Frankenstein by Mary Shelley – Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of all kinds

Edited by David H Guston, Ed Finn and Jason Scott Robert

There are some books which, regardless of their age, continue to resonate with audiences, and of none is this so true as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. From its origins as a ghost story written by an intelligent yet rebellious teenage girl on the shores of Lake Geneva almost 200 years ago, the book has gone on to become a defining pillar of English literature, one which has much to say about the way we as humans imagine science and its moral, societal and technological consequences.

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Over the years Shelley’s text has become standard comparison for every scientific attempt to harness the power of nature, be it in the form genetic engineering, stem cell cloning, or even the creation of artificial intelligence. Yet despite its clear relevance to science and engineering, the study of Frankenstein has often been left solely to students of the arts and humanities.

This new publication from The MIT Press strives to change this, by directly applying Shelley’s classical text to the modern, scientific world. The original 1818 edition of Frankenstein is paired with annotations discussing the ethical aspects of scientific creativity and providing additional background information on the period in which the novel came to life including references to industrialisation, and scientific studies in alchemy and galvanism.

The comparisons to our own situation are clear: Shelley’s society was caught up in a tumultuous network of changes, experiencing for the first time the wonders of steam power and industry, and today, we find ourselves caught up in a similar situation – though travelling in very different directions – and still with many of the same concerns. The editors present the idea of a modern day Victor Frankenstein creating a form of self-replicating nanotechnology – not unlike the ideas we explored last year in our Frankenstein special edition of E&T – highlighting the continued significance of Shelley’s warning.

While the book is written as a companion to those of scientific thinking, it also drives up discussion about the importance of literary thinking within science and technology, and of incorporating art into STEM subjects. The editors encourage a scientific respect of the humanities as offering a valid means of defining and even improving the world. Indeed, the factors driving scientific imagination are not so far removed from the literary mind as one might imagine. Shelley’s work speaks of an interest in the scientific and technological discoveries occurring in the early 19th century, but was no doubt also inspired by nature, and the tumultuous rainfall the girl experienced at Lake Geneva. In much the same way her creation, Victor Frankenstein, experienced his first sparks of creativity after witnessing a tree smashed to smithereens during a thunderstorm. Both occurrences, though literary, are not so far removed from Edison’s inspiration for the study of gravity coming from an apple falling from a tree.

To give further context and encourage thought and discussion, the annotated book is accompanied by a chronology of scientific developments throughout the life of Shelley, as well as several essays by leading scholars which explore the social and ethical aspects of scientific creativity and discovery within Frankenstein. Questions emerge surrounding the responsibility behind scientific creation, the place of science fiction as an influence rather than a predictor, of the future, and the changing conceptions of human nature, and their relevance and emergence within the text – providing food for thought for STEM and humanities students alike.

Interestingly enough although the book has been edited by men, the idea for the project itself came from a woman, the colleague of Guston, Finn and Robert, Cajsa Baldini. The irony of group of middle aged men following in the footsteps of a teenage girl is not lost on the editors, and they take the time to confront the issues of gender in Frankenstein, as well as pay homage to the author, for whom writing and publishing a novel without the support of her family, and with open disdain from society, was no mean feat. In this way, the book serves not just to represent how Shelley’s work provides an opportunity to reflect on how science is framed and understood by the public, but as a commemoration of all that Shelley achieved.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

‘To Pixar and Beyond: My Unlikely Journey with Steve Jobs to Make Entertainment History’ by Lawrence Levy

 

The feature films churned out by Hollywood studios today are a far cry from the pioneering motion pictures of the late 19th century. Technology is often highlighted as a key driver for innovation and in no sector is this more evident than in entertainment. Whether you want to look at improvements in video-capture devices, or changing film-editing processes and software capabilities, developments across film and entertainment are largely driven by developments in technology.

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The story related in ‘To Pixar and Beyond’ is a perfect example of the relationship between technology and innovation. While the majority of people will have heard of Pixar, and know of the company’s wide success in the film industry, few may be aware of its surprisingly humble origins. Written by Lawrence Levy, the former chief financial officer of Pixar, this book tells the tale of how a tiny, struggling start-up went on to revolutionise the animated film industry.

