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
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
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.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine