“Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos.”
By Maria Popova
“Creativity involves not only years of conscious preparation and training but unconscious preparation as well,” Oliver Sacks wrote in outlining the three essential elements of creativity, adding: “This incubation period is essential to allow the subconscious assimilation and incorporation of one’s influences and sources, to reorganize and synthesize them into something of one’s own.” The richer one’s reservoir of these influences and sources, the more interesting their synthesis into something new would be — something Rilke articulated beautifully a century before Sacks when he contemplated inspiration and the combinatorial nature of creativity. Albert Einstein intuited this when he described the workings of his own mind as “combinatory play.”
Long before Sacks, Einstein, and Rilke, another genius addressed this abiding question of what it means and what it takes to create: Mary Shelley (August 30, 1797–February 1, 1851), writing in the preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus (public library) — her trailblazing literary masterpiece that not only furnished a timeless lens on questions of science and social responsibility, but embodied the combinatorial nature of creativity as Shelley transmuted ideas she had absorbed at the science lectures she frequently attended into a visionary work of art.
Every thing must have a beginning… and that beginning must be linked to something that went before… Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself. In all matters of discovery and invention, even of those that appertain to the imagination, we are continually reminded of the story of Columbus and his egg. Invention consists in the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject, and in the power of moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it.
“The labours of men of genius, however erroneously directed, scarcely ever fail in ultimately turning to the solid advantage of mankind.”
By Maria Popova
A teenage girl grieving the death of her infant daughter is sitting on the almost unbearably beautiful shore of a Swiss mountain lake. Her own mother, a pioneering feminist and political philosopher, has died of complications from childbirth exactly a month after bringing her into the world. Her philosopher father has cut her off for eloping to Europe with her lover — a struggling poet, whom she would marry six months later, after the suicide of his estranged first wife.
Mary Shelley (August 30, 1797–February 1, 1851) is just shy of her nineteenth birthday. She and her lover — Percy Bysshe Shelley — are spending the summer with Percy’s best friend, the poet Lord Byron, whose wife has just left him and taken custody of their infant daughter, Ada Lovelace. One June evening, Lord Byron proposes that the downtrodden party amuse themselves by each coming up with a ghost story. What Mary dreams up would go on to become one of the world’s most visionary works of literature, strewn with abiding philosophical questions about creativity and responsibility, the limits and liabilities of science, and the moral dimensions of technological progress.
The year is 1816. Decades stand between her and the first working incandescent light bulb. It would be more than a century before the Milky Way is revealed as not the whole of the universe but one of innumerable galaxies in it. Photography is yet to be invented; the atom yet to be split; Neptune, penicillin, and DNA yet to be discovered; relativity theory and quantum mechanics yet to be conceived of. The very word scientist is yet to be coined (for the Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville).
Against this backdrop and its narrow parameters of knowledge barely imaginable to today’s vista of scientific understanding, Mary Shelley unleashed her imagination on Lord Byron’s challenge and began gestating what would be published eighteen months later, on the first day of 1818, as Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus. Its message is as cautionary as it is irrepressibly optimistic. “The labours of men of genius,” this woman of genius writes, “however erroneously directed, scarcely ever fail in ultimately turning to the solid advantage of mankind.”
Editors David H. Guston, Ed Finn, and Jason Scott Robert, who consider Shelley’s masterwork “a book that can encourage us to be both thoughtful and hopeful” and describe their edition as one intended “to enhance our collective understandings and to invent — intentionally — a world in which we all want to live and, indeed, a world in which we all can thrive,” write in the preface:
No work of literature has done more to shape the way humans imagine science and its moral consequences than Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley’s remarkably enduring tale of creation and responsibility… In writing Frankenstein, Mary produced both in the creature and in its creator tropes that continue to resonate deeply with contemporary audiences. Moreover, these tropes and the imaginations they engender actually influence the way we confront emerging science and technology, conceptualize the process of scientific research, imagine the motivations and ethical struggles of scientists, and weigh the benefits of scientific research against its anticipated and unforeseen pitfalls.
