Science - Monster inspiration

Introduce your class to the science behind classic literature

James Williams

What links Dickens with dinosaurs, Frankenstein with frogs and Martians with meteorites - other than a great read?

Getting children to read classic literature has been highlighted as a central aim of government reforms to teaching. But if you want to excite children, why not show them the inspiration behind some of these stories?

In the 1780s and 1790s, Italian scientist Luigi Galvani experimented with the effects of electricity - then a relatively new scientific discovery - on the dissected parts of animals. In one experiment, he stimulated the muscles in a frog's legs and made them twitch. Only a few decades later, on the edge of Lake Garda, Mary Wollstonecraft (future author of Frankenstein), her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron and Dr John Polidori (creator of one of the first vampire stories) challenged each other to write a ghost story. Mary's "Frankenstein" was the result of real science of the time, though in the book the monster simply refers to himself as "the Adam of your (Dr Victor Frankenstein's) labours."

Many people think that science fiction and alien invasion are relatively new forms of storytelling. But in 1835, six articles with illustrations were published in The Sun, a New York paper, saying that life had been found on the moon. There were tales of great civilisations and bat-winged humans flying over great cities. But then the tales were exposed as a hoax.

A more convincing tale of life on other planets came when Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli described a series of canali on Mars in 1877. The word, which means "channels", was mistranslated into English as "canals", and the resulting controversy inspired H.G. Wells to write The War of the Worlds.

And what of Dickens and dinosaurs? Few people realise that the first mention of dinosaurs in literature is in Bleak House: "Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill."

Classic literature, far from being the preserve of the arts and humanities, can have surprising links to science, which can have an inspirational effect on young pupils.

James Williams is a lecturer in science education at the University of Sussex's School of Education and Social Work

What else?

Why don't we see the megalosaurus roaming the streets? Use raj.nandhra's PowerPoint to help pupils decide why dinosaurs died out.

Prepare your class for a mission to Mars with heathermacrae's cross-curricular design activity.

Unravel the history of evolution with louarmour's toilet roll lesson on Darwinism.

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James Williams

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