Back to life? Shelley's tale pure fiction


 Q. What famous real science experiment inspired the fictional coming to life of Dr. Frankenstein's monster? Could a dead person be similarly "animated" today? –D. Cheney

 A. Wind the reel back to the 1780s, when Luigi Galvani of Italy made the stunning observation that electricity could make legs removed from a dead frog quiver as if alive, says Joe Schwarcz in Dr. Joe and What You Didn't Know (ECW Press). This was strong stuff, given the newness of science and the mystery of electricity.

The English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley caught the spark and soon took his new wife, Mary– later the author of Frankenstein– to a public lecture on "galvanism." The story is told that after witnessing the frog leg experiment, Mary dreamt of a stillborn baby being brought back to life with electricity. "The stage was set for the creation of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster," says Schwarcz.

The experiment worked not because the frog or even the legs were alive in any real sense, but the cells were still alive, says Harvard professor of environmental health Joseph D. Brain. They don't die for half an hour or so, when rigor mortis sets in, true of human body cells as well.

So human animation can occur within this very short interval of time, but don't look for any monsters. BTW, electrical stimulation can be of real medical benefit to people who become paralyzed through illness or injury and who need help moving muscles to keep them from atrophying.

Q. We've come a long way since 1910 when Swedish electrical engineer Lars Magnus Ericsson built a telephone into his wife's car– the vehicle connected by wires and poles to overhead telephone lines– then cranked up the power and got his mobile phone to work. Today, cell phones are truly polyglot affairs, requiring material resources from around the globe. How polyglot? –A. G. Bell

A. In every cell phone are capacitors which store electric charge, the best of these using a metal called tantalum, perhaps from Australia or the Congo, says Jon Agar in Constant Touch. The nickel in the battery might come from a mine in Chile, the microprocessor chips and circuitry from North America, the plastic casing and liquid in the LCD were manufactured using petroleum products from the Gulf, Texas, Russia, or the North Sea, and molded into shape in Taiwan. While the work might be coordinated via corporate headquarters in Sweden, Finland, the U.S., Germany, France, Korea, Japan, "the finished phone could have come from manufacturers in many other countries."

Q. There are the Moro, Babinski, palmar mandibular, palmar mental, palmar grasp, plantar grasp, startle, search or rooting, sucking, symmetric tonic neck, asymmetric tonic neck, stepping, crawling, swimming, head- and body-righting, labyrinthine, pull-up, parachuting down... all in the "infant" category unlike the knee-jerk which is "lifespan." Identify this grouping, and please, don't just answer reflexively. –I. Pavlov

A. They're infant reflexes, some primitive (sucking, Moro, etc) for protection or survival, appearing during gestation or at birth and generally suppressed by six months of age, say V. Gregory Payne and Larry D. Isaacs in Human Motor Development: A Lifespan Approach. Others are postural (crawling, stepping, etc) for development of later voluntary movements.

The Moro, often elicited by holding and then suddenly lowering a baby 3-4 inches, causes immediate extension of arms, fingers, and legs. Stroke the bottom of a baby's foot heel-to-toe and the toes will fan out and extend (Babinski); hold Junior upright with feet touching a support and legs will lift, then descend. The latter complex walking reflex is there at first, then disappears, then reappears when the young'un takes those momentous first full steps.

Q. Quash, queue, quietude, quadrilateral, queenly, quonset, unique, mosque, etc. Does the letter "q" ever appear without being paired with a "u"? –N. Webster

A. Ever fly Qantas airline, beginning with the /kw/ sound? The name stands for "Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Service," says David Crystal in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. And all the rest of the q-without-u words are acronyms as well, including QALY (Quality Adjusted Life Year), QAMIS (Quality Assurance Monitoring Information System) and QOMAC (Quarter Orbit Magnetic Attitude Control). Unquestionably.

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