It is almost impossible to imagine what the world, the everyday world, was like two centuries ago — a difference so profound it seeps into language itself. With this in mind, the editors offer a thoughtful note on their choice of referring to Doctor Frankenstein’s creation as “the creature” (rather than daemon, which Shelley herself uses, or monster, as posthumous criticism often does). In consonance with bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s insight into how naming confers dignity upon life, they write:
It is worth pointing out that the way we now use the word creature ignores a richer etymology. Today, we refer to birds and bees as creatures. Living things are creatures by virtue of their living-ness. When we call something a creature today, we rarely think in terms of something that has been created, and thus we erase the idea of a creator behind the creature. We have likewise lost the social connotation of the term creature, for creatures are made not just biologically (or magically) but also socially.
This nexus of the scientific and the social at the heart of Shelley’s novel comes alive in a lovely companion to the annotated edition: Reanimation! — a seven-part series of animated conversations with scientists by science communication powerhouse Massive, exploring the prescient questions embedded in Shelley’s novel — questions touching on the nature of consciousness, the evolution and definition of life, the ethics of genetic engineering, the future of the human body and artificial intelligence.
I’m really hoping that synthetic biology as a whole can drive a different appreciation — a different definition and relationship — of what we see to be nature. For years, we have peddled this notion that humans are separate entities from nature — there’s the arrogance that humans are somehow divinely above nature and we’re the caretakers of the world and we can do whatever we want with it. But there really hasn’t been a universal realization that we are nature.
Perhaps the central animating question of Shelley’s novel is what she termed “the nature of the principle of life” — that curious island of being amid the vast cosmic ocean of nonbeing. This is what theoretical physicist Sara Imari Walker and exoplanetary scientist and astrobiologist Caleb Scharf consider in the second film, exploring the nature and definition of life on Earth and beyond, and what we mean by intelligence when we speak of intelligent life:
We’ve really thought about life as being a binary phenomenon — something is alive or it’s not… In the context of origins of life, that’s really critical, because you want to talk about the transition between nonliving things and living things… [But] life in general is actually a process that occurs across multiple scales, and you can talk about a cell in my body being alive or you can talk about me being alive and you can also… go up in scale and maybe think about societies as being alive. That’s one of the things that’s really interesting about life… it has this kind of hierarchical structure where you have many layers of organization.
We might be able to understand more universal properties of life based on organizational principles — [not] just focusing on the things life is made of, but how it is organized. That’s [why] reductionism has been hard in biology — because we always try to separate out these scales and treat them separately. But [in reality] you have ordered processes and dynamics across multiple scales — that really is the intrinsic indicative process of life.
Trying to go directly from the cells to behavior is not going to be possible. Why? Because there are actually several levels of organization in between them. If you start with the cell, then the next level of organization would be a circuit. And how does the nervous system as an organ interact with other organs in the body? And then, after that, is the organism and all the movements produced by an organism.
But that still isn’t behavior, because behavior is something that arises when you have goals for your movements and the only way for you to really pick or even decide a goal is not in a vacuum — it has to be within your environment: What other creatures, what other organisms, do you have to coordinate with in order to exist in your immediate local physical space?
It’s this interplay between brains, bodies, and the world that, in the end, allows us to develop these goals… and the development of those goals is what I would call cognition.
In the fourth film, molecular biologist Kate Krueger and paleoanthropologist and archaeologist Genevieve Dewar consider the common human impulse for transformation, which undergirds both our most primitive Stone Age tools and our most advanced gene editing technologies:
Once we see the development of culture and social interactions, we actually see for the first time our species being able to step outside of and above biological evolution.
It’s very rare that humans like to sit still and do nothing and maintain stasis. While we love what we know and we do want to maintain it, I think all of us would love to make the world a more interesting place and a more useful place, and be able to do more things and climb higher and move faster. This is also part of our nature — the desire to create and to grow and to change.
