Wednesday, 22 October 2008


In Our Time: Melvyn Bragg and guests investigate the history of ideas.

On a dreary night in November 1818, a young doctor called Frankenstein completed an experiment and described it in his diary:

“I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet…By the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open…”

Frankenstein may seem an outlandish tale, but Mary Shelley wrote it when science was alive with ideas about what differentiated the living from the dead. This was Vitalism, a belief that living things possessed some spark of life, some vital principle that lifted them above dull matter. Electricity was a very real candidate.

Vitalists aimed at unlocking the secret of life itself and they raised questions about what life is that are unresolved to this day.

Listen to In Our Time (BBC podcast) on Vitalism here.

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