley in my March 10, 2011 posting; scroll down about 50% of the way.) The diagram which accompanies it illustrates the gap between the least uncanny or the familiar (a healthy person, a puppet, etc.) and the most uncanny or the unfamiliar (a corpse, a zombie, a prosthetic hand).
Mori notes that the uncanny valley is not immovable; things change and the unfamiliar becomes familiar. Presumably, one day, I will no longer find robots with living skin to be creepy.
All of this changes the meaning (for me) of a term i coined for this site, ‘machine/flesh’. At the time, I was thinking of prosthetics and implants and how deeply they are being integrated into the body. But this research reverses the process. Now, the body (skin in this case) is being added to the machine (robot).
In no particular order, here are some Frankenstein bits and bobs in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s book.
The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project
This project at Arizona State University has been featured here a few times and most recently in a October 26, 2016 posting about an artist using a Roomba (robotic vacuum cleaner) in an artistic query and about the Frankenstein at 200 online exhibition.
A free, interactive, multiplatform experience for kids designed to inspire deeper engagement with STEM topics and promote the development of 21st century skills related to creative collaboration and critical thinking.
A collaborative, multimedia reading experiment with Mary Shelley’s timeless tale examining the the scientific, technological, political, and ethical dimensions of the novel, its historical context, and its enduring legacy.
A set of hands-on STEM making activities that use the Frankenstein story to inspire deeper conversations about scientific and technological creativity and social responsibility.
How to Make a Monster
Kathryn Harkup in a February 22, 2018 article about her recent book for the Guardian delves into the science behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Note: Links have been removed),
The bicentenary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus has meant a lot of people are re-examining this brilliant work of science fiction. My particular interest is the science fact behind the science fiction. How much real science influenced Mary Shelley? Could a real-life Victor Frankenstein have constructed a creature?
In terms of the technical aspects of building a creature from scraps, many people focus on the collecting of the raw materials and reanimation stages. It’s understandable as there are many great stories about grave-robbers and dissection rooms as well as electrical experiments that were performed on recently executed murderers. But there quite a few stages between digging up dead bodies and reanimating a creature.
The months of tedious and fiddly surgery to bring everything together are often glossed over, but what virtually no one mentions is how difficult it would have been to keep the bits and pieces in a suitable state of preservation while Victor worked on his creation. Making a monster takes time, and bodies rot very quickly.
Preservation of anatomical material was of huge interest when Frankenstein was written, as it is now, though for very different reasons. Today the interest is in preserving organs and tissues suitable for transplant. Some individuals even want to cryogenically freeze their entire body in case future scientists are able to revive them and cure whatever disease caused their original death. In that respect the aims are not so different from what the fictional Victor Frankenstein was attempting two hundred years ago.
At the time Frankenstein is set, the late 18th century, few people were really thinking about organ transplant. Instead, tissue preservation was of concern for anatomy professors who wanted to maintain collections of interesting, unusual or instructive specimens to use as teaching aids for future students.
She provides fascinating insight into preservation techniques of the 18th century and their dangers,
To preserve soft tissues, various substances were injected into or used to coat or soak the dissected specimen. The substance in question had to be toxic enough to destroy mould and bacteria that could decompose the sample, but not corrosive or damaging to the tissues of the specimen itself.
Substances such as turpentine, mercury metal and mercury salts (which are even more toxic than the pure element) were all employed stop the decay process in its tracks. Killing off bacteria and mould means that some vital process within them has been stopped; however, many processes that are critical to mould and bacteria are also necessary for humans, making these substances toxic to us.
Working in cramped, poorly ventilated conditions with minimal regard for health and safety, the substances anatomical curators were using day in and day out took a serious toll on their health. Anatomical curators were described as emaciated, prematurely aged and with a hacking cough. …
One of the most successful techniques for tissue preservation was bottling in alcohol. …
In the 18th century the University of Edinburgh handed over twelve gallons of whisky annually to the anatomy museum for the preservation of specimens. Possible not all of those twelve gallons made it into the specimen jars. The nature of the curator’s work – the smell, the problems with vermin and toxic fumes – must have made the odd sip of whisky very tempting. Indeed, more than one curator was dismissed for being drunk on the job.
Shelley described Frankenstein working in a small attic room using candlelight to illuminate his work. Small rooms, toxic vapours, alcohol fumes and naked flames are not a healthy combination. No wonder Shelley wrote the work took such a toll on Frankenstein’s health.
The year 1818 saw the publication of one of the most influential science-fiction stories of all time. Frankenstein: Or, Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley had a huge impact on gothic horror and science-fiction genres, and her creation has become part of our everyday culture, from cartoons to Hallowe’en costumes. Even the name ‘Frankenstein’ has become a by-word for evil scientists and dangerous experiments. How did a teenager with no formal education come up with the idea for an extraordinary novel such as Frankenstein?
Clues are dotted throughout Georgian science and popular culture. The years before the book’s publication saw huge advances in our understanding of the natural sciences, in areas such as electricity and physiology, for example. Sensational science demonstrations caught the imagination of the general public, while the newspapers were full of lurid tales of murderers and resurrectionists.
Making the Monster explores the scientific background behind Mary Shelley’s book. Is there any science fact behind the science fiction? And how might a real-life Victor Frankenstein have gone about creating his monster? From tales of volcanic eruptions, artificial life and chemical revolutions, to experimental surgery, ‘monsters’ and electrical experiments on human cadavers, Kathryn Harkup examines the science and scientists that influenced Shelley, and inspired her most famous creation.
The Frankenstein 2018 project is based at Volda University College in Norway, but aims to engage and include people from elsewhere in Norway and around the world.
The project is led by Timothy Saunders, an Associate Professor of English Literature and Culture at Volda University College.
If you would like to get in touch, either to offer comments on the website, to provide information about related projects or activities taking place around the world, or even to offer relevant material of your own, please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What a great idea and I wish the folks at Volda University College all the best.
The Monster Challenge
Washington University in St. Louis (WUSL; Missouri, US) is hosting a competition to create a ‘new Frankenstein’, from WUSL’s The Monster Challenge webpage,
On June 16, 1816, a 19-year-old woman sat quietly listening as her lover (the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley) and a small group of friends — including celebrated poet Lord Byron — discussed conducting a ghost-story contest. The couple was spending their holiday in a beautiful mansion on the banks of scenic Lake Geneva in Switzerland. As the conversation about ghost stories heated up, a discussion arose about the principle of life. Not surprisingly, the ensuing talk of graves and corpses led to a sleepless night filled with horrific nightmares for Mary Shelley. Later, she recalled her own contest entry began with eight words; “It was on a dreary night in November…” Just two years later, in 1818, that young woman, Mary Shelley, published her expanded submission as the novel Frankenstein, not only a classic of 19th-century fiction, but a work that has enjoyed immense influence on popular culture, science, medicine, philosophy and the arts all the way up to the present day.
THE MONSTER CHALLENGE
Commemorating the 200th anniversary of the novel’s publication in 1818, Washington University is hosting a competition open to WU students (full time and registered in fall 2018), both undergraduate and graduate. The submission deadline is October 15, 2018.
The prompt for our own WU “Monster Challenge” is “The New Frankenstein”:
If you learned of a contest today, similar to the one that inspired the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818, what new Frankenstein would you create? Winning entries will be those best exemplifying the spirit, tone and feeling of Frankenstein for our age.
Submissions are eligible in two categories: written (including poetry, fiction, nonfiction and theater; 5000 word limit) and visual (including new media, experimental media, sound art, performance art, and design). Only one submission is allowed per student or student collaboration group. The winners will be determined by a jury of faculty members and announced in the fall 2018 semester. Winning entries will also be featured on the Frankenstein Bicentennial website (frankenstein200.wustl.edu).
Through the generosity of Provost Holden Thorpe’s office, winners will receive a cash prize as well as the opportunity to have their submission read, exhibited, and/or performed during the fall 2018 semester. Prizes are as follows:
WRITTEN CATEGORY VISUAL CATEGORY
Grand Prize: $1000 Grand Prize: $1000
2nd Prize: $500 2nd Prize: $500
3rd Prize: $250 3rd Prize: $250
HOW TO SUBMIT
Please review the guidelines below and download the appropriate submission form … for your project.
All submissions are due by 3 pm on October 15, 2018.