The story begins with Levy, a Harvard-trained lawyer and Silicon Valley executive, receiving an unexpected phone call from Apple founder Steve Jobs attempting to persuade him to join his latest venture, which at that point was on the verge of failure. This small, little-known software-development firm had begun creating computer-animated short films to advertise its work, and was now working towards creating the first ever computer animated feature film – a family-friendly adventure featuring toys that come to life. Levy recalls being struck by an odd mix of excitement and scepticism at hearing Pixar’s story, feelings that were all the more confused by a visit to the company’s dingy headquarters next to an oil refinery in Richmond Point, San Francisco.

Levy compares Pixar to the native Ohlone tribe, who roamed the land where Silicon Valley resides long before business took ownership of the area. Traditions capable of sustaining a tribe for thousands of years had been swept away by a wave of innovation. In the modern day, Levy says, those who can’t keep up with progress go the same way, becoming artefacts left behind. Outwardly Pixar had the appearance of a company that could be easily outstripped by its competitors, but among the rickety armchairs and stained ceiling tiles was a company that harboured a wealth of creative talent.

Of course, we know how the story pans out. There will be few people who have not heard of the first film to emerge from Pixar’s humble offices. In fact, ‘Toy Story’, as it came to be called, was not just successful, it went on to be the biggest film of 1995 – a feat virtually unheard of in the animated film world – and, at the time, became the third biggest grossing animated film of all time. A generation of millennials have now grown up alongside Toy Story’s beloved characters Buzz and Woody and will no doubt have shed a tear when the final film in the franchise was released in 2010.

Regardless of what you know about Pixar’s journey and subsequent success, though, Levy manages to make the story legitimately exciting. Joining the Pixar team was a huge decision, but this was really just the beginning. Once on board Levy and Jobs had a mountain to climb, in committing to transform Pixar into a company focused solely on animated feature films, and leaving behind the software sales and other piecemeal activites, which just barely kept the corporation afloat.

This book, like Pixar’s story, is truly remarkable. At times it reads like a novel, but informs like a documentary, advises like a self-help guide and inspires like any unexpected success story. Above all, the story is inspirational and should serve as encouragement for people wanting to innovate. Pixar’s story is rare, but not impossible. Innovation is out there, waiting to be discovered. As Levy says, creativity is a “dance on the precipice of failure”. There are no shortcuts, no formulas and no well-worn paths to victory, but the results speak for themselves.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

‘Destroy this Book in the Name of Science’ by Mike Barfield

 

Science is exciting and at no point is this more apparent than when viewed through the eyes of a child, as this fun-filled new publication from Mike Barfield goes to show.

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As an impressionable ten-year-old, mere mention of the word ‘science’ had me thinking about dissolving just about anything in huge beakers of acid. With real-world scientific knowledge limited to the realms of mixing salt in water and weird Brainiac-related science abuse involving walking on custard and testing out slippery socks, I just couldn’t wait to get to secondary school and discover what wonders awaited me in the teenage science lab. Who could possibly resist the temptation of flammable alkaline metals, fizzing rainbow-coloured liquids and sooty beakers tarnished by improperly adjusted Bunsen burners?

When I first visited my secondary school, the chemistry teacher set up an experiment to show that the colour of fire could be changed using different types of salt. I’ll never forget adding borax to the soft glow of a Bunsen burner and seeing the flame change to a vivid apple green. The teacher managed to feign delight at what was no doubt the same experiment he’d seen dozens of times already that evening, musing ‘I’d rather like a pair of trousers that colour’ as I happily trotted off for my next lab tour.

What’s the point of this weird childhood anecdote, you may ask? To show that children are impressionable and liable to be amazed by even the simplest feats of science. It’s a good thing, too, because we all know how important it is to get children interested in STEM from an early age. As a parent, older sibling, aunt, uncle or concerned observer, it’s never too soon to get the young Isaac Newtons in your life excited about the wonderful world of science – and what better place to start than in the home.

