Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 129:
THE MAD SCIENTIST

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 129.

Today, we wonder about mad scientists. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The laboratory is down the stairs -- out of the light. It's equipped with bubbling glassware and arcane electromechanical machines. The scientist himself is lonely, naive, and egomaniacal. He tells "The Foundation" about his humanitarian aims, while something in his animal nature drives him to darker things.

The picture of the mad scientist is too strong. We can't shrug it off as just another piece of popular fiction. It's the image of science and technology we revert to when we let down our guard. We have to ask where it comes from and what it means.

Physicist Spencer Weart thinks it comes out of the Faust story, and I think that makes a lot of sense. The real Faust was a shadowy figure in early 16th-century Germany -- a kind of self-styled magician and hell-raiser. One place he shows up is in the records of the city of Ingolstadt -- the same town Mary Shelley used as the home of Victor Frankenstein.

Storytellers took up the legend of this character and recast him in the language of the Protestant Reformation. The Faust we know -- the Faust who sold his soul for knowledge -- was given his present form in 1607, in Christopher Marlowe's book, The Tragicall History of Dr. Faustus. That's about the same time that modern science was taking shape as the companion of technology.

200 years later, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein took Faust a step further. Knowledge alone wasn't enough for Frankenstein. He had to create life as well as understand it. The evil force that served Faust was alchemy. Frankenstein rode electrochemistry on his trip to Hell. Later in the 19th century, Faustian mad scientists added hypnotism and then the mysterious new forces of radiation -- X-rays and radium. The early 20th century gave us Faustian technologists -- Captain Nemo and the huge soul-eating mechanical city of Metropolis. And, of course, today's mad scientist is wed to his computer.

Each new scientific or technological discovery calls forth new fears -- fears that we won't be able to control it. Each new discovery brings out Faust or Frankenstein or the mad scientist in some new incarnation. Robert Louis Stevenson added a new twist. The monster Mr. Hyde emerged from his gentle Dr. Jekyll when Jekyll lost control of his knowledge. Jekyll and Hyde touched something about our nature that we all understood instinctively.

The Faustian mad scientist is a fictional shorthand for describing our potential lack of control -- not so much of our science-based technology as of ourselves. He's a sort of warning light for all of us to think about.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


This episode has been greatly revised as Episode 1594.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

Previous Episode | Search Episodes | Index | Home | Next Episode