Mad about Scientists


Note: The following article was mostly written in August 2006.

“Mad? Is one who has solved the secret of life to be considered mad?” Dr. Otto von Niemann in The Vampire Bat (1933)

In the summer of 2003 I participated in an undergraduate internship program at SLAC, where I was voted by the other students as ‘most likely to become a mad scientist.’ This, I assume, was because I cancelled a movie with a friend to listen to the other students talk about physics: a social faux pas even among physicists. Recently, however, I’ve been thinking about the portrayal of scientists and am a little concerned about the perpetuation of the ‘mad scientist’ motif in popular media.

(image from Wikipedia)

With a few notable exceptions, such as the CBS series Numb3rs and the ‘lab lit‘ movement, scientists are largely marginalized in television, movies, and fiction. When they do appear, it is most often as ‘mad scientists,’ demented stock characters who use their intelligence only to come up with evil schemes.

The progenitor, I suspect, is none other than Dr. Faust. In Goethe’s work, Faust is frustrated with the limits of human knowledge and makes a pact with the devil that turns sour as Faust loses control. A decade after Goethe, Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, where Dr. Frankenstein oversteps the bounds of science by playing God creating a monster. The twist, of course, was that it was Dr. Frankenstein that was the monster, not his creature (a not-so-subtlety that popular adaptations didn’t seem to pick up on). The ‘mad scientist’ has been a staple of English literature ever since and extended beyond literature with the first Frankenstein movie in 1910.

Where Frankenstein touched on the limits of science in the industrial age, half a century later it was Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove that brought the mad scientist to the atomic age. From here on it’s been engrained in the zeitgeist of TV and movies. I can’t even begin to list all of the comic book supervillains whose brains and scientific aptitude have been pathways to evil: Lex Luthor (no superpowers, just terrible intellect), Dr. Octopus, Dr. Doom, Braniac (not really a scientist, but close), …. etc. In fact, in Golden Age comic books it was common to see the ‘mad scientist’ a stock villain with no inherent superpowers but who can still challenge a superhero due to their use of technology to threaten the innocent. The Incredibles is the most recent such story that I’m aware of, while Batman is a notable inversion of this theme.

(Image from Wikipedia.)

To be sure, the rise of the mad scientist has paralleled a zeitgeist of uneasiness with science as being removed from, or even antagonistic against humanity. The grim mechanistic nature and gross scale of death in the Holocaust and World War II can help explain why even Dr. Strangelove ‘made sense’ as a character. More subtly, however, the image of a mad scientist is a banner for an anti-science backlash.

War taught the public not only to respect, but to fear scientists. In a Physics Today article (Vol. 1 Iss. 6) by Spencer Weart proposes that politically radical scientists after WWI felt that scientifically trained people should have a greater role in reshaping society (reminiscent of Asimov’s Foundation triology), obliquely threatening the social structure established by humanists, pop writers, clergy, and politicians. The stakes only increased with the development of nuclear energy and weapons, a great “arcane power” that only scientists understood (i.e. belonged, in some sense, to scientists). Hence a struggle for cultural influence was set into place behind every popular representation of scientists in the 20th century. This struggle continues in the form of debates over intelligent design and climate change.

Though physicists built the atomic bomb, a far more divisive construct was built by biologists: evolution. Originally inspired by cultural reservations with vivisection, Dr. Moreau addresses questions of Darwinism and human nature that a century later would unintentionally be parodied by a US President warning of “human-animal hybrids.” The theme, of course, is that of Frankeinstein: fear that scientists are playing God. Just look at Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Invisible Man, and even The Hulk (a good guy!): scientists are overstepping their bounds, transforming into inhuman monsters, and are messing up society!

This opens up the doors to discuss the very large subject of religion and science. However, due to the depth and breadth required to give the topic an adequate review, I’ll largely sidestep this discussion. As I understand it, one of the major themes involved in this debate to be the juxtaposition of scientific/rational knowledge versus religious/faith-based knowledge. Is one source of enlightenment more ‘true’ than the other? Are they mutually exclusive? What happens when the subjects over which they claim authority overlap with one another? Clarke’s/Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the 1990s Japanese television series Neon Genesis Evangelion had strong undertones based on this theme. In A Space Odyssey, one could argue that HAL takes the place of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster: the child of unchecked science that then becomes a threat after it is spurned by its creators. In the latter, the theme of human technology versus higher power is the central source of conflict, though this interpretation is not explained until the end of the series. Certainly the “science versus religion” theme has become prominent in contemporary US politics with such issues as stem cells, climate change research, and intelligent design. The ‘mad scientist’ theme of scientists as detached from humanity is one of the subtexts of these debates, where those taking religious stances may question scientists as inhumane. All this, of course, is a very coarse interpretation of an involved and extended discussion, and should be taken as such. Whether a religious-scentific divide even exists and to what extent is subject to debate, as well.

