Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery, and the Genius of the Royal Society - Bill Bryson (2010)

2. MARGARET ATWOOD

OF THE MADNESS OF MAD SCIENTISTS: JONATHAN SWIFT’S GRAND ACADEMY

Margaret Atwood is the author of more than thirty volumes of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, and is perhaps best known for her novels, which include The Edible Woman, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace and Oryx and Crake. Her latest book is the novel The Year of the Flood. Her work has been published in more than forty languages.

THOSE EARLY FELLOWS OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY WERE EARNEST SEEKERS AFTER TRUTH AND PILLARS OF THE COMMUNITY. THEY WERE ALSO, FOR SOME, FIGURES OF FUN AND – AS MARGARET ATWOOD EXPLAINS – THE INSPIRATION FOR A MORE SINISTER ARCHETYPE.

In the late 1950s, when I was a university student, there were still B movies. They were inexpensively made and lurid in nature, and you could see them at cheap matinee double bills as a means of escaping from your studies. Alien invasions, mind-altering potions and scientific experiments gone awry featured largely.

Mad scientists were a staple of the B-film double bill. Presented with a clutch of white-coated men wielding test tubes, we viewers knew at once – being children of our times – that at least one of them would prove to be a cunning megalomaniac bent on taking over the world, all the while subjecting blondes to horrific experiments from which only the male lead could rescue them, though not before the mad scientist had revealed his true nature by gibbering and raving. Occasionally the scientists were lone heroes, fighting epidemics and defying superstitious mobs bent on opposing the truth by pulverising the scientist, but the more usual model was the lunatic. When the scientists weren’t crazy, they were deluded: their well-meaning inventions were doomed to run out of control, creating havoc, tumult and piles of messy goo, until gunned down or exploded just before the end of the film.

Where did the mad scientist stock figure come from? How did the scientist – the imagined kind – become so very deluded and/or demented?

It wasn’t always like that. Once upon a time there weren’t any scientists, as such, in plays or fictions, because there wasn’t any science as such, or not science as we know it today. There were alchemists and dabblers in black magic – sometimes one and the same – and they were depicted, not as lunatics, but as charlatans bent on fleecing the unwary by promising to turn lead into gold, or else as wicked pact-makers with the Devil, hoping – like Dr Faustus – to gain worldly wealth, knowledge and power in exchange for their souls. The too-clever-by-half part of their characters may have descended from Plato’s Atlanteans or the builders of Babel – ambitious exceeders of the boundaries set for human being, usually by some god, and destroyed for their presumption. These alchemists and Faustian magicians certainly form part of the mad scientist’s ancestral lineage, but they aren’t crazy or deluded, just daring and immoral.

It’s a considerable leap from them to the excesses of the wild-eyed B-movie scientists. There must be a missing link somewhere, like the walking seal discovered just recently – though postulated by Charles Darwin as a link between a walking canid and a swimming seal. For the mad scientist missing link, I propose Jonathan Swift, acting in synergy with the Royal Society. Without the Royal Society, no Gulliver’s Travels, or not one with scientists in it; without Gulliver’s Travels, no mad scientists in books and films. So goes my theory.

I read Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels as a child, before I knew anything about the B-movie scientists. Nobody told me to read it; on the other hand, nobody told me not to. The edition I had was not a child’s version, of the kind that dwells on the cute little people and the funny giant people and the talking horses, but dodges any mention of nipples and urination, and downplays the excrement. These truncated versions also leave out most of Part Three – the floating island of Laputa, the Grand Academy of Lagado with its five hundred scientific experiments, the immortal Struldbrugs of Luggnagg – as being incomprehensible to young minds. My edition was unabridged, and I didn’t skip any of it, Part Three included. I read the whole thing.

I thought it was pretty good. I didn’t yet know that Gulliver’s Travels was satirical, that Mr Swift’s tongue had been rammed very firmly into his cheek while writing it, and that even the name ‘Gulliver’, so close to ‘gullible’, was a tip-off. I believed the letters printed at the beginning – the one from Mr Gulliver himself, complaining about the shoddy way in which his book had been published, and the one from his cousin Mr Sympson, so close to ‘simpleton’, I later realised – testifying to the truthfulness of Mr Gulliver. I did understand that someone called Mr Swift had had something to do with this book, but I didn’t think he’d just made all of it up. In early eighteenth-century terms, the book was a ‘bite’ – a tall tale presented as the straight-faced truth in order to sucker the listener into believing it – and I got bitten.

