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Frankenstein’s moon: Astronomers vindicate account of masterwork
Victor Frankenstein’s infamous monster led a brief, tragic existence, blazing a trail of death and destruction that prompted mobs of angry villagers to take up torches and pitchforks against him on the silver screen. Never once during his rampage, however, did the monster question the honesty of his ultimate creator, author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.
That bit of horror was left to the scholars.
Now, a team of astronomers from Texas State University-San Marcos has applied its unique brand of celestial sleuthing to a long-simmering controversy surrounding the events that inspired Shelley to write her legendary novel Frankenstein. Their results shed new light on the question of whether or not Shelley’s account of the episode is merely a romantic fiction.
Percy Bysshe Shelley (played by Douglas Walton) and Lord Byron (played by Gavin Gordon) listen as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (played by Elsa Lanchester) tells her tale of horror. [Bride of Frankenstein]
Texas State physics faculty members Donald Olson and Russell Doescher, English professor Marilynn S. Olson and Honors Program students Ava G. Pope and Kelly D. Schnarr publish their findings in the November 2011 edition of Sky & Telescope magazine, on newsstands now.
“Shelley gave a very detailed account of that summer in the introduction to an early edition of Frankenstein, but was she telling the truth?” Olson said. “Was she honest when she told her story of that summer and how she came up with the idea, and the sequence of events?”
A Dark and Stormy Night
The story begins, literally, in June 1816 at Villa Diodati overlooking Switzerland’s Lake Geneva. Here, on a dark and stormy night, Shelley—merely 18 at the time—attended a gathering with her future husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, her stepsister Claire Clairmont, Lord Byron and John Polidori. To pass the time, the group read a volume of ghost stories aloud, at which point Byron posed a challenge in which each member of the group would attempt to write such a tale.
Villa Diodati sits on a steep slope overlooking Lake Geneva. Relatively clear views prevail to the west, but the view of the eastern sky is partially blocked by the hill. A rainbow greeted the Texas State researchers upon their arrival at Lake Geneva. [Photo by Russell Doescher]
“The chronology that’s in most books says Byron suggested they come up with ghost stories on June 16, and by June 17 she’s writing a scary story,” Olson said. “But Shelley has a very definite memory of several days passing where she couldn’t come up with an idea. If this chronology is correct, then she embellished and maybe fabricated her account of how it all happened.
“There’s another, different version of the chronology in which Byron makes his suggestion on June 16, and Shelley didn’t come up with her idea until June 22, which gives a gap of five or six days for conceiving a story,” he said. “But our calculations show that can’t be right, because there wouldn’t be any moonlight on the night that she says the moon was shining.”
Moonlight is the key. In Shelley’s account, she was unable to come up with a suitable idea until another late-night conversation--a philosophical discussion of the nature of life--that continued past the witching hour (midnight). When she finally went to bed, she experienced a terrifying waking dream in which a man attempted to bring life to a cadaverous figure via the engines of science. Shelley awoke from the horrific vision to find moonlight streaming in through her window, and by the next day was hard at work on her story.
Although the original gathering and ghost story challenge issued by Byron is well-documented, academic scholars and researchers have questioned the accuracy of Mary Shelley’s version of events to the extent of labeling them outright fabrications. The traditionally accepted date for the ghost story challenge is June 16, based on an entry from Polidori’s diary, which indicates the entire party had gathered at Villa Diodati that night. In Polidori’s entry for June 17, however, he reports “The ghost-stories are begun by all but me.”
Russell Doescher and Ava Pope take measurements in the garden of Villa Diodati. [Photo by Marilynn Olson]
Critics have used those diary entries to argue Shelley didn’t agonize over her story for days before beginning it, but rather started within a span of hours. Others have suggested Shelley fabricated a romanticized version for the preface of the 1831 edition of Frankenstein solely to sell more books. Key, however, is the fact that none of Polidori’s entries make reference to Byron’s ghost story proposal.
“There is no explicit mention of a date for the ghost story suggestion in any of the primary sources–the letters, the documents, the diaries, things like that,” Olson said. “Nobody knows that date, despite the assumption that it happened on the 16th.”
Surviving letters and journals establish that Byron and Polidori arrived at Villa Diodati on June 10, narrowing the possible dates for the evening of Byron’s ghost story proposition to a June 10-16 window. To further refine the dates, Shelley’s reference of moonlight on the night of her inspirational dream provided an astronomical clue for the Texas State researchers. To determine which nights in June 1816 bright moonlight could’ve shone through Shelley’s window after midnight, the team of Texas State researchers traveled in Aug. 2010 to Switzerland, where Villa Diodati still stands above Lake Geneva.
