The madmen who make a fiction of science

From a lecture given by Christopher Frayling, the rector of the Royal College of Artas part of the science festival Creating Sparks

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For most of the last century, popular movies have presented scientists - usually medical researchers or physicists - as either impossibly mad or impossibly saintly. I'm using the word "mad" in its English sense of "lunatic", rather than its American sense of "angry", although mad scientists are usually both.

For most of the last century, popular movies have presented scientists - usually medical researchers or physicists - as either impossibly mad or impossibly saintly. I'm using the word "mad" in its English sense of "lunatic", rather than its American sense of "angry", although mad scientists are usually both.

The mad scientists (the fictional ones) have outnumbered the saintly scientists (the real-life ones) by a very wide margin indeed. A sift through 6,000 movie reviews from Variety reveals that less than 20 have been concerned with the depiction of real-life scientists, while many more have dealt with real-life writers, visual artists and even singers.

A survey of 1,000 horror films distributed in Britain between 1931 and 1984, on the other hand, shows that mad scientists or their creations have been the villains in 31 per cent of them. Scientific research has produced 39 per cent of the threats in all horror films. By contrast, scientists have been the heroes of a mere 11 per cent of horror movies.

In science-fiction films, the dystopias outnumber the utopias by a factor of about 10 to one. Ever since its origins as a carnival sideshow, the cinema - itself the product of scientific research - has spent most of its history telling audiences that science and technology are, actually or potentially, very bad for them.

In most of these films, and their immediate derivatives, the mad science was the result of individual choice on the part of the researchers. This was through either over-obsessiveness and over-specialisation (if the part was played by Boris Karloff) or outright megalomania (if the part was played by Bela Lugosi). There was usually a contrast at some stage in the story with "sane" science, which helped to come to the rescue in the last reel, reassuring the audience about the need for progress.

"Do try to be sane," someone says to Lugosi, as he is about to be tortured in The Raven (1935). But in vain. The intentions might be good: in the case of Karloff's films of the 1930s, they included a cure for polio, a way of reversing the ageing process, a cryogenic cure for cancer, a mechanical heart and a brain transplant. But, for one reason or another, the experiments went badly wrong or the results were seriously misapplied. The strong emphasis on medical themes, as a way of playing to public anxieties, was presumably because that was the aspect of scientific research that most immediately impacted on everyday lives.

Hollywood, on the lookout for more mainstream, prestige projects (which were more likely to win Academy awards and improve the studio's image at a time of increasing industry censorship), soon began a parallel cycle of films based on the lives of real-life scientists. It began with The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), which won an Oscar for best actor for Paul Muni as a saintly, generous and humanitarian French chemist.

So, have these movies affected popular attitudes toward science and scientific research? They have certainly been carriers of popular anxieties about science. Movie-makers have picked up on these anxieties and turned them into popular stories. Attempts to redress the balance and present scientists as saints, or their progressive ideas as utopias, have seldom worked. Jurassic Park (1993), which is basically an updating of 1930s mad-science movies to the era of genetic modification, remains the most commercially successful film ever.

The gap between specialised knowledge and a general need for understanding is filled by the storytellers. There is also a sense that a purely scientific model of the universe has something important missing from it; historically, this goes back a long way. The stereotypes can be confronted by presenting the scientists of the past as real people rather than as superhumans: too much of the public debate, even today, is dominated by the rhetoric of horror movies.

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