Mad Scientists are a stock character term of popular fiction, specifically science fiction.
Mad scientists may be villainous or antagonistic, benign or neutral, and whether insane, irrational, eccentric, or simply bumbling, mad scientists often work with fictional technology in order to forward their schemes, if they even have a coherent scheme. Alternatively, they fail to see the potential objections to playing God. Not all mad scientists are evil or villains.
Some may have benevolent or good spirited intentions, even if their actions are dangerous or questionable, which can make them accidental villains. In the same relation, some are protagonists (or at least positive forces), such as Dexter in the animated series Dexter's Laboratory, Professor Calculus in The adventures of Tintin, Dr. Muto, Professor Farnsworth, Philo in UHF, Rintarō Okabe, Dr. Benjamin Jeffcoat, or Dr. Emmett "Doc" Brown from the Back to the Future movies. Occasionally, there are self parodies of mad scientists making fun of the stereotype.
Since ancient times, popular imagination has circulated on archetypal figures who wielded esoteric knowledge. Shamans, witches and witch doctors were held in reverence and fear of their rumored abilities to conjure beasts and create demons. They shared many of the same perceived characteristics such as eccentric behavior, living as hermits, and the ability to create life.
Perhaps the closest figure in Western mythology to the modern mad scientist was Daedalus, creator of the Labyrinth, who was then imprisoned by King Minos. To escape, he invented two pairs of wings made from feathers and beeswax, one for himself and the other for his son Icarus. While Daedalus himself managed to fly to safety, Icarus flew too close to the sun, which melted the wax of his wings, casting him down into the sea below.
In actual history, Archimedes shares some of the elements of the mad scientist, but was closer to the more benign archetype of the absent-minded professor (anecdotally, at least - read the story of the Golden Crown or the accounts of his death for examples).
A more whimsical prototype of the mad scientist can be found in Aristophanes' comedy The Clouds. The play depicts Socrates, a contemporary of Aristophanes, as tinkering with odd devices and performing implausible experiments to determine the nature of the clouds and sky, and presents his philosophical method as a means for deceiving others and escaping blame, closer to the later descriptions of his opponents, the Sophists, than to those usually ascribed to him. While this is at variance with the depictions by Plato and Xenophon, two of Socrates' students, it is plausible that Aristophanes' parody of Socrates is more accurate than their panegyrics. One of Plato's students, Aristotle, is known to have also been an experimentalist, and may have taken the concept up from his teacher's teacher. A similar parody of insane and pointless experimentation may be found in the Academy of Lagado in Gulliver's Travels (1726).
The protoscience of alchemy long had a resemblance to mad science with its lofty goals and bizarre experiments. It is known certain alchemists behaved strangely, sometimes as a result of handling dangerous substances, such as mercury poisoning in the case of Sir Isaac Newton. The famous alchemist Paracelsus claimed to be able to create a homunculus, an artificial human. Alchemy steadily declined with the advent of modern science during the Enlightenment.
Scientists and inventors of the modern era have also contributed to the development of common tropes surrounding the mad scientist. Nikola Tesla in his later years conceptualized a so-called "death ray" (a directed energy weapon) and was sensationalized in the media, notably the New York Times and the New York Sun, as a prototypical mad scientist for it.
Films and fiction
Since the 19th century, fictitious depictions of science have vacillated between notions of science as the salvation of society or its doom. Consequently, depictions of scientists in fiction ranged between the virtuous and the depraved, the sober and the insane. Until the 20th century, optimism about progress was the most common attitude towards science (with notable exceptions as Herbert G. Wells), but latent anxieties about disturbing "the secrets of nature" would surface following the increasing role of science in wartime affairs, as well as increased scrutiny of vivisection and the development of the animal rights movement.
The prototypical fictional mad scientist was Victor Frankenstein, creator of his eponymous monster, who made his first appearance in 1818, in the novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley. Though Frankenstein is a sympathetic character, the critical element of conducting forbidden experiments that cross "boundaries that ought not to be crossed", heedless of the consequences, is present in Shelley's novel. Frankenstein was trained as both alchemist and modern scientist which makes him the bridge between two eras of an evolving archetype. The book is the precursor of a new genre, science fiction, though as an example of Gothic horror it is connected with other antecedents as well.
1896 saw the publication of H. G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau, in which the titular doctor - a controversial vivisectionist - has isolated himself entirely from civilization in order to continue his experiments in splicing human DNA into animals, heedless of the suffering he causes.
Another archetypal mad scientist is Faust, or Dr. Faustus. The Faust legend is a widely recognized and referenced example of selling one's soul to the devil. In almost all cases, Faust is selling his soul for knowledge or supernatural power.
