Field of Science

Frankenstein and his monster in the age of Oprah and NIH funding

Frankenstein and his monster on Broadway
The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Robert Laughlin is one of those rare minds who combines a wide-ranging knowledge of many fields with a wicked sense of humor and a devil-may-care attitude. This combination of gifts is on full display in his wonderful book "A Different Universe", a volume that at its heart is about the limitations of reductionism in physics and the manifestations of emergence but which tends to gambol around a remarkable variety of topics ranging from politics to scientific personality with cheerful barbs and a constant sense of wonder about what we don't know about the human and the natural worlds.

In the book is contained a gem. Laughlin imagines what Mary Shelley's Frankenstein would have been like in the modern age of cut-throat federal funding, media frenzy and winner-take-all economic incentives. The result is in equal parts riotous humor and a capsule of deep insight. Definitely the funniest thing about Frankenstein I have read.

"I find it profoundly ironic that the very fallibility of science that motivated Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein – people’s tendency to believe they understand things when they actually do not – should become mainstream and acceptable for financial reasons. It brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s observation that the lack of money is the root of all evil. One can just imagine what Mrs. Shelley’s novel would have been like had it been written today. Instead of an angst-ridden nerd from Geneva, Victor Frankenstein would have been an enterprising young spam profiteer from the Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia. Instead of traveling to Igolstadt to learn his highly creative surgical techniques, Victor would have flown to Boston to attend Harvard Medical School – after a four-year hiatus at Princeton investigating tennis and women.  
Instead of constructing the monster in secret he would have used political connections to obtain a stupendous grant from the National Institutes of Health, then set up shop in Bethesda and floated a massive initial public offering. Instead of reviling his creation he would have plastered it on fliers touting his innovative technical breakthrough and announcing the launch of a new longevity clinic. The monster, meanwhile, forsaking a murder rampage as insufficiently destructive, would instead write a best-selling trash novel, appear on Oprah, and run for governor of California. Victor himself would not seek death on the ice floes of the Arctic but would look forward to a morally and financially untroubled retirement in Palm Springs as soon as his lawyers got rid of those meddlesome do-gooders from the Securities and Exchange Commission."

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