Dear Hollywood, I'm writing to thank you for all your efforts getting the Science accurate in your recent movies. Most people, as I'm sure you're aware, aren't fooled by techno-jargon anymore and you can't just throw words like "quantum mechanics" around. In fact, you may remember my recent blog where I highlighted ten examples of Sci-fi media getting the Science right. I am sincerely grateful that smart Sci-fi movies are becoming more frequent. After all, the more good Science we have in movies, the more kids grow up with a trustworthy view of the world. So thank you.
As happy as I am that scriptwriters are making an effort to get their Science correct however, I have to raise a concern over the way Scientists themselves are depicted. At the moment cinematic Scientists usually fall into two categories: lunatic villains or incomprehensible uber-nerds. Scientists are either busy creating death-robots or scratching endless equations onto blackboards in dimly lit laboratories, usually with a vaguely German accent.
I'll accept the latter type of Scientist does exist (although FYI, nobody uses blackboards anymore) but the stereotypes are getting a bit worn out aren't they? Don't worry, I do understand the need...sometimes you want to ground your movie in real-world Science, so if you bring a "Science-character" in and have them spout a bunch of gobbledook, the plot suddenly works. But I honestly don't think people are buying it anymore. Writing Scientists as evil geniuses or bumbling equation-surfers is starting to smack of lazy writing.
Besides, you don't want to teach people Scientists are "mad". After all, the inventions of medicine, electricity, vehicles, clean water, heating, the internet, and even the technology used to make movies are all gifts from Scientists. We built the modern world and we think we've been pretty patient so far, perhaps you'd be willing to stop painting us as evil or incomprehensible?
In order to help you, I've compiled a list of some outstanding fictional Scientists who did a great service to our community. I've chopped out people like Sherlock Holmes (who studied Chemistry at Oxford) or Bruce Wayne (who studied at the Berlin school of Science) because while they have Scientific educations, they are detectives of crime while Scientists are detectives of nature.
Of course, you don't have to pay attention to my list and can continue with the "mad Scientist" stereotypes. But, just so you know, the minority of us who really are "mad Scientists" are not happy with the situation either. I'm not saying they're busy working on a death ray, but I might remind you that Scientists built the world you currently live in. You might not want to annoy us too much. I await your response. Your humble servant - tim james
10. Bruce Banner (Marvel Comics/The Avengers)
Depending on whether you go with the movies or comics, Bruce Banner's origin story plays out slightly differently...but both are equally noble. In the comic book he's a nuclear Physicist who rescues someone from a nuclear blast, while in the movies he's a Biologist trying to cure blood diseases, testing his new radiotherapy technique on himself. In both cases, his selflessness turns him into the Hulk, an angry dynamite truck on legs.
If I had Banner's powers, the first thing I'd do would be trigger a Hulk-episode and go after all the people I hate. Pseudoscientists, politicians who deny global warming, people who wear flip-flops etc. etc. But not Bruce Banner. Banner keeps his powerful side under wraps for fear of hurting people. He actually tries to play down his greatest asset. This makes him unique among super heroes because rather than using his powers, he tries to hide them. Banner is a voice of morality and maturity among otherwise playful demi-gods. He's not a wise-cracking Spider-man or an arrogant Iron-man, he's a responsible, grownup-man.
In the real world, some Scientists really do make themselves suffer for the good of mankind by the way. People like Barry Marshall, who deliberately drank a petri dish of Helicobacter Pilori in order to find out whether they caused stomach ulcers...they did (he later won the 2005 Nobel prize for medicine). So it's nice to see a Scientist with super powers acting like an adult.
9. Victor Frankenstein (Frankenstein by Mary Shelley)
Now, before you say "he's the ultimate mad Scientist" I'm talking about the character as originally described in Shelley's novel from 1818, not the "It's aliiiiiive!" guy from the 1931 movie. Frankenstein, as he appears in the book, is a tragic hero; so excited by discovery that he doesn't think about the possibility of things going wrong.
His original desire to create life is not to play God, but to cure the greatest illness - death itself. Frankenstein wants to live in a world without fear and that is a noble thing to pursue. It's also of crucial importance that the very instant his creature comes to life, he realises his mistake and flees (as shown in the above picture, taken from the original book). He doesn't cling to his intelligence in place of morality, he quickly realises he's made a mistake and lives in self-hatred for the rest of his life, haunted by the monster of his own making.
Victor Frankenstein of the book was also a much better Scientist than Frankenstein of the movies. The monster he creates isn't ugly, but perfectly formed. It can also speak, read, write and argue philosophically. The only reason, in fact, Victor comes to loathe his creation is because he fears he has crossed a moral boundary. Most movies tend to miss the fact that Frankenstein was a good guy haunted by his own guilt, although I recommend the Kenneth Brannagh and James McAvoy versions if you're interested.
8. Zefram Cochrane (Star Trek)
In the Star Trek Universe, Cochrane is a pretty important, although not very well known character. In the fictional history of the show, he's the guy who invented warp drive and made first contact with aliens. Without him, human beings would never have been allowed to trek in the first place! The reason I've chosen him isn't for his appearance in the TV show however, it's his appearance in the eighth movie, First Contact, played brilliantly by James Cromwell.
The plot of FC sees the enterprise crew travelling back in time in order to meet Cochrane just before he makes his historical warp-test. In doing so, the crew is allowed to meet their hero and they discover something about him: Cochrane is a bit of an ass. He's not the brilliant, well tempered man of myth but a cantankerous drunkard who only wants to get his invention working so he can "retire to some tropical island filled with naked women".
What's brilliant about the movie however is that (Minor Spoiler Alert) once he's made his discovery and seen what it can do, he changes his mind. He starts thinking about the bigger picture and realises there's more to be gained than just money and women. We don't see his full evolution, but we get a glimpse of him re-discovering his passion for Science and deciding to try to be worthy of his own legend. Plus, he's a fan of classic rock, which automatically makes him worth a place on the top ten.
7. Hari Seldon (Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov)
Most of the people on this list have been included because of their Scientific thinking, rather than their achievements. If we measure greatness according to "how well they act