The mad professor takes off his gloves

TWO CULTURES; Film producers love the idea of scientists, but usually have portrayed them as mad or fiendish. Until now.

Frankenstein is alive and well and living in Hollywood. Since the first Frankenstein movie 88 years ago, Mary Shelley's character and his monster have proved to be the most potent myths for film-makers seeking to reflect our anxieties about scientists interfering with nature. As a result, most of Tinseltown's scientists have been travesties. Until recently, that is.

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin