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Frankenstein idea dates to 1780s

Question. What famous real science experiment inspired the fictional coming to life of Dr. Frankenstein's monster?

Could a dead person be similarly "animated" today?

Answer. Wind the reel back to the 1780s, when Luigi Galvani of Italy made the stunning observation that electricity could make legs removed from a dead frog quiver as if alive, says Joe Schwarcz in "Dr. Joe and What You Didn't Know" (ECW Press). This was strong stuff, given the newness of science and the mystery of electricity.

The English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley caught the spark and soon took his new wife Mary — later the author of "Frankenstein" — to a public lecture on "galvanism." The story is told that after witnessing the frog leg experiment, Mary dreamed of a stillborn baby being brought back to life with electricity. "The stage was set for the creation of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster."

The experiment worked not because the frog or even the legs were live in any real sense but the CELLS were still alive, says Harvard professor of environmental health Joseph D. Brain. They don't die for half an hour or so, when rigor mortis sets in, true of human body cells as well. So human animation can occur within this very short interval of time, but don't look for any monsters. BTW, electrical stimulation can be of real medical benefit to people who become paralyzed through illness or injury and who need help moving muscles to keep them from atrophying.

Question. When a company sells life insurance, it in effect is betting that the person will live a long life; the person bets on dying prematurely. That's fine for a company insuring large numbers of people, but what happened when a certain lawyer "bet" on the early demise of a Frenchwoman named Jeanne Calment?

Answer. In the mid-1960s he struck a deal with her that seemed mutually advantageous he bought her apartment for a low monthly payment, no money down, providing her with a small pension for her later years, with the understanding that he would not move in until her death, says Bart Holland in "What Are the Chances?"

Calment was a native of Arles and had met Van Gogh when she was 13. By the time Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic in 1927, she was 52. So the deal-striking woman was already near 90. The lawyer made payments to her regularly, and after doing so for 30+ years, he died at age 77. His family inherited the agreement, continuing payments until she died at age 122, the oldest on record at the time and 45 years older than the lawyer had been at his death!

Question. From a Norwood, Mass., reader: "I've been lucky enough to see spectacular rainbows stretching from treetops to treetops. Now my dream is to see a double rainbow before I die, and I'm 46 years old. What are my odds? Is there some place I should visit to increase my chances?"

Answer. Actually, "double rainbows" aren't all that rare, says University of Wyoming atmospheric scientist Robert D. Kelly. For the primary rainbow, water droplets refract the sunlight into its constituent colors just like a prism, with the light entering a drop and reflecting once internally off the surface before leaving: refract-reflect-refract.

Secondary rainbows involve two internal reflections refract-reflect-reflect-refract--so they're fainter than primary rainbows and appear outside the primary bow with colors reversed. (All rainbows appear opposite the sun, the sun behind your head.) Two other double bow features: the sky will appear darker in the area between the two arcs and brighter inside the smaller, primary bow.

Best observation places are away from visibility obstructions and where isolated thunderstorms occur with areas of clearing for the sun to break through to the rainshaft, adds the University of Arizona's Benjamin Herman. The central plains or southwestern U.S. are good bets, and quite good if you persist for a 2-week period of summer.

Copyright © Bill Sones and Rich Sones, Ph.D