Time magazine cover, 15 August 2005. Image from Wikipedia.

Perhaps a subtle point in the debate is that it is the fear of the application of science that is really the ‘threat’ associated with mad scientists. The mad scientist is one that bends research against humanity. In more subtly, the understood threat from science isn’t necessarily overt antipathy, but carelessness about applications. As C.R. Brustein put it (Partisan Review 25:288-96.) The motif of the mad scientist is a way of “expressing a conviction that the scientist’s idle curiosity has shaken itself loose from prudence or principle.”

In Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, Felix Hoenikker is an amoral/apathetic scientist who doesn’t care about about anything other than research who eventually develops a form of ice that devours the earth. In the 1944 film Madame Curie, the scientist is depicted who eschewed worldy power and wealth, instead pursuing scientific truth. However, this presentation was a bit of an underhanded compliment, as Curie’s character on film also seemed to eschew any sense of humanity; the admirable dedication to science is reinterpreted as robotic and inhuman.

“Madame Joliot-Curie is radiant!” A French political cartoon from 1936 portraying Curie liquifeying political opponents as the under secretary of (mad) science. Image from Physics Today Vol 48, Iss. 6.

Even Dr. Bunsen and Beaker of The Muppet Show hinted at the ‘mad (absent-minded) scientist’ causing harm.

On the other side of this coin, there is plenty of (non-fictional) literature about the reaction from the Los Alamos scientists following the development of the atomic bomb. It took some time for many to realize the scale of the weapon they had just created. (It should definitely be noted that physicists have formed some of the strongest voices against nuclear weapons.) Are those scientists somehow responsible for Hiroshima and Nagasaki? One could be evasive and claim that physicists weren’t the ones who ordered the bombs to be dropped, but this is beyond the point: are scientists sufficiently cognizant of the potential applications of their research?

Back to the point. The fear of science (or its potential) ends up being invested into the character of the (mad) scientist. Scientific objectivism is reinterpreted as detachment from humanity, or even overt heresy. In many respects, the myth of the mad scientist has been a tool (deliberately or otherwise) for a ‘postmodern’ (I use the phrase very loosely) antirationalist backlash. Perhaps this is an extended continuation of an antisecular reaction to the Enlightenment. This may be interpreted in the context of the rise of religious fundamentalism (in the US as well as Europe and the Middle East), the contemporary ‘culture’ of US education (compare US students to those of the far east or industrialized European nations), and tensions regarding scientific perspectives on politically charged issues like climate change.

To provide some data onthe extent to which this is occuring in the popular media, consider the following excerpt from a recent New Scientist article:

A recent survey of 1000 horror films distributed in the UK between the 1930s and 1980s reveals that mad scientists or their creations have been the villains of 30 percent of the films; that scientific research has produced 39 percent of the threats; and, by contrast, that scientists have been the heroes of a mere 11. (Christopher Frayling, New Scientist, 24 September 2005)

The popular public image of the scientist is a topic of understated importance in promoting scientific endeavors to funding agencies, encouraging young people to consider scientific careers, and to broaden the educational horizon of the lay person. There are many well-identified, detrimental stereotypes of scientists that the scientific community has made an effort to address. There are also a few well-identified, non-detrimental stereotypes that a few scientists seem to find amusing to hold on to… such as the image of a theoretical physicist wearing a labcoat. However, the stereotypes presented by ‘mad scientist’ figures in popular media are insidious and tend not to be addressed. Perhaps scientists think that comic book and television villains named Dr. Doom or Professor Chaos (ok, that one is a little whimsical) are so far removed from actual scientists that nobody could possibly get the subliminal hint that scientists are dangerous and not to be trusted? Well, kids spend far more time watching TV and reading comic books than visiting research labs.

