Musings on Frankenstein and Climate Change

Okay, so I’ve been playing with this whole Frankenstein and climate change thing, right? Well, I might have accidentally outlined more than that:

So in lieu of a detailed post or series on the subject, maybe it’s better if I just outline some of the ideas I’m playing with and trying to coalesce:

  1. Frankenstein is a story about a creator failing to take full responsibility for his creation. Frankenstein’s creation is, well, monstrous, but not directly harmful if treated with respect. It is Frankenstein’s action of running away from his creation and its consequences that leads to misfortune, not the monster itself.
  2. Interestingly, our (Western society, note, not trying to make any claims for anything global here, don’t worry) pop culture understanding of the story is very different – the monster itself is terrifying, and the story becomes a warning against tampering with nature/meddling with forces beyond our control.
  3. This becomes especially true and interesting when looking at science and technology – wherever major changes are on the horizon, the monster looms as well. There are so many references! A whole issue of Science dedicated to the story! Frankenstein is intimately tied to scientific advancement and climate conditions (written in the aftermath of the short-term global climate consequences of Mt. Tambora’s eruption) of the time. This makes it an especially interesting and apt metaphor for these changes in our time.
  4. But why do we insist on misusing the story for literally everything we aren’t sure of and don’t understand? A few ideas:
    1. major shifts in science and technology generally require us to explore new territory – territory that often entails blurring cultural categories. Major advancements in science can be like opening Pandora’s box – the monsters come out and don’t want to go back in. For instance, vaccines (categories crossed: dead vs alive, healthy vs unhealthy), CRISPR (natural vs unnatural, nature vs nurture, also brings up issues of ethics and equality), climate change (again, natural vs unnatural, especially manmade vs out of our control, threatens to completely change environmental features we take for granted, etc).
    2. A really big common theme for the scientific category crisis – we get hung up on what is “natural.” We’ve built this huge division between ourselves and the natural world – setting up “nature” as pristine, beyond our influence, and undeserving of our presence, and “humanity” as somehow unclean, and separate from nature. This causes all kinds of issues, from making it difficult to see our impact on the natural world, discouraging placing value in each other and our own created spaces, and making it nigh impossible to discuss ways to use our influence to make our environment more resilient and better able to support us and other species in times of change. The only good human influence on the natural world, we say, is no influence.
    3. To make things even more complicated, in the case of climate change, we also have to deal with the uncertainty of what climate change actually means. It’s a really big concept and the numbers are hard to process. And there’s a great deal we just can’t and won’t know until it happens. This is monstrous in and of itself, and makes it even harder to get things done.
  5. This all boils down to: in the face of climate change, we tend to freeze up and would almost rather do nothing or attempt more than is realistically possible (either way will lead to loss and may leave many vulnerable) rather than really address our culpability and find creative, practical ways to salvage what we can and move forward. We are so afraid of the monster we could create that we’d rather run away. We’re so afraid of ourselves.
  6. So I guess the question is, how do we navigate complex issues with the ghost of Frankenstein over our shoulder? Step one, I think, is being aware of the conversations we are unwilling to have, and investigating why. Monsters serve a purpose, but you’ve got to acknowledge them, tame them, listen to what they have to say. Or else we’re all just running away.

A few of the many accumulating sources:


Saturday Morning Science

Science for the weekend! I haven’t forgotten about monster theory, I’ve been working on a project involving Frankenstein and climate change…

Saturday Morning Science (Moss Edition)

Recently I went and visited my family in Washington and noted that there was a lot of moss around all the trees there. I don’t have a lot of moss in the forest where I live. I figured it had to do with the amount of rain, as we generally have a warmer, drier climate.

But then I went out to my forest between the rain this week, and was struck by the sight of an enormous tree completely coated in moss. The entire trunk was green.

But none of the trees around it had any moss. Poking around a bit more, I realized that all the trees with moss were Douglas firs, and the trees without (but often with a lichen?), were redwoods. This remained true wherever I went, suggesting it wasn’t some something to do with that particular tree’s environment. Being very much not a plant scientist (or a moss scientist), I didn’t know much about what was going on, and wondered if the species-specific moss growth had to do with something structural (is redwood bark too smooth for moss to grab on to? do douglas firs move water/nutrients in a way that moss can better appreciate?), or chemical (do redwoods deter moss growth?). I decided the chemical deterrent hypothesis made more sense, because I found moss on old redwood stumps that had lost most of their outer bark.

Having wasted a great deal of time eating lunch and staring at trees, I went back to the lab and did some reading:

In non-moss related news:

minor (stressed) ramblings

I think I’ve been stuck in this space where nothing is quite working right and everything is up in the air. It’s not atypical for things to be this way, but it’s an odd place to be and hard to exist in for long.

Science-wise, I’m living out a strange laboratory series of unfortunate events (who isn’t, really). For instance, I ordered a peptide for one project and it keeps getting delayed, another protein I’m trying to make is still stuck at the cloning stage (because I somehow ordered the wrong primers three times), and I can’t ever seem to make everything I need at the same time. I finally got to try to crystallize my proteins, and got crystals, but they’re uselessly tiny and uncooperative. Then after two months of trying to produce something else, I finally have all the proteins ready, only to learn that the microscope is down…and when I left for interviews last week, the building it’s in caught on fire…all is (mostly) well, but still. It kind of feels like I’m going in circles without making progress sometimes.

are they crystals, or am I imagining things?

Of course this is a totally normal part of science, but it does get kind of discouraging. Oh well, nothing to do but press on…

And then there are grad school applications! I applied last fall, and thus far I’m really stuck. My favorite professors at one school are retiring, the more I learn about another program the less I’m interested in it, and my top choice/dream program did not accept me (of course). I just went to interview for the last program I applied for, and while everything was shiny and pretty and the people were nice, I just don’t see myself fitting in there. A lot of this I could have learned if I had done more research in advance, but let’s just say there were numerous obstacles to me applying at all this year. So now I’m stuck. Do I apply again next year? Do I go with whatever I get? Do I try to find another job that would give me more experience in the subjects I actually want to study? Or do I settle for something safe that I’m actually more likely to get accepted for?

So many questions, so little time to deal with them all.

Saturday Morning Science

Yes it’s short and I already failed at my write-something-every-week goal, but interviews! Travel!