Only one submission is allowed per student or student collaboration group.
Electronic submissions should be emailed to email@example.com along with the appropriate submission form (right).
Non-electronic submissions should be dropped off at the Performing Arts Department in Mallinckrodt Center, Room 312 (specific dates and times to be determined). All applicants submitting work here must also send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with a digital image of the work and the appropriate submission form (right). Entries should fit into a case 74″ w x 87″ h x 23″ d. For exceptions, please contact Professor Patricia Olynyk (email@example.com).
For additional information about the contest, please contact the Interdisciplinary Project in the Humanities: firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of the most famous literary works of the last two centuries, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) permeates our cultural imagination. A man of science makes dead matter live yet abandons his own creation. A creature is composed of human body parts yet denied a place in human society. The epic struggle that ensues between creator and creature poses enduring questions to all of us. What do we owe our non-human creations? How might the pursuit of scientific knowledge endanger or empower humanity? How do we combine social responsibility with our technological power to alter living matter? These moral quandaries drive the novel as well as our own hopes and fears about modernity.
Over the last 200 years, Frankenstein has also become one of our most culturally productive myths. The Black Frankenstein became a potent metaphor for racial otherness in the 19th century and remains so to this day. From Boris Karloff as the iconic Monster of 1931 to the transvestite Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show of 1975, the novel has inspired dozens of films and dramatizations. Female poets from Margaret Atwood to Liz Lochhead and Laurie Sheck continue to wrestle with the novel’s imaginative possibilities. And Frankenstein, of course, permeates our material culture. Think no further than Franken Berry cereal, Frankenstein action figures, and Frankenstein bed pillows.
Please join us at Washington University in St. Louis as we celebrate Mary Shelley’s iconic novel and its afterlives with a series of events organized by faculty, students and staff from across the arts, humanities and life sciences. Highlights include the conference Frankenstein at 200, sponsored by the Center for the Humanities; a special Frankenstein issue of The Common Reader; a staging of Nick Dear’s play Frankenstein; the symposium The Curren(t)cy of Frankenstein, sponsored by the Medical School; a film series; several lectures; and exhibits designed to showcase the university’s museum and library collections.
This site aggregates all events related to the celebration. Please visit again for updates!
They do have a page for Global Celebrations and while the listing isn’t really global at this point (I’m sure they’re hoping that will change) it does open up a number of possibilities for Frankenstein aficionados, experts, and enthusiasts,
Technologies of Frankenstein
Stevens Institute of Technology, College of Arts and Letters and IEEE History Center
The 200th anniversary year of the first edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus has drawn worldwide interest in revisiting the novel’s themes. What were those themes and what is their value to us in the early twenty-first century? In what ways might our tools of science and communication serve as an “elixir of life” since the age of Frankenstein?
Frankenstein@200 is a year-long series of academic courses and programs including a film festival, a play, a lecture series and an international Health Humanities Conference that will examine the numerous moral, scientific, sociological, ethical and spiritual dimensions of the work, and why Dr. Frankenstein and his monster still capture the moral imagination today..
San Jose State University, Santa Clara University, and University of San Francisco
During 2018, the San Francisco Bay area partners will host The Frankenstein Bicentennial. The novel brings together STEM fields with humanities & the arts in such a way to engage almost every discipline and major. The project’s events will address timely issues of our world in Silicon Valley and the advent of technology – a critical topic with questions important to our academic, regional and world communities. The novel, because it has been so popular for 200 years, lives on in discussions about what it means to be human in a digital world.
Next performance: Monday Feb. 26, 2018; 7 PM
Extended through 2018!
“..it is a success of a show that should be considered
something great in the realm of musical theater.”
“A musical love letter”
– Local Theatre NY
“…infused with enough emotion to send chills down the spine…”
– Local Theatre NY
““ an ambitious theater piece that is refreshingly buoyed up by its music””
– Theater Scene
a new Off-Broadway musical by Eric B. Sirota
based on Mary Shelley’s classic novel
Presented by John Lant, Tamra Pica & Write Act Repertory
at St. Luke’s Theater in the heart of the theatre district
. . . a sweeping romantic musical, about the human need for love and companionship,
which honors its source material.
Performances Monday nights at 7 PM
tickets to performances into March currently on sale
(scroll down for performance schedule)
Contact us for Special Group Sales and Buyouts at: info@TheFrankensteinMusical.com
St. Luke’s Theatre
an Off-Broadway venue in the heart of the theatre district on “Restaurant Row”
308 West 46th Street (btwn. 8th and 9th Ave.)
– Book, Music & Lyrics: Eric B. Sirota
-Additional lyrics: Julia Sirota
– Director: Clint Hromsco
– Music Director: Austin Nuckols
(original music direction by Anessa Marie)
– Producer: John Lant, Tamra Pica and Write Act Repertory
– CAST: Jon Rose, Erick Sanchez-Canahuate, Gabriella Marzetta, Stephan Amenta, Cait Kiley, Adam Kee, Samantha Collette, Amy Londyn, Stephanie Lourenco Viegas, Bryan S. Walton
Eric Sirota developed Frankenstein under the working title of “Day of Wrath”, an Official Selection of the 2015 New York Musical Theatre Festival’s Reading Series
Feb 26, Mon; 7 PM
Mar 5, Mon; 7 PM
Tickets to later dates on sale soon. . .
March 12, 19, 24
April 2, 9, 16, 23, 30
May . . .
Jun . . .
running though 2018
2018 – Frankenstein bicentennial year!
The Purgatory Press*
The Purgatory Press blog’s* John Culbert (author and lecturer at the University of British Columbia) wrote a January 1, 2018 essay celebrating and examining Mary Shelley’s classic,
She was born in 1797, toward the end of the Little Ice Age. Wolves had been extirpated from the country, but not so long ago that one could forget. Man’s only predator in the British Isles was now a mental throwback. Does the shadow of extinction fall on the children of perpetrators? What strange gap is left in the mind of men suddenly raised from the humble status of prey?
In the winter of her sixteenth year, the river Thames froze in London for the last time. The final “Frost Fair,” a tradition dating back centuries, was held February 1814 on the river’s hard surface.
The following year, a volcano in present-day Indonesia erupted. It was the most powerful and destructive event of its kind in recorded history. Fallout caused a “volcanic winter” across the Northern Hemisphere. In 1816 – “the year without a summer” – she was in Switzerland, where she began writing her first novel, Frankenstein, published 200 years ago today — on January 1st, 1818.
Fascinating, yes? I encourage you to read the whole piece.
3–8 April (with special events on 28 March and 27–28 April)
The Science Museum is celebrating the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus with a free festival exploring the science behind this cultural phenomenon.
Through immersive theatre, experimental storytelling and hands-on activities visitors can examine the ethical and scientific questions surrounding the artificial creation of life. Families can step in Doctor Frankenstein’s shoes, creating a creature and bringing it to life using stop motion animation at our drop-in workshops.
In the Mystery at Frankenstein’s Lab visitors can solve puzzles and conduct experiments in an escape room-like interactive experience. Visitors are also invited to explore the Science Museum as you’ve never heard it before in It’s Alive, an immersive Frankenstein-themed audio tour. Both these activities have limited availability so pre-booking is advised.
In Pandemic, you decide how far Dr Victor should go to tackle a virus sweeping the world. Is it right to create new life to save others? You decide where to draw the line in this choose-your-own-adventure experience. Visitors can also see Humanity 2.0, a play created and performed by actor Emily Carding. Set in a post-apocalyptic future, the play examines what could happen if a benevolent AI recreated humanity.
As part of the festival, visitors will meet researchers at the cutting-edge of science—from bio chemists who manipulate DNA to engineers creating artificial intelligence—and discover fascinating scientific objects with our curators which could have influenced Shelley.
The Frankenstein Festival will run daily from 3–8 April at the Science Museum and is supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery. Tickets for activities with limited availability are available from sciencemuseum.org.uk/Frankenstein.
Our free adult-only Frankenstein Lates on 28 March will focus on the darker themes of Shelley’s iconic novel, with the Promethean Tales Weekend on 27–28 April, featuring panel discussions and special screenings of Terminator 2: Judgement Day and The Curse of Frankenstein in our IMAX cinema.
