Monday, April 13, 2015

PhD Adventures: A Brief Bibliography of Articles About Mad Scientists

A while ago I posted my transcript for the paper I wrote on mad scientists, and promised to post the articles I found and used (not all cited). Some of them are easily found on JSTOR, others on Project MUSE. 

The bib is also annotated in case you cared to know what the articles are about, from my perspective at least. I really enjoyed reading them, especially the Allen piece, so I hope you find them too!

Benedict, Barbara M. “The Mad Scientist: The Creation of a Literary Stereotype.” Imagining the Sciences: Expressions of New Knowledge in the “Long” Eighteenth Century. Eds. Robert C. Leitz III & Kevin L. Cope. New York: AMS Press, 2004. 59 – 107.

This chapter examines the beginnings of the mad scientist figure, with roots in conjurers, virtuosos, amateur scientists, and physicians, alongside the development of the sciences and the reception of the new knowledge by the masses. In the wake of the Restoration, Benedict argues that the virtuosi class of scientists had failed to establish themselves as good for the society, as the ideals of objectivity clashed with the desire to claim superiority of knowledge (89). At the same time, madness shifted from a connection with the divine that could not take life seriously due to the heightened awareness of mortality, to a pursuit of immortality that sought to understand mortality in order to conquer it (90).

“[The mad scientist’s madness] denotes the obsessive pursuit of forbidden knowledge, the willful tossing aside of the good things of this earth and of the promise of the world to come for Satnic knowledge; this is rebellion against the social consensus on what makes a good or proper life” (60).

“Not only did the virtuosi’s posture of disinterestedness seem deluded, but it also suggested that virtuosi were indifferent to the plight of their fellow men, especially if they occupied a dependent social position” (71).

“One reason for [the depiction of scientists as being prone to insanity] is the illegibility, construed as secrecy, surrounding science” (Benedict 104).

Stiles, Anne. “Literature in ‘Mind’: H.G. Wells and the Evolution of the Mad Scientist.” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 70, No. 2 (April 2009). 317 – 339.

In her analysis on the 19th century journal Mind, Stiles follows the development of the mad scientist figure through the 19th and 20th centuries, focusing especially on how genius was perceived through eugenicists and biologists, as well as the class lines along which this development followed. Genius and the development of the brain indicated the simultaneous degeneration of emotions and fertility, according to French zoologist Jean Baptiste Lamarck. At the same time, the Romantics (that informed the Victorian sensibilities) saw the genius as a “rebellious figure who challenged social hierarchies by suggesting that innate creative powers trump class status,” (322) which might account for why scientists did not oppose the depiction of their profession as one leading to insanity. Stiles specifically focuses on Wellsian depictions of the scientist figure in his fiction.


“[Various authors] argued that mankind had evolved larger brains at the expense of muscular strength, reproductive capacity, and moral sensibility” (319).

“Politically, the Romantic genius was a rebellious figure who challenged social hierarchies by suggesting that innate creative powers trump class status” (322).

Toumey, Christopher P. “The Moral Character of Mad Scientists: A Cultural Critique of Science.” Technology and Human Values, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Autumn 1992). 411 – 437. 

Toumey argues that the mad scientist figure is cultural criticism of scientific work by an antirationalist public. He identifies the idioms used to represent science (414) and notes that the artistic rendition of scientific figures often occurs independently of actual science (417). Focusing on Shelley’s Frankenstein and Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde characters, Toumey engages with how depictions of these two characters reflect changing moral priorities while still maintaining the vilification of the scientist.

Response: This article was written in 1992. How would this critique be different now? While steampunk does not critique science, it celebrates science in the form of pseudo-scientific chatter and performance. As such, it encourages a performance of scientific conquest. Moreover, the concept of evil is troubled in the millennial context of the post-modern.

“Let us say that three kinds of idioms could be used to represent science: (1) the physical paraphernalia of science, (2) scientific knowledge, and (3) the people who are scientists” (414).

“… it is assumed that events occurring within scientific circles produce changes in mad scientist stories … [however] artistic processes [that] shape the mad scientists who personify science … operate more or less independently of real science and real scientists” (417).

Pesic, Peter. “The bell and the buzzer: on the meaning of science.” Daedalus, Vol. 132, No. 4 (Fall 2003). 35 – 44.

In discussing the investment of science in human society, Pesic harks back to the Baconian ideal of “new philosophy” that called for a “decisive break with [the] ancient authority” of the Greek natural philosophers (35). The mad scientist figure is a parody of the dilemma of this ideal: the scientist is caught between passion for seeking the truth, while forced to be objective in testing theories. Interestingly, Pesic captures the affects that this paradox produces (43).

