Science in the Enlightenment: Benjamin Franklin

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Christian Perez
M. Darling
English 1302
Science is any branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws gained through observation and experimentation; generally the name of which ends in the suffix -ology ("Science"). Many major scientific breakthroughs occurred during Mary Shelley’s lifetime and several found their way into her work. It has been noted that, "[i]n many of her stories there are thinly veiled parallels between people, places, and events in Shelley's life and her characters, settings, and plots" (Greenfield 288). Erasmus Darwin, Humphry Davy, and Luigi Galvani and their various, famous experiments held great influence over the general direction of Frankenstein and over Victor Frankenstein's character and his reserve of scientific information. Scientific discoveries of the late 18th and early 19th centuries had a profound impact on Mary Shelley’s novel, particularly on Victor’s character by contributing to his store of knowledge and creating his mad scientist persona.

Modern science made a significant imprint on Shelley's work and in shaping the overall feel of the first science fiction novel. To gain her material Shelley attended lectures with Percy Shelley but gleaned most of her initial scientific insight from discussions between her husband and Lord Byron (Telgen 193). Anne K. Mellor notes in "A Feminist Critique of Science" that, "Shelley grounded her fiction of the scientist who creates a monster he cannot control upon an extensive understanding of the most recent scientific developments of her day" (107). Electricity and other "new" sciences were explored in Frankenstein.

Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity in the mid-eighteenth century, and at the age of fifteen Victor Frankenstein discovered Benjamin Franklin. In Jura, Victor witnesses an oak tree being blasted by a bolt of lightning, after the flash of light the tree has disappeared and in its place sits only a blackened stump (Shelley 22). In order to explain the phenomenon to Victor his father performs a few simple electricity experiments involving a kite and an electrical machine (23). The spectacle corrects Victor's misguided, self-education in the archaic study of alchemy, and he converts to a more conventional rationale. Shelley had a full comprehension of most of the important scientific work of her day and she was able to apply that knowledge to Victor's mental outlook and intelligence for a more realistic scientist. The modernity of Victor's education gave his experimentation on the human body a believable quality. The relatively groundbreaking idea of electricity produces for Victor an astonishment so profound that his previous ideals of alchemy and adoration of the "pseudo-scientists" (Mellor 108) is lost forever, but the modern scientists are still not able to usurp their predecessors nor fulfill their place in Victor's mind. After his heroes are literally blasted apart like the oak by Franklin's lightening, Victor feels no inclination in taking up an active interest in the modern sciences, but instead lets his education fall by the wayside (Shelley 23). Victor's discovery of electricity changes his scientific outlook significantly and gives him an updated understanding of charges and current, but it does not awaken his dormant curiosity nor does it spur him on towards any scientific experimentation of his own. However, at the age of seventeen Victor is sent to school and once again must actively engage his mind in scientific exploration.

At the urgings of his parents Victor enrolls in the University, and at the urgings of his professor enrolls in chemistry, natural philosophy, and several other relevant courses, each of which contributes to Victor's comprehensive scientific inventory. Humphry Davy's textbook Elements of Chemical Philosophy seems to be the basis of Professor Waldman's introductory summation of...
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