Frankenstein Festival activities include:
An immersive audio tour created by Cmd+Shift in collaboration with the Science Museum. The tour takes 45 minutes and is limited to 15 people per session. Recommended for ages 8+. Tickets cost £3 and are available here.
Mystery at Frankenstein’s Lab
This interactive, theatrical puzzle experience has been created by Atomic Force Productions, in collaboration with the Science Museum. Each session lasts 45 minutes and is limited to 10 people per session. Recommended for ages 12+, under 16s must be accompanied by an adult. Tickets cost £10 and are available here.
Create Your Own Creature
Get hands on at our drop-in workshops and create your very own creature. Then bring your creature to life with stop motion animation. This activity takes approximately 20 minutes and is suitable for all ages.
Humanity 2.0 (3–5 April)
Step into a dystopian future and help shape the future of humanity in this unique interactive play created and performed by Emily Carding. Her full body make-up was created by award winning body painter Victoria Gugenheim in collaboration with the Science Museum. The play has a run time of 45 minutes and is recommended for ages 12+.
Pandemic (5–8 April)
This choose-your-own-adventure film puts you in control of a psychological thriller. Your decisions will guide Dr Victor on their quest to create artificial life.
Pandemic was created by John Bradburn in collaboration with the Science Museum. The film contains moderate psychological threat and horror sequences that some people may find disturbing. The experiences lasts 45 minutes and is recommended for ages 14+. Tickets are free and are available here.
Frankenstein Festival events include:
Wednesday 28 March, 18.45–22.00
Join us for a fun free evening of events, workshops and screenings as we ask the question ‘should we create life’.
Lates is a free themed-event for adults at the Science Museum on the last Wednesday of each month. Find out more about Lates at sciencemuseum.org.uk/Lates.
Artificial Life: Should We, Could We, Will We?
Wednesday 28 March as part of the Frankenstein Lates
A panel of expert scientists and researchers will discuss artificial life. Just how close are we to creating fully synthetic life and will this be achieved by biological or digital means?
Discussing those questions will be Professor of Cognitive Robotics at Imperial College and scientific advisor for the hit movie Ex Machina Murray Shanahan, Vice President of the International Society for Artificial Life Susan Stepney and Lead Curator of the Science Museum’s acclaimed 2017 exhibition Robots Ben Russell. Further speakers to be announced.
Promethean Tales Weekend
Terminator 2: Judgement Day + Panel Discussion
Friday 27 April, 19.30–22.35 (Doors open 19.00)
Tickets: £8, £6 Concessions
Age 15 and above
In part one of our Promethean Tales Weekend celebrating the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, we will be joined by a panel of experts in science, film and literature to discuss the topic of ‘Promethean Tales through the ages’ ahead of a screening of Terminator 2: Judgement Day.
The Curse of Frankenstein and Q&A with Sir Christopher Frayling
Saturday 28 April, 18.00–20.30 (Doors open 17.30)
Tickets: £8, £6 Concessions
In part two of our Promethean Tales Weekend, we are joined by Sir Christopher Frayling, author of Frankenstein: The First Two Hundred Years, to discuss the life and work of Shelley, the origins of her seminal story and its cultural impact.
The screening of The Curse of Frankenstein will be followed by a book signing with copies of Sir Christopher’s book available to purchase on the night.
You can find out more about the festival and get tickets to events, here.
This initiative seems like a lot of fun, from the Frankenreads homepage,
Frankenreads is an NEH [US National Endowment for the Humanitities]-funded initiative of the Keats-Shelley Association of America and partners to hold a series of events and initiatives in honor of the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, featuring especially an international series of readings of the full text of the novel on Halloween 2018.
They have a very open approach as their FAQs webpage attests to,
Why host a Frankenreads event?
Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus appeals to both novice and expert readers alike and is a work that remains highly relevant to contemporary issues. Thus it is perhaps no surprise that (according to the Open Syllabus project) Frankenstein is the most frequently taught work of literature in college English courses and the fifth most frequently taught book in college courses in all disciplines. It is certainly one of the most read British novels in the world. Hosting a Frankenreads event is an easy way both to celebrate the 200th anniversary of this important work and to foster discussion about issues such as ethics in science and the human tendency to demonize the unfamiliar. By participating in Frankenreads, you can make sure that your thoughts about Frankenstein are part of a global conversation.
What kind of event can I host?
You can host any kind of event you like! Below are some suggestions. Click on the event type for further guidance.
Complete Reading — A live, all-day reading (about 9 hours) of the full text of Frankenstein
Viewing — A community viewing on Halloween 2018 of the livestream of the NEH reading or other online events
Other — Whatever other kind of in-person or online event you can think of!
Should I hold in-person events or online events?
Either or both! We encourage you to record in-person events and upload video to our YouTube channel. We will also be providing advice on holding events via Google Hangouts.
When should I hold the event?
You can hold a Frankenreads event any time you like, but we encourage you to schedule an event during Frankenweek: October 24-31, 2018.
Why post my event on the Frankenreads website?
Posting your event on the Frankenreads website enables the Frankenreads team to publicize your event widely, to give you help with your event, and to connect you with others who are holding nearby or similar events.
How do I post my event on the Frankenreads website?
This workshop will address issues pertaining to the uses, ethics, and representations of CRISPR-cas9 genome editing system; and the evolution of bioart as a cultural phenomenon . The workshop will focus on:
1. Scientific strategies and ethical issues related to the modification of organisms through the most advanced technology;
2. Techniques and biological materials to develop and express complex concepts into art objects.
This workshop will introduce knowledge, methods and living material from the life sciences to the participants. The class will apply that novel information to the creation of art. Finally, the key concepts, processes and knowledge from the arts will be discussed and related to scientiﬁc research. The studio-‐lab portion of the course will focus on the mastering and understanding of the CRISPR – Cas9 technology and its revolutionary applications. The unparalleled potential of CRISPR ‐ Cas9 for genome editing will be directly assessed as the participants will use the method to make artworks and generate meaning through such a technique. The participants will be expected to complete one small project by the end of the course. In developing and completing these projects, participants will be asked to present their ideas/work to the instructors and fellow participants. As part of the course, participants are expected to document their work/methodology/process by keeping a record of processes, outcomes, and explorations.
The term CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) refers to a range of novel gene editing systems which can be programmed to edit DNA at precise locations. It allows the permanent modification of the genes in cells of living organisms. CRISPR enables novel basic research and promises a wide range of possible applications from biomedicine and agriculture to environmental challenges.
The surprising simplicity of CRISPR and its potentials have led to a wide range of reactions. While some welcome it as a gene editing revolution able to cure diseases that are currently fatal, others urge for a worldwide moratorium, especially when it comes to human germline modifications. The possibility that CRISPR may allow us to intervene in the evolution of organisms has generated particularly divisive thoughts: is gene editing going to cure us all? Or is it opening up a new era of designer babies and new types of privileges measured at the level of genes? Could the relative easiness of the technique allow individuals to modify bodies, identities, sexuality, to create new species and races? will it create new monsters? [emphasis mine] These are all topics that need to be discussed. With this panel/discussion, we wish to address technical, ethical, and creative issues arising from the futuristic scenarios promised by CRISPR.
Marta De Menezes, Director, Cultivamos Cultura
Dalila Honorato, Assistant Professor, Ionian University
Mark Lipton, Professor, University of Guelph
Date: January 26, 2018
Time: 6:00-8:00 pm
Location: The Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences
222 College Street, Toronto, ON
Events Facilitators: Roberta Buiani and Stephen Morris (ArtSci Salon) and Nina Czegledy (Leonardo Network)
Marta de Menezes is a Portuguese artist (b. Lisbon, 1975) with a degree in Fine Arts by the University in Lisbon, a MSt in History of Art and Visual Culture by the University of Oxford, and a PhD candidate at the University of Leiden. She has been exploring the intersection between Art and Biology, working in research laboratories demonstrating that new biological technologies can be used as new art medium. Her work has been presented internationally in exhibitions, articles and lectures. She is currently the artistic director of Ectopia, an experimental art laboratory in Lisbon, and Director of Cultivamos Cultura in the South of Portugal. http://martademenezes.com
Dalila Honorato, Ph.D., is currently Assistant Professor in Media Aesthetics and Semiotics at the Ionian University in Greece where she is one of the founding members of the Interactive Arts Lab. She is the head of the organizing committee of the conference “Taboo-Transgression-Transcendence in Art & Science” and developer of the studies program concept of the Summer School in Hybrid Arts. She is a guest faculty at the PhD studies program of the Institutum Studiorum Humanitatis in Alma Mater Europaea, Slovenia, and a guest member of the Science Art Philosophy Lab integrated in the Center of Philosophy of Sciences of the University of Lisbon, Portugal. Her research focus is on embodiment in the intersection of performing arts and new media.
Mark Lipton works in the College of Arts; in the School of English and Theatre Studies, and Guelph’s Program in Media Studies. Currently, his work focuses on queering media ecological perspectives of technology’s role in education, with emerging questions about haptics and the body in performance contexts, and political outcomes of neo-liberal economics within Higher Education.
ArtSci Salon thanks the Fields Institute and the Bonham Center for Sexual Diversity Studies (U of T), and the McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology for their support. We are grateful to the members of DIYBio Toronto and Hacklab for hosting Marta’s workshop.
This series of event is promoted and facilitated as part of FACTT Toronto
LASER – Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous is a project of Leonardo® /ISAST (International Society for the Arts Sciences and Technology)
For anyone who didn’t recognize (or, like me, barely remembers what it means) the title’s reference is to a famous science fiction story by Philip K. Dick. Here’s more from the Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (retitled Blade Runner: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in some later printings) is a science fiction novel by American writer Philip K. Dick, first published in 1968. The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco, where Earth’s life has been greatly damaged by nuclear global war. Most animal species are endangered or extinct from extreme radiation poisoning, so that owning an animal is now a sign of status and empathy, an attitude encouraged towards animals. The book served as the primary basis for the 1982 film Blade Runner, and many elements and themes from it were used in its 2017 sequel Blade Runner 2049.
The main plot follows Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter who is tasked with “retiring” (i.e. killing) six escaped Nexus-6 model androids, while a secondary plot follows John Isidore, a man of sub-par IQ who aids the fugitive androids. In connection with Deckard’s mission, the novel explores the issue of what it is to be human. Unlike humans, the androids are said to possess no sense of empathy.
I wonder why they didn’t try to reference Orphan Black (its Wikipedia entry)? That television series was all about biotechnology. If not Orphan Black, what about a Frankenstein reference? It’s the 200th anniversary this year (2018) of the publication of the book which is the forerunner to all the cautionary tales that have come after.
I have written about the CRISPR patent tussle (Harvard & MIT’s [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Broad Institute vs the University of California at Berkeley) previously in a Jan. 6, 2015 posting and in a more detailed May 14, 2015 posting. I also mentioned (in a Jan. 17, 2017 posting) CRISPR and its patent issues in the context of a posting about a Slate.com series on Frankenstein and the novel’s applicability to our own time. This patent fight is being bitterly fought as fortunes are at stake.
It seems a decision has been made regarding the CRISPR patent claims. From a Feb. 17, 2017 article by Charmaine Distor for The Science Times,
After an intense court battle, the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) released its ruling on February 15 . The rights for the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology was handed over to the Broad Institute of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
According to an article in Nature, the said court battle was between the Broad Institute and the University of California. The two institutions are fighting over the intellectual property right for the CRISPR patent. The case between the two started when the patent was first awarded to the Broad Institute despite having the University of California apply first for the CRISPR patent.
Heidi Ledford’s Feb. 17, 2017 article for Nature provides more insight into the situation (Note: Links have been removed),
It [USPTO] ruled that the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT in Cambridge could keep its patents on using CRISPR–Cas9 in eukaryotic cells. That was a blow to the University of California in Berkeley, which had filed its own patents and had hoped to have the Broad’s thrown out.
The fight goes back to 2012, when Jennifer Doudna at Berkeley, Emmanuelle Charpentier, then at the University of Vienna, and their colleagues outlined how CRISPR–Cas9 could be used to precisely cut isolated DNA1. In 2013, Feng Zhang at the Broad and his colleagues — and other teams — showed2 how it could be adapted to edit DNA in eukaryotic cells such as plants, livestock and humans.
Berkeley filed for a patent earlier, but the USPTO granted the Broad’s patents first — and this week upheld them. There are high stakes involved in the ruling. The holder of key patents could make millions of dollars from CRISPR–Cas9’s applications in industry: already, the technique has sped up genetic research, and scientists are using it to develop disease-resistant livestock and treatments for human diseases.
But the fight for patent rights to CRISPR technology is by no means over. Here are four reasons why.
1. Berkeley can appeal the ruling
2. European patents are still up for grabs
3. Other parties are also claiming patent rights on CRISPR–Cas9
4. CRISPR technology is moving beyond what the patents cover
As for Ledford’s 3rd point, there are an estimated 763 patent families (groups of related patents) claiming CAS9 leading to the distinct possibility that the Broad Institute will be fighting many patent claims in the future.
The fight over who owns the most promising technique for editing genes—cutting and pasting the stuff of life to cure disease and advance scientific knowledge—has been a rough one. A team on the West Coast, at UC Berkeley, filed patents on the method, Crispr-Cas9; a team on the East Coast, based at MIT and the Broad Institute, filed their own patents in 2014 after Berkeley’s, but got them granted first. The Berkeley group contended that this constituted “interference,” and that Berkeley deserved the patent.
At stake: millions, maybe billions of dollars in biotech money and licensing fees, the future of medicine, the future of bioscience. Not nothing. Who will benefit depends on who owns the patents.
On Wednesday [Feb. 15, 2017], the US Patent Trial and Appeal Board kind of, sort of, almost began to answer that question. Berkeley will get the patent for using the system called Crispr-Cas9 in any living cell, from bacteria to blue whales. Broad/MIT gets the patent in eukaryotic cells, which is to say, plants and animals.
It’s … confusing. “The patent that the Broad received is for the use of Crispr gene-editing technology in eukaryotic cells. The patent for the University of California is for all cells,” says Jennifer Doudna, the UC geneticist and co-founder of Caribou Biosciences who co-invented Crispr, on a conference call. Her metaphor: “They have a patent on green tennis balls; we have a patent for all tennis balls.”
Observers didn’t quite buy that topspin. If Caribou is playing tennis, it’s looking like Broad/MIT is Serena Williams.
“UC does not necessarily lose everything, but they’re no doubt spinning the story,” says Robert Cook-Deegan, an expert in genetic policy at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society. “UC’s claims to eukaryotic uses of Crispr-Cas9 will not be granted in the form they sought. That’s a big deal, and UC was the big loser.”
UC officials said Wednesday [Feb. 15, 2017] that they are studying the 51-page decision and considering whether to appeal. That leaves members of the biotechnology sector wondering who they will have to pay to use Crispr as part of a business—and scientists hoping the outcome won’t somehow keep them from continuing their research.
Slate.com is dedicating a month (January 2017) to Frankenstein. This means there were will be one or more essays each week on one aspect or another of Frankenstein and science. These essays are one of a series of initiatives jointly supported by Slate, Arizona State University, and an organization known as New America. It gets confusing since these essays are listed as part of two initiatives: Futurography and Future Tense.
The really odd part, as far as I’m concerned, is that there is no mention of Arizona State University’s (ASU) The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project (mentioned in my Oct. 26, 2016 posting). Perhaps they’re concerned that people will think ASU is advertising the project?
Getting back to the essays, a Jan. 3, 2017 article by Jacob Brogan explains, by means of a ‘Question and Answer’ format article, why the book and the monster maintain popular interest after two centuries (Note: We never do find out who or how many people are supplying the answers),
OK, fine. I get that this book is important, but why are we talking about it in a series about emerging technology?
Though people still tend to weaponize it as a simple anti-scientific screed, Frankenstein, which was first published in 1818, is much richer when we read it as a complex dialogue about our relationship to innovation—both our desire for it and our fear of the changes it brings. Mary Shelley was just a teenager when she began to compose Frankenstein, but she was already grappling with our complex relationship to new forces. Almost two centuries on, the book is just as propulsive and compelling as it was when it was first published. That’s partly because it’s so thick with ambiguity—and so resistant to easy interpretation.
Is it really ambiguous? I mean, when someone calls something frankenfood, they aren’t calling it “ethically ambiguous food.”
