First among equals, when it comes to monstrous scientists, was Frankenstein, the 1818 creation of novelist Mary Shelley. Frankenstein reached the best-seller lists at a curious time for science, says Glen Scott Allen of Towson University. Experiments with electricity were demonstrating the power of an unseen, ill-understood force with tremendous potential. But at the same time, Allen says, pseudosciences like mesmerism (defined) (named after its inventor, the Austrian physician Franz Anton Mesmer) were "being treated on an equal basis as science" itself.
Ironically, even though Frankenstein is the archetypal mad scientist, he was actually an alchemist (defined), Allen says. "It's very clear from Shelley's text." True to that tradition, he points out, many of the "mad scientists" in 20th century movies and literature are actually pseudoscientists, more wizard or alchemist than true scientist.
Can spot 'em a mile away...
Despite their varying origins, most "mad scientists" share some "definite physical hallmarks," according to Allen. They're tall, aristocratic -- even elitist -- in bearing, and tend to speak with an accent. Such figures can be traced back to Frankenstein, as well as the works of American writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe.
As evidence, Allen points to the bitter rivalry between two theoretical physicists who worked on the Manhattan Project that spawned the atomic bomb during World War II.
The opposite of the mad scientist is someone with a practical bent, Allen says, a tinkerer or engineer with the common touch. The category includes such popular figures as Benjamin Franklin, an "old-fashioned New England type" who produced accessible knowledge, Allen says, and "made no secret of the fact that he was anti-theory." Similarly, Thomas Edison worked in a "workshop" rather than a "laboratory," emphasizing the practical over the theoretical. Finally, Allen concludes, although Albert Einstein's science was Greek to the average person, he had a grandfatherly appeal and did not associate himself directly with universities, which are sometimes seen as covens of modern shamanistic knowledge.
Fear of theorizing?
This preference for practicality and loathing of theory has deep roots in American culture, Allen says. Way back in Puritan times, religious leaders like Jonathan Edwards fulminated that "the imagination was a bad place, and you wouldn't want to spend much time there." The Puritans, famously, coined this piece of wisdom: "Idle hands are the devil's workshop."
That predilection retains political impact, Allen says, contrasting the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC), a multi-billion dollar experimental physics machine that was started and abruptly terminated, to the ongoing research for anti-missile defense, variously called the Strategic Defense Initiative, AKA Star Wars. "The SSC was killed because it was purely theoretical, there would be no practical results," Allen argues. "The reason Star Wars refuses to die is that it seems to be pure mechanics."
These characters who invent bombs and phonographs -- do you think they maybe just do it for the thrill of it?
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