Thus I first read this book in a practical and straightforward way, much in the way it is written. For instance, when Mr Gulliver pissed on the fire in the royal Lilliputian palace in order to put it out, I didn’t find this either a potentially seditious poke at the pretensions of royalty and the unfairness of courts or a hilarious vulgarism. Rather, having been trained myself in the time-honoured woodsman’s ways of putting out campfires, I thought Mr Gulliver had displayed an admirable presence of mind.

The miniature people and the giants did hint to me of fairy tales, but Part Three – the floating island and the scientific establishment – didn’t seem to me all that far-fetched. I was then living in what was still the golden or bug-eyed monster age of science fiction – the late forties – so I took spaceships for granted. This was before the disappointing news had come in – No intelligent life on Mars – and also before I’d read H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, in the light of which any life intelligent enough to build spaceships and come to Earth would be so much smarter than us that we’d be viewed by them as ambulatory kebabs. So I considered it entirely possible that, once I’d grown up, I might fly through space and meet some extraterrestrials, who then as now were considered to be bald, with very large eyes and heads.

Why then couldn’t there be a flying island such as Laputa? I thought the method of keeping the thing afloat with magnets was a little cumbersome – hadn’t Mr Swift heard of jet propulsion? – but the idea of hovering over a country that was annoying you so they’d be in full shadow and their crops wouldn’t grow seemed quite smart. As for dropping stones on to them, it made perfect sense: kids of the immediately post-war generation were well versed in the advisability of air superiority, and knew a lot about bombers.

I didn’t understand why these floating-island people had to eat food cut into the shapes of musical instruments, but the flappers who hit them with inflated bladders to snap them out of their thought trances didn’t seem out of the question. My father was by that time teaching in the Department of Zoology at the University of Toronto, and growing up among the scientists, and thus being able to observe them at work, I knew they could be like that: the head of the Zoology Department was notorious for setting himself on fire by putting his still-smouldering pipe into his pocket, and could have made excellent use of a flapper.

When I got as far as the Grand Academy of Lagado I felt right at home. In addition to being the golden age of bug-eyed monsters the late forties was also the golden age of dangerous chemistry sets for children – now prohibited, no doubt wisely – and my brother had one. ‘Turn water to blood and astonish your friends!’ proclaimed the advertisements, and this was no sooner said than done, with the aid of a desirable crystal named – as I recall – potassium permanganate. There were many other ways in which we could astonish our friends and, short of poisoning them, we did all of them. I doubt that we were the only children to produce hydrogen sulphide (‘Make the smell of rotten eggs and astonish your friends!’) on the day when our mother’s bridge club was scheduled to meet. Through these experiments, we learned the rudiments of the scientific method: any procedure done in the same way with the same materials ought to produce the same results. And ours did, until the potassium permanganate ran out. 

These were not the only experiments we performed. I will not catalogue our other adventures in science, which had their casualties – the jars of tadpoles dead from being left by mistake in the Sun, the caterpillars that came to sticky ends – but will pause briefly to note the mould experiment, consisting of various foodstuffs placed in jars – our home-preserving household had a useful supply of jars – to see what might grow on them in the way of mould. Many-coloured and whiskery were the results, which I mention now only to explain why the Grand Academy ‘projector’ who thought it might be a brilliant idea to inflate a dog through its nether orifice in order to cure it of colic raised neither of my eyebrows. It was a shame that the dog exploded, but this was surely a mistake in the method rather than a flaw in the concept; or that was my opinion.

Indeed, this scene stayed with me as a memory trace that was reactivated the first time I had a colonoscopy, and was myself inflated in this way. You had the right idea, Mr Swift, I mused, but the wrong application. Also, you thought you were being ridiculous. Had you known that the dog-enlarging anal bellows you must have found so amusing would actually appear on Earth 250 years later in order to help doctors run a tiny camera through your intestines so they could see what was going on in there, what would you have said?

And so it is with the majority of the experiments described in the Grand Academy chapters of Gulliver’s Travels. Swift thought them up as jokes, but many of them have since been done in earnest, though with a twist. For instance, the first ‘projector’ Gulliver meets is a man who has run himself into poverty through the pursuit of what Swift devised as a nutty-professor chase-a-moonbeam concept: this man wants to extract sunbeams out of cucumbers so he can bottle them for use in the winter, when the supply of sunbeams is limited. Swift must have laughed into his sleeve, but I, the child reader, found nothing extraordinary in this idea, because every morning I was given a spoonful of cod liver oil, bursting with Vitamin D, the ‘Sunshine Vitamin’. The projector had simply used the wrong object – cucumbers instead of cod.

Some of the experiments being done by the projectors interested me less, though they have since contributed to Swift’s reputation for prescience. The blind man at the Academy who’s teaching other blind people to distinguish colours by touch was doubtless intended by Swift to represent yet more foolishness on the part of would-be geniuses, but now there are ongoing experiments involving something called the BrainPort – a device designed to allow blind people to ‘see’ with their tongues. The machine with many handles that, when turned, causes an array of oddly Chinese-looking words to arrange themselves into an endless number of sequences – thus writing masterpieces eventually, like the well-known infinitely large mob of monkeys with typewriters – is now thought by some to be a forerunner of the computer.

Predicting the future and suggesting the invention of handy new devices was, however, very far from Swift’s intention. His ‘projectors’ – so called because they are absorbed in their projects – are a combination of experimental scientist and entrepreneur; they exist within Gulliver’s Travels as pearls on his long string of human folly and depravity, midway between the Lilliputians and their tiny fracas and petty intrigues and the brutal, nasty, smelly, ugly and vicious Yahoos of the fourth book, who represent humanity in its bared-to-the-elements Hobbesian basic state.

But Swift’s projectors aren’t wicked, and they aren’t really demented. They’re even well meaning: their inventions are intended for the improvement of mankind. All we have to do is give them more money and more time and let them have their way, and everything will get a lot better very soon. It’s a likely story, and one we’ve heard many times since the advent of applied science. Sometimes this story ends well, at least for a while – science did lower the human mortality rate, the automobile did speed up travel, air conditioning did make us cooler in summer, the ‘green revolution’ did increase the supply of food. But the doctrine of unintended consequences applies quite regularly to the results of scientific ‘improvements’: agriculture can’t keep up with the population explosion with the result that millions are leading lives of poverty and misery, air conditioning contributes to global warming, the automobile promised freedom until – via long commute distances, clogged roads and increased pollution – it delivered servitude. Swift anticipated us: the projectors promise an idyllic future in which one man shall do the work of ten and all fruits shall be available at all times – pace automation and the supermarket – but ‘The only inconvenience is, that none of these projects are yet brought to perfection, and in the meantime, the whole country lies miserably waste, the houses in ruins, and the people without food or clothes.’ Under the influence of the projectors the utopian pie is visible in the sky, but it remains there.

As I’ve said, the projectors are not intentionally wicked. But they have tunnel vision – much like a present-day scientist quoted recently, who, when asked why he’d created a polio virus from scratch, answered that he’d done it because the polio virus was a simple one, and that next time he’d create a more complex virus. A question most of us would have understood to have meant, ‘Why did you do such a potentially dangerous thing?’ – a question about ends – was taken by him to be a question about means. Swift’s projectors show the same confusion in their understanding of ordinary human desires and fears. Their greatest offence is not against morals: instead they are offenders against common sense – what Swift might have called merely ‘sense’. They don’t intend to cause harm, but by refusing to admit the adverse consequences of their actions, they cause it anyway.

The Grand Academy of Lagado was recognised by Swift’s readers as a satire upon the Royal Society, which even by Swift’s time was an august and respected institution. Though English seekers after empirical facts had been meeting since 1640, the group became formalised as the Royal Society under Charles II, and as of 1663 was referred to as ‘The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge’. The word ‘natural’ signifies the distinction between such knowledge – based on what you could see and measure, and on the ‘scientific method’: some combination of observation, hypothesis, deduction and experiment – from ‘divine’ knowledge, which was thought to be invisible and immeasurable, and of a higher order.

Though these two orders of knowledge were not supposed to be in conflict, they often were, and both kinds might be brought to bear on the same problem, with opposite results. This was especially true during outbreaks of disease: victims and their families would resort both to prayer and to purging, and who could tell which might be the more efficacious? But in the first fifty years of the Royal Society’s existence, ‘natural knowledge’ gained much ground, and the Royal Society acted increasingly as a peer-review body for experiments, fact-gathering and demonstrations of many kinds.