It’s a fair point. For decades, Frankenstein has been central to discussions in and about bioethics. Perhaps most notably, it frequently crops up as a reference point in discussions of genetically modified organisms, where the prefix Franken- functions as a sort of convenient shorthand for human attempts to meddle with the natural order. Today, the most prominent flashpoint for those anxieties is probably the clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, or CRISPR, gene-editing technique [emphasis mine]. But it’s really oversimplifying to suggest Frankenstein is a cautionary tale about monkeying with life.
As we’ll see throughout this month on Futurography, it’s become a lens for looking at the unintended consequences of things like synthetic biology, animal experimentation, artificial intelligence, and maybe even social networking. Facebook, for example, has arguably taken on a life of its own, as its algorithms seem to influence the course of elections. Mark Zuckerberg, who’s sometimes been known to disavow the power of his own platform, might well be understood as a Frankensteinian figure, amplifying his creation’s monstrosity by neglecting its practical needs.
But this book is almost 200 years old! Surely the actual science in it is bad.
Shelley herself would probably be the first to admit that the science in the novel isn’t all that accurate. Early in the novel, Victor Frankenstein meets with a professor who castigates him for having read the wrong works of “natural philosophy.” Shelley’s protagonist has mostly been studying alchemical tomes and otherwise fantastical works, the sort of things that were recognized as pseudoscience, even by the standards of the day. Near the start of the novel, Frankenstein attends a lecture in which the professor declaims on the promise of modern science. He observes that where the old masters “promised impossibilities and performed nothing,” the new scientists achieve far more in part because they “promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted and that the elixir of life is a chimera.”
Is it actually about bad science, though?
Not exactly, but it has been read as a story about bad scientists.
Ultimately, Frankenstein outstrips his own teachers, of course, and pulls off the very feats they derided as mere fantasy. But Shelley never seems to confuse fact and fiction, and, in fact, she largely elides any explanation of how Frankenstein pulls off the miraculous feat of animating dead tissue. We never actually get a scene of the doctor awakening his creature. The novel spends far more dwelling on the broader reverberations of that act, showing how his attempt to create one life destroys countless others. Read in this light, Frankenstein isn’t telling us that we shouldn’t try to accomplish new things, just that we should take care when we do.
This speaks to why the novel has stuck around for so long. It’s not about particular scientific accomplishments but the vagaries of scientific progress in general.
Does that make it into a warning against playing God?
It’s probably a mistake to suggest that the novel is just a critique of those who would usurp the divine mantle. Instead, you can read it as a warning about the ways that technologists fall short of their ambitions, even in their greatest moments of triumph.
Look at what happens in the novel: After bringing his creature to life, Frankenstein effectively abandons it. Later, when it entreats him to grant it the rights it thinks it deserves, he refuses. Only then—after he reneges on his responsibilities—does his creation really go bad. We all know that Frankenstein is the doctor and his creation is the monster, but to some extent it’s the doctor himself who’s made monstrous by his inability to take responsibility for what he’s wrought.
I encourage you to read Brogan’s piece in its entirety and perhaps supplement the reading. Mary Shelley has a pretty interesting history. She ran off with Percy Bysshe Shelley who was married to another woman, in 1814 at the age of seventeen years. Her parents were both well known and respected intellectuals and philosophers, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. By the time Mary Shelley wrote her book, her first baby had died and she had given birth to a second child, a boy. Percy Shelley was to die a few years later as was her son and a third child she’d given birth to. (Her fourth child born in 1819 did survive.) I mention the births because one analysis I read suggests the novel is also a commentary on childbirth. In fact, the Frankenstein narrative has been examined from many perspectives (other than science) including feminism and LGBTQ studies.
Getting back to the science fiction end of things, the next part of the Futurography series is titled “A Cheat-Sheet Guide to Frankenstein” and that too is written by Jacob Brogan with a publication date of Jan. 3, 2017,
Marilyn Butler: Butler, a literary critic and English professor at the University of Cambridge, authored the seminal essay “Frankenstein and Radical Science.”
Jennifer Doudna: A professor of chemistry and biology at the University of California, Berkeley, Doudna helped develop the CRISPR gene-editing technique [emphasis mine].
Stephen Jay Gould: Gould is an evolutionary biologist and has written in defense of Frankenstein’s scientific ambitions, arguing that hubris wasn’t the doctor’s true fault.
Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh: As executive director of the Center for Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, hÉigeartaigh leads research into technologies that threaten the existience of our species.
Jim Hightower: This columnist and activist helped popularize the term frankenfood to describe genetically modified crops.
Mary Shelley: Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, helped create science fiction as we now know it.
J. Craig Venter: A leading genomic researcher, Venter has pursued a variety of human biotechnology projects.
‘Franken’ and CRISPR
The first essay is in a Jan. 6, 2016 article by Kay Waldman focusing on the ‘franken’ prefix (Note: links have been removed),
In a letter to the New York Times on June 2, 1992, an English professor named Paul Lewis lopped off the top of Victor Frankenstein’s surname and sewed it onto a tomato. Railing against genetically modified crops, Lewis put a new generation of natural philosophers on notice: “If they want to sell us Frankenfood, perhaps it’s time to gather the villagers, light some torches and head to the castle,” he wrote.
William Safire, in a 2000 New York Times column, tracked the creation of the franken- prefix to this moment: an academic channeling popular distrust of science by invoking the man who tried to improve upon creation and ended up disfiguring it. “There’s no telling where or how it will end,” he wrote wryly, referring to the spread of the construction. “It has enhanced the sales of the metaphysical novel that Ms. Shelley’s husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, encouraged her to write, and has not harmed sales at ‘Frank’n’Stein,’ the fast-food chain whose hot dogs and beer I find delectably inorganic.” Safire went on to quote the American Dialect Society’s Laurence Horn, who lamented that despite the ’90s flowering of frankenfruits and frankenpigs, people hadn’t used Frankensense to describe “the opposite of common sense,” as in “politicians’ motivations for a creatively stupid piece of legislation.”
A year later, however, Safire returned to franken- in dead earnest. In an op-ed for the Times avowing the ethical value of embryonic stem cell research, the columnist suggested that a White House conference on bioethics would salve the fears of Americans concerned about “the real dangers of the slippery slope to Frankenscience.”
All of this is to say that franken-, the prefix we use to talk about human efforts to interfere with nature, flips between “funny” and “scary” with ease. Like Shelley’s monster himself, an ungainly patchwork of salvaged parts, it can seem goofy until it doesn’t—until it taps into an abiding anxiety that technology raises in us, a fear of overstepping.
Waldman’s piece hints at how language can shape discussions while retaining a rather playful quality.
Since its publication nearly 200 years ago, Shelley’s gothic novel has been read as a cautionary tale of the dangers of creation and experimentation. James Whale’s 1931 film took the message further, assigning explicitly the hubris of playing God to the mad scientist. As his monster comes to life, Dr. Frankenstein, played by Colin Clive, triumphantly exclaims: “Now I know what it feels like to be God!”
The admonition against playing God has since been ceaselessly invoked as a rhetorical bogeyman. Secular and religious, critic and journalist alike have summoned the term to deride and outright dismiss entire areas of research and technology, including stem cells, genetically modified crops, recombinant DNA, geoengineering, and gene editing. As we near the two-century commemoration of Shelley’s captivating story, we would be wise to shed this shorthand lesson—and to put this part of the Frankenstein legacy to rest in its proverbial grave.
The trouble with the term arises first from its murkiness. What exactly does it mean to play God, and why should we find it objectionable on its face? All but zealots would likely agree that it’s fine to create new forms of life through selective breeding and grafting of fruit trees, or to use in-vitro fertilization to conceive life outside the womb to aid infertile couples. No one objects when people intervene in what some deem “acts of God,” such as earthquakes, to rescue victims and provide relief. People get fully behind treating patients dying of cancer with “unnatural” solutions like chemotherapy. Most people even find it morally justified for humans to mete out decisions as to who lives or dies in the form of organ transplant lists that prize certain people’s survival over others.
