Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know:
Pestered by media representatives to discuss their research, and obliged by funding requirements to generate public interest in their work, scientists understandably feel cheated and dismayed if, as so often happens, the resulting news item presents them in some malevolent role or appears to make demonic insinuations about their research. There may, however, be nothing personal in this. Journalists and editors may simply be lapsing into the common mode of stereotyping their subject in the hope of making it more accessible to their readers, a rationale pursued in many professions but perhaps nowhere so readily as in science. And they have been self-perpetuating.
Margaret Mead's pilot study in 1957 to assess how scientists were regarded by school children (the answer was not good!) was followed up in 1975 by a survey carried out in New Scientist and New Society. While the scientist readers who replied considered scientists to be 'typically approachable, sociable, open, unconventional, socially responsible, and popular, with broad interests, non-scientist readers saw them as typically the opposite' ! Several smaller studies have been done since then with gloomily similar results. The precursors of these views have been accumulating strength for centuries.
depictions of the scientist, or his predecessors the alchemist and the
natural philosopher, have an ancestry extending back at least to the 1500s.
Yet, given this lengthy pedigree, the number of basic stereotypes is surprisingly
small. Indeed, the history of these fictional representations is characterised
by (1) the frequency with which six basic images of the scientist have
been recycled, with minor differences, through the ages, and (2) by the
preponderance of unattractive and ill-intentioned figures. These primary
stereotypes can be defined as: the evil alchemist, the noble scientist,
the stupid scientist, the inhuman researcher, the scientist as adventurer
hero and the scientist out of control. Defined and redefined through centuries
of literary precedents, they offer writers and readers alike a ready matrix
in which to slot contemporary scientists and their projects, cutting the
corners and blurring the picture. There seems always to be just enough
truth in them to make their continued use feasible.
1. The evil alchemist
Despite the reputation it later acquired, alchemy had very respectable beginnings in Ancient Egypt, as a form of metalwork, including the use of alloys to make gold and silver more malleable. But it was appropriated by the Arabs during the eighth century and for many centuries remained under Moslem influence. When it was introduced to medieval Europe in translations from Arabic writings, alchemy was inevitably associated in popular thinking with things pagan - with heresy and the black arts. Alchemists were regarded as sinister magicians, almost certainly in league with the devil, and offering ample justification for the medieval Church's suspicions of the pursuit of knowledge. Faced with such judgement and fearing for their lives, the first alchemists were driven to secrecy, disguising their knowledge in cabbalistic symbols and arcane language. To the non-initiate scientific language and formulae are equally opaque today and, not surprisingly, are interpreted as deliberately exclusive science-speak designed to befuddle those outside the system.
Yet, despite its evil reputation, alchemy also exerted a powerful fascination because of its fabulous promises of wealth, power and longevity. Those who peddled the notions of a philosopher's stone which would turn base metals into gold, an elixir of youth which would banish the threat of death, a perpetual motion machine and the possibility of creating an homunculus intrigued and swindled royalty, merchants and peasants alike until well into the seventeenth century. Indeed, procedures which we would now class as alchemy formed a considerable part of the Royal Society's agenda in its early years and continued to fascinate Isaac Newton for the major part of his working life. Twentieth-century science continues to allure with its glittering promises - surprisingly similar, in fact, to those of the alchemists: industrial processes with golden economic spin-offs, 'miracle' cures for formerly fatal diseases, inexhaustible nuclear power, in-vitro fertilisation and genetic engineering.