Ava Pope, Kelly Schnarr and Donald Olson on the steep slope just below Villa Diodati. [Photo by Roger Sinnott]
The research team made extensive topographic measurements of the terrain and Villa Diodati, then combed through weather records from June of 1816. The Texas State researchers then calculated that a bright, gibbous moon would have cleared the hillside to shine into Shelley’s bedroom window just before 2 a.m. on June 16. This calculated time is in agreement with Shelley’s witching hour reference. Furthermore, a Polidori diary entry backs up Shelley’s claim of a late-night philosophical “conversation about principles” of life taking place June 15.
Had there been no moonlight visible that night, the astronomical analysis would indicate fabrication on her part. Instead, evidence supports Byron’s ghost story suggestion taking place June 10-13 and Shelley’s waking dream occurring between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. on June 16, 1816.
“Mary Shelley wrote about moonlight shining through her window, and for 15 years I wondered if we could recreate that night,” Olson said. “We did recreate it. We see no reason to doubt her account, based on what we see in the primary sources and using the astronomical clue.”
For additional information, visit the Sky & Telescope web gallery at www.skyandtelescope.com/Frankenstein.
"I called (Byrne) and asked if he wanted to visit about it. We did visit about a statewide network," Dodds said. "I told him I didn't know if we had the (program) inventory necessary to do a 24/7 network.For his part, Byrne responded with a terse blog statement taking issue with the context of Dodds' assertions.
"The next time I heard about it (from Byrne) was a year and a half ago. And we said we had enough inventory to do it, and we moved ahead on our own. And that was before we knew what the money was going to be."
"Three or four years ago we talked about doing a joint flagship channel," Byrne wrote. "I liked the idea, but our fans should know me better than to think I would pass on a $150 million deal for Texas A&M. That never happened."The basic facts don't appear to be in dispute, but it's pretty clear not all the facts have been brought forth. The word circulating in Aggie circles currently is that Dodds invited Byrne to invest in the venture, 50/50 (back when Dodds expected to foot the bill for the startup, rather than piggyback on ESPN) but only offered a 60/40 or 70/30 revenue split, along the lines of the revenue disbursement from the Permanent University Fund. Byrne subsequently declined. There may or may not be fact backing up that characterization, but parsing Dodds' statement "I didn't think we had the inventory to do a 24/7 network" could lead one to interpret his view of any A&M involvement as secondary, filler material--akin to Sham-Wow infomercials at 3 a.m.--and therefore less deserving of a full share. In the past, A&M would probably have accepted this as the cost of doing business. I could see Wally Groff accepting the deal, viewing even a modest new revenue stream and improving A&M's position overall even if it improved Texas an order of magnitude more. But Byrne's been all about national benchmarks and equal positioning and market share. He's not one to accept once slice of pie if the guy sitting across the table is getting three. I'm still a little annoyed by a persistent mis-characterization perpetuated by ESPN, though:
When six Big 12 programs -- Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Colorado -- negotiated with the Pac-10 last year, Texas walked away from the negotiation at the 11th hour because Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott wanted all the schools in the new conference to pool their media rights. In other words, Texas walked away to preserve the Longhorn Network.Those six Big 12 teams weren't negotiating with the Pac 10. Dodds himself negotiated offers from the Pac 10 behind closed doors and presented the plan to blow up the Big 12 as fait accompli. The invitations were on the table. When A&M balked, and instead started talking with the Southeastern Conference, this caught Dodds and the Pac 10 by surprise and the delay allowed Baylor an opportunity to martial its political supporters. The Pac 10 did not want Baylor, but Colorado panicked, seeing itself as the odd team out if Baylor muscled its way into the party, and promptly accepted the Pac 10 offer. Texas, seeing A&M as the cockroach messing up a perfect plan by opening the door for Baylor, instead used the LHN as an excuse to back out on the deal with the Pac 10. As Dodds himself has stressed many times, nobody expected the LHN to bring in as much money as it did. He was willing to scrap the idea for the LHN to join the Pac 10 if the idea for an eastern division with Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Colorado, Arizona and Arizona State could be pulled off. When that proved impossible, the LHN was a convenient excuse to "save" the Big 12 (which Dodds was all but burying a few days before). With Dodds being as shrewd a negotiator as he is, there is zero chance negotiations reached the point of invitations being extended without him taking the future of the LHN into consideration. But the money is only a secondary consideration--as others have pointed out, Texas has always had more money than everyone else and always will. It's the other issue that tilt the playing field, such as defying the Big 12 by contracting with ESPN to broadcast a league game (resulting in some conflict of interest bullying on ESPN's part toward conference schools such as Tech, Baylor and Kansas State).