So what is it—if not the imitation of a deity or the creation of life—that inspires people to invoke the idea of “playing God” to warn against, or even stop, particular technologies? A presidential commission charged in the early 1980s with studying the ethics of genetic engineering of humans, in the wake of the recombinant DNA revolution, sheds some light on underlying motivations. The commission sought to understand the concerns expressed by leaders of three major religious groups in the United States—representing Protestants, Jews, and Catholics—who had used the phrase “playing God” in a 1980 letter to President Jimmy Carter urging government oversight. Scholars from the three faiths, the commission concluded, did not see a theological reason to flat-out prohibit genetic engineering. Their concerns, it turned out, weren’t exactly moral objections to scientists acting as God. Instead, they echoed those of the secular public; namely, they feared possible negative effects from creating new human traits or new species. In other words, the religious leaders who called recombinant DNA tools “playing God” wanted precautions taken against bad consequences but did not inherently oppose the use of the technology as an act of human hubris.
She presents an interesting argument and offers this as a solution,
The lesson for contemporary science, then, is not that we should cease creating and discovering at the boundaries of current human knowledge. It’s that scientists and technologists ought to steward their inventions into society, and to more rigorously participate in public debate about their work’s social and ethical consequences. Frankenstein’s proper legacy today would be to encourage researchers to address the unsavory implications of their technologies, whether it’s the cognitive and social effects of ubiquitous smartphone use or the long-term consequences of genetically engineered organisms on ecosystems and biodiversity.
Some will undoubtedly argue that this places an undue burden on innovators. Here, again, Shelley’s novel offers a lesson. Scientists who cloister themselves as Dr. Frankenstein did—those who do not fully contemplate the consequences of their work—risk later encounters with the horror of their own inventions.
At a guess, Venkataraman seems to be assuming that if scientists communicate and make their case that the public will cease to panic with reference moralistic and other concerns. My understanding is that social scientists have found this is not the case. Someone may understand the technology quite well and still oppose it.
Frankenstein and anti-vaxxers
The Jan. 16, 2017 essay by Charles Kenny is the weakest of the lot, so far (Note: Links have been removed),
In 1780, University of Bologna physician Luigi Galvani found something peculiar: When he applied an electric current to the legs of a dead frog, they twitched. Thirty-seven years later, Mary Shelley had Galvani’s experiments in mind as she wrote her fable of Faustian overreach, wherein Dr. Victor Frankenstein plays God by reanimating flesh.
And a little less than halfway between those two dates, English physician Edward Jenner demonstrated the efficacy of a vaccine against smallpox—one of the greatest killers of the age. Given the suspicion with which Romantic thinkers like Shelley regarded scientific progress, it is no surprise that many at the time damned the procedure as against the natural order. But what is surprising is how that suspicion continues to endure, even after two centuries of spectacular successes for vaccination. This anti-vaccination stance—which now infects even the White House—demonstrates the immense harm that can be done by excessive distrust of technological advance.
Kenny employs history as a framing device. Crudely, Galvani’s experiments led to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which is a fable about ‘playing God’. (Kenny seems unaware there are many other readings of and perspectives on the book.) As for his statement ” … the suspicion with which Romantic thinkers like Shelley regarded scientific progress … ,” I’m not sure how he arrived at his conclusion about Romantic thinkers. According to Richard Holmes (in his book, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science), their relationship to science was more complex. Percy Bysshe Shelley ran ballooning experiments and wrote poetry about science, which included footnotes for the literature and concepts he was referencing; John Keats was a medical student prior to his establishment as a poet; and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, etc.) maintained a healthy correspondence with scientists of the day sometimes influencing their research. In fact, when you analyze the matter, you realize even scientists are, on occasion, suspicious of science.
As for the anti-vaccination wars, I wish this essay had been more thoughtful. Yes, Andrew Wakefield’s research showing a link between MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccinations and autism is a sham. However, having concerns and suspicions about technology does not render you a fool who hasn’t progressed from 18th/19th Century concerns and suspicions about science and technology. For example, vaccines are being touted for all kinds of things, the latest being a possible antidote to opiate addiction (see Susan Gados’ June 28, 2016 article for ScienceNews). Are we going to be vaccinated for everything? What happens when you keep piling vaccination on top of vaccination? Instead of a debate, the discussion has devolved to: “I’m right and you’re wrong.”
For the record, I’m grateful for the vaccinations I’ve had and the diminishment of diseases that were devastating and seem to be making a comeback with this current anti-vaccination fever. That said, I think there are some important questions about vaccines.
Kenny’s essay could have been a nuanced discussion of vaccines that have clearly raised the bar for public health and some of the concerns regarding the current pursuit of yet more vaccines. Instead, he’s been quite dismissive of anyone who questions vaccination orthodoxy.
The end of this piece
There will be more essays in Slate’s Frankenstein series but I don’t have time to digest and write commentary for all of them.
Please use this piece as a critical counterpoint to some of the series and, if I’ve done my job, you’ll critique this critique. Please do let me know if you find any errors or want to add an opinion or add your own critique in the Comments of this blog.
ETA Jan. 25, 2017: Here’s the Frankenstein webspace on Slate’s Futurography which lists all the essays in this series. It’s well worth looking at the list. There are several that were not covered here.
Helaine Becker has launched a new children’s science book incorporating monsters with science. The title, unsurprisingly, is: ‘Monster Science’. Here’s more about the book from Helaine’s Oct. 14, 2016 post on Sci/Why where she shares two reviews,
“From Frankenstein’s creation to Nessie, Becker uses the creatures of our scariest stories as a springboard for an introduction to the scientific understandings that might make such creatures possible—or impossible. In addition to man-made monsters and legendary sea creatures, she covers vampires, zombies, werewolves, and wild, humanlike creatures like Bigfoot. Chapter by chapter, she provides references from literature, film, and popular culture, including a bit of science, a bit of history, and a plentiful helping of humor. She includes numerous monster facts, suggests weapons of defense, and concludes each section with a test-yourself quiz. Science topics covered range widely: electricity, genetic engineering, “demonic diseases,” the nature of our blood and the circulatory system, the possibility of immortality, animal classification, evolution, cannibalism, optical illusions, heredity, hoaxes, and the very real profession of cryptozoology, or the search for hitherto unidentified creatures. … Kirkus
Then, there’s this one,
“A highlight of this work is its exploration of the often symbiotic relationship between culture and science; figures such as Shelley, John Polidori (The Vampyre), and filmmaker George Romero (Night of the Living Dead) merged cultural fascination with scientific development to create truly inspiring works and further public interest in science…School Library Journal
Interview with Helaine Becker
Not to be confused with ‘Interview with a vampire’, this one is not novel-length and includes a scoop about an upcoming book in 2017,
Were you surprised by anything when you were researching and/or witting the book?
I learned so much while writing Monster Science – it’s one of the reasons I enjoy writing nonfiction, especially for kids. I always turn up fascinating stuff. I was surprised to learn that werewolves were rounded up and burned at the stake, just like witches, during the period of the Inquisition. Werewolves, it turns out, were thought to be witches – usually male ones – who could shape shift.
My fave fact of all is that vampires would still have to eat their vegetables.
Did you have to leave any monsters/pop culture references/science out of the book? And, why?
Children’s books have very tight space constraints, but my research is comprehensive and complete. That means we have to pick and choose what stays in. It’s gotta be the very best! I work closely with my editors on this, and sometimes we have, shall we say, “heated” discussions.” For Monster Science, I was particularly sorry to see the fascinating back story of the mad scientist trope end up with a stake in its heart.
Did you have a favourite monster before you started? If so, has your favourite changed? Or if you didn’t have one before writing the book, haveyou since developed a favourite monster?
I’ve had an uneasy relationship with vampires from the age of about 7, after watching an episode of Gilligan’s Island. It featured a “humorous” dream sequence with Gilligan as the vampire. I failed to see the humor at that tender age, and was terrified out of my socks. And anyone remember the original Dark Shadows? Barnabus Collins? Yeah. That show should have never been on in the afternoon. I slept with the blankies up to my ears until my mid-thirties. (Who am I kidding? I still do!)
Are you hoping to tie this book into the Frankenstein bicentennial celebrations?
Illustrated children’s books have very long time lines from concept to finished book. I wrote Monster Science several years ago, before I had any notion of Frankenstein bicentennials. But now that we’ve arrived at this auspicious date, I’m excited! I’d love to participate in some way. I will put on my zzz zzzz zzzt thinking cap.
Where can your fans come to a reading or some other event?
