It might be hard to believe to our TV-grown generation
but the "mad scientist" stereotype is older than Jerry Lewis !.
Old caricature of alchemists (Full image 104K)
Modern Mad-Scientists cartoon (Full image 74K)
Old caricature of a 17th Century alchemist lab 
"Mad Scientist Scams" (74K)
A modern Mad Scientist cartoon
You can get the idea from this old caricature of a 17th century alchemist lab. The alchemist and his assistant are so deeply devoted to getting a precious chunk of the philosophers stone to convert any metal into gold that they have no eyes for the world outside their crucible. This twisted perception of exclusive dedication to the pursuit of knowledge still lurks in our collective idea of what a typical scientist is. Mad scientists like those on the cartoon on the right are a breed appart.



Mad scientists or nutty professors ?

Hollywood is some kind of a mirror of our society. And, as mirrors also do, sometimes returns deformed images of reality. When a successful topic is exhausted, producers at “The Industry “ will switch it into parody or cartoons. In “The nutty professor” Jerry Lewis made the best known modern caricature of a nerdy mad scientist, in a play directly taken from the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide. We have also seen many cartoons on the topic.
And what about mad scientists ?. Those are always bad guys about to conquer the world all by themselves or at most with the help of a few merely instrumental assistants.
These stereotypes are so heavily deformed that they are just a matter of fun entertainment. But there are other stereotypes of science and scientists with more subtle implications

Old Classics

Frankenstein Dr. Victor Frankenstein has been a perfect example of mad scientist ever since he was created by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley in 1818. His daring to reach for the spark of life cost him the punishment of destiny in the hands of his own living creation.
He was not alone, Dr. Jekyll also suffered nature’s revenge. In this case it was on his own person, in the form of the now well-known potion-induced double personality.

These two characters share many common characteristics. Both were in principle dedicated scientists with good intentions, both worked on philanthropic projects but in isolation from the common human world and of course both were surpassed by the results of their work.

The moral behind these stories is clear, as they warn us of what could happen when we try to outsmart our Mother Nature and dare to uncover her dearest secrets. As a true Victorian mother, Nature will punish us.

Older Classics

But when it comes to inventing punishments for daring humans, humans have shown an extremely old tradition. As a matter of fact we can find many such stories in the classics, the old Greeks for example, even before science as we know it was invented. It was the time when gods ruled the world and controlled the fates of all mortals.

Prometheus was not a god, just a titan; and he was also a friend of human kind. During the hard times of creation he favored our species over the rest of living beings by giving us the superior upright position and, as it is better known, by stealing the Sun’s fire and bringing it under our control. Oh boy... that made Zeus really mad !. Probably you know the terrible punishment Prometheus had to endure forever (tied up with chains, an eagle would rip him off over and over again and he wouldn’t die). I guess he could have reached our days being attacked by the eagle if it wasn’t for the help of Hercules who finally killed the persistent animal (the eagle). By the way, Frankensteins’ story was inspired in Prometheus’. In fact, the full title of Mary Shelley’s novel was “Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus”. As you can see some ideas stick hard to our collective mind.

Knowledge, power and punishment

But let us leave Prometheus finally resting in peace and see what we can remember of another classical tale. I would like to tell you more about the story of a young daring man called Icarus. You probably first knew about this mythological character by his wings.
Icarus was the son of Daedalus, a mythical Greek architect-sculptor-inventor. It is a long story (you can learn more about it in the related story... “The flight of Daedalus” ), but the fact is that Daedalus and Icarus were prisoners of King Minos of Crete. To escape the island Daedalus designed suitable wings for him and his son, and made them with feathers and wax. Icarus was instructed in the use of those liberating wings by his father. Together with the instruction manual Icarus got a severe advice from his father. He should not fly too high in the skies for the sun could melt the wax. The technology was ready and the inherent dangers were too. Sure enough our young and daring Icarus was carried away by the pleasure of flight (a pleasure many of us enjoy these days), defied the warnings and lost his life.

The Fall of Icarus by Carlo Saraceni (detail)

Like Prometheus, Icarus ventured into the forbidden kingdom of knowledge. Knowledge that gave them power; a power that got out of control and was the cause of their ultimate punishment.

Is it over ?

We have seen how old the stories of humble mortals playing god are. But those are very old stories. We live in the days of light. The gods have long ago declined responsibility for the fate of human kind which is now on our own hands. So we could confidently expect a different social attitude towards the pursuit of knowledge.
But the pursuit of knowledge implies reaching for the unknown, and the unknown has always conveyed fear to our super-ape brains.

From time to time, when we go to the movies or watch TV, we will be reminded of the terrible consequences hiding around the corner of the next scientific breakthrough. We will horrify before the pitiful “half-scientist-half-insect” monster in “The fly” and will join the skeptic crowd after “experiencing” the Lost World of Jurassic Park.

We have always had and will always have this kind of tales because, as I was telling you, MAD Scientists never die. 

Are we ready for the challenges of science and technology ?. Are we Icarus or Daedalus ?. Visit the related page "The flight of Daedalus"

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©Pedro Gómez-Romero, 1998,1999