A Mad, Mad World

Frankenstein's Monster.

Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster in the 1931 film The Bride of Frankenstein.

Alongside the popular mainstream history of science's march of progress is the equally popular history of fictional mad science—particularly mad scientists. As long as there have been respectable scientists, it feels as though their polar opposites have existed.

The 19th century was especially fruitful: book characters Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll resonate to this day. In the 20th century mad scientists found a home in the cinema. Cold War-era  B-movies set mad scientists against the backdrop of atomic warfare. More recently, Dr. Octopus in Spiderman 2 typified mad scientists in the 21st century.

Each scientist has a particular madness suited to the real science of the day. Mary Shelley has Dr. Frankenstein employ the new science of electricity (the battery had been invented less that 20 years before the book’s publication) in the creation of his monster. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll works off developing ideas of the unconscious. Post-World War II, mad scientists tried to wreak mass destruction similar in scope to that feared of atomic and hydrogen bombs.

Mad scientists, it turns out, have a method to their madness—they are like a compass pointing to the anxieties of the day. (Although science itself often plays a role in creating those anxieties.)

These scientists reflect age-old moral failings—grandiosity, overreach, arrogance—and they all pay the price of their failings. Frankenstein refuses to take responsibility for his creation. Jekyll believes he can comfortably indulge his vices through an alter ego without effect. We need these fictional creatures, not to tell us about the state of science, but the state of ourselves.

Posted In: History

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