I do dozens of school visits and festival events every year. Some of them might be focused on a specific book, like Monster Science, but most usually feature discussions around several of my titles. This holiday season, for example, I will be doing events around my latest picture book, a very Canadian Christmas-themed title called Deck the Halls. It’s the third in a very popular series. Anyone can drop in to the Sherway Gardens branch of Indigo Book Store [in Toronto] at noon on Sunday, Dec. 4 , to take part in that.
I’ll be doing many events in association with the Forest of Reading, one of North America’s largest children’s choice award programs this spring. More than 250,000 children participate! I am honored to have two science-related books nominated this year, Worms for Breakfast: How to Feed a Zoo (Owlkids) and Everything: Space (National Geographic Kids). I will also be the keynote at the Killaloe Literary Festival in beautiful northern Ontario at the end of May. Best place to look for my latest book and schedule info is my blog, http://helainebecker.blogspot.ca/.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
For insiders only: Coming soon! Look for my upcoming picture book biography of William Playfair, the Victorian era scoundrel who single-handedly invented the field of infographics. It’s called Lines, Bars and Circles and will be published by Kids Can Press early in 2017.
Thank you, Helaine! (I usually don’t get funny interviews. It makes for a good change of pace.)
A promotional photo of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster, using Jack Pierce’s makeup design. Credit:: Universal Studios
An Oct. 28, 2016 news item on phys.org provides some new insight into the ‘Frankenstein story’ and its perspective on science,
Frankenstein as we know him, the grotesque monster that was created through a weird science experiment, is actually a nameless Creature created by scientist Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, “Frankenstein.” Widely considered the first work of science fiction for exploring the destructive consequences of scientific and moral transgressions, a new study published in BioScience argues that the horror of Mary Shelley’s gothic novel is rooted in a fundamental principle of biology.
The co-authors point to a pivotal scene when the Creature encounters Victor Frankenstein and requests a female companion to mitigate his loneliness. The Creature distinguishes his dietary needs from those of humans and expresses a willingness to inhabit the “wilds of South America,” suggesting distinct ecological requirements. Frankenstein concedes to this reasoning given that humans would have few competitive interactions with a pair of isolated creatures, but he then reverses his decision after considering the creatures’ reproductive potential and the probability of human extinction, a concept termed competitive exclusion. In essence, Frankenstein was saving humankind.
A study co-authored by Dartmouth’s Nathaniel Dominy casts a new light on the story of Frankenstein’s monster, who lives on in the public imagination in stories, in movies, and of course, on Halloween.
Mary Shelley’s gothic novel is rooted in a fundamental principle of biology, and its horror lies in the specter of the extinction of the human race, say Dominy, a professor of anthropology, and his coauthor, Justin Yeakel.
“The principle of competitive exclusion was not formally defined until the 1930s,” says Dominy. “Given Shelley’s early command of this foundational concept, we used computational tools developed by ecologists to explore if, and how quickly, an expanding population of creatures would drive humans to extinction.”
The authors developed a mathematical model based on human population densities in 1816, finding that the competitive advantages of creatures varied under different circumstances. The worst-case scenario for humans was a growing population of creatures in South America, as it was a region with fewer humans and therefore less competition for resources.
“We calculated that a founding population of two creatures could drive us to extinction in as little as 4,000 years,” says Dominy. Although the study is merely a thought experiment, it casts new light on the underlying horror of the novel: the extinction of the human race. It also has real-word implications for how we understand the biology of invasive species.
“To date, most scholars have focused on Mary Shelley’s knowledge of then-prevailing views on alchemy, physiology, and resurrection; however, the genius of Mary Shelley lies in how she combined and repackaged existing scientific debates to invent the genre of science fiction,” says Justin D. Yeakel, an Omidyar fellow at the Santa Fe Institute and an assistant professor in the School of Natural Sciences at the University of California, Merced.
“Our study adds to Mary Shelley’s legacy, by showing that her science fiction accurately anticipated fundamental concepts in ecology and evolution by many decades,” he says.
I received a September 2016 newsletter (issued occasionally) from The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project at Arizona State University (ASU) which contained these two tidbits:
Bobby Zokaites converted a Roomba, a robotic vacuum, from a room cleaning device to an art-maker by removing the dust collector and vacuuming system and replacing it with a paint reservoir. Artists have been playing with robots to make art since the 1950s. This work is an extension of a genre, repurposing a readily available commercial robot.
With this project, Bobby set out to create a self-portrait of a generation, one that grew up with access to a vast amount of information and constantly bombarded by advertisements. The Roomba paintings prove that a robot can paint a reasonably complex painting, and do it differently every time; thus this version of the Turing test was successful.
As in the story of Frankenstein, this work also interrogates questions of creativity and responsibility. Is this a truly creative work of art, and if so, who is the artist; man or machine?
From the September 2016 newsletter (Note: Links have been removed),
Just as the creature in Frankenstein [the monster is never named in the book; its creator, however, is Victor Frankenstein] was assembled from an assortment of materials, so too is the cultural understanding of the Frankenstein myth. Now a new, interdisciplinary exhibit at ASU Libraries examines how Mary Shelley’s 200-year-old science fiction story continues to inspire, educate, and frighten 21st century audiences.
Frankenstein at 200 is open now through December 10 on the first floor of ASU’s Hayden Library in Tempe, AZ.
No work of literature has done more to shape the way people imagine science and its moral consequences than “Frankenstein;” or “The Modern Prometheus,” Mary Shelley’s enduring tale of creation and responsibility. The novel’s themes and tropes continue to resonate with contemporary audiences, influencing the way we confront emerging technologies, conceptualize the process of scientific research, and consider the ethical relationships between creators and their creations
Two hundred years after Mary Shelley imagined the story that would become “Frankenstein,” ASU Libraries is exhibiting an interdisciplinary installation that contextualizes the conditions of the original tale while exploring it’s continued importance in our technological age. Featuring work by ASU faculty and students, this exhibition includes a variety of physical and digital artifacts, original art projects and interactive elements that examine “Frankenstein’s” colossal scientific, technological, cultural and social impacts.
About the Frankenstein Bicentennial Project: Launched by Drs. David Guston and Ed Finn in 2013, the Frankenstein Bicentennial Project, is a global celebration of the bicentennial of the writing and publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, from 2016-2018. The project uses Frankenstein as a lens to examine the complex relationships between science, technology, ethics, and society. To learn more visit frankenstein.asu.edu and follow @FrankensteinASU on Twitter
Drat! I’ve gotten the information about the first Frankenstein dare (a short story challenge) a little late in the game since the deadline is 11:59 pm PDT on July 31, 2016. In any event, here’s more about the two dares,
And for those who like their information in written form, here are the details from the Arizona State University’s (ASU) Frankenstein Bicentennial Dare (on The Franklin Bicentennial Project website),
Two centuries ago, on a dare to tell the best scary story, 19-year-old Mary Shelley imagined an idea that became the basis for Frankenstein. Mary’s original concept became the novel that arguably kick-started the genres of science fiction and Gothic horror, but also provided an enduring myth that shapes how we grapple with creativity, science, technology, and their consequences.
Two hundred years later, inspired by that classic dare, we’re challenging you to create new myths for the 21st century along with our partners National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), Chabot Space and Science Center, and Creative Nonfiction magazine.
Presented by NaNoWriMo and the Chabot Space and Science Center
Frankenstein is a classic of Gothic literature – a gripping, tragic story about Victor Frankenstein’s failure to accept responsibility for the consequences of bringing new life into the world. In this dare, we’re challenging you to write a scary story that explores the relationship between creators and the “monsters” they create.
Almost anything that we create can become monstrous: a misinterpreted piece of architecture; a song whose meaning has been misappropriated; a big, but misunderstood idea; or, of course, an actual creature. And in Frankenstein, Shelley teaches us that monstrous does not always mean evil – in fact, creators can prove to be more destructive and inhuman than the things they bring into being
Tell us your story in 1,000 – 1,800 words on Medium.com and use the hashtag #Frankenstein200. Read other #Frankenstein200 stories, and use the recommend button at the bottom of each post for the stories you like. Winners in the short fiction contest will receive personal feedback from Hugo and Sturgeon Award-winning science fiction and fantasy author Elizabeth Bear, as well as a curated selection of classic and contemporary science fiction books and Frankenstein goodies, courtesy of the NaNoWriMo team.
