For a place that is always finding new ways of dumbing down, Hollywood is now showing a markedly more enlightened attitude towards scientists. Frankenstein, his monster and a host of other stereotypes are still there up on the big screen, but they are in heavy disguise and usually accompanied by scientists who look suspiciously like human beings.
Take Spielberg's Jurassic Park and its sequel, the instant dinosaur The Lost World. These are re-runs of the Frankenstein myth, this time with the monster dinosaurs being produced under the orders of the wealthy theme- park owner, with the compliance of his geneticists. But there are hero- scientists there, too, the two palaeontologists and the mathematician, all regular people, just like you and me. So although Spielberg warns us about what he sees as the misappliance of science, he is not entirely unflattering about scientists.
For the past 80 years, the appearance of the scientist in films has been influenced by Einstein, the only human being to have rivalled Frankenstein's iconic power. Imagine how different the popular image of the scientist would have been if Einstein had had a crew cut and a bit of dress sense. We'd certainly have been spared Christopher Lloyd's peroxide-maned professor poncing around in the Back to the Future trilogy. His time-travelling doctor is perhaps the most famous of the menagerie of ill-kempt eggheads that have played the roles of scientists on film. All Lloyd's character lacked was the usual bitumen-thick German accent.
In addition to Einstein's role as the patron saint of scientific genius, he is also widely (and unjustly) associated with the production of nuclear weapons. The fear of nuclear war has been one of humanity's most pressing anxieties for most of the past 50 years and this has manifested itself in many screen characters, most famously through Peter Sellers's portrayal of Dr Strangelove, allegedly modelled on the American physicist and nuclear zealot Edward Teller. Although he was on screen for only eight minutes, Strangelove now has the status of the archetypal "mad scientist", oblivious of all moral concerns beyond the duty to advance science and exploit its discoveries.
Strangelove is one of the 79 Hollywood mad scientists featured in Screams of Reason, the new book from the American connoisseur of media weirdos David Skal. In his pot-boiling account of mad science in modern culture, Skal struggles to explain why the myth of the mad scientist has been so enduring. He opaquely concludes that mad scientists bridge the cultural chasm between science and superstition. The scientists' wacky demeanour is, he adds, "evidence of our intuitive knowledge that something is missing in a purely scientific model of the universe".
Really? The popularity of the mad scientist myth is, I suspect, much more to do with a need to demonise people who are doing unfamiliar, often impenetrable things, the consequences of which they can't predict and for which they often deny responsibility.
More interesting is the question of why film has proved to be such a powerful means of perpetuating the myth. The Frankenstein scholar Martin Tropp has argued convincingly that film is the perfect medium for sustaining any myth: "Each movie-goer is isolated in the darkness, seeing his fantasies projected before him, while he is bound to those around him by the similarities in culture that produce popular film."
It is this growing awareness that scientists are generally not mad that I believe is responsible for the braining-up of Hollywood's image of the scientist. Unlike the early days of film, we now have ample evidence from television, radio and the press that whatever qualities characterise your typical scientist, madness is not one of them. In fact, in a Usual Suspects- style line up, it would be pretty difficult to tell a scientist from folks in other professions. The only reasonably safe generalisation about the appearance of scientists is that most of them have the sartorial savvy of Mr Bean, and are quite proud of it.
Apart from comedies such as Flubber and The Mad Professor, the Identikit mad scientist looks like becoming a thing of the past in Hollywood. Scientists are, like practically everyone else these days, middle-class and well- behaved. In Outbreak, a deadly-virus-threatens-the-world drama, Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo play perfectly normal, unhappily married suburbanites, with scarcely an idiosyncrasy between them. And look at Matt Damon's affecting performance as the least weird wunderkind mathematician you can imagine in last year's hit Good Will Hunting. Its director, Gus Van Sant, gave us an astonishingly accurate view of academic life in Boston, a city proud of being the Athens of America and so not the sort of place Hollywood usually likes as a backdrop.
Among the glut of science-related films of late, some have even had a half-decent stab at portraying discoveries, notoriously hard to present on film. The problem is that scientific discoveries are processes not events, which is a bit of a disappointment for drama-hungry directors who are taken in by the Eureka myth.
By far best of these was Robert Zemeckis's Contact, an overblown but effective filming of Carl Sagan's story about the discovery of extra-terrestrial intelligence. Although encrusted with the usual Hollywood sentimentality, the film gave a believable vision of how such a discovery might be made and what might happen if it were. Zemeckis pleasingly made the protagonist a woman, and Jodi Foster predictably made a terrific fist of portraying a determined and intelligent scientist who is prepared to swim against the tide. In Chain Reaction, Rachel Weisz is not quite so successful in her role as the female physicist who is involved the discovery of how to make water a plentiful source of energy. Alas, Ms Weisz looks and sounds like she had prematurely absconded from Roedean before sitting her GCSEs.
Although there is a new realism in Hollywood's view of scientists, the plots of science-related films are still based on the Frankenstein myth. Perhaps this is because popular concerns about science now focus on geneticists and on how they appear to be able to interfere with natural processes of birth, death and the very food we eat - themes imaginatively explored in Gattaca, Andrew Niccol's vision of a genetic dystopia. Jon Turney, author of the excellent Frankenstein's Footsteps, has rightly argued that the new genetics makes ideal material for the movie director: "Biology and body horror make the perfect cinematic couple."
It's a pity that not one of today's first-rate geneticists has the iconic potential that might enable their profession to hold their own against the Frankenstein myth. The only scientist to have reached anything like this is the great Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking, who surely inspired the Dr Finkelstein character in Tim Burton's splendidly imaginative animated feature The Nightmare Before Christmas. And what a pity it is that there are no iconic female scientists. Marie Curie certainly had the brain-power and the achievements to qualify as one, but it's not easy to fashion a personality cult out of someone Einstein memorably described as having "the soul of a herring".
Scientists are wont to complain about their image in films, as if the movie industry had a duty to act as their unpaid PR consultants. Such complaints are, of course, touchingly naive. Hollywood - always more effective as a mirror than a lamp - is continuing to reflect common worries about what scientists are up to, but not doing much to illuminate what they actually do. The unfortunate truth is that most of their day-to-day work is far too boring to be packaged as profitable entertainment.
And there's the rub. Hollywood will give us science only if it's globally marketable to film-goers who want first and foremost to be entertained, not educated. Scientists on the screen will continue to have a mixture of all the favourite iconic qualities that have long provided the staple diet for movies - mad, interfering, cold, aloof and so on. If scientists want to change this, they'd better sharpen up their image or beat the media at their own game of generating icons. For the moment, scientists should be grateful that the myth factory has rarely treated them better.
Graham Farmelo is Head of Exhibitions at the Science Museum, London.Reuse content