Potentially as thorny was the plan to televise high school games and show high school highlights on the Longhorn Network. Televising games would give Texas an almost prohibitive recruiting advantage. The NCAA has scuttled those plans for this season, but if history is any guide, the NCAA must tread carefully when restricting television freedom. The organization already lost a Supreme Court case over its control of television rights in 1984. Plus, the highlights offer a similar recruiting advantage, and the NCAA has agreed for the time being to allow the Longhorn Network to show highlights. "The NCAA is taking a wait and see attitude on the highlights," Byrne wrote in his letter to fans. "I disagree with their stance -- as do many of my colleagues across the country. We anticipate that ESPN will continue to push the envelope with the Longhorn Network, regardless of Texas A&M's conference affiliation.""Continue to push the envelope" is the key phrase. Texas and ESPN will keep pushing--a steady drumbeat, if you will--and eventually wear down the opposition bit by bit. Eventually, some Big 12 team will give in and let its game be broadcast (I'm looking at you, Iowa State) and once that levee is breached, more will follow. Eventually, I'd expect all Texas home games to be carried exclusively on the LHN. Comparisons to Notre Dame's deal with NBC are inaccurate, because NBC is a free broadcast network, included on every basic cable package. The LHN is a premium cable offering (currently with very few carriers, true) in which subscription fees go directly to Austin with ESPN taking its cut. So no, not an apt comparison at all.
New Army is scratching its head over the fervor of playing LSU in the Cotton Bowl. This is understandable, because New Army wasn't even born when Harvey Williams switched his commitment on signing day, or John Roper split his forehead open with a killer hit against Tiger QB Tommy Hodson, or Larry Horton ran the opening kickoff back to open the R.C. Slocum era with a bang. LSU was, for all intents and purposes, our version of OU in a heated interstate, cross-conference rivalry. We played them in the Cotton Bowl during the State Fair. We played them in Galveston, Houston and San Antonio. We first played them in 1899 and kicked the snot out of 'em, 52-0.If you go to the LSU sports message boards, you'll see Tiger fans excited by the addition of the Aggies to the SEC, because now they'll "Finally have a rival!" Seriously. LSU is like the Texas Tech of the SEC, desperate for anyone to get worked up about playing them. A&M and LSU have played each other more times than they have pretty much any other non-conference opponent, and more than some current conference rivals. But who leads the series, you may ask? Why, LSU leads the series, 27-20-3. That's a very interesting series record. We've played 50 times, only 12 games of which were played in College Station. That means A&M home games account for just 24 percent of the series overall. Then consider that LSU has hosted 32 home games, which makes up 65 percent of the series. Holy crap! They have that big of a home field advantage over us, and still only manage to lead the overall series by seven games? Damn, that's got to be embarrassing!
Because College Station was small and rural, we had trouble filling Kyle back in the day. From 1921-1975 we played them 30 times, and only one of those games was in College Station. We essentially sold them our home games to boost our athletic department revenues. Playing LSU in Baton Rouge or neutral sites resulted in the Tigers getting the upper hand on us in the series, but even so, the overall record was remarkably competitive, all things considered.
In the 70s things had changed. Bellard had A&M playing big time football, Kyle had expanded and Aggie football was a big draw. We beat 'em back-to-back in '74-'75 in Baton Rouge, and wanted to revert to a regular home-and-home series. LSU refused, and broke off the series.
Fast forward to 1982. Jackie Sherill came in, had little success in the early days, so one of the many things he did to shore up support among Old Ags was revive the LSU series. LSU wanted to improve its Texas recruiting, so they agreed to a home-and-home series. They were quite happy with it from '86-'88, the heyday of the Mike Archer years when they won three in a row, and the contract was extended. But starting with Larry Horton's kickoff in '89, things spiraled downward quickly for the kitties. From '91-'95 A&M reeled off five straight victories, hard-fought contests in Baton Rouge but veritable blowouts in College Station. Leeland McElroy's 200+ yard game in '95 was particularly glorious. LSU was getting their heads handed to them in SEC play as well, and decided no amount of Texas recruiting was worth an annual loss to A&M. So they announced the series would end in '95.
Here's where it gets wonky. Under the terms of the contract, if either team cancels the series there is a $400,00 buyout clause, which can be waived if the departing school secures an "equivalent" substitute opponent. LSU told Wally Groff they had a suitable substitute--Northeast Louisiana University, which had just made the transition to I-A football in 1994 [Note: I've since heard some indications that the "replacement" school was actually Nevada-Reno, which had just moved up to Division I-A in 1992. Either way, LSU offered a weak opponent as a replacement]. Wally said (and I'm paraphrasing here) "Like Hell! You owe us $400K!" LSU said "Good luck collecting" and that was that.