Rules and Mechanics
There are no restrictions on content. Entry is limited to one submission per author. Submissions must be in English and between 1,000 to 1,800 words. You must follow all Medium Terms of Service, including the Rules.
All entries submitted and tagged as #Frankenstein200 and in compliance with the rules outlined here will be considered.
The deadline for submissions is 11:59 PM on July 31, 2016.
Three winners will be selected at random on August 1, 2016.
Each winner receives the following prize package including:
Lynd Ward’s edition of Frankenstein with woodcut illustrations
Penguin Horror’s edition of Frankenstein featuring an introduction by Guillermo del Toro
Additionally, one of the three winners, chosen at random, will receive written coaching/feedback from Elizabeth Bear on his or her entry.
Select stories will be featured on Frankenscape, a public geo-storytelling project hosted by ASU’s Frankenstein Bicentennial Project. Stories may also be featured in National Novel Writing Month communications and social media platforms.
U.S. residents only [emphasis mine]; void where prohibited by law. No purchase is necessary to enter or win.
Creative Nonfiction magazine is daring writers to write original and true stories that explore humans’ efforts to control and redirect nature, the evolving relationships between humanity and science/technology, and contemporary interpretations of monstrosity.
Essays must be vivid and dramatic; they should combine a strong and compelling narrative with an informative or reflective element and reach beyond a strictly personal experience for some universal or deeper meaning. We’re open to a broad range of interpretations of the “Frankenstein” theme, with the understanding that all works submitted must tell true stories and be factually accurate. Above all, we’re looking for well-written prose, rich with detail and a distinctive voice.
Creative Nonfiction editors and a judge (to be announced) will award $10,000 and publication for Best Essay and two $2,500 prizes and publication for runners-up. All essays submitted will be considered for publication in the winter 2018 issue of the magazine.
[Note: There is a submission fee for the nonfiction dare and no indication as to whether or not there are residency requirements.]
A July 27, 2016 email received from The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project (which is how I learned about the dares somewhat belatedly) has this about the first dare,
Planetary Design, Transhumanism, and Pork Products
Our #Frankenstein200 Contest Took Us in Some Unexpected Directions
Last month [June 2016], we partnered with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and The Chabot Space and Science Center to dare the world to create stories in the spirit of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the novel’s conception.
We received a bevy of intriguing and sometimes frightening submissions that explore the complex relationships between creators and their “monsters.” Here are a few tales that caught our eye:
The Man Who Harnessed the Sun
By Sandra Knisely
Eliza has to choose between protecting the scientist who once gave her the world and punishing him for letting it all slip away. Read the story…
You can find the stories that have been submitted to date for the creative short story dare at Medium.com.
Good luck! And, don’t forget to tag your short story with #Frankenstein200 and submit it by July 31, 2016 (if you are a US resident). There’s still lots of time to enter a submission for a creative nonfiction piece.
This really is a ‘Frankenstein’ story complete with turtle cadavers. From a June 14, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,
It was a dark and stormy night in the laboratory, and jagged bolts of lightning lit the sky as Dr. Kaplan and his assistant Bianca stitched the pieces of the lifeless creature back together.
Actually, it was a sunny day on the shores of Chesapeake Bay, but recent sea turtle research by Assistant Professor David Kaplan of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and graduate student Bianca Santos easily brings to mind the classic tale of Dr. Frankenstein and his makeshift monster.
Santos, a master’s student in William & Mary’s School of Marine Science at VIMS, is working with Kaplan to reduce sea turtle mortality by trying to pinpoint where the hundreds of dead loggerhead sea turtles that wash up on Chesapeake Bay beaches each summer may have succumbed. With that knowledge, researchers could hone in on likely causes of sea-turtle death, while wildlife authorities could map out safe zones for these imperiled marine reptiles. One of Kaplan’s research specialties is the spatial management of marine ecosystems.
David Kaplan examines the Frankenturtles before their deployment. Also visible are the bucket drifters that more closely follow Bay currents. Courtesy: VIMS
The pair’s approach to the problem is ingenious if somewhat morbid: obtain dead sea turtles (from the Virginia Aquarium’s Stranding Response Program), replace the turtles’ inner organs with buoyant Styrofoam, “sew” their shells back together with zip ties, and then attach GPS units to track the path of the “Frankenturtles” as winds and currents disperse them from a mid-Bay release site.
“It might seem sort of gross, but it’s a good way to reuse a dead turtle that would otherwise be buried,” says Kaplan. “And hopefully, the deployment of our two Frankenturtles will ultimately help lower the number of turtle deaths in the future.”
Santos explains that the team is actually releasing three different types of drifters: the two Frankenturtles, two wooden-Styrofoam turtle models, and a pair of bucket drifters. By observing how the wind differentially affects the highly buoyant, sail-like wooden models; the partly emergent Frankenturtles; and the mostly submerged buckets, the researchers hope to better understand how a wind-driven carcass might deviate from the more predictable current patterns traced by the Bay’s surface waters. Sea turtles initially sink after dying, but quickly float back to the surface buoyed by gases from decomposing tissues.
“Our plan is to deploy the drifters on several different occasions—under a variety of wind and wave conditions—and in locations where mortality events could occur during the spring peak in strandings,” says Santos. “We’ll then use the separation rate between our bucket drifters, which closely track water movement, and our turtle carcasses to determine the amount of wind forcing to apply to simulated carcasses in our computer model.”
They initiated their field trials on June 13th , deploying the drifters in open Bay waters about halfway between the mouth of the York River and Cape Charles on Virginia’s bayside Eastern Shore. One Frankenturtle comprises the remains of a 15-20 year old loggerhead killed by a boat strike. The other is a younger turtle whose mode of death remains a mystery despite a necropsy. Deploying these creatures wasn’t an easy job: in addition to the unforgettable and growing aroma of thawing turtle, the creatures are both heavy and unwieldy. The larger Frankenturtle weighs in at 150 pounds, the smaller at 70 pounds.
Modeling turtle movement
Once data from the Frankenturtle trials have allowed the researchers to properly configure their “turtle carcass drift model,” they’ll feed the model with historical records of stranding locations provided by the Virginia Aquarium’s Stranding Response Team. The team is the Commonwealth’s official entity for responding to reports of dead and injured sea turtles and other marine life in Bay and nearby coastal waters.
“If our model can accurately simulate how winds and currents act on a dead sea turtle, we should be able to backtrack from a stranding site to the place where the turtle likely died,” says Santos. “By knowing the ‘where,’” she adds, “we can better look at the ‘why.’”
The researchers plan to track the Frankenturtles and other drifters released on June 13th for 3-4 days before retrieving the GPS units for future use. Earlier experiments by Santos show that’s about how long dead turtles remain intact before they are dismembered and consumed by waves, birds, crabs, and fish. The public can view the motion of the drifters in real-time via the VIMS website at www.vims.edu/frankenturtle.
Sea turtle mortality
Mortality of loggerhead turtles in Chesapeake Bay is of continuing concern. “Strandings peaked in the early 2000s at around 200-400 per year,” says Kaplan. “Modifications to the pound-net fishery likely reduced the number to the current 100-300 per year, and it is these we’re trying to understand.” He adds that scientists don’t really don’t have a good idea what percentage of dead turtles these strandings represent. “The actual number could be much higher,” Kaplan says.
Evidence that strandings may represent only a small percentage of actual deaths comes from Santos’ decay experiments as well as the low odds of finding every dead turtle. “Bianca’s decay study shows that turtles remain intact for only 3-5 days after death, decreasing the likelihood that they might last long enough to wash up on a beach,” says Kaplan. “And of those that do wash ashore, many probably strand in remote or marshy areas where they are unlikely to be observed and reported by a beachgoer.”
Potential sources of mortality in the Bay include accidental capture in fishing gear, strikes by boat propellers, entanglement in plastic trash, and sudden drops in temperature.
Although loggerheads are the most common sea turtles in the Chesapeake, with 5,000-10,000 entering Bay waters each summer to feed, they are listed as “threatened” in U.S. waters under the Endangered Species Act due to the perils they face across their range, including loss of nesting habitat, disorientation of hatchlings by beachfront lighting, nest predation, and incidental capture in dredges and coastal fisheries. Measures to protect against these threats are enforced by NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.