Swift is thought to have begun Gulliver’s Travels in 1721, which was interestingly enough the year in which a deadly smallpox epidemic broke out, both in London and in Boston, Massachusetts. There had been many such epidemics, but this one saw the eruption of a heated controversy over the practice of inoculation. Divine knowledge had varying views: was inoculation a gift from God, or was smallpox itself a divine visitation and punishment for misbehaviour, with any attempt made to interfere with it being impiety? But practical results rather than theological arguments were being increasingly credited.

In London, inoculation was championed by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who had learned of the practice in Turkey when her husband had been Ambassador there; in Boston, its great supporter was, oddly enough, Cotton Mather – he of the Salem witchcraft craze and Wonders of the Invisible World – who had been told of it by an inoculated slave from Africa. Both, though initially vilified, were ultimately successful in their efforts to vindicate the practice. Both acted in concert with medical doctors – Mather with Dr Zabdiel Boylston, who, in 1826, read a paper on the results of his practice-cum-research to the Royal Society, Lady Mary with Dr John Arbuthnot.

You might think Swift would have been opposed to inoculation. After all, the actual practice of inoculation was repulsive and counterintuitive, involving as it did the introduction of pus from festering victims into the tissues of healthy people. This sounds quite a lot like the exploding dog from the Grand Academy of Lagado and such other Lagadan follies. In fact, Swift took the part of the inoculators. He was an old friend of Dr Arbuthnot, a fellow member of the Martinus Scriblerus Club of 1714, a group that had busied itself with satires on the abuses of learning. And, unlike the ridiculous experiments of the ‘projectors’ – experiments that may have been invented by Swift with the aid of some insider hints from Dr Arbuthnot – inoculation seemed actually to work, most of the time.

It isn’t experimentation as such that’s the target of Book Three, but experiments that backfire. Moreover, it’s the obsessive nature of the projectors: no matter how many dogs they explode, they keep at it, certain that the next time they inflate a dog they’ll achieve the proposed result. Although they appear to be acting according to the scientific method, they’ve got it backwards. They think that because their reasoning tells them the experiment ought to work, they’re on the right path; thus they ignore observed experience. Although they don’t display the full-blown madness of the truly mad fictional scientists of the mid-twentieth century, they’re a definitive step along the way: the Lagadan Grand Academy was the literary mutation that led to the crazed white-coats of those B movies.

There were many intermediary forms. Foremost among them was, of course, Mary Shelley’s Dr Frankenstein, he of the man-made monster – a good example of an obsessive scientist blind to all else as he seeks to prove his theories by creating a perfect man out of dead bodies. The first to suffe from his blindness and single-mindedness is his fiancée, murdered by the creature on Dr Frankenstein’s wedding night in revenge for Frankenstein’s refusal to love and acknowledge the living being he himself has created. Next came Hawthorne’s various obsessed experimenters. There’s Dr Rappacini, who feeds poison in small amounts to his daughter, thus making her immune to it though she is poisonous to others, and is thus cut off from life and love. There’s also the ‘man of science’ in ‘The Birthmark’, who becomes fixated on the blood-coloured, hand-shaped birthmark of his beautiful wife. In an attempt to remove it through his science – thus rendering her perfect – he takes her to his mysterious laboratory and administers a potion that undoes the bonds holding spirit and flesh together, which kills her.

Both of these men – like Dr Frankenstein – prefer their own arcane knowledge and the demonstration of their power to the safety and happiness of those whom they ought to love and cherish. In this way they are selfish and cold, much like the Lagadan projectors who stick to their theories no matter how much destruction and misery they may cause. And both, like Dr Frankenstein, cross the boundaries set for human beings, and dabble in matters that are either a) better left to God, or b) none of their business.

The Lagadan projectors were both ridiculous and destructive, but in the middle of the nineteenth century the mad scientist line splits in two, with the ridiculous branch culminating in the Jerry Lewis ‘nutty professor’ comic version, and the other leading in a more tragic direction. Even in ‘alchemist’ tales like the Faustus story, the comic potential was there – Faustus on the stage was a great practical joker – but in darker sagas like Frankenstein this vein is not exploited.

In modern times the ‘nutty professor’ trope can probably trace its origins to Thomas Hughes’ extraordinarily popular 1857 novel, Tom Brown’s School Days. There we meet a boy called Martin, whose nickname is ‘Madman’. Madman would rather do chemical experiments and explore biology than parse Latin sentences – a bent the author rather approves than not, as he sees in Madman the coming age:

If we knew how to use our boys, Martin would have been seized upon and educated as a natural philosopher. He had a passion for birds, beasts, and insects, and knew more of them and their habits than any one in Rugby … He was also an experimental chemist on a small scale, and had made unto himself an electric machine, from which it was his greatest pleasure and glory to administer small shocks to any small boys who were rash enough to venture into his study. And this was by no means an adventure free from excitement; for besides the probability of a snake dropping on to your head or twining lovingly up your leg, or a rat getting into your breeches-pocket in search of food, there was the animal and chemical odour to be faced, which always hung about the den, and the chance of being blown up in some of the many experiments which Martin was always trying, with the most wondrous results in the shape of explosions and smells that mortal boy ever heard of.

Despite the indulgent tone, the Lagadan comic aspects are in evidence: the chemical experiments that blow up, the stinky substances, the mess, the animal excrement, the obsession.

The tragic or sinister mad scientist evolutionary line runs through R.L. Stevenson’s 1886 novel, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, in which Dr Jekyll – another of those cross-the-forbidden-liners, with another of those mysterious laboratories – stumbles upon, or possibly inherits from Hawthorne, another of those potions that dissolve the bonds holding spirit and flesh together. But this time the potion doesn’t kill the drinker, or not at first. It does dissolve his flesh, but then it alters and re-forms both body and soul. There are now two selves, which share memory, but nothing else except the house keys. Jekyll’s potion-induced second self, Hyde, is morally worse but physically stronger, with more pronounced ‘instincts’. As this is a post-Darwinian fable, he is also hairier.

Dr Jekyll is then betrayed by the very scientific method he has relied upon. Time after time, the mixing up of the potion and the drinking of it produce the same results; so far, so good-and-bad. But then the original supply of chemicals runs out, and the new batch doesn’t work. The boundary-dissolving element is missing, and Dr Jekyll is fatally trapped inside his furry, low-browed, murderous double. There were earlier ‘sinister double’ stories, but this one – to my knowledge – is the first in which the doubling is produced by a ‘scientific’ chemical catalyst. As with much else, this kind of transmutation has become a much-used comic book and filmic device. (The Hulk, for instance – the raging, berserk alter ego of reserved physicist Bruce Banner – came by his greenness and bulkiness through exposure to the rays from a ‘gamma bomb’ trial supervised by Dr Banner himself.) 

Next in the line comes H.G. Wells’ 1896 Dr Moreau – he of the Island, upon which he attempts, through cruel vivisection experiments, to sculpt animals into people, with appalling and eventually lethal results. Moreau has lost the well-meaning but misguided quality of the projectors: he’s possessed by a ‘passion for research’ that exists for its own sake, simply to satisfy Moreau’s own desire to explore the secrets of physiology. Like Frankenstein, he plays God – creating new beings – but like Frankenstein, the results are monstrous. And like so many of the sinister scientists who come after him, he is ‘irresponsible, so utterly careless! His curiosity, his mad, aimless investigations, drove him on …’

From Moreau, it’s a short step to the Golden Age of mad scientists, who became so numerous in both fiction and film by the mid-twentieth century that everyone recognised the stereotype as soon as it made its appearance.

Its lowest point is reached, quite possibly, in the B-movie called variously The Head That Wouldn’t Die or The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. The scientist in it is even more seriously depraved than usual. The head in question is that of his girlfriend; it comes off in a car accident, after which incident most men might have cried. But the mad scientist is building a Frankenstein monster out of body parts filched from a hospital, underestimating as usual the monster’s clothing size – why do those monsters’ sleeves always end halfway down their arms? – so he wraps the girl’s head in his coat and scampers off with it across the fields. Once under a glass bell with wires attached to its neck and its hair in a Bride of Frankenstein frizzle, the head gives itself to thoughts of revenge while the scientist himself haunts strip clubs in search of the perfect body to attach to it.

There’s another element in Book Three of Gulliver’s Travels that bears mention here because it so often gets mixed into the alchemist/mad scientist sorts of tales: the theme of immortality. On the island of Luggnagg, the third in Swift’s trio of capital-L islands, Gulliver encounters the immortals – children born with a spot on their foreheads that means they will never die. At first, Gulliver longs to meet these ‘Struldbrugs’, whom he pictures as blessed: surely they will be repositories of knowledge and wisdom. But he soon finds that they are on the contrary cursed, because, like their mythological forebears Tithonus and the Sibyl of Cumae, they do not receive eternal youth along with their eternal life. They simply live on and on, becoming older and older, and also ‘opinionated, peevish, covetous, morose, vain … and dead to all natural affection’. Far from being envied, they are despised and hated; they long for death, but cannot achieve it.

