Science/Fiction: mad scientists

Science/Fiction is a regular column that looks at error made by books, films and others whenever they include some science in their plot.


Ladies and gentlemen, scientists are great people. I come across scientists every day, I met scientists from all over the world and all horizons, so I think I do have a good idea of what a scientist can be, and they are great people.

I also have an idea of what they cannot be, and guess what? They are not evil. They are also not mentally ill up to the point they would want to destroy earth. Finally they do not build weapons to kill superheroes or wipe out (part of) humanity.

Yes, today, I will talk about mad scientists, evil geniuses, evil not-so-geniuses, mentally-challenged masterminds and other things, as long as they use science in a weird, corrupted way.

And which better place to start than in the mountains of Switzerland? Those of you who have a knack for horror stories already know where this is going. Yes! “Frankenstein or the modern Prometheus”, in which Mary Shelley offers us the great character of Victor Frankenstein. Without going too much into details, the main character makes scientific mistakes due to his thirst for knowledge, his lack of experience and also a lack of proper guidance. This story, of course, has drastic consequences that would never be seen in the real world (a.k.a. the creature itself). However, to some extent, there is a part of reality in this book. Mistakes in science are made when people rush to experimentation without asking themselves what they expect from it or even just discussing with their peers.

The book that sparked the fire of madness into scientists.

If Mary Shelley did a great job writing her most famous book and already pointed some concerns about science in 1818, let us see what happens to mad scientists in more recent years.

Just like Mary’s young Victor, many fiction scientists lose their mind because of the knowledge they hold and the enthusiasm, the passion they have for science. This passion that drives them on the borderline of sanity is evident in the character of Dr. “Doc” Brown from “Back to the Future”. First things first, he is a scientist. You want a proof? He has a lab coat. What worries me the most is his mental state. Not because he is weird or aloof, no. Just because he sends Marty in his new invention without testing it any further. And mind you, time travel is a great thing but just ensure there will be no dramatic consequences before you travel. So Dr. Brown, a scientist? He has the passion, for sure, but his lack of any ethical concern could be a problem in the real world.

“I’m sure in 1985 plutonium is in every corner drug store, but in 1955, its a little hard to come by!” – Doctor Emmett Brown

I just gave here two fine examples of scientists that have passion but end up making errors because they forget about real world concerns and become self-absorbed in their quest for knowledge. Good intentions at first lead to bad outcomes later. There are, however, bad people from the start that just use science as a tool for their evil intent.

Of course, I could talk about Lex Luthor or Dr. Octavius or pretty much any villain with “Dr.” in their name from a comic book. I will not do it. First of all, because I feel like my knowledge concerning super-villains is lacking and second, because there are other characters that I would like to introduce.

Let’s start with my second favorite blue character (the first one being papa smurf): Megamind from “Megamind”. This animated film is a parody of the typical duel of brawn versus intellect. We have a blue hyper-intelligent person against a strong superhero. Nothing Megamind ever creates works against the superhero and I like how persistent the character is in trying to defeat his sworn enemy. Here, scientists will agree: perseverance is the key. And it is true! Science is about failures as much as it is about successes. Although when you think about it, this is still a film about a super-intelligent person that tries to be respected by others using force (whenever you put it like this, it does not sound like the character is actually that intelligent). Past the fact that it means something is wrong in his mind, it means that his moral compass is off somewhere.

There are even spikes, just in case you were not sure he was evil.

Another character that fits this description of having personal projects in need of some science is the delicious Frank N. Furter. This man has a passion for blond men with a tan and therefore uses science to create the creature of his wildest dreams: Rocky. And yes, this is an actual musical, “the Rocky Horror Picture Show”. Frank N. Furter is ready to do anything to reach his goal and this includes sequestration, creating life, murder. This is not all related to science, mind you, but there is here again something we saw in the previous examples: lack of ethical concern.

Do not worry, he is only putting these gloves to clean his lab.

It does seem like there is mostly one way for science to go wrong in fiction and it stands true in real life also. Yes, none of us scientists are evil and ready to kill for our research (or are we?), but proper guidelines and a scientific method have been around for a reason. There is a need for a clean science that can be trusted by everyone. Maybe more transparency could sway away concerns about scientific facilities and research in general.

This brings me to a last point. Lately, the mad scientist has sometimes been replaced by evil corporations. Actually this comes from real world concerns. What are corporations doing? This is about ethics and transparency at the same time. I will go over the most infamous example that comes not from the cinema industry but from the video-game world. “Umbrella Corp.” from the “Resident Evil” series is a pharmaceutical company that infected Raccoon city with a virus that turns people in zombies for research purposes. Everybody loves zombie apocalypses, so everybody loves Umbrella… Except maybe the unwilling zombies that participated in the experiment. I tried to ask them what they thought and here it is: “Braaain”.

So in the end, I like the archetype of the mad scientist. I like the inherent warning about science and that it is based on real world concerns. I mostly dislike the fact that it is used as a shortcut to create easy villains in the plot and that quite often, it does not have as much depth as other characters. But fear not! There are worse scientist archetypes around; however this is a story for another day.