The alchemist was represented in literature not only as engaged in illegal and perhaps sinful research, but as arrogant and secretive. The archetypal alchemist was Doctor Faustus who became a myth in his own right as a tragic protagonist whose hubris led to eternal damnation. Depending on the degree to which science was valued at any one time, Faust has been repeatedly resurrected as a noble if misguided representative of intellectual curiosity storming the boundaries of knowledge, or as a presumptuous fool, an over-reacher clamouring to know more than is good for him and coming to a predictable and sticky end as his pact with the Devil redounds on himself. Faust and his distinguished progeny Dr Frankenstein (who, you'll remember, did a distance education course in alchemy before studying chemistry) have provided the most consistent and ready metaphor for cutting edge research in three particular fields, physics, biology and medical science. Accordingly, their practitioners have repeatedly been depicted in literature as arrogant, power-crazed, secretive and insane in their pretensions to transcend the human condition and the supposedly God-determined limits of proper knowledge. From the splitting of the atom to AIDS research the history of twentieth-century physics, biology and medical science is littered with fictional characters based on this stereotype. Drs Faust and Frankenstein have provided role models for other unattractive postdoctoral researchers - Dr Jekyll, Dr Moreau, Dr Cyclops, Dr Caligari, Dr Strangelove. The alchemist's cave may have become the high-tech laboratory, but scientists are still widely perceived as powerful, frightening and isolated figures, speaking a language and thinking thoughts accessible only to their colleagues.
in their fear of having their research misunderstood, sensationalised,
and curtailed by adverse publicity, ethics committees, animal liberationists
or the environmental lobby, scientists are prone to reinforce this image,
becoming ever more secretive about their work. Moreover, in an age when
science is increasingly funded by the private sector, its results tied
up in patents, even those who might wish to 'go public' are contractually
prevented from doing so.
2. The wise and noble scientist
The first literary work to depict scientists in a new and positive light was Sir Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (1626). Bacon's aim was to restore learning to its ancient status by revolutionising the contemporary image of the scholar from that of a mercenary, logic-chopping pedant to that of an altruistic idealist, intent only on the communal good. The linch-pin of Bacon's utopian New Atlantis is the House of Salomon, centre of a ruling scientific élite which promotes long-term research, both pure and applied, with special emphasis on experimental method. This priesthood of science affirms as part of its creed internationalism, the open sharing of knowledge, the concept of team effort in research, altruism by researchers who care nothing for private wealth or fame, and a pursuit of knowledge so closely attuned to the benefit of society that any research likely to be harmful is censored and discontinued.
Although these ideas failed to take root in Bacon's lifetime, they were soon to be enacted, thereby achieving a prophetic quality. The New Atlantis was acknowledged as providing the motive force for the founding in 1662 of the Royal Society of London which adopted as its code Bacon's interlocking propositions of rigorous experimentalism (affirmed by the Society's motto, nullius in verba), open communication of research, and usefulness. The frontispiece of Thomas Sprat's History of the Royal Society of London (1667) shows Charles II as patron and Sir Francis Bacon as inspiration of the Society. The noble scientist image was to reach astronomical heights with the rise to fame of Isaac Newton whose reputation even in life, but much more in death, ensured his status as a national treasure and premier scientist of Europe. Although the Principia was understood by probably only a handful of his contemporaries, and Newton himself was in fact more interested in alchemy than physics, he became the archetype of the wise and noble scientist, humble where Faust had been proud, seeking to explain rather than mystify, to bring harmony and order to the hitherto confusing cosmos and, in the process, delivering considerable economic spin-offs from his laws of mechanics and optics. So successful was the scientific hagiography attached to Newton that his obsession with closet alchemy, revealed by John Maynard Keynes in 1946, seemed at first unbelievable, then a betrayal.
During the nineteenth century the wise scientist was even pressed into the service of applied research as seen in this advertisement for Cadbury's cocoa. His white-coated descendants assure us that X brand of toothpaste is best for us. In the early decades of this century, Bacon's idealistic notions of scientists were dusted off and reaffirmed by H.G. Wells in his scientific utopias which, like Bacon's, enthused many readers with the belief that scientists alone might be selfless and wise enough to be entrusted with government. You will remember that Plato thought only philosophers could be entrusted with this. There's some sort of correlation here! Indeed, despite the morally doubtful record of scientists in the development of nerve gas during World War I, the inter-war period saw the re-emergence of the scientist-ruler in numerous American and European utopias where peace is achieved only by entrusting world government to a noble scientist, invariably of the same nationality as the author. In 1900 Simon Newcomb, astronomer and professor mathematics in the US Navy as well as novelist, published His Wisdom the Defender in which his character Campbell, a physicist, need I tell you, declaims: 'It became evident to me that if I could retain in my own hands the power to guide the revolution, I could bring about its benefits without its attendant evils. To do this, my power must be absolute.' (Would you buy a second-hand reactor from this man?)