“Bacon anticipated that the votaries of his ‘new philosophy’ would prick their desire to know with the spur of self-questioning. Fire with visionary excitement, they should nevertheless try to undermine their own dearest theories, lest they fall victim to self-delusion … Consider the paradoxical demands that Bacon anticipated. On one hand, the seekers must be cold, impersonal, testing each theory mercilessly. On the other, they must be filled with ardor, on fire to imagine radically new insights into the depths. … This paradox threatens to unravel the seekers’ selves and to paralyze their desires. As a result, their humanity may be hostage to their integrity as ‘scientists’ or ‘physicists’” (37).

Allen, Glen Scott. “Master Mechanics & Evil Wizards: Science and the American Imagination from Frankenstein to Sputnik.” The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 33, No. 4 (Winter 1992). 505 – 558.

Allen roots his argument of the anti-scientist turn in the World War II environment, when the post-war expectations of the wonders of science failed to manifest and scientists had built powerful weapons that represented a shadowy enemy’s capability to wipe cities off the map. However, Allen goes back even further into the 1800s, discussing two different kinds of sciences: theoretical sciences which could not be made immediately relevant to the general public (514), and applied sciences which could used by independent amateurs to develop inventions that were easily monetized. Thus, intellectual, abstract work is looked down upon as it does not contribute to a larger community, and indeed encourages self-imposed alienation (526). The Evil Wizard in the title refers to the aristocratic archetype whose work cannot be commercialized; the Master Mechanic is the innovative inventor, a rugged individual whose work is practical and enables others to conquer nature. This is also reflected in American technological utopias (536). Allen also examines the relationship between the scientific establishment and the military.


“In the absence of any strategic threat then, perhaps what frightened us was not the ‘gadget’ itself, but what it represented, the knowledge and organization behind it” (506, original italics).

“In four short years, the scientist had metamorphosed from a figure of immense stature and wisdom to an enemy … What had become of the SCIENTIST, the near-God handing the power of the atom, for better or for worse, to us mere mortals? One answer might be that the promise of wartime technology … created expectations which, when unmet, produced considerable disappointment, and a subsequent backlash of resentment and finger pointing” (509).

“European scientists considered their American cousins impatient, diffuse, and so eager for new discoveries that they didn’t bother to thoroughly investigate those already made” (512).

“[The other difference] between European and American science … was the need in this country to make science ‘popular,’ a requirement seen by European scientists as quite irrelevant to their work” (514).

“… the early versions of American ‘mad scientists’ were often faintly tainted by an aristocratic, even autocratic attitude. … while the European protagonists were usually Counts or Barons, in American fiction they became Doctors and Professors—thus emphasizing their anti-democratic elitism. And while the Reformers may only affect European manners and accents, the Megalomaniacs typically possess ancestral titles, own estates and castles, are entrusted with young female wards, and display a most unpedestrian knowledge not just of physics and medicines, but also of brandy and cigars” (525). 

“… it is important to distinguish applied from theoretical scientists; and in the case of the Great Independents [such as Thomas Edison], what established and nourished their legendary status were the practical commercial results of their labors—and a good deal of propaganda work on the part of consumer media of the time, as well as the inventors themselves. … The mythology of the Great Independent was founded on essentially a single tenet: that their lack of association with any institutions, organizations, or co-workers was the basis of their inventive inspiration” (532, original italics).

“And yet another important difference between the Great Independents and the theoreticians is that the former were great entrepreneurs as well as great scientific investigators. In fact, first and foremost they were businessmen, who also happened to conceive and manufacture what they sold” (535, original italics).

Larsen, Kristine. “Frankenstein’s Legacy: The Mad Scientist Remade.” Vader, Voldemort and Other Villains: Essays on Evil in Popular Media. Ed. Jamey Heit. NC: McFarland & Company, 2011. 46 – 63.

Larsen examines the figure of the mad scientist in the following media: the TV series Lost and Doctor Who, and the literary Lord of the Rings. She begins by quantifying the properties of the mad scientist, and identifying these properties in how they play out over the various arcs in the media listed.


“Starting from this concrete example, we can begin to quantify the distinct properties of a so-called mad scientist. His or her research:
1.      Has an immoral intent (the classic case, often portrayed in the media, is world domination);
2.      Employs an immoral methodology (such as experimentation on human subjects who have not given their expressed and informed consent to take part in such an experiment, or experimentation which does not treat its human or animal subjects with respect and compassion);
3.      Has an immoral result (such as the development of a biological weapon);
4.      Is carried out in secret (out of sight of peer review or governmental regulations);
5.      Disregards the ethical considerations and regulations of society in general, professional organizations, and the scientist’s nation” (47 – 48)

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