Friday, January 16, 2004
SCIENCE : Fantastic Voyage
When Galvani published his theories on "animal magnetism" in 1786 he might have still been a virgin. Yet, his experiment of touching a dead frogs' innards with two different metal rods to make the frog "jump" (actually, the muscles contracted) due to the electricity conducted created such a sensation in that time. Volta in the 1790s, then agreed1 in most part with Galvani's results, but finally concluded that it wasn't the nerves from the frog which were the cause for the electric signal, but the two distinct metal rods which caused the electric charge along with the wet muscle (which was a good conductor). That lead to the invention of the Voltaic 'pile' (which later was called the battery).
But that's not what this post is about. The atmosphere and the controversy spurred by these experiments and these scientists, inspired someone to write a book in 1818 - which made her more famous than all those couplets and sonnets composed by her till-then-famous husband. A literature student will surely find fault with my reasoning, but the layman started associating the name "Shelley" with Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" rather than with P B Shelley's "Prometheus Unbound". The next 100 years of 'science fiction' could well be termed the Frankenstein-ian years. Any human creation turned upon his creators/masters, in the process damning the entire realm of science fiction to a century of drudgery.
From drudgery, arose a new beginning. In 1920, A Czech playwright Karel Capek, brought into creation the concept of a robot to science-fiction. Robot, came from the word "robota" which in Czech means "drudgery" or "servitude". The play "Rossum's Universal Robots" became an instant hit in both Europe and on Broadway (yeah, it's that old!). Rossum, incidentally is derived from the Czech word 'rozum', meaning "worker".
And that brings us to the culmination of a great voyage. 1920, was also a landmark year, because it was the year Issac Asimov was born. Asimov graduated in chemistry, but made is mark as a grandmaster in sci-fi. Asimov tried to break away from the now age-old stereotype of renegade creations and resultant human deaths. His creators were engineers, not mad scientists who were outcasts from society. His robots worked with the rational mind, governed by what became famous as the Three Laws of Robotics.
To give a new form to science fiction, he mixed robotics with human psychology, thereby creating and dominating a whole new realm, previously unexplored. He explored the combinations of suspense murder mysteries and science fiction in "The Caves of Steel" and that man, Elijah Bailey.
To my logical "engineer" mind, the voyage from Galvani to Asimov, shall always lend a charm, none other can get. And this was my tribute.
P.S. And the amazing part about Asimov was that he wrote his finest works before he was 35, starting when he was as young as 19.
1: Volta gave the credit for Galvani's initial work by calling it Galvanization.
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