Mad scientist

Mad scientist

A mad scientist is a stock character of popular fiction, specifically science fiction. The mad scientist may be villainous, benign or neutral, and whether insane, eccentric, or simply bumbling, mad scientists often work with fictional technology in order to forward their schemes, if they even have a coherent scheme. Alternatively, they fail to see the evil that will ensue from the hubris of “playing god”. Not all mad scientists are evil or villains. Some are protagonists (or at least positive forces), such as Dexter in the animated series "Dexter's Laboratory". Occasionally there are self parodies of mad scientists making fun of the stereotype.

Though the archetypes often overlap, a mad scientist need not be an evil genius. A mad scientist is simply a scientist who has become obsessively involved with their studies and has begun to develop eccentricities by normal standards; an evil genius is a genius who uses their gift for explicitly, consciously evil purposes. For example, while a mad scientist would test the bounds of science to create an army of zombies, he may do it to see if – or prove that – he could, or out of boredom, to impress women, to help clean up his house, or many other such reasons. By contrast, an evil genius would construct his army with a purpose, such as taking over the world – in addition to being evil, such characters tend to have large-scale ambition (see Megalomania in fiction). A mad scientist may be a naive pawn of an evil genius, the evil genius often promising the scientist the funds and resources to conduct his research unaware of the evil purposes that his work will be used for. Mad scientists also, whilst definitely being intelligent, usually fail to think things through to their conclusion while an evil genius is usually a clever planner and would have a diabolical use for the army of zombies as well as a plan to avoid being killed by them.



Since ancient times, popular imagination has circulated on archetypal figures who wielded esoteric knowledge. Shamans, witches and witch doctors were held in reverence and fear of their rumored abilities to conjure beasts and create demons. They shared many of the same perceived characteristics such as eccentric behavior, living as hermits, and the ability to create life.

Perhaps the closest figure in Western mythology to the modern mad scientist was Daedalus, creator of the labyrinth, who was then imprisoned by King Minos. To escape, he invented two pairs of wings made from feathers and beeswax, one for himself and the other for his son Icarus. While Daedalus himself managed to fly to safety, Icarus flew too close to the sun, which melted the wax of his wings, casting him down into the sea below.

In actual history, Archimedes shares some of the elements of the mad scientistFact|date=June 2007, but was closer to the more benign archetype of the absent-minded professorFact|date=June 2007.

A more whimsical prototype of the mad scientist can be found in Aristophanes' comedy "The Clouds". The play depicts Socrates, a contemporary of Aristophanes, as tinkering with odd devices and performing implausible experiments to determine the nature of the clouds and sky, and presents his philosophical method as a means for deceiving others and escaping blame, closer to the later descriptions of his opponents, the Sophists, than to those usually ascribed to him. While this is at variance with the depictions by Plato and Xenophon, two of Socrates' students, it is plausible that Aristophanes' parody of Socrates is more accurate than their panegyrics. One of Plato's students, Aristotle, is known to have also been an experimentalist, and may have taken the concept up from his teacher's teacher. A similar parody of insane and pointless experimentation may be found in the Academy of Lagado in "Gulliver's Travels."

The protoscience of alchemy long had a resemblance to mad science with its lofty goals and bizarre experiments. Certain alchemists were well known for behaving strangely, sometimes a result of handling dangerous substances, such as mercury poisoning in the case of Sir Isaac Newton. The famous alchemist Paracelsus claimed to be able to create a homunculus, an artificial human. Alchemy steadily declined with the advent of modern science during the Enlightenment.

Films and fiction

Since the 19th century, fictitious depictions of science have vacillated between notions of science as the salvation of society or its doom. 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 fictional mad scientist was Victor 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 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. Frankenstein was trained as both alchemist and modern scientist which makes him the bridge between two eras of an evolving archetype. His monster is essentially the homunculus of a new form of literature, science fiction.

Another archetypal Mad Scientist is Faust, or Dr. Faustus. The Faust legend is a widely recognized and referenced example of selling one's soul to the devil. In almost all cases, Faust is selling his soul for knowledge or supernatural power.

Fritz Lang's 1927 movie "Metropolis" brought the archetypical mad scientist to the screen 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 "".

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 impossible), and the ratio switched to two-thirds of all end-of-the-world scenarios being the product of human maliciousness or error.Fact|date=March 2007 Though still drowned out by feelings of optimism, the seeds of anxiety had been thoroughly sown.

The most common tool of mad scientists in this era was electricity. It was viewed widely as a quasi-mystical force with chaotic and unpredictable properties by an ignorant public.

A recent survey of 1000 horror films distributed in the UK between the 1930s and 1980s reveals mad scientists or their creations have been the villains of 30 percent of the films; scientific research has produced 39 percent of the threats; and, by contrast, scientists have been the heroes of a mere 11 percent. (Christopher Frayling, "New Scientist", 24 September 2005)

After 1945

Mad scientists had their heyday in popular culture in the period after World War II. The sadistic medical experiments of the Nazis, especially those of Josef Mengele, 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. Kubrick's "", in which Peter Sellers plays the titular Dr. Strangelove, is perhaps the ultimate expression of this fear of the power of science, or the misuse of this power.

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 1986 made Lex Luthor the head of a megacorporation who also plays a leading role in his R & D department. Bob Page, the master villain in the computer game "Deus Ex", is another example. Still, the pose has been used whimsically by popular science writers to attract readers.

The techniques of mad science also changed after Hiroshima. Electricity was replaced by radiation as the new tool to create, enlarge, or deform life ("e.g.", Godzilla). As audiences became more savvy, quantum mechanics, genetic engineering, and artificial intelligence have taken the spotlight ("e.g.", "Blade Runner").

In the 2000s, a number of authors have assumed that their audience is familiar with the trappings of the mad scientist, producing works that shift from using the character type to exploring its implications. The mostly comedic webcomic "Narbonic" chronicles the day-to-day life of an evil laboratory in a world where henchmen have unionized and the "New Journal of Malology" competes with "Modern Madiagnosis". The titular Helen Narbon plays counter to type by being a plump, cheerful twenty-something woman with an obsession with the color pink and hideous biological experiments involving gerbils. Comic book turned webcomic "Girl Genius" takes a combination of mad science and steampunk to its logical extreme: an Europe reduced to scattered city-states and the clockwork and biological abominations released by its Spark overlords. Other commerical examples are the novel "Soon I Will Be Invincible" and "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog" by Joss Whedon.

See also

* Absent-minded professor
* Creativity techniques
* Boffin
* Crank (person)
* List of mad scientists
* "Megalomaniac"


* Garboden, Nick (2007). "Mad Scientist or Angry Lab Tech: How to Spot Insanity". Portland: Doctored Papers. ISBN 1-56363-660-3.
* 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.
* Christopher Frayling – "Mad, Bad and Dangerous?: The Scientist and the Cinema" (Reaktion Books, 2005) ISBN 1-86189-255-1
* Junge, Torsten; Doerthe Ohlhoff (2004). "Wahnsinnig genial: Der Mad Scientist Reader. Aschaffenburg: Alibri. ISBN 3-932710-79-7.
* 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

* Analyzing the culture motif
** [ Gary Hoppenstand, “Dinosaur Doctors and Jurassic Geniuses: The Changing Image of the Scientist in the Lost World Adventure”]
** [ The Scarecrow's Brain – images of the scientist in film, Christopher Frayling]
** [ Breaking Down the Stereotypes of Science by Recruiting Young Scientists]
** [ The Mad Scientist Database with links and Looks]

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