At a meeting last week I got to do a lot of people watching, but people watching of scientists surrounded by their peers, and it really got me thinking. I’ve often emphasized in these columns that science does not persist in a vacuum. It really can’t because few are smart enough or have access to enough resources to do science by themselves. However, the idea of the mad scientists persists, and it persists heartily in comics, otherwise why would I write about it all. (I’m also writing about it cause it’s October and mad scientists are spooky.)

Think about your image of a scientist. Seriously, stop reading for a moment and make a mental image. What do you see? If you image is a poindexter in a lab coat that’s fine, but it’s also probably inaccurate. I’m by no means a perfect representative but I’ve worn an actual lab coat maybe a half a dozen times and only because I had to access a “clean lab.” Most days I wear jeans, t-shirt and flip-flops (closed-toed shoes if I know I’m gonna be working with some nasty chemicals). My sunglasses are either on or perched on my head, my iPod heaphones dangle from my collar and by all accounts I’m relatively fit. Probably not your image of scientist but it’s who I am and I’m by no means an oddball. Your image of a scientist may be like everyone else’s image of a comic book reader. We’re not all comic book guy. Yet the mad scientist persists: lab coat, goggles, gloves, wicked smile; basically Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Horrible or Doktor Sleepless.
Well what makes a scientist mad? There seem to be a few recurrent themes. One is brilliance; utter, total, profound unstoppable intelligence with the will to implement it. Another is isolation, we know it’s not realistic but there ya have it. Mad scientists don’t utilize peer review, no wonder they’re never published. The other key factor is lack of consideration for consequence. For a scientist to truly be “mad” they must push past current boundaries without the realization that science, like nearly every other human endeavor is a double-edged sword and caution is advisable to prevent potential disaster. So Reed Richards isn’t really a mad scientist, because he attempts to consider the consequences, whereas Curt Connors is because… well, he’s the lizard now.
I’ve oft heard literary folks claim Dr. Frankenstein is the archetypal mad scientist. I push the inception back farther into myth and give the label of first mad scientist to Prometheus. The full title of the book is even: Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. The short version of the story is the titan Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind, for which he was severely punished. It may seem quaint now, but fire was some serious tech back in the day. This demonstrates two great aspects of a scientific revolution, one that there are both positive and negative effects. Sure you can cook food, but you may also burn yourself or loved ones. Caution should always prevail. And two, it cannot be undone. Once the literal and proverbial fire is lit we will always have fire. It cannot be extinguished so be west just learn to live with it. Science is like that, it progresses whether we want it to or on, best get with the program and at least find a way to minimize bad and maximize good.
The thing is I’ve never met someone I would honestly classify as a mad scientist; in fiction they tend not to be terribly social. I kind of doubt they exist at all. Sure there are cranks, crackpots, charlatans and everything in between, but as I mentioned above, you can’t be a mad scientist unless you’re brilliant and those I’ve met just don’t qualify. I think I’m comfortable classifying the mad scientist as a myth. By why is a persistent myth and does it serve a purpose?
People fear the unknown. It does get much worse than a complete blank because then whatever terror you have can be superimposed on whatever is simply not known. Science is the pursuit of lessening the unknown. Scientists actively probe the darkness for answers. It’s scary, if even only from a philosophical perspective. What we find in the darkness we drag into the light to show everyone else. And often what is found is wholly new. Things wholly new are also unknowns, and therefore scary. So discovery is just a freaky process. How many people write into iFanboy asking what books to read? Tons! Do they ask because they don’t know their own tastes? No, of course not. I think they ask because they’re afraid of or intimidated by all the unknowns in the books before them in the LCS. And sometimes scientists aren’t afraid enough. The act of creation is fraught with the potential for both help and harm. The mad scientists create without concern for consequences or in some cases with the intention to harm. It’s Doc Ock vs. Lex Luthor. 
Science, like comics, is oft misunderstood, and like Batman has learned, you’ll always fear, what you don’t understand. Maybe that should be my ultimate goal here, to make both comics and science a little less scary to the uninitiated or even just the unfamiliar. But I don’t think the mad scientist should go away, it’s  a fun conceit I just don’t want it to be an insurmountable cultural perception. Remember that island of mad scientists in 52? That was great! You know me by now, I’m about story and fun, I’ll just gripe on the side. With that in mind I’ll leave you with a man who said it best, Carl Sagan (he’s the go to for science writing with a deep humanity) from his book A Demon Haunted World:
[Scientists] have biases; we breathe in the prevailed prejudices from our surroundings like everyone else. Scientists have on occasion given aid and comfort to a variety of noxious doctrines (including the supposed “superiority” of one ethnic group or gender over another from measurements of brains size or skull bumps or IQ tests) …Occasionally, a few of them cheat and steal. Some worked – many without a trace of moral regret – for the Nazis. … [S]cientists are also responsible for deadly technologies – sometimes inventing them on purpose, sometimes being insufficiently cautious about unintended side-effects. But it is also scientists who, in most such cases, have blown the whistle alerting us to the danger.

This article brought to you by Ryan Haupt, the scientist who talks too much. Test the claim yourself by listening to Science… sort of.


  1. I think i just got an idea for halloween! Thanks Ryan!

    For me the best mad scientist will always be young frankenstien!

  2. I go a little mad in the lab sometimes. 

    I do a some fluid mechanics mathematical modeling coupled with data I take in the lab.  These experiments get pretty complex and some days I’ll get the feeling I’ve gone all "Beautiful Mind" and I’m actually doing the lab equivalent of decoding newspapers on the garage wall. 

  3. Dr Horrible : great example : He’s a doctor, see, AND he’s also Horrible… ooohhhh! I always knew Science teachers were scarey!!

  4. I agree with what you’re saying overall, but your opening paragraph especially has some logical problems. You suggest that isolated "mad scientists" couldn’t exist because "few are smart enough or have access to enough resources to do science by themselves". Well, yeah, but what about people who would have access to such resources, whether individually or in small groups? I’m not saying I believe real-life "mad scientists" exist (I don’t), but your logic here doesn’t prove it. And just because there’s a scientific community doesn’t mean that all knowledge is shared, or that all research is transparent. Indeed, privacy is how companies of all sorts (medical, military, food) keep a leg up on the competition: by effectively isolating their research and using it in the ways they want it. You say that "science does not persist in a vacuum", but that’s exactly what it does…until one lab is kind enough to share its research with everyone else.

    That’s not to say that I live in fear of science (quite the opposite), or of companies like Monsanto bioengineering crops. But you seem to present the obviously kooky and impossible examples of Lex Luthor and Dr. Octopus as if to say "See how silly someone like that would be? Therefore ALL scientists are unequivocally good and on the up-and-up." Your argument is too simplistic, and I think you’re overreacting to obvious caricatures of scientists that no one has REALLY taken seriously in fifty years. But just because Dr. Frankenstein is impossible doesn’t mean that there aren’t groups of scientists who have proven themselves to be dishonest, out for personal gain, etc. Instances of such scientists have come to light, whether you like it or not. That doesn’t mean that "science is bad" or that "scientists are not to be trusted", but to hold up caricatures of Lex Luthor as if to say "See how silly that is? Therefore science is good and perfect" is a weird reverse straw-man argument that doesn’t prove anything.

    Lastly, in the first paragraph you should put a comma after "can’t" and/or change "cause" to "because" or "cuz". I had to read that sentence five times to figure out what you were trying to say.

    Other than that, er…good article. I generally really like your work. I’m just pointing out what I see to be glaring logical weaknesses here. So often it seems that what you write seems more like a reactionary glowing apology for optimistic science, and you bring up obviously over-the-top negative examples to help your cause. Kind of like a campagn ad that brings up the worst qualities of the other candidate and then presents your candidate as God. There’s an undercurrent that just seems so defensive.

  5. Great article. 

  6. @WeaklyRoll – So are you going to be Young Frankenstein then? Will you be sending in your photo to the iFanboys?


    @Albatr0ss – John Nash would have been a great argument for a real life mad scientist, except he was a mathematician and nobody likes those nerds! (kidding)


    @Shallam – Dr. Horrible is a great distillation of the archetype. I guess Dr. Evil might count too but he has a cohort. I don’t think henchmen should count as collaborators.


    @RazorEdge757 – Thanks!