The Mad Scientist in 19th Century Fiction

This event at LSE was a real mixture of work and pleasure.   I heard about it with a couple of hours’ notice, and it was great that I was only 15 minutes away. I spoke to the researcher (Jane Roach who’s doing her PhD at the Institute for Science in Society at Nottingham University) beforehand and her background is in genetics, so an interesting take on her topic.

It’s quite hard to condense some of the concepts as I know little if anything about Vladimir Propp, structuralism and many of the sociological contexts and themes that surrounded her work. Her research focuses on myths, and in particular how “the scientist” is presented in both Frankenstein (at one of the 19th Century) and Dracula (at the other end). To illustrate this “twin image” of the scientist, she used two pictures of Peter Cushing in the role of both characters. She viewed Frankenstein as a “Disordering” scientist, and Van Helsing as “restorative”. The first category sees the science as initiator and creator, while the second suggesting a role for the scientist as one who responds and contains threats. In the discussion afterwards, I said I’d found it interesting how we all view Frankenstein as inherently evil and forget his own quest, similar to that of Van Helsing, and the suffering he goes through as he tries to atone for his actions.

This split in roles was compared to a similar split in Victorian detective fiction, where scientists (like Sherlock Holmes) also featured. They were often accompanied by scientists who used their analytical skills to help out the detective. In all cases, the scientists presented were emotionally distant, driven and typically wild in appearance.

This was a “Public Understanding of Science” audience, so a lot of the conversation was around how these categorisations still impact on constructions of science and the scientist within literature, and how public attitudes to science can be impacted as a result. We talked about how more contemporary works by authors such as Michael Crichton show scientists adopting both roles – so, in Jurassic Park, we see mad science being promoted by power and wealth, but the more rational science coming in and helping solve the problem created initially. There was some discussion on the detective theme – so, for example many fictional detectives (from the 19th Century, and indeed from contemporary tv, film and fiction) are presented in similar ways, are depicted as often sociopathic and lacking in many areas of personality. While scientists express concern about this depiction, their detective counterparts would seem to be less bothered.

I think I would even argue that the purpose of fiction (post reading Woolf) is not to present the tame and the structured, but as we know contemporary fiction’s focus on uncertainty might mean that science is only ever going to be presented disruptively, and that often the novelist will not be so concerned with presenting the ongoing mundaneness of being a scientist. That equally applies in media representations of science, where tabloid newspapers often focus on the sensationalist, the disruptive, and the hyped, Bad Science as opposed to the day to day activities which all research rofessions engage in without comment.

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