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Fiends In Lab Coats

by Laurie Sosna
February 13, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 7


Mad, Bad and Dangerous: The Scientist and the Cinema, by Christopher Frayling, Reaktion Books, 2005, 239 pages, $35, 19.95 (ISBN: 1-86189-255-1)

Wow, scientists are a misunderstood lot. Stem cell researchers are the spawn of Dr. Frankenstein. Drug researchers are the direct descendants of Dr. Jekyll. When you finally make a breakthrough, folks line up to discredit and malign you. How did this happen? What's a poor scientist to do?

You could read "Mad, Bad and Dangerous: The Scientist and the Cinema" by Christopher Frayling, who traces the history of the scientist in Western film and who clearly has your best interests at heart. Although not particularly revelatory, the book outlines how scientists have been misrepresented and oversimplified to the point where little truth remains.

Frayling begins with the cultural shorthand of the scientist; that is, the visual elements that universally construct our mental picture of a scientist. Citing surveys of schoolchildren, he shows that the lab coat, the spectacles, the lab itself, and the "Eureka!" moment are etched in our collective psyche from a very early age and have changed little over time.

Using a Newton-Einstein-Hawking connection, Frayling also discusses how scientists are often used by the public as a substitute for actually understanding the science itself. (Personal note: Why does it seem that everyone has to mention that Hawking holds the mathematics chair at Cambridge that was formerly held by Newton, as if it were some sort of universal predestination?)

In cinema's early days, science often took the form of science fiction. German filmmaker Fritz Lang started the ball rolling with "Metropolis" (1926) and "Frau im Mond" (1929). These films were the first to use what is now accepted iconography: "Metropolis" has the mad Dr. Rotwang trying to breathe life into his robot in a lab full of test tubes, beakers, electrical gizmos, and flying sparks. "Frau" was the first film to depict the launch of a spaceship with a rocket and a countdown. Never mind that the plot had something to do with finding gold on the moon. Problem was, viewers didn't understand the fiction part. These films were very convincing.

Many early films focused on the obsessed scientist, alienated from his friends, family, and most important, the scientific community. These films took the bug-eyed, white-haired, maniacal Dr. Rotwang and ran with the concept. Science in the early part of the 20th century ran smack into the insecurities of the populace. To most folks, science was just alchemy with a diploma. Remember that the telephone was a pretty big deal and most people didn't know how a radio worked.

No discussion of the scientist in the cinema can go for long without mentioning the big kahuna: Dr. Frankenstein. Like Dr. Rotwang before him, he's messing about with God's work, and you know how that usually ends. Frayling sums this up nicely: "If the audience doesn't understand it, or grasp the thought process, then it must be evil." Good science is comprehensible and beneficial, bound by God and nature. Many horror films in the 1930s focus on this theme. "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1931) and "Island of Lost Souls" (1933) are cousins of Frankenstein's. The message: It's not nice to fool with Mother Nature.

Hollywood's golden age was a particularly bad time for scientists. Science, simply put, wasn't sexy. In the 1940s, plots amounted to the conflict between the rogue scientist and the scientific community, oversimplified biography, or mushy love stories. Take the case of Paul Ehrlich, bacteriologist extraordinaire. After Warner Brothers and the Hollywood production code (you can't say "syphilis") finished with a version of his life, "Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet" (1940), it's shocking to find any science there at all. And if Don Ameche's portrayal of Alexander Graham Bell in his film biography (1939) is any indication, Bell must have been a dork.

Credit: J. J. McCullough
Credit: J. J. McCullough

Marie Curie fared no better in her film bio, "Madame Curie" (1943). Aldous Huxley's original story for the Curie film, a "hymn to scientism," was vetoed by MGM in favor of a more stoic love story starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon. The studio even hired a Caltech physicist as a consultant. A stickler for details, when asked why he was being so picky, he explained: "Scientists don't act that way."

The 1950s were all about the nuke. Radiation experiments created a planet filled with really big bugs and giant blobs of goo. It was also during this decade that a trend began toward shifting the blame from the scientist (no longer a raving maniac) to the military-government complex that used science to its own evil ends. Take one part Commie paranoia plus one part "What is radiation?" and you've got science in the 1950s.

As scientific mysteries were solved, old caricatures became fodder for satirists. The mad scientist became Dr. Frankensteen in "Young Frankenstein" (1974), Dr. Frankenfurter in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" (1975), and the eponymous Dr. Strangelove (1964).

Lately, biotechnology has become the scapegoat for our fears. Whether it's genetically altered food or cloning sheep, you are tinkering with the most fundamental elements of existence, not to mention our lamb chops. The big kahuna now is the corporate enterprise, recklessly using science to make a profit. "Westworld" (1973), "Terminator 2" (1991), and "Jurassic Park" (1993) make it clear that scientists are actually trying to save science from greedy big business.

Things are continuing to look up: "Gorillas in the Mist" (1988), "Outbreak" (1995), "Contact" (1997), and "A Beautiful Mind" (2001) have all tried to improve the image of scientists. They may be manic and obsessed, but in a good way.

Scientists need to accept some of the blame for the confusion: You need to work on your people skills. Let's face it, science isn't exactly user-friendly. That's why theoretical physicist Michio Kaku ( always seems to be included in every "Nova" episode on physics. He explains stuff. Science is full of jargon and esoterica and why in heck do we need a 10-mile-long atom smasher anyway?

Although movies may be lagging behind, TV loves scientists. Consider "CSI," "Bones," "Numb3rs," "Silent Witness," "Waking the Dead," "Threshold," and "Mythbusters." Then there's Discovery Science Channel and the upcoming Why do movies miss the boat? Beats me. Science is cool. And scientists? Well, they just rock.

Laurie Sosna works in the department of academic technology at San Francisco State University. Her love for science and scientists is eclipsed only by her love of movies.


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