When you start to get a much more rapid change in technology, particularly technology that affects the human… you begin to get human as a process. The idea of human that we have is already changing much more rapidly than we know, but the process of human has simply accelerated. It continues, and we remain human.
In the sixth film, historian and philosopher of science Margaret Wertheim, neuroscientist and AI researcher Daniel Baer, and engineer and ethicist Branden Allenby reflect on our perpetually evolving definition of and ethical parameters around what constitutes intelligence and what makes an intelligence “artificial”:
I suspect that we are not going to think we see a conscious machine even when they are running the planet… We have an extraordinary ability as humans — as soon as we offload something to machines that has to do with our cognition, we call it simple and it’s obviously not part of intelligence. [For example], the first people who were called computers were in fact very highly trained mathematicians, many of them women, who did systemic mathematical solutions for very complex equations for things like ballistics… and they were regarded as extremely intelligent. That lasted until TI came up with the first calculator and then, suddenly, we decided that mathematical calculations weren’t part of being intelligent. So my suspicion is that we already have machines that, to at least first degree, are AI.
In the seventh and final film, BBC science communicator Britt Wray, theoretical physicist Sara Imari Walker, and paleoanthropologist and archaeologist Genevieve Dewar examine what may be the overarching philosophical concern of Shelley’s masterwork — the God complex with which we wield our tools and regard their creations, and the interplay between fear and curiosity indelible to all innovation and to every leap of science:
What makes Homo sapiens special and different is their ability to innovate on the fly, come up with new ideas and new ways of doing things, [and] learn from the mistake of others and communicate rapidly… to build upon the mistakes of the past.
The experiments and reanimations of Mary Shelley, Luigi Galvani, and Giovanni Aldini.
By Michelle Legro
Mary Godwin was born during an electrical storm. As her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, sealed herself in the bedroom for the birth of her second child, the booming sound of thunder and thrilling flashes of light pierced the darkness, her labor intensifying through the night.
Less than ten years earlier, the Italian physician Luigi Galvani had sniffed the air on a similar occasion in Bologna, waiting on the thunder and lightning to create his own form of life. Eighteenth-century Italy was the center of anatomical study, from theatrical dissection to beautiful wax models of the human body. The raw meat of humanity had been poked and prodded, but scientists still questioned what exactly made the spark of life. Galvani considered it might just be that: a spark, a bit of lightning. For his stormy experiment, he had stripped and eviscerated several sets of frogs, leaving only their excitable legs intact. He planned on using the storm to conduct one of the first experiments of electric reanimation, then recorded his results:
[Whenever] in correspondence of the four thunders, contractions not small occurred in all muscles of the limbs, and as a consequence, not small hops and movements of the limbs. These occurred just at the moment of the lightning.
When she was young, Mary and the Godwins family lived on Skinner Street near a prison, and Mary’s father, William Godwin, would write to condemned prisoners. Execution day would fill the street with onlookers, as hundreds attempted to enter the prison courtyard to witness a public hanging. Instead of attending these gruesome events, however, Godwin would stay at home and invite his friends over for an intellectual salon, where they discussed the work of poetslike Samuel Taylor Coleridge and scientists like Humphry Davy, who had just begun his own experiments in electricity.
Davy would conclude from his experiments that science had the power to conquer nature. Light could be created from darkness, and the mind itself could be altered with gases such as nitrous oxide. In an 1802 lecture titled “Discourse Introductory to a Course of Lectures in Chemistry,” Davy determined that the art of chemistry was:
an acquaintance with the different relations of the parts of the external world; and more than that, it bestowed upon [Davy] powers which may almost be called creative; which have enabled him to modify and change beings surrounding him, and by his experiments to interrogate nature with power.
If electricity and chemistry held the mysteries of life itself, then surely Galvanism could have the power to reanimate the dead.
That same year, 1802, Giovanni Aldini, Luigi Galvani’s nephew and protégée, traveled to London from Bologna, bringing with him the desire to experiment on an animal far larger than a frog. The Murder Act of 1752 had added dissection to its list of grisly punishments, to be performed at the Royal College of Surgeons hours after a hanging, as “a peculiar mark of infamy” for the criminal. Aldini proposed an experiment far more curious: the reanimation of a dead body through the use of Galvanism, the application of electric current.
Aldini had planned to restart the heart of George Foster, a man condemned to die for the murder of his wife and child. Dissection was a gruesome prospect for condemned criminals, who feared being removed from gallows mid-strangulation and waking up on an operating table. For Foster, there would be a morbid attempt at a second chance at life — but what kind of life?
After Foster was declared dead and cut down from the hangman’s noose, Galvani attached electrodes to his limbs, face, and ears, and then powered up his battery, which made a terrible sizzling noise like hot bacon on a grill. To the astonishment of everyone present, Foster’s jaw began to move and his eyes opened. When Aldini moved the current to the face, Foster’s head shook back and forth and the features began to form a horrible grimace.
The reanimation was temporary and involuntary — an act of reflexes no different from his uncle’s twitching frog legs. Foster’s heart did not restart and the experiment was deemed a failure by Aldini, who blamed his battery:
No doubt, with a stronger apparatus we might have observed muscular actions much longer.
The Lady and Her Monsters reveals the real-life Frankensteins that populated Mary Shelley’s world at a time when the realities of science and fiction were not yet the fantasy world of science fiction.
“Good habits, imperceptibly fixed, are far preferable to the precepts of reason.”
By Maria Popova
Four years before she ignited the dawn of feminism with her epoch-making 1792 book Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the pioneering British philosopher and political theorist Mary Wollstonecraft (April 27, 1759–September 10, 1797) set out to change the fabric of society at the loom: She decided to write a children’s book of allegorical stories inviting young readers to contemplate questions of moral philosophy. At the heart of her vision was an insistence on the value of girls’ education as a counterpoint and challenge to Rousseau’s seminal 1762 book Émile, or Treatise on Education, which focused on the education of boys and reflected the era’s dominant ethos that women are to be educated only in order to make desirable wives and good conversation companions for their husbands.
Two centuries before beloved Charlotte’s Web author E.B. White declaimed that “anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time” and that they are instead to be written up to, for they are “the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth,” Wollstonecraft wrote with the conviction that children ought not be shielded from life’s most demanding and difficult questions — mortality, kindness and cruelty, the meaning of mercy, the eternal interplay of good and evil. She outlined her aim and her means in the preface:
Good habits, imperceptibly fixed, are far preferable to the precepts of reason… Reason, with difficulty, conquers settled habits, even when it is arrived at some degree of maturity: why then do we suffer children to be bound with fetters, which their half-formed faculties cannot break.
In writing the following work, I aim at perspicuity and simplicity of style; and try to avoid those unmeaning compliments, which slip from the tongue, but have not the least connexion with the affections that should warm the heart, and animate the conduct. By this false politeness, sincerity is sacrificed, and truth violated; and thus artificial manners are necessarily taught. For true politeness is a polish, not a varnish; and should rather be acquired by observation than admonition… The way to render instruction most useful cannot always be adopted; knowledge should be gradually imparted, and flow more from example than teaching: example directly addresses the senses, the first inlets to the heart; and the improvement of those instruments of the understanding is the object education should have constantly in view, and over which we have most power.
Three years after the publication of the book, just as Wollstonecraft was finalizing Vindication, her publisher began preparing a second edition of Original Stories from Real Life and commissioned William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827) to illustrate it. Only a year earlier, Blake had finished printing and illuminating the first few copies of his now-legendary Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Two songs in it — “The Little Boy Lost” and “The Little Boy Found” — were inspired by Wollstonecraft’s translation of C.G. Salzmann’s Elements of Morality, for which Blake had done several engravings.
Blake reworked his preliminary drawings for Original Stories, ten of which survive, into the etchings that appear on the six illustrated plates in the book.
Six years later, Wollstonecraft died of complications from childbirth after bringing future Frankenstein author Mary Shelley into the world. Influenced by her work and moved by the tragedy of her personal story, Blake commemorated her in an engraving:
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