Frankenstein was a lowly alchemist
So why is he still giving scientists a bad name?
Good question. Scientists -- aren't they the folks who invented engines, vaccines, and computers? But their popular image, as reflected in movies, comics and books, would make you think they have nothing better to do than dream up torture for the unwary, enslavement for tender youth, and get-rich-quick schemes for themselves.
Frankenstein. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The Mummy. These scarier-than-sin creations -- and many more -- are all associated with science and scientists.
The Why Files got to wondering: Why do we see scientists this way? Are the folks in the lab coats truly so dangerous?
We thought to ask Glen Scott Allen, assistant professor of English at Towson University in Baltimore, who's writing a book called "Master Mechanics & Evil Wizards: Science and the American Imagination," about the popular-culture image of scientists. Allen says the root of the "mad scientist" image runs deep. "Every culture has myths about shamans, witch doctors. They're always very powerful, very mysterious, solitary figures."
"Shamans are still among us," Allen says. "We have always feared their power, and there's absolutely a need for them."
Shamans "usually have some kind of special language, you have to go through some kind of not very pleasant trial to join -- either a witch doctor's apprenticeship, or six years of graduate school followed by apprenticeship in a research institution."
In other words, scientists fit this image perhaps too well for their own good, says Allen.
And just as medieval society made witches into scapegoats, scientists and engineers have become scapegoats for immense public problems, Allen says. Nuclear meltdowns and nuclear waste disposal jump immediately to mind when "technology gone amuck" is mentioned.
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