September 27, 2011
An article in the November 2011 issue of Sky & Telescope reveals the precise moment, down to date and hour, when Mary Shelley conceived of Frankenstein.
In her introduction to the 1831 edition of the novel, Mary described a dream in which she saw “the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together”, and how “the hideous phantasm of a man” came alive “on the working of some powerful engine”. Brought awake by the startling vision, Mary wrote, “I see them still; the very room, the dark parquet, the closed shutters, with the moonlight struggling through, and the sense I had that the glassy lake and white high Alps were beyond.
Now, the moment of revelation has been pinpointed.
Dr. Don Olson, an astrophysicist at Texas State University-San Marcos, practices the unconventional science of “forensic astronomy”. Working with fellow scientists and students, matching the tantalizing clues found in text, archives and maps with the irrefutable logic of star charts, tide schedules and field expeditions, Dr. Olson has solved historical puzzles, revealing new information, new layers of meaning and a new appreciation for famous moments in history and art.
Among other discoveries, Olson and his team have re-dated Caesar’s invasion of Britain in 55 BC; explained how a rare low tide doomed the Marines at Tarawa Beach in 1943, and how a rising moon led to the tragic sinking of the USS Indianapolis in 1945. In significant contributions to art history, Olson has pinpointed the exact locations and the precise moments captured in paintings by such artists as William Blake, Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch, notably identifying the tortured sky in Munch’s The Scream as the planet-spanning effect of the Krakatoa eruption. Olson can even tell the exact instant when Ansel Adams clicked the shutter on his most famous photograph.
In literature, Olson has studied Chaucer, Whitman and identified Hamlet’s star as a supernova. Now, turning to Mary Shelley, Olsen and his collaborators have settled the issue of when, exactly, Frankenstein was conceived.
The clue lay in Mary’s description of moonlight “struggling” through closed shutters. Based on lunar cycles and confirming results on a field trip to Villa Diodati at Cologny, Switzerland, Olson was able to determine which of two recorded dates for Mary’s inspiration was the correct one. On June 22, 1816, a waning moon rode too low to illuminate Mary’s room, but the other documented date, June 16, proved just right as a gibbous moon rose high and bright enough to be noticed by the awakened Mary. Working out the angles, Olson is also able to attest that the moon shone into Mary’s bedroom at 2 AM.
As morning came, Mary writes, “I announced that I had thought of a story. I began that day with the words, ‘It was on a dreary night of November,’ making only a transcript of the grim terrors of my waking dream.”
Thus confirmed, Mary Shelley began Frankenstein on June 16, 1816. The moon tells us so.
Don Olson’s website at Texas State University.