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Celebrating the 200th anniversary of Shelley’s Frankenstein

Credit: Anna Boyle/ Credit: Anna Boyle/

A panel discussion this Tuesday, Oct. 17, marks the beginning of a series of events launched by the Carnegie Mellon Libraries celebrating 200 years since Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, was published on Jan. 1, 1818. The story was, only somewhat apocryphally, dreamed up on a dark and stormy night when Mary Shelley was 18. Many call it the first work of science fiction, and it went on to become a preeminent part of how we discuss science in pop culture. These events seek to delve into the themes present in Shelley’s 19th-century novel in a way that acknowledges their cultural significance but also seeks a fresh perspective on how they can be viewed in the context of current scientific and ethical discourse.

The Director of Marketing and Communications for the library system, Shannon Riffe, acknowledged the lore but outlined her hope that these events could strike something deeper in us, that while “many of us think of a cartoonish monster when we think of ‘*Frankenstein*,’ she hopes attendees and participants in these events are going to, hopefully, engage with the concepts in this novel in a new way. “We hope they come away with an appreciation of how some of the topics in this early sci-fi work remain relevant to our lives in 2017,” she said.

The panel, “Creation and Consequence” is only the first of a string of events meant to take an interdisciplinary approach to the contemporary place of a classic. “With the series of events we’ve planned, we wanted to create opportunities to show linkages between the research of different disciplines, in particular, those between sciences, engineering, and the arts and humanities. You’ll be able to see these connections expressed in different ways in each event, by different members of our campus community,” said Riffe.

These events include a graduate student roundtable discussion in Feb., a film competition for student-created movies about technology, and an exhibit curated by a Posner intern based on the rare first edition of Frankenstein that belongs to the library. While the panel includes professors of physics, philosophy, human-computer interaction and design, these later events allow students to get involved in the Frankenstein dialogue. Submissions to the film competition close on Thursday, Oct. 19, while applications for both the Posner internship and the roundtable open soon.

The Posner intern will be trusted with presenting the rare first edition copy of Frankenstein that served at the inspiration for this event in the first place. According to Riffe, this idea arose when Special Collections Librarian Mary Kay Johnsen brought up the fact that the libraries owned this Frankenstein first edition last Oct. Riffe stated that they realized that “the 200th anniversary would be a great opportunity to highlight this special object and build some programming around it to engage the [Carnegie Mellon] community.”

Part of the way they plan on engaging the Carnegie Mellon community is by using Frankenstein to talk about issues relevant to the work going on on campus. Johnsen states, “it seems that ‘ethics and responsibility in innovation’ is the most important aspect to dwell on.” The panel promises on the Carnegie Mellon libraries website to show “how [Frankenstein] helps frame the responsibility of investigators to consider the consequences of artificial intelligence and a technologically-augmented human society.”

In a year that has been labeled “For the Founders,” the themes explored in Frankenstein seem doubly appropriate. In a confrontation in the Alps, the monster reasons with its creator: “You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind.” Frankenstein is not, as many think, just a cautionary tale about how science should not be pushed too far, but rather a book that makes a more nuanced point about creation and responsibility.