Why Are They Always Called "Mad" Scientists?

Why Are They Always Called "Mad" Scientists?

It’s an old trope: the mad scientist. Drs. Frankenstein, Doom, and Evil, of course, but also Dr. Jekyl, Dr. Octopus, Dr. Moreau, Dr. Frank N. Furter...it’s enough to think that graduate school turns you evil (maybe it’s the student loans). Like Dr. Frankenstein, for centuries, scientists have been portrayed as brilliant, but unstable and dangerous. And it’s something about scientists as an occupation - there’s no Mad Architect trope, or Mad Violinist. Luckily for the profession, we occasionally get a good one too, like Doc Brown or Bunsen Honeydew


But traditionally, fictional scientists have been bad. One study showed that scientists on TV were more likely to be villainous than members of any other profession: 1 out of 5 scientists were bad seeds, as opposed to 1 out of every 19 doctors, or 1 out of every 40 law-enforcement agents. Scientists were also more likely to kill than members of any other profession (5% as opposed to the mere 3.7% of military characters) and die: 10% of the scientists in the sample were killed, while only 2.8% of military characters died. When scientists in feature films tried to do something, those actions had harmful consequences twice as often as good ones.  


Historians of science have traced modern movie, book, and comic portrayal of mad scientists to medieval and renaissance images of alchemists, astrologers and sorcerers: figures viewed as mysterious and aloof, with access to supernatural or even forbidden knowledge and powers. When the literary novel started to become the most popular form of fiction in the 19th century, chemistry was the primary form of experimental science people were hearing about. Literary chemists - like Jekyll and Frankenstein - begin to be the pop culture face of science, starting the trend towards scientists being seen as misguided at best, insanely mad at worst.


Interestingly, these scientists are not always portrayed as being evil per se; but they exhibit a desire to know and understand the universe that is not constrained by the moral standards of their day. They come across as evil because they don’t follow the rules of what their society thinks is proper (and in academic terms, they probably didn’t pass an ethical review board). Since those norms change over decades, how evil they seem may also change over time.


Which leads to possibly the most important thing about mad scientists: they’re a mirror on society, showing us what people think and fear about contemporary science, just like in the days of Jekyll and Frankenstein. In the 1950s and 60s, as worries over nuclear weapons became a primary avenue for people’s fears, there were a slew of movies where mad scientists created fearsome weapons and more importantly, fearsome creatures, with radiation: like the giant ants in the movie Them, or Beginning of the End’s hilariously terrifying giant grasshoppers. In those days, it seemed everyone with a “Dr.” in their name and a relation to nuclear energy was portrayed as mad, even in James Bond movies (Dr. No) and satirical comedies (Dr. Strangelove). As fears of nuclear science were replaced by worries over DNA manipulation and other biological sciences in the 1990s and early 2000s, that changed a bit; cinematic mad scientists in particular began to mess with organisms they didn’t seem to understand, like in the Jurassic Park and Resident Evil franchises.  


But things are improving! Those studies showing evil scientists dying and killing are over two decades old, and it’s rare to find a movie or TV show today that exclusively has evil scientists. In many popular movies, you routinely see heroic scientists - often literal superheroes - saving the day. Organizations like the National Academy of Science’s Science & Entertainment Exchange and the Alfred P. Sloan foundation are also specifically working to improve the image of scientists in TV and movies, making science consultants and experts available to screenwriters, directors, and studios, and encouraging more nuanced portrayals of science and scientists.


In any case, we know you won’t go mad from the 90+ experiments in this book - unless it’s “mad with curiosity” or “mad with fun.” Enjoy!


P.S. one more interesting note: it seems that the idea of mad scientists didn’t come out of nowhere, and may have originated with historical scientists who came up with farfetched ideas, or seemed to have eccentricities or quirks that people associated with their brilliance. Isaac Newton was known to be paranoid. Pythagoras thought beans came from the same place as humans and believed eating them was like cannibalism. When he was 20 years old, Tycho Brahe lost his nose in a duel - he wore an artificial brass nose glued to his face for most of the rest of his life. And it’s hard to mention mad scientists without talking about Johann Dippel, who was literally born in Castle Frankenstein, and created a potion he claimed could extend life and cure any diseases. But everybody has some quirks, so it seems unfair to single out long-gone scientists for this. Other than the dueling, perhaps.

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