Mad scientist

From Academic Kids

"They LAUGHED at my theories at the institute! Fools! I'll destroy them all!" Caucasian, male, aging, crooked teeth, messy hair, lab coat, spectacles/goggles, dramatic posing — one popular stereotype of mad scientist.
"They LAUGHED at my theories at the institute! Fools! I'll destroy them all!" Caucasian, male, aging, crooked teeth, messy hair, lab coat, spectacles/goggles, dramatic posing — one popular stereotype of mad scientist.

A mad scientist is a stock character of popular fiction, either villainous, or benign and scatter-brained. Whether insane, eccentric, or simply bumbling, the mad scientist is usually working with some utterly fictional technology in order to forward his or her evil schemes. Alternatively, he or she doesn't see the evil that will ensue from the hubris of "playing God". Because of recent profusion of geek culture modern mad scientist depictions are often satirical and humorous rather than critical. Some are actually protagonists, such as Dexter in the cartoon series Dexter's Laboratory.


Defining characteristics

Mad scientists are typically characterized by obsessive behaviour and the employment of extremely dangerous or unorthodox methods. They often are motivated by revenge, seeking to settle real or imagined slights, typically related to their unorthodox studies.

Their laboratories often hum with Tesla coils, Van de Graaff generators, Jacob's ladders, perpetual motion machines, and other visually impressive electrical oddments, or are decorated with test tubes and complicated distillation apparatus containing strangely-colored liquids with no obvious purpose.

Other traits include:

It is notable that most of these traits are little more than exaggerations of typical stereotypes of normal scientist behavior: Scientists are often obsessive about their work, take a dim view of societal considerations that interfere with it, are perpetually adopting a "disinterested" worldview for the purposes of objectivity, etc. It is also perhaps interesting to note that the general public encounters working scientists largely while taking college classes from them. In this stratified environment, it is easy for professors to give an impression of being egotistical, obsessed with their research, or unconcerned.

There is no firm dividing line between sane scientists and mad scientists, and the ones mentioned in the rest of this article cover the entire spectrum.

For a contrasting view of scientific exploration, see the List of heroic fictional scientists.


Before 1945

Since the 19th century, fictitious depictions of science have vacillated between notions of science as the salvation of society or the doom of society. Consequently, depictions of scientists in fiction ranged between the virtuous and the depraved, the sober and the insane. Until the 20th century, optimism about progress was the most common attitude towards science, but latent anxieties about disturbing "the secrets of nature" would surface following the increasing role of science in wartime affairs.

The prototypical mad scientist was Dr. Frankenstein, creator of Frankenstein's monster, who made his first appearance in 1818, in the novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley. Though Dr. Frankenstein is a sympathetic character, the critical element of conducting forbidden experiments that cross "boundaries that ought not to be crossed", heedless of the consequences, is present in Shelley's novel.

1927's Metropolis, directed by Austrian expressionist director Fritz Lang, brought the archetypical mad scientist to movie audiences in the form of Rotwang, the evil genius whose machines gave life to the dystopian city of the title. Rotwang's laboratory influenced many subsequent movie sets with its electrical arcs, bubbling apparatus, and bizarrely complicated arrays of dials and controls. Portrayed by actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Rotwang himself is the prototypically conflicted mad scientist; though he is master of almost mystical scientific power, he remains slave to his own desires for power and revenge. Rotwang's appearance was also influential -- the character's shock of flyaway hair, wild-eyed demeanor, and his quasi-fascist laboratory garb have all been adopted as shorthand for the mad scientist "look". Even his mechanical right hand has become a mark of twisted scientific power, echoed notably in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.

Nevertheless, the essentially benign and progressive impression of science in the public mind continued unchecked, exemplified by the optimistic "Century of Progress" exhibition in Chicago, 1933, and the "World of Tomorrow" at the New York World's Fair of 1939. However after the first World War, public attitudes began to shift, if only subtly, when chemical warfare and the airplane were the terror weapons of the day. As an example, of all science fiction before 1914 which dealt with the end of the world, two-thirds were about naturalistic endings (such as collision with an asteroid), and the other third was devoted to endings caused by humans (about half were accidental, half purposeful). After 1914, the idea of any human actually killing the remainder of humanity became a more imaginable fantasy (even if it was still yet impossible), and the ratio switched to two-thirds of all end-of-the-world scenarios being the product of human maliciousness or error. Though still drowned out by feelings of optimism, the seeds of anxiety had been thoroughly sown.

Since 1945

Mad scientists had their heyday in popular culture in the period after World War II. The sadistic medical experiments of the Nazis and the invention of the atomic bomb gave rise in this period to genuine fears that science and technology had gone out of control. The scientific and technological build up during the Cold War, with its increasing threats of unparalleled destruction, did not lessen the impression. Mad scientists frequently figure in science fiction and motion pictures from the period. The movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, in which Peter Sellers plays the titular Dr. Strangelove, is perhaps the ultimate expression of this fear of the power of science.

In more recent years, the mad scientist as a lone investigator of the forbidden unknown has tended to be replaced by mad corporate executives who plan to profit from defying the laws of nature and humanity regardless of who suffers; these people hire a salaried scientific staff to pursue their twisted dreams. This shift is typified by the revised history of Superman's archenemy, Lex Luthor: originally conceived in the 1930s as a typically solitary mad scientist, a major retcon of the character's origins in the early 1980s made him the head of a megacorporation who also plays a leading role in his R & D department. Still, the pose has been used whimsically by popular science writers to attract readers.

Mad scientists, and the relationship between man and technology in general, are the focus of the current webcomic A Miracle of Science ( In the series, mad scientists are in fact victims of Science Related Memetic Disorder a contagious memetic disease that causes obsessive behavior focused on some form of technology.

See also: List of mad scientists, Cranks

Fields of research

Untouched fields

Fields that are largely untapped by mad scientists include:

Real-life prototypes

The scientists of literature and popular imagination have better defined our image of "mad science" than have actual scientists, because that is their function: to reflect back our own prejudices. "Popular belief and behavior are influenced more by images than by demonstrable facts" (Roslynn Doris Haynes, 1994). Some real-life scientists, not necessarily madmen, whose personalities (and sometimes, appearances) have contributed to the stereotype:

Related: List of people widely considered eccentric, List of mad scientists

References analyzing the cultural motif

  • Haynes, Roslynn Doris (1994). From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-4801-6.
  • Junge, Torsten; Doerthe Ohlhoff (2004). Wahnsinnig genial: Der Mad Scientist Reader. Aschaffenburg: Alibri. ISBN 3-9332710-79-7.
  • Tudor, Andrew (1989). Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Movie. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-15279-2.
  • Weart, Spencer R. (1988). Nuclear Fear: A History of Images. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

External links

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