Frankenstein previewed

Mary Shelley’s ‘ghost story’ Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus was written to express her disquiet at the rapid advances of the Industrial Revolution, and at apparently uncontrolled advances in experimental science. The story has since been reworked for stage and screen scores of times, the latest being Nick Dear’s adaptation at the National Theatre.

I have a personal interest in this production as Abbey Wright, who directed Hidden Glory, is working on it as Staff Director (assisting the Director, Danny Boyle). I bought tickets early, and chose to go to one of the preview performances rather than waiting until after the press nights.

Hundreds of bloggers have reviewed the previews, not always fairly as it is a complex production and the whole point of previews is to iron out the gremlins. I don’t propose here to offer a full review of the performance I saw last night. Let’s just say that I’m very glad to have seen it, and if you’ve got tickets (the rest of the run is sold out) you can continue to feel smug about it.

What I will say is that in Dear and Boyle’s production the role of science is almost incidental to the moral tension between Victor Frankenstein and his ‘Creature’: it simply provides the set-up for a relationship in which power betrays and ultimately corrupts innocence.

Hubris is a concept as old as civilisation. Science may be the means by which Victor makes his fatal bid for immortality, but for the Frankensteins of today, politics, money or warfare can do the job just as well.

Floating on ice

A friend emailed today to tell me that Giles Foden’s new book Turbulence contained a sequence in which the central character made a voyage on a boat made of Pykrete. Turbulence is a novel, but Pykrete was entirely real. It was a frozen mixture of water and wood pulp that was central to the secret war project, codenamed Habbakuk, that occupied some of the best scientific brains in Britain throughout most of 1943.

Pykrete was named after Geoffrey Pyke, an extraordinary entrepreneur and inventor who somehow gained the ear of Louis Mountbatten, then Chief of Combined Operations. In the autumn of 1942, having been despatched to the US, Pyke wrote a 250-page memo to propose a fantastic project: the construction of a fleet of vast aircraft carriers out of ice. His fellow scientific advisor, the physicist and Communist John Desmond  Bernal, whittled this down to two pages that sounded half sensible. In remarkably short order Churchill gave the project his approval, and Bernal hired the young Cambridge crystallographer and Austrian refugee Max Perutz to work on ways of making ice stronger.

Perutz adopted a method discovered by his fellow Austrian Hermann Mark, then working at Brooklyn Polytechnic in New York. By mixing wood pulp or other fibrous material into water as it was freezing, one could make ice that was resistant to cracking even if assaulted by a bullet fired from a pistol. Demonstrations of this impressive material kept the top brass fascinated, but no one properly explored the seaworthiness of Pyke’s proposed vessels, or the costs of building them, until the Americans joined the project and quickly cancelled it.

The story of Habbakuk and Pykrete is an extraordinary example of the faith Britain’s wartime leaders placed in their ‘boffins’ – mostly, it has to be said, with justification. Radar and the code-breaking computer Colossus are two of the triumphant successes that resulted. Foden’s novel is based on the true story of the attempts to forecast the weather accurately for the D-Day landings, another success.

I ran across Habbakuk – in the form of a groaning table of wartime files in the British National Archives – in the course of researching my biography of Perutz, which Foden reviewed for the Guardian.

This is the first post in a blog in which I hope to comment on scientific themes as they crop up in contemporary culture, and reflect on science in our history. Hope you enjoy it.