Image from Physics Today Vol 48, Iss. 6.
In a past issue of New Scientist Theodore Roszak says:

The scientist who does not face up to the warning in this persistent folklore … is himself the worst enemy of science. In these images of our popular culture resides a legitimate public fear of the scientists’ stripped-down, depersonalized conception of knowledge. (New Scientist, 24 September 2005)

There are solutions all over the place, by the way. One will note that despite the fact that many of the aforementioned villians are ‘doctors’ of some sort or another, medical doctors aren’t viewed as particularly threatening at all. In fact, television audiences love ER, Scrubs, and House M.D. Heck, I even liked Doogie Howser, M.D. Modulo some of the dramatics, I would say these shows have gone a long way to portray medical doctors as intelligent, capable, human, and good people that try to help other people. There’s no problem of a doctor-patient, or more generally a doctor-human, disconnect because people know doctors. They regularly see doctors. It’s not often, on the other hand, for the lay person to see or think about scientists.

Thus, a natural way to combat the ‘myth of the mad scientist’ is by directly tweaking the portrayal of scientists in the media. Numb3rs is the most overt attempt to do this, dramatizing a mathematician’s contribution to the FBI in the same spirit as a hospital drama. For children, there are science-themed shows such as 3-2-1 Contact, Beakman’s World, and Bill Nye the Science Guy. In film, Frayling provides a few notable ‘mad scientist’ counterexampls:

  • Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), mathematician in Jurrasic Park (but then the entire film was about mad scientists)
  • Dr. Robert Campbell (Sean Connery) in Medicine Man
  • John Nash (Russel Crowe) in A Beautiful Mind
  • Dian Fossey (Sigourney Weaver) in Gorillas in the Mist
  • Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) in Contact

Unfortunately, Frayling also notes that the ‘scientist-as-hero’ motif doesn’t really work quite the same was as the ‘mad scientist’ theme. While the ‘mad scientist’ was the personification of reservations about science, the virtues of the ‘scientist-hero’ don’t transfer in the other direction to reflect upon science as a whole. Instead, the ‘scientist-hero’ acts as a gadfly to target other institutions as villains, such as a political administration (as for Dr. Hawkeye Pierce of M*A*S*H) or the military (for Col. Sam Daniels in Outbreak).

Foundation: the anti-mad-scientist. Image from Wikipedia.

In science fiction there’s more sympathy. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy is near and dear to my heart (and to many other geeky young scientists) because it promotes the promise of rationalism and the idea that intelligent people can act as responsible stewards for the world. I should tread carefully with this, however, since it is this sort of “scientists can run the world better” hubris that contributes to anti-rationalism and anti-science ‘mad-scientist’ stereotypes.

It is worth my mentioning that I think Richard Feynman, whose image lives on as one of the great public scientists, was one of the great dispellers of the ‘mad scientist’ myth. His popular books and following as ‘a curious character’ really “humanized” my idea of a physicist when I was a high school student. In this respect I strongly believe in researcher-primary school outreach programs in which young students are exposed to scientists.

To close, here is a quote from R. Morrison:

“Science can no longer be content to present itself as an activity independent of the rest of society, governed by its own rules and directed by the inner dynamics of its own precesses.” (R. Morrison “Science and social attributes,” Science 165:150-156)

Links and References:

  • Hollywood’s changing take on the scientist, Christopher Frayling; New Scientist issue 2518, 24 September 2005
  • Wikipedia: “Mad Scientist
  • Wikipedia: “List of Mad Scientists
  • The Moral Character of Mad Scientists: A Cultural Critique of Science, Christopher Toumey; Science Technology & Human Values, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Autumn, 1992), pp. 411-437
  • The Physicist as Mad Scientist, Spencer Weart, Physics Today, Vol. 41, Issue 6, June 1988, pp.28-37
  • C. R. Brustein “Reflections on Horror Movies,” Partisan Review 25:288-96.
  • “Subgenres in horror pictures: The Pentagram, Faust, and Philoctetes,” from Planks of Reason: Essays on the horror film, ed. B. K. Grant, 101-12.
  • R. Morrison “Science and social attributes,” Science 165:150-156

2 Responses to “Mad about Scientists”

  1. 1 Alejandro Rivero

    Well, Daedalus is an engineer or scientist or the closest thing you can imagine two thousands years ago, and he already has a flavour of madness.

  1. 1 Tarjei Vågstøl : Det motsette av Numb3rs …

%d bloggers like this: