Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: Short History Comparison
In discoveries lies the potential for transformation and change, as they provoke existential questions, challenging society’s prevalent paradigms. Bryson’s 2003 non-fiction account A Short History of Nearly Everything and Shelley’s 1818 Romantic Frankenstein explores how the catalysts of our paradoxically noble and felonious nature frame discovery’s value while further uncovering evolution’s need for receptivity and epistemic re-evaluation in recognising potentially detrimental consequences.
Adhering to a morally ambiguous portrait of humanity, to Bryson, discovery is the product of our paradoxical human heart, at once altruistic and selfish. Exposing the multitude of motives that spur scientific discoveries, Bryson’s historical vignettes underscore curiosity and lateral thinking, witnessed in the “[frustration]” with “conventional mathematics” which propelled Newton’s “invent[ion]” of “calculus”. “Twenty-seven years” passed before he “told [anyone] about it”, signifying his complete disregard for the resulting acknowledgement. Bryson juxtaposes this past mentality with modern society, where capitalism drives “drug companies” to “opt for” developing “antidepressants” over “antibiotics” in the name of long term profitability. Although modern science is inextricably intertwined with capitalist interests, Bryson finds a noble desire to “hunt supernovae” for “a sense of wonder” in Reverend Evans, whose ability to search manually is analogous to “find[ing]” a particular “grain of salt” amongst several grains on “fifteen hundred tables”. Aside from the Newton’s genius and Evans ’ aptitude, Bryson emphasises the importance of “tenaci[ty as Rutherford’s success was due to “work[ing]” “harder” “than most ” when “confronted with an intractable problem”. His mind figuratively “operat[ed] out towards the frontiers” exemplifying the significance of lateral thinking in deciphering discoveries and demonstrating the diligence behind humanity’s scientific innovations. In his anecdotal exploration of scientific history, Bryson illustrates the duality in discovery’s catalysts as humanity is comprised of both “divine and felonious” tendencies.
Critiquing the Enlightenment’s nature-dominating scientific movement, Shelley’s Frankenstein uncovers how initially honourable catalysts of discovery can become tainted by selfish ambition. An epistolary frame of Walton’s “voyage” parallels Frankenstein’s parable, foreshadowing Victor’s “destruction” due to overzealous ambition. Like Bryson’s depiction of Newton, it is Frankenstein’s frustration for the narrow-minded perceptions of modern science which drives him to “natural philosophy”, while Walton’s “elevat[ion]” by nature’s “beauty” mirrors Reverend Evans. Yet this “ardent curiosity” becomes corrupted by a “thirst for knowledge” and “glory”, as Frankenstein represents the Enlightenment’s movement of “galvanism”. As both parties’ appreciation for nature becomes tainted by a “desire” to “divine” its “hidden laws”, Shelley opposes Bryson’s encouragement of the “scientific pursuit” when spurred by selfish motives. Shelley suggests it is our felonious nature behind discovery’s insatiable quest, as Victor endures “painful labour” and inner turmoil only to recoil from his “filthy creation”. In “anatomiz[ing]” nature, Frankenstein represents the changed catalyst of greed which now drives his quest for “creation”. A more significant discovery is derived from Victor’s quest – the realisation of man’s limitations, and the “madness” which causes “destruction”, illustrating the sacrificial and laborious journey of self-realisation. Shelley’s portrayal of humanity’s duality allows an insight into the similarly dichotomous nature of discovery, as joy can be found within a pure motive, yet greed and ambition may drive the discovery into destruction.
In his exposition of the fallibility of humanity’s established truth, Bryson epitomizes humanity’s need to be amenable towards the unconventional justifications discovery provokes. A historical vignette of Wegener’s “widely criticised” “radical notions” of continental drift illustrates our tendency to dismiss novel theories which destabilise the “foundations” of a discipline. Four decades passed before half of the British Association of Science “embrace[d]” what is now considered factual, exemplifying the significance of “receptive[ness]” towards “unorthodox explanation[s]” for discoveries to progress into innovations. The irony of the “stages in scientific discovery”— “deny[ing] it’s true”, “deny[ing] it’s important, and “credit[ing] the wrong person”— elucidates Bryson’s epistemic relativist view of the value-biased nature of science. Consequently, Bryson urges his audience to realise the “paucity of” our “data”, analogically depicting our scientific beliefs as a “mountain of theory” built on a “molehill of evidence”. Bryson’s modernist view is that although some aspects of our universe are “beyond conception” as we are restricted to our stop on the metaphorical “knowledge highway”, we should continue discovering to alleviate the “incompleteness” of our “understanding.” Conversely, Bryson didactically incorporates a secular humanist warning of the “felonious nature” that has caused creatures “extinct[ion]”. Challenging societal conventions allows for the transformative nature of discoveries to progress, although humanity should take heed of the consequences.
Opposing the rise of the Enlightenment’s nature-dominating science, Shelley’s Frankenstein illustrates discovery’s dichotomous potential of noble and evil consequences. Contrasting Bryson’s encouragement of continuous innovation, Shelley exposes the danger of breaching limitations, leading to the destruction of humanity’s sanctity. Despite noble intentions, both Walton and Frankenstein’s quests become overshadowed by the greed of discovery’s metaphorical “torrent of light”, resulting in the loss of “all soul or sensation” and his disregard for moral consequences. In Frankenstein, Shelley embodies the Enlightenment scientists’ intrusion into “the citadel of Nature”, critical of galvanism’s violation of the divine. Despite “loathing from [his] occupation” of attempting to resurrect the human body, Frankenstein’s consumption by his obsessive curiosity results in his product of “filthy creation”. Shelley hence emphasises the consequences of infiltrating natural creation in illustrating humanity’s incapability to deal with the result of their discovery, as Frankenstein’s horrified rejection of his “monster” epitomises his disregard of the moral ramifications of bringing life. Metaphorically representing the creature as a “fallen angel” rather than Frankenstein’s “Adam”, Shelley’s biblical allusion highlights man’s inability to transcend to Godlike ranks— attempting to will only cause “destruction”. Thus, Shelley warns us of our tendency to become consumed within discovering and neglect consequential damage. Victor Frankenstein’s quest to create life exposes the moralistic danger of pursuing discovery beyond our limitations in our desire for knowledge, illustrating the provocative ability of discoveries to be detrimentally transformative.
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In discoveries lies the potential for transformation and change, as they provoke existential questions, challenging society’s prevalent paradigms. Bryson’s 2003 non-fiction account A Short History of Nearly Everything and Shelley’s […]