Keep in mind, also, that LSU's baseball team knocked the '89 A&M team out of the playoffs. That Aggie team went 58-7, was ranked no. 1 almost the entire season, and may have been the most dominant team in the history of college baseball. The rivalry with LSU was intense across the board.
LSU fans today will tell you there never was a buyout fee (which is false) or--and this is the most popular revisionist history--that because the SEC expanded to 12 teams, they had to eliminate the non-conference A&M game to make the scheduling work. Which is fine and dandy, except that the SEC expanded in football in 1992 with the addition of Arkansas and South Carolina, meaning LSU continued our series four years into the expanded SEC era.
Around 2000-01 our AD, Wally Groff was asked in his online Q&A if we could re-start the LSU series, after Saban (again, IIRC) commented in the media that he'd like to play A&M. Wally responded that he'd never schedule them again, since they couldn't be trusted to live up to their contracts, and that buyout penalties were obviously worthless since LSU was an extension of the state of Louisiana, and therefore a federal Texas vs. Louisiana civil suit to reclaim the unpaid $400K was impractical.
As the conference turns, pt. 1
TEXAS A&M TO SEEK AFFILIATION WITH ANOTHER ATHLETIC CONFERENCE
NEWS RELEASE - August 31, 2011
COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Texas A&M University today officially notified the Big 12 Conference that the institution will submit an application to join another athletic conference. Should this application be accepted, Texas A&M will end its membership in the Big 12 Conference effective June 30, 2012.
"After much thought and consideration, and pursuant to the action of the (Texas A&M University System) Board of Regents authorizing me to take action related to Texas A&M University's athletic conference alignment, I have determined it is in the best interest of Texas A&M to make application to join another athletic conference," President R. Bowen Loftin wrote to Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe in the letter dated August 31, 2011.
"We appreciate the Big 12's willingness to engage in a dialogue to end our relationship through a mutually agreeable settlement," Loftin added. "We, too, desire that this process be as amicable and prompt as possible and result in a resolution of all outstanding issues, including mutual waivers by Texas A&M and the conference on behalf of all the remaining members."
Texas A&M has participated in intercollegiate athletics as a member of the Big 12 since the conference's founding 16 years ago. Last season, the Aggies claimed nine Big 12 championships and four national team titles, both of which were school-bests. Since joining the Big 12 prior to the 1996-97 athletic season, Texas A&M has won 55 conference championships, including 32 in the last five years.
Texas A&M finished eighth in the prestigious Director's Cup all-sport rankings a year ago, tallying its most points ever and leading all Big 12 schools. In the inaugural Capital One Cup, which rates teams' final rankings, the Aggies were the top-ranking university from the Big 12. The Aggie women finished second with five top-10 finishes, while the Aggie men finished tied for third with five top-10 finishes.
"As I have indicated throughout this process, we are seeking to generate greater visibility nationwide for Texas A&M and our championship-caliber student-athletes, as well as secure the necessary and stable financial resources to support our athletic and academic programs," Loftin said. "This is a 100-year decision that we have addressed carefully and methodically. Texas A&M is an extraordinary institution, and we look forward to what the future may hold for Aggies worldwide."
While Loftin did not specify an application timeline in his letter to the Big 12, he previously indicated that he does not intend to prolong the application process for an extended period of time.
Texas A&M at a glance
- Located in College Station, Texas.
- Home to more than 49,000 students, ranking as the sixth-largest university in the country, with more than 360,000 former students worldwide.
- Holds membership in the prestigious Association of American Universities, one of only 63 institutions with this distinction.
- Has an endowment valued at more than $5 billion, which ranks fourth among U.S. public universities and 10th overall.
- Conducts research valued at more than $630 million annually, placing it among the top 20 universities nationally and third behind only MIT and the University of California at Berkeley for universities without medical schools.
- Recognized as Home of the 12th Man, where students stand during football games to show support for the team – and for fellow Aggies – a personification of the Aggie Spirit.
- Corps of Cadets is recognized among the nation's largest uniformed student bodies at more than 2,000 strong. Texas A&M commissions more officers than any other institution outside of the nation's service academies.
- Named second in the nation by The Wall Street Journal among all universities, public and private, in a survey of top U.S. corporations, non-profits and government agencies, based on graduates that recruiters prefer to hire.