Two hundred years ago, a young British couple eloped to Europe, starting a liaison which would lead to the creation of one of most extraordinary works of literature in English. This was to be a novel which would stretch the imagination of its readers, which, arguably, introduced the genre of science fiction to the world, and which unleashed a monster. The book was Frankenstein.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is much more than a gothic horror story. It’s a carefully crafted novel with layer upon layer of story and meaning. The real horror story turns out to be the revenge of the dispossessed. But it’s also a cautionary tale about a scientist acting without considering the consequences. It’s a critique of the Romantic ideal of the lone, creative genius. That way lies loneliness, isolation and disaster, warns Mary Shelley. It’s not anti-science; instead, it’s a moral tale about the wisdom of pursuing your goals, scientific or otherwise, within and with society.
2014 is an important year for Birmingham, and its reputation as a centre of science, learning and technology. Birmingham was a hub of activity in the industrial revolution, and home to the Lunar Society, which included scientists, intellectuals and industrialists like Erasmus Darwin and Matthew Boulton. And today, we are continuing to see sustainable economic growth in the region – built on a firm foundation of world-leading science. In particular, Birmingham has become a real powerhouse for the Life Sciences.
Birmingham’s Year of Science has already seen a huge range of science activities and events taking place in universities and across the city, and in September, we’re looking forward to hosting this year’s British Science Festival here at the University of Birmingham. It’s a great opportunity to showcase our research, to enthuse and inspire, to discuss and debate – to enjoy being part of a much wider community.
Unlike many of the plays and films spawned by the book, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein ends with the monster still at large; perhaps he is even still prowling around. But her message seems to have finally sunk in. Science is part of our culture, and it’s a communal project.
Professor of Public Engagement in Science, University of Birmingham