Immortality has been one of the constant desires of humanity. The means to it differ – one may receive it through natural means, as in Luggnagg, or from a god, or by drinking an elixir of life, or by passing through a mysterious fire, as in Rider Haggard’s novel She, or by drinking the blood of a vampire; but there’s always a dark side to it.

Luggnagg is Gulliver’s last noteworthy Book Three stop. Through his encounter with the Struldbrugs, he’s drawing close to the heart of Swift’s matter: what it is to be human. In Book Four he plunges all the way in: his final voyage takes him to the land of the rational and moral talking-horse Houyhnhnms, and brings him face to face with an astonishingly Darwinian view of humanity’s essence. The filthy apelike beasts called Yahoos he encounters there are viewed by the Houyhnhnms as beasts, and treated as such; and, much to Gulliver’s dismay, he is at last forced to recognise that, apart from a few superficial differences such as clothing and language, he too is a Yahoo.

As Swift’s friend Alexander Pope wrote shortly after the publication of Gulliver’s Travels, ‘The proper study of Mankind is Man.’ In our own age, that study is not only proper, it’s more necessary than ever. The botched experiments of Swift’s projectors and our own exponentially successful scientific discoveries and inventions are both driven by the same forces: human curiosity and human fears and desires. Since, increasingly, whatever we can imagine we can also enact, it’s crucial that we understand what impels us. The mad scientist figure is – to paraphrase Oscar Wilde – our own Caliban’s face in the mirror. Are we merely very smart Yahoos, and, if so, will we ultimately destroy ourselves and much else through our own inventions?

Science was just coming into being in the age of Swift. Now it’s fully formed, but we’re still afraid of it. Partly we fear its Moreau-like coldness, a coldness that is in fact real, for science as such does not have emotions or a system of morality built into it, any more than a toaster does. It’s a tool – a tool for actualising what we desire and defending against what we fear – and like any other tool, it can be used for good or ill. You can build a house with a hammer, and you can use the same hammer to murder your neighbour.

Human tool-makers always make tools that will help us get what we want, and what we want hasn’t changed for thousands of years, because as far as we can tell the human template hasn’t changed either. We still want the purse that will always be filled with gold, and the Fountain of Youth. We want the table that will cover itself with delicious food whenever we say the word, and that will be cleaned up afterwards by invisible servants. We want the Seven-League Boots so we can travel very quickly, and the Hat of Darkness so we can snoop on other people without being seen. We want the weapon that will never miss, and the castle that will keep us safe. We want excitement and adventure; we want routine and security. We want to have a large number of sexually attractive partners, and we also want those we love to love us in return, and to be utterly faithful to us. We want cute, smart children who will treat us with the respect we deserve. We want to be surrounded by music, and by ravishing scents and attractive visual objects. We don’t want to be too hot or too cold. We want to dance. We want to speak with the animals. We want to be envied. We want to be immortal. We want to be as gods.

But in addition, we want wisdom and justice. We want hope. We want to be good. Therefore we tell ourselves warning stories that deal with the shadow side of our other wants. Swift’s Grand Academy and its projectors, and their descendants the mad scientists, are among those shadows.

Last week I came across a ‘project’ that’s a blend of art object and scientific experiment. Suspended in a glass bubble with wires attached to it – something straight out of a fifties B-movie, you’d think – is a strangely eighteenth-century Lilliputian coat. It’s made of ‘Victimless Leather’ – leather made of animal cells growing on a matrix. This leather is ‘victimless’ because it has never been part of a living animal’s skin. Yet the tiny coat is alive – or is it? What do we mean by ‘alive’? Can the experiment be terminated without causing ‘death’? Heated debates on this subject proliferate on the Internet.

The debate would have been right at home in Swift’s Grand Academy: a clever but absurd object that’s presented straight but is also a joke; yet not quite a joke, for it forces us to examine our preconceptions about the nature of biological life. Above all, like Swift’s exploding dog and the proposal to extract sunshine out of cucumbers, the Victimless Leather garment is a complex creative exercise. If ‘What is it to be human?’ is the central question of Gulliver’s Travels, the ability to write such a book is itself part of the answer. We are not only what we do, we are also what we imagine. Perhaps, by imagining mad scientists and then letting them do their worst within the boundaries of our fictions, we hope to keep the real ones sane.