Philip Ball in email@example.com:
When in the late 1960s Soviet scientists mistakenly thought they had found a new, waxy form of pure water called polywater, one scientist suggested that it could ‘seed’ the conversion of all the world’s oceans to gloop — a scenario memorably anticipated in Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle, in which the culprit was instead a new form of ice. Super-viruses leaked from research laboratories are a favourite source of rumour and fear — this was one suggestion for the origin of AIDS. And nanotechnology was accused of hastening doomsday thanks to one commentator’s fanciful vision of grey goo: replicating nanoscale robots that disassemble the world for raw materials from which to make copies of themselves.
In part, the appeal of these stories is simply the frisson of an eschatological tale, the currency of endless disaster movies. But it is also noteworthy that these are human-made apocalypses, triggered by the heedless quest for knowledge about the Universe.
This is the template that became attached to the Faust legend. Initially a folk tale about an itinerant charlatan with roots that stretch back to the Bible, the Faust story was later blended with the myth of Prometheus, who paid a harsh price for daring to challenge the gods because of his thirst for knowledge. Goethe’s Faust embodied this fusion, and Mary Shelley popularized it in Frankenstein, which she explicitly subtitled ‘Or The Modern Prometheus’. Roslynn Haynes, a professor of English literature, has explored how the Faust myth shaped a common view of the scientist as an arrogant seeker of dangerous and powerful knowledge7.