World War II, the image of the noble scientist, fit to be entrusted as
world ruler, has ceased to appeal and such stereotypes are scarcely if
ever invoked, except as a yardstick against which to measure the deficiencies
of contemporary scientists. More commonly in twentieth-century literature
the noble scientist is presented as a victim of society, a lone protester
against what he perceives as immoral activities. This was a common theme
during and immediately after World War II in British and American novels
scientists refuse or are unwillingly forced to work on weapons production
or in military intelligence. This theme of the scientist repudiating what
was popularly believed to be his patriotic duty became even more controversial
during the Cold War when the trials of the so-called atom spies elicited
numerous literary explorations of the moral questions involved, occasionally
even valorising the spy as the one truly moral scientist. Recent science
fiction, especially that by women writers, has attempted to break away
from the former simplistic heroes of the genre and examine what science
ethics might entail in the twenty-first century, focusing on the complex
moral choices between research and social imperatives, and problems of
3. The stupid scientist
Ironically, the first systematic satires levelled at scientists were elicited by the founding members of the Royal Society. Along with their contemporaries the virtuosi, they were relentlessly pilloried on the Restoration stage. The virtuosi, who were usually untrained dilettantes in natural philosophy, displayed limitless enthusiasm for acquiring vastly expensive collections of miscellaneous, scientifically interesting (as they believed) objects, believing that their cabinets would contribute to the great Baconian project of collecting universal knowledge. These virtuosi were caricatured as obsessively pursuing useless, trivial and usually foul-smelling research, while the important events of life and family responsibilities passed them by unheeded. Thus in Thomas Shadwell's play The Virtuoso (1676), Sir Nicholas Gimcrack flits from one trivial curiosity to another, without rigour or logic, duped by the purveyors of expensive equipment and fake 'wonders', and supremely uninterested in either the study of mankind or familial responsibilities. This stereotype has been recycled through the centuries in more or less harmful guise. In the Projectors of Laputa in Book III of Gulliver's Travels (1726) Jonathan Swift pointed to the dangers that can result when scientists are empowered to make far-reaching decisions merely on the basis of their short-sighted specialist knowledge of one factor out of many in a complex situation. Obsessive involvement in science is also linked with madness by numerous eighteenth-century writers and artists. In Plate VIII of The Rake's Progress series (1735) William Hogarth gives a depiction of Bedlam, the Bethlehem Hospital for mental patients. Among the inmates are two victims of science. The man peering at the ceiling through a roll of paper imagines he is an astronomer while a man behind him has drawn on the wall a ship, the Earth, the Moon and various geometric patterns, in an attempt to calculate longitude.
In the early decades of this century, when science was regarded as high adventure, any satire against its practitioners was gentle, even a form of compliment. The absent-minded professors of numerous comic strips and films are attenuated versions of the stupid scientist, so engrossed with their research that they wear odd socks, never remember to cut their hair, and remain oblivious to the danger confronting their beautiful daughter in the next room. Here, however, all dangers are duly averted (often by another, younger scientist) and the comic scientist is found to have been concentrating on something important after all. This stereotype is still popular. The media loves an eccentric scientist and will often forgive him much. Albert Einstein was so successfully cast in this role as benign, absent-minded genius that his involvement in the development of nuclear weapons was glossed over and his once esoteric formula has become a decoration for caps and tee-shirts.
American poet Carl Sandburgh was not, however, deceived. In his black poem
dated significantly August 1945 he presents a seemingly harmless, absent-minded
atomic physicist, Mr Attila.
4. The inhuman scientist
The Romantic movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, provoked in part by reaction against the scientific materialism of the Enlightenment, generated perhaps the most enduring scientist stereotype, that of the inhuman researcher who has sacrificed the emotional to the rational, abandoning human relationships in his obsessive pursuit of science. One of the first such attacks on mechanistic science came from the English poet and artist, William Blake, who saw Newtonian physics as epitomising the dangers of reductionist materialism and in his engraving Newton (1795) depicted him as so focused on his mathematical explanation of the world that he himself has become as angular as his figure and compasses, and oblivious of the flowers and creatures of the natural world.
