Dr Karl: Volcano-made Frankenstein
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.