Why Wacky Is Good

In Defence of Mad Scientists

Photo: Tesla's Laboratory

Publicity photo of a participant sitting in Nikola Tesla's laboratory in Colorado Springs circa 1900.

Public Domain

By Patrick J. Kiger

In the annals of inventing, ingenuity and eccentricity often seem to go hand in hand. Many of history’s most brilliant, creative technologists—from Leonardo da Vinci, who inscribed notes in mirror reverse in his notebooks, to Nikola Tesla, who was fond of using his own body as a conductor in public science demonstrations, to American rocketry pioneer Jack Parsons, who practiced magic when he wasn’t developing rocket fuels—have been more than a little wacky. You’d think that by this point, we’d understand that and take our geniuses’ idiosyncrasies in stride. Instead, as a society we often seem more afraid than anything of our sometimes slightly kooky visionaries in lab coats, reviling them as “mad scientists” and suspecting that their underlying ambition is either to conquer the world or to destroy it—or, perhaps ideally, conquer it and then destroy it.

Where does our misguided revulsion towards off-center genius come from? At the core of the stereotype, there is at least a little truth, since scientific virtuosos do occasionally get into strange, troubling stuff. The great physicist Isaac Newton, for example, also dabbled in alchemy and the occult; his experiments with the dark arts led to mercury poisoning, which eventually drove him to a mental and physical breakdown. Others merely are quirky, such as Charles Steinmetz, the diminutive genius who perfected the electrical generator, who as a child kept black widow spiders and rattlesnakes as pets, and gave himself the middle name Proteus, after the shape-shifting Greek deity.

But in addition, we’ve been conditioned to suspect geniuses of being malevolent characters by decades of stereotypical deranged researchers in movies, dating back to the first celluloid version of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, made in 1910 by Edison Studios. (That the studio’s founder and namesake had his own moments of questionable sanity—he once staged the public electrocution of an elephant, in an effort to sabotage a rival scheme for electrical generation—makes this somewhat ironic.) Fritz Lang’s 1927 film classic Metropolis featured the evil scientist Rotwang, whose disheveled coiffure and wild-eyed, crazed demeanor became the template for generations of movie mad geniuses. In the 1960s, we were unnerved by perhaps the creepiest of James Bond villains, the icy, sociopathic Dr. Julius No, whose ingenious black-gloved metal prosthetic hands ultimately led to his demise (in case you haven’t seen the movie, we won’t spoil the ending with the particulars). The mad scientist stereotype has become so extreme that it’s even been parodied, perhaps most deftly by Peter Sellers’ crazed ex-Nazi polygamy-touting scientist in the black comedy Dr. Strangelove, and by Mike Myers’ cryogenically-preserved Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies, with his creepy laugh and gleeful efforts to extort “One Million Dollars!” from the world’s nations.

In reality, of course, most scientific geniuses don’t menace the world with dangerous inventions; If anything, they’re more likely to create oddball inventions such as the Segway. (The latter was the brainchild of perhaps the most gifted inventor of our time, Dean Kamen, who inventions include the infusion pumps that allow diabetics to dispense with the inconvenience of periodic insulin injections.) But we’d do well to consider the possibility that genius may be inextricably, inherently intertwined with some degree of madness. This 2007 Daily Mail article details geneticists’ recent discovery that the DARPP-32 gene, which enhances the brain’s ability to think by improving the prefrontal cortex’s information processing, can also possibly exacerbate schizophrenia.

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