Feel like your degree is sending you mad? You’re not alone.
Mad scientists make me feel inferior. As I fail to understand yet another quantum mechanics lecture dressed in a supremely boring outfit (even by the standards of 2003, which still has an unfortunate grip on my wardrobe), I wonder—how can one person both make genius scientific discoveries, and simultaneously embody “unwashed lab coat chic” so well?! To the noble end of placating my ego, I looked at why mad scientists are such a prevalent social construct, where they came from, and how they affect our view of scientists today.
The “mad scientist” you are picturing stems from deep within Western Europe in the Middle Ages, when alchemists inspired terror in the public consciousness, as minds touched by genius and madness strove to possess secrets and powers beyond the mortal. Myths are reflections of cultural norms and anxieties and many narratives warn against the disastrous search for forbidden knowledge—Eve, Pandora and Daedalus are classic examples. To push back against the causes of these cultural fears about powers detached from military, social or political control, which stem from the forbidden knowledge excavated by unstable minds, the archetypes of the alchemist and later the anti-social, obsessive, mad scientist were used to deride unaccountable, incomprehensible powermongers.
The historical context of the mad scientist is also key. The scientists of the 19th century were individuals—rich gentiles whose curiosity could run free from institutional and social supervision in their private laboratories. This was an understandably worrying image to an economically far-removed public…especially once they started robbing graves. This Jekkyl and Hyde-esque era of science was swiftly followed by the Industrial Revolution, where society was radically transformed through the efforts of more organised scientists, and from that point on innovation only kept speeding up. Once cinema plastered the wild-haired mad scientist on the silver screens, films like Dr. Strangelove and Gattaca shifted the fear of the alchemist to the nuclear terror of the Cold War, genetic engineering, and chemical pollution.
So where do I stand? Mediocre graverobber and eco-conscious soul, my avenues for mad-sciencedom seem limited. And for the best, as the image of the mad scientist has slowly eroded over the past 30 years. With the institutionalisation and professionalisation of science, the added diversity of women and people of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds, the shift of the blame for anthropogenic global heating from scientists to businesspeople and perhaps most importantly the emergence of well-intentioned, science communicators such as David Attenborough, Jane Goodall and a host of children’s educators, science has become the realm of the public much more so than the private and thus the veil of inaccessibility and terror has somewhat lifted. Though others have taken on the mantle of the terrible ‘Other’ instead of scientists, perhaps we are better served moving away from that outdated, if useful caricature, and into an age where science belongs to the public rather than the unstable, mythical individual…as much as I want to be him.