Dr Karl: Vol­cano-made Franken­stein

Australian Geographic - - Contents -

WHEN MOST peo­ple think of vol­ca­noes, de­struc­tion usu­ally comes to mind.

But one of the big­gest vol­canic erup­tions in recorded hu­man his­tory gave birth – to Franken­stein!

When Mt Tamb­ora ex­ploded in In­done­sia in 1815, it ejected about 100cu.km of de­bris that ob­scured about 10 per cent of sun­light glob­ally. The next year, 1816, was so cold it was widely known as the “year with­out a sum­mer”. Some 12,000km away in Amer­ica, 1816 be­came a year of mas­sive crop fail­ures and thou­sands of peo­ple starved to death as a re­sult. In the New Eng­land re­gion, in north­east­ern USA, snow fell in July at the height of sum­mer. This sin­gle vol­cano in far­away In­done­sia also af­fected Eu­rope, where some 200,000 peo­ple died from star­va­tion due to crop fail­ures.

In Geneva, 1816 was the cold­est year in the two cen­turies to 1960 – and it was there where Franken­stein was cre­ated. Just out­side the Swiss city in June 1816, at the Villa Dio­dati, the fa­mous poet Percy Bysshe Shel­ley had a sto­ry­telling com­pe­ti­tion with 19-year-old Mary Woll­stonecraft (whom he mar­ried in De­cem­ber). At the same villa was Mary’s 18-yearold step­sis­ter and her fa­mous lover, Lord Byron, to whom she was preg­nant. Be­cause they had all been kept in­doors by the un­usu­ally cold weather, Byron sug­gested they write ghost sto­ries to scare each other.

One night, Mary had a burst of in­spi­ra­tion that led to Franken­stein. In her story, Ger­man med­i­cal stu­dent and sci­en­tist Dr Franken­stein used the new and mys­te­ri­ous force of elec­tric­ity to cre­ate a mon­ster that was ugly on the out­side, but good on the in­side.

But when Dr Franken­stein re­fused to love the mon­ster, it turned evil and killed the doc­tor’s brother and wife. Franken­stein chased the mon­ster to the North Pole, where they both died.

And that’s how a vol­cano cre­ated Franken­stein, al­beit in­di­rectly. Mt Tamb­ora threw out so much dust it cooled the planet by about 1°C and, in Geneva, con­fined a bunch of free­think­ing lit­er­ary types in­doors, where the un­usual weather in­spired the much-feted tale.

DR KARL is a pro­lific broad­caster, au­thor and Julius Sum­ner Miller fel­low in the School of Physics at the Univer­sity of Syd­ney.

His lat­est book, Dr Karl’s Ran­dom Road Trip Through Sci­ence, comes with aug­mented re­al­ity fea­tures and is pub­lished by HarperColl­insPub­lish­ers Aus­tralia.

Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @Doc­torKarl

The In­done­sian ar­chi­pel­ago is renowned for vi­o­lent vol­ca­noes, with the most re­cent erup­tion com­ing from Anak Krakatau in De­cem­ber 2018.

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