Romantic literature abounds with characters who have rejected human relationships for science, which is seen to epitomise objectivity and rationalism. These figures range from the comic or the pitiful to the sinister depending on the degree of power they achieve. The most famous and complex example, one which has become the archetypal twentieth-century myth, was provided by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818). As well as his alchemical pride and isolation, Victor Frankenstein epitomises the Romantic anathema, the man who, in pursuit of science, rejects father, fiancée, Nature and even his surrogate child, the Monster. In her protagonist Shelley explored in detail many of the implications of involvement in research, thereby providing the details which have been subsumed in the complex mythology of the inhuman scientist - the psychological effects of isolation and suppression of human affections, loss of the ability to appreciate natural beauty, the naive optimism that knowledge will inevitably be for the good of all, the fanatical desire to complete a project whatever the human cost.
In the twentieth century physics, mathematics and, more recently, computer science have been in the forefront in providing exempla of the inhuman scientist. In their mathematisation of the world they epitomise the detachment from, and disregard for, all other human experiences, especially those involving the emotions.
Louis MacNiece's poem The Kingdom (1943) includes the following portrait of a mathematician.
their incredulity at being cast in this role, many scientists accustomed
to the objective and impersonal style required by journal editors, continue
to enact this stereotype ibn their public appearances, suppressing as improper
and unscientific their genuine enthusiasm for their subject. In these postmodern
times, such assertions of objective truth cut much less ice than they once
did. In a culture where relationships and concern for environmental issues
are rated more highly than the search for truth, the role of custodian
of truth is not a popular one.
5. The scientist as adventurer hero
This, the most attractive, albeit simplistic, of modern scientist stereotypes, emerged in the late-nineteenth century when belief in progress and realisation of the lucrative commercial results of technology re-cast science as an obedient servant, an empowering tool. The literary representative of this new optimism was the adventurer-scientist, heir to both the scientific utopia and the wonderful journey tradition. It found its first and perhaps supreme expression in the novels of Jules Verne with their assurance that European man would, inevitably and with flair, conquer the natural world and human limitations. Verne's myths of conquest present debonair scientist heroes defeating the marvels of nature with the marvels of science. They carried a simple and unmistakable moral: that bravery, endurance, optimism and reverence for scientific knowledge of all kinds would overcome all difficulties. As the physical exploits of Verne's inventor heroes symbolised their intellectual adventures, so their emphasis on novel and fast means of transport represents their assertion of individual freedom and victory over the natural elements. Arthur Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger stories are in the same stereotypic mould, purveying a potent mix of science, adventure (both physical and intellectual), courage and moral superiority.
In the twentieth century, their descendants are the inventors and space travellers of science fiction, pulp magazines and film, still purveying their message of imperial domination over the cosmos and its inhabitants, still invariably representing the 'might is right' ethic. Like their predecessors, they answered the deeply ingrained desire of their readers to transcend the limitations of the physical world and in a time of peace (prior to World War I and in the inter-war period) scientist space travellers demolishing evil Martians replaced terrestrial military heroes as role models for a mostly young audience. Feminist critics such as Ursula LeGuin, herself one of the great science fiction writers, have located in such science fiction a major source of sexism and racism, since female characters are either absent or passive sex objects to be attacked by evil aliens and rescued by macho space travellers who still purvey an uncomplicated message of rightful imperial domination over the cosmos and its dissenting inhabitants.
appeal of the morally uncomplicated myth of the scientist hero is apparent
in a multitude of optimistic science fiction stories by Isaac Asimov and
his contemporaries, in the ever-popular Star Trek and Dr Who
series, and in films such as Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park.
Very rarely, however, is a real-life scientist allowed to project such
a stereotype. The media is much more prone to resort to the Pandora stereotype,
the scientist who has lost control over his experiment.
6. The scientist out of control
The theme of the scientist hoist by his own petard has always been a popular one in anti-rationalist times and it is not surprising that Frankenstein, one of the great Romantic manifestos, focused on the scientist's refusal to foresee or accept responsibility for the disastrous results of his research. In the latter half of the twentieth-century, when rationalism is again under scrutiny and anti-science has a large following, scarcely a project backfires without the media's immediate resort to the convenient and universally understood short-hand, 'Frankenstein'. In literature, Karel Capek's play, R.U.R. (1921), which introduced the Czech work 'robot' into English, offered one of the first widely known twentieth-century scenarios of science out of control and in one of the latest versions, Jurassic Park, Frankenstein is hybridised with Moreau for greater effect. But actual events have often outstripped fiction in presenting such an outcome. Almost as a reflex action media headlines invoke the short-hand of 'Faust' or 'Frankenstein' to condemn experiments that have misfired and scientists who failed to warn society of these possible consequences. Atomic power, robots, genetic engineering, IVF, organ transplants, gene banks and diminishing biodiversity, cloning, global warming, industrial pollution, personality-control drugs, artificial intelligence, the human genome project, virtual reality, Internet and many other projects, real and imagined, are presented in similar terms. The modern heirs of Frankenstein are depicted as being, at best, ignorant of the likely sociological effects of their research and, at worst, liable to suppress such a realisation lest ethics committees cut short their grants.
These archetypes are the continuing folklore of our time. Like all myths they appear simple but in fact represent complex ideas and suppressed fears which transcend time, place and race. Thus many scientists today seem, like the alchemists, to have internalised their fears of social criticism (because, say, they may be involved in potentially dangerous science, or may appear to be doing too much pure research and not enough applied research). Their reaction to such fears, real or imagined, is all too often to pull up the drawbridge and withdraw into secrecy. This, of course, generates yet more fear on the part of the community. Only scientists can break this cycle.
Thus scientists continue to be cast as one or other of these figures because there is just enough truth in them for the stereotypes to survive. Resent them as we may, we cannot extirpate them without acknowledging their degree of veracity and heeding their message.
This article draws on some of the major themes of my book, From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature (Baltimore an London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).
1. An Alchemist and his Assistant at Work by Weiditz. c. 1520. (In the evil alchemist section)
2. Frontispiece from Thomas Sprat's History of the Royal Society of London (1667) showing, from left to right: William, Viscount Bruckner, President of the Royal Society; Charles II as 'Author et Patronus'; and Sir Francis Bacon as 'Artium Instaurator'. (In the noble scientist section)
3. The Wise Scientist. By the late nineteenth century the scientist had achieved respectability as an authority on almost every subject. Mary Evans Picture Library.
4. Bedlam: A Rake's Progress Plate VIII by William Hogarth (1697-1764). Hogarth's engraving of the Bethlehem Hospital (Bedlam) for mental patients shows two victims of science. The man peering at the ceiling through a roll of paper imagines he is an astronomer. Behind him, the man who has drawn a ship, the earth, the moon and various geometric patterns is attempting to discover a means of calculating longitude. Sir John Sloane's Museum, London. (In the stupid scientist section)
5. Caricature of the absent-minded scientist based on the popular image of Albert Einstein. (In the stupid scientist section)
6. Newton by William Blake (1757-1827). Obsessed with reducing the world to formulae, Blake's Newton has himself become mathematicised. His nose, bent leg, wrist, ankles and fingers mimic the angles of his diagram and dividers, at which he stares, oblivious of the natural world around him. Tate Gallery, London. (In the inhuman scientist section)
7. An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump by Joseph Wright 1771-95. Wright's group picture captures the spectrum of responses to this popular experiment of the time, designed to show that air is necessary to support life. The obsessive expression and anachronistic garb of the demonstrator suggest the alchemist; the man in the foreground recording the time taken for the bird to lose consciousness is interested only in mathematical results; the children are concerned for the sufferings and possible death of the bird. Derby Museum and Art Gallery. (In the inhuman scientist section)
8. Frankenstein and the awakening Monster by T. Holst. An illustration from the 1831 Standard Novels edition of Frankenstein or, the Modern Prometheus. (In the inhuman scientist section)
9. Illustration in the first issue of Marvel magazine (October 1938) showing an extra-terrestrial attacking a woman as the hero prepares to rush to her defence. Interestingly the hero's clenched hand mirrors that of the alien. (In the scientist as adventurer-hero section)
10. The Test Tube Baby by Albert Robida in Le Vingtième Siècle, 1883. (In the scientist out of control section)