Fritz Lang's 1927 movie Metropolis brought the archetypical mad scientist to the screen in the form of Rotwang, the evil genius whose machines gave life to the dystopian city of the title. Rotwang's laboratory influenced many subsequent movie sets with its electrical arcs, bubbling apparatus, and bizarrely complicated arrays of dials and controls. Portrayed by actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Rotwang himself is the prototypically conflicted mad scientist; though he is master of almost mystical scientific power, he remains slave to his own desires for power and revenge. Rotwang's appearance was also influential - the character's shock of flyaway hair, wild-eyed demeanor, and his quasi-fascist laboratory garb have all been adopted as shorthand for the mad scientist "look". Even his mechanical right hand has become a mark of twisted scientific power, echoed notably in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove and in the novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) by Philip K. Dick.
Nevertheless, the essentially benign and progressive impression of science in the public mind continued unchecked, exemplified by the optimistic "Century of Progress" exhibition in Chicago, 1933, and the "World of Tomorrow" at the New York World's Fair of 1939. However, after the first World War, public attitudes began to shift, if only subtly, when chemical warfare and the airplane were the terror weapons of the day. As an example, of all science fiction before 1914 which dealt with the end of the world, two-thirds were about naturalistic endings (such as collision with an asteroid), and the other third was devoted to endings caused by humans (about half were accidental, half purposeful). After 1914, the idea of any human actually killing the remainder of humanity became a more imaginable fantasy (even if it was still impossible), and the ratio switched to two-thirds of all end-of-the-world scenarios being the product of human maliciousness or error. Though still drowned out by feelings of optimism, the seeds of anxiety had been thoroughly sown.
The most common tool of mad scientists in this era was electricity. It was viewed widely as a quasi-mystical force with chaotic and unpredictable properties by an ignorant public.
A recent survey of 1,000 horror films distributed in the UK between the 1930s and 1980s reveals mad scientists or their creations have been the villains of 30 percent of the films; scientific research has produced 39 percent of the threats; and, by contrast, scientists have been the heroes of a mere 11 percent. (Christopher Frayling, New Scientist, 24 September 2005)
In comic books many of the earliest foes were mad scientists. The Ultra-Humanite, an evil crippled scientific genius, was Superman's first recurring foe and possibly the first comic book supervillain. He apparently served as a model for the more well-known Lex Luthor. Other early exmples include early Batman foe Dr. Hugo Strange. However many of these come more under the classification of evil genius.
Mad scientists were most conspicuous in popular culture after World War II. The sadistic medical experiments of the Nazis, especially those of Josef Mengele, and the invention of the atomic bomb gave rise in this period to genuine fears that science and technology had gone out of control. The scientific and technological build up during the Cold War, with its increasing threats of unparalleled destruction, did not lessen the impression. Mad scientists frequently figure in science fiction and motion pictures from the period. Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963), in which Peter Sellers plays the titular Dr. Strangelove, is perhaps the ultimate expression of this fear of the power of science, or the misuse of this power. In the 1950s there was a great deal of enthusiasm for scientific progress, perhaps typified in films such as Disney's Our Friend the Atom, in which a scientist holds a piece of radioactive Uranium and discusses the positive benefits radioactivity will bring, without due consideration to the potential downsides.
In more recent years, the mad scientist as a lone investigator of the forbidden unknown has tended to be replaced by mad corporate executives who plan to profit from defying the laws of nature and humanity regardless of who suffers; these people hire a salaried scientific staff to pursue their twisted dreams. This shift is typified by the revised history of Superman's archenemy, Lex Luthor: originally conceived in the 1930s as a typically solitary mad scientist, a major retcon of the character's origins in 1986 made Lex Luthor the head of a megacorporation who also plays a leading role in his R & D department.
The techniques of mad science also changed after Hiroshima. Electricity was replaced by radiation as the new tool to create, enlarge, or deform life (e.g., Godzilla). As audiences became more savvy, quantum mechanics, genetic engineering, and artificial intelligence have taken the spotlight (e.g., Blade Runner). Some more recent depictions have had the mad scientist focused upon sacrificing humanity for their creation, with sacrifices ranging from a few people to the entire world population.
In the 2000s, a number of works have featured the trappings of mad science as familiar, even mundane elements, and shifted to toying with the implications of a setting where mad scientists may live and thrive. The webcomic Narbonic ostensibly chronicles the daily grind of an evil laboratory in a world where henchmen have unionized and the New Journal of Malology competes with Modern Madiagnosis. Madwoman/small business owner Helen Narbon plays counter to type by being a plump, cheerful twenty-something blonde, obsessed with the color pink and hideous biological experiments involving gerbils. Comic book turned webcomic Girl Genius takes a combination of mad science and steampunk to a logical extreme: a Europe reduced to scattered city-states, divided by the clockwork and biological abominations unleashed by its "Spark" overlords. Other commercial examples are Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog by Joss Whedon, where the main character has a vocal coach to help him develop a maniacal laugh, and the novel Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman. The 2008 animated feature film Igor depicts an entire nation of mad scientists.
- Mad Science for events that were perpetrated by either Mad Scientists or scientific project gone wrong.