The good news is that hands-on, kid-friendly science doesn’t have to be limited to the chemicals, crystals and compounds in the average chemistry set. A solution comes in the form of Destroy this Book in the Name of Science, an entertaining new publication from author Mike Barfield, which proves the perfect literary addition to the lab/bedroom of curious children.

Complete with its very own cut-out Einstein mask, this book is filled with projects and tasks to push out and pull apart, with pages reserved for colouring, doodling, cutting, tearing and flat-out destroying – all in the name of science. With the help of a little glue and some determination, even the most fledgling of boffins can discover the physics behinds some exceptional magic tricks, build a working cardboard hoop glider to out-fly any paper aeroplane and race paper sea turtles with the help of just a little washing up liquid.

The comically illustrated book is a simple affordable method of awakening the latent scientist nestled within each young brain. I would recommend this book for adults wanting to engage children in a little scientific fun or, equally, tired editorial staff in need of a Friday afternoon pick-me-up.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine.

The Return of the Young Prince – A.G. Roemmers

A few months ago I came into work to see a news story left on my desk. It was inconspicuous, a small sheet of thin paper roughly torn out of a little pamphlet, and it told me they The Little Prince was coming back. The little golden-haired boy whose story opened my eyes to a whole new way of thinking had touched another author enough to be brought back to life.

Then, one evening this October as the weather was just starting to turn, I was walking out from South Kensington tube station when I passed small, independent book shop, lit up against the coming dark with the most wonderful display of hardback books – he had arrived.

28957290Those of you who have read my blog a lot might know of my love affair with The Little Prince. I love French translations, and this one was so wonderfully magical and childish that it took me back to innocent place in the very far reaches on my memory. The golden-haired boy of Exupery’s tale holds a firm spot in my heart, and the idea of seeing him again filled me with so much joy.

I approached the book with a certain amount of caution, aware that it could so easily fall short of my rather high expectations – The Little Prince is a rather hard act to follow. I’m not going to pretend I didn’t have a few reservations while I was reading the book – there were the invariable comparisons to the original – but while I found it difficult at first after some time I realised that the book needed to be different. After all the original book is not just the story of The Little Prince himself, it is the story of the Aviator – that is, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – and how his life was touched by The Little Prince. In the same way, The Return of the Young Prince is a tale of how The Little Prince touched A.G. Roemmers.

“I think this planet would be a lovely place if everyone on it greeted each other with a smile when they met”

In The Return of the Young Prince, a solo driver, setting out on an expedition across the mystical land of Patagonia, finds a young, starving teenager asleep at the side of the road – none other than The Little Prince, now grown, who has returned to earth in search of his friend the Aviator. The pair embark upon a journey of a lifetime, the man with a destination in mind, and The Young Prince, as he is now known, hoping that along the way he will find what he is looking for. The Young Prince and the driver speak, they are philosophical, quizzical, educational and at times humorous, the conversations passing between the pair serving to highlight, as in the original, the wonderful difference between the adult and juvenile brain, and that there are things in life that you cannot put a price on.

“I can tell you with certainty that your friend gave you the loveliest sheep in the world – the one that you imagined in your fantasy, the only one you could look after and that could go with you to your little planet. Didn’t you enjoy his company as you watched the sunsets? Didn’t you go to him in the night so that he wouldn’t feel alone and that you too wouldn’t feel so alone? Didn’t you think that he belong to you because you had tames him and that you belonged to him? There’s no doubt that he was more real, more alive, than the one you saw in the photograph, because that one was just a sheep, whereas the one inside the box was your sheep.”

There is so much I could say about this book, so many anecdotes I would love to pick apart and ponder over the hidden metaphors and morals. There are so many messages one could take from the story, though, that it would be unfair of me to do so and to taint your own experience of the book. Assuming of course that you are willing to give the book the time of day – I thoroughly recommend it.

It’s important to approach the book with an open mind. Do I prefer it to the original? Of course not. It’s a very different book, but while it changes some of the themes of the original, it does not detract from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s work. This is a book which speaks of how The Little Prince touched the life of the author, a man who has dedicated years of his life into researching and studying Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The book does not try to pick up where Antoine de Saint-Exupéry left off. Rather, just like The Little Prince, it serves as a tale told by a man whose life was changed by his encounter with the golden-haired child of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s past.

 

The Power – Naomi Alderman

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Equality, prosperity and power are just some of the aims of feminists past and present – but what would a world controlled by women actually look like? In her fourth novel, author Naomi Alderman inverts traditional gender roles to create a world where women quite literally hold all the power and men tremble at their feet.

Love it or hate it, utopian and dystopian fiction has a lot to say about how people live their lives and the desires, dreams and fears that lurk under the covers of society. Dystopic works throughout the 20th century have explored totalitarian states, brainwashing, societal complacency and overpopulation. They reflect societal fears of a future in which too much power has been lost to the state, through the wonderful world of science fiction.

This genre suits feminist complaints by questioning the conventional exercise of power between the sexes, often delving into frustrations of women in a patriarchal society. Previous works explored the prospect of women-led civilisations in which gender roles are reversed or worlds where women live alone, having somehow discovered the secret to asexual reproduction.

There is a reason you don’t get many all-male utopias, but I’ve often wondered why there aren’t more novels that explore what a world would be like where women not only ruled, but ruled with power. So many science-fiction novels strived to illuminate societal inequality through exaggeration and role reversal, or the creation of purer, softer societies where women rule each other with soft hands, but I have yet to come across a book which inverts the status to devastating effect.

‘The Power’ is just such a novel.

Naomi Alderman’s latest novel is a manuscript written 5,000 years in the future, documenting the rising power of a female elite. The story begins with the ‘Day of the Girls’, when teenage girls across the world wake with a strange new power. It starts as a subtle throbbing sensation between the collarbones and crackles across the skin, filling the air with electrostatic discharge and the smell of rain and rotten fruit, before emerging as a spark of light from the tips of the fingers.

What would the world look like if men were afraid of women rather than women being frightened of men?

A slight warning, while not fully divulged in this review, the book contains one or two themes that some readers might find disturbing.

Through the guise of a fictional future researcher, Alderman follows the stories of four characters and how they are affected as the world begins to change. We meet Roxy, a tough, foul-mouthed daughter of a London crime lord who is out to seek revenge; Allie, a dual-heritage girl from Jacksonville who, having suffered unspeakable abuse at the hands of her foster father, rebrands herself as charismatic faith-leader Mother Eve; Margot, the aspiring New England Governor along with her confused daughter Jocelyn; and Tunde, a plucky Nigerian journalist who strives to uncover the ugly truth behind the rising female power.

‘Men have evolved to be strong worker homestead-keepers, while women – with babies to protect from harm – have had to become aggressive and violent.’

A few videos emerge across social media platforms showing girls seemingly electrocuting men with their hands. The initial reaction is one of disbelief, but as more and more begin to appear, society is forced to attempt to address this strange new phenomenon. As childish tussles give way to deadly brawls and schools are forced to begin gender segregation, the very fabric of society unravels and young women are recruited to fight a bitter battle between the sexes that ravages Eastern Europe.

In Alderman’s present, electricity is no longer a thing of convenience, but a power to be held within the hands of women, to throw off the shackles of oppression. The future, however, is anything but bright, and all thoughts of equality are thrown to the wind. Ideas of a softer, more maternal society give way to hordes of women who rule with iron fists, as men are assigned their place on the bottom rungs of the ladder, forced into submission as slaves to the female race.

The storyline is complex and multi-layered, presenting a future where women have forgotten the male-dominated times of the past – the systems overthrown within the main body of text – and men are thought to be the fairer sex. This book is so much more than the latest attempt at a feminist dystopia. It is refreshing and insightful, combining a gripping storyline alongside an interesting analysis of societal ideas about equality and fairness within gender roles.

This review was first published on online for E&T magazine.

Fluke: The maths and myths of coincidences – Joseph Mazur

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Whether surprising, creepy, or downright weird, we all love to hear about coincidences, but just how usual are these seemingly uncanny events that so often creep into our daily lives? In this new release from Oneworld Publications Joseph Mazur aims to find out by delving into the mathematics behind coincidence.

Picture this: you are sitting in a café in Agios Nikolaos on the island of Crete when you hear a familiar laugh at a table nearby. You look over and lock eyes with your own brother. You had no idea he would be there, and he is just as surprised to see you. Of all the places in the entire world, what are the chances that you two have ended up in the same place, at the same time, seemingly unbeknownst to one another? It seems hugely unlikely, and yet this is exactly what happened to author – and coincidence enthusiast – Joseph Mazur, back in 1968. Uncanny isn’t it?

This story is just the kind of thing the average mind laps up with delight. Coincidences make magnificent stories, be it a crazy tale of pure luck that unfurled just because you happened to be in the right place at the right time, a thrilling near miss, or a series of hugely unfortunate events. Tell a crowd a story of coincidence and they will response with surprise and wonder. Yet far from being unusual, coincidences are actually fairly commonplace. In fact, even the finest coincidence can be explained as mathematically predictable.

Of course, coincidences are not solely of the ‘uncanny’ variety. On any given day, we encounter a stunning variety of factors that dictate the path our lives will follow, and a five second change in routine could see you meet the love of your life, or get crushed to death by a falling flowerpot. The ‘what ifs’ of life fill everyone’s existence, with even the most logical mind susceptible to obsessing over the smallest factor which could hold the key to changing the course of history. You could spend your life trying to understand coincidences that govern life, but as Mazur’s beloved Uncle Herman once put it: “Everything that happens just happens because everything in the world just happened.”

In Fluke: The maths and myths of coincidence, author Joseph Mazur attempts to demystify the mathematics that dictate coincidence, to show the reader that if there is any likelihood that something could happen, no matter how small, it is bound to happen to someone at some time. After all, in terms of population, the world is a really, somewhat inconceivably huge place.

Through a delightfully written collection of some of the seemingly strangest coincidences, we learn that it is possible for a person to win the lottery four times, fans of plum pudding move in similar circles, and, in the case of George Washington at least, dreams really do come true. Mazur combines stories of coincidence with practical mathematical methods of appraising the likelihood of events occurring, exploring the nature of coincidence frequency to explain why they happen, and more importantly, why we are still so surprised by them.

The key to understanding coincidences is in mathematics, but the author concedes that there could be an element of fate in any situation, some larger entity at work governing the coincidence that we encounter throughout our lives. After all, it sometimes feels good to believe that there is a grand plan governing that which we cannot explain, and no one wants to believe that the coming together of soulmates is dictated by maths. What’s more, when you write a book on coincidences, you notice more than ever, Mazur muses, after having accidentally vacuumed up page 2072 in his 2262 page dictionary. The very page he would later need to look up the word serendipity. Now what are the chances of that?

This review was first published on online for E&T magazine.

Only Planet – Ed Gillespie

I wouldn’t call myself a climate enthusiast – mainly because I find the term itself a bit troubling – but low-carbon energy and sustainability are high up my list of work-related interests. As I find myself creeping towards middle age, I am increasingly concerned by the world we may be preparing for future generations.

Gillespie’s talk didn’t offer any earth-shattering revelations, but it was humbling and thought-provoking, serving to highlight just how terrifyingly unknown our path really is. Our future on Earth, Gillespie said, is “volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous” – no one can know what will happen to the world as temperatures increase. They are rising, though, despite what climate change denialists might say, and something needs to be done about it.

“Climate change will see a displacement of people that is going to be biblical.”

There are a whole host of factors contributing to changes taking place across the world, but rooted at the core of all of these is consumption. Analysis shows that consumer spending and GDP have almost doubled since 1970, while life satisfaction has stayed the same. We are, however, seeing a strange shift in spending habits in some cases, where people are encouraged to opt for low-carbon alternatives using the most bizarre and contradictory of methods. A perfect example is Tesco encouraging customers to buy low-energy lightbulbs in return for air miles – somewhat defies the point, don’t you think?

“Our approach to climate change is like turning up to an earthquake with a dustpan and brush.”

We are suffering, Gillespie proposed, from the so-called bystander effect, a strange situation where, when there are a lot of people involved in a particular problem, the average person just hopes that someone else will do something about it, rather than taking matters into their own hands. You’ve probably done it before – how much do you really think your own carbon footprint matters? It’s everyone’s problem, though, and it will take combined efforts to find a solution.

As an environmental entrepreneur, Gillespie has undoubtedly gone above and beyond what the average Joe could achieve in a lifetime. He founded sustainability firm Futerra and sits as a non-executive director for Zero Carbon Food. He is also a London Sustainable Development Commissioner, an investor in Foodtrade and has helped fund numerous eccentric and sustainable business models.

It’s a crazy amount of work, and no one is expecting everyone to commit their lives to combatting climate change, but the message is to do something, rather than waiting for someone else to do it. One of the easiest positive choices we can make in the fight against climate change is a choice to curb our own consumption. In fact, I think Gillespie’s most impressive feat, and indeed the one we can take the most inspiration from, is giving up flying.

In his talk at Savoy Place, Gillespie recounted what he saw as the hypocrisy in preaching climate change while still opting for the quick, easy method of travel that is flying. “I couldn’t justify it,” he said. “So I gave it up.”

Giving up flying doesn’t mean giving up travel, however.

In 2007, Gillespie embarked on an epic year-long round-the-world trip, opting for slow trains, cargo ships and body-filled buses over aviation. His first book, Only Planet, the story of this remarkable journey, was published by Wild Things Publishing in 2014.

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A round-the-world trip without planes – how does that work? Obviously, after listening to this enlightening talk, and vowing to do more to reduce my carbon footprint, I had to find out for myself.

The book begins at the end, with Gillespie and his girlfriend Fiona on the last leg of their trip, playing table tennis with Vadim, an ex-heavyweight Ukrainian boxer, and the steward of the Horncap, the cargo ship that was their refuge above the oily black waters of the Sargasso Sea. Amid anecdotes spouted from mouths of cargo-ship cruisers from the bar side, Gillespie recounts his reasons for setting out on his extraordinary journey: to experience the voyage itself, not just the destination.

Forsaking planes and their associated destructive carbon emissions, we’d set out to rediscover the joy of travelling though the world, not just over it. We’d wanted to experience the intimate transition of landscape, culture, people and language, soak up the sights sounds and smells of the journey and not just bunny-hop around the globe in an aluminium sausage.

Over the next 300 pages, the reader is taken all the way from the Bay of Biscay, to Puerto Limon in Costa Rica, experiencing culture, practices and locals far removed from the blinding white cliffs of Dover. Gillespie is feasted upon by bed-bugs in Prague, drinks fermented yaks’ milk in Mongolia, and receives the gift of a large pink sausage from a Chinese gentleman upon the waves of the Bohai sea. Border arrests and drug searches do little to impede the travel – with little to no onward plan, what’s wrong with a little communication with the locals? However intrusive it may be.

This isn’t just a book about travel, though. The central running theme is that of sustainability. Throughout the journey, Gillespie delves into the philosophy of often slow, low-carbon travel by reconnecting with the communities in the countries he travels through. In just over a year, Gillespie and Fiona covered more than 40,000 miles and passed through 31 countries. They discovered the impact of over-consumption in the furthest corners of the earth, from the effect of the new, harsh winters on the nomadic people in the deserts of Mongolia, to the over-fishing of tuna in the South China Sea.

At its heart a book where the often-conflicting worlds of sustainability and travel meet, Only Planet serves to do more than whet the appetite of the wannabe traveller or so-called climate enthusiast. Liberally illustrated with dramatic photography and awash with the most hilarious of first-person anecdotes, the book shows just how far removed we have become from the traditions of community and experience, swept away in a sea of over-consumption and instant gratification. A truly inspirational and riveting read – with the occasional spelling mistake it has to be said – this book will likely change the way you look at travel, from both an ecological and spiritual point of view.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine.