Medtronic founder: Frankenstein inspired me to build the portable pacemaker

In the preface to Frankenstein, Mary Shelley described her reflections following conversations with other intellectuals considering 19th century science:  “Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things,” she wrote. “Perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.” Despite fear or superstition about […]

In the preface to Frankenstein, Mary Shelley described her reflections following conversations with other intellectuals considering 19th century science:  “Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things,” she wrote. “Perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.”

Despite fear or superstition about where science can go wrong, it can actually go right, and that is apparent with Medtronic’s founder Earl Bakken and his own inspiration from Frankenstein back in Minnesota in 1931 when he was inspired by Shelley’s work, which led to the invention of the wearable, portable pacemaker.

“What intrigued me the most, as I sat through the movie again and again,” Bakken said, “was the creative spark of Dr. Frankenstein’s electricity. Through the power of his wildly flashing laboratory apparatus, the doctor restored life to the unliving.”

In a Q&A The Atlantic’s Cari Romm spoke to Stuart Vise, a professor at Connecticut College who specializes in the psychology of superstition about why and how science and horror films overlap – and what this means for science today.

Vise explains why he thinks science can be scary:

“I think that at the moment, the main fear is that science has an unholy alliance with profit motives—that with pharmaceutical companies and vaccines and GMOs, that science is being used in that way. There are a number of contemporary science-fiction films in which corporate interests [play a role]—for example, the first Alien movie, in which the corporation wants to keep the creature alive in order to see if there’s some commercial benefit to it. That’s the kind of thing that’s going on now.”

So how does the idea of mad science and Frankenstein fit in with modern day paranoia (not of Ebola) and superstitions, according to Vise?

“Part of the fear of science comes from people who are not rational thinkers, who are motivated by emotion and fear and don’t have a good understanding of scientific processes. So for example, the evidence is there that the vaccines are safe, that there’s no great harm in taking them. There’s great benefit in taking them. In the scientific world, there’s no ambiguity about that. But people are just refusing to believe that and to accept that evidence, and instead are clinging to other ideas. And I do believe that one of the common threads in [superstition and fear of science] is a poor understanding of critical thinking, of the role of evidence in logic, in debate.”

So maybe science fiction stirs us up sometimes, scares us about things that are illogical. Or in the case of Bakken, it leads to major breakthroughs. So for now, this Halloween night, you can watch one of the film renditions of Frankenstein, but maybe attempt to create a groundbreaking technological life-saver after instead of curling up under the bed in fear.

[Frankenstein photo from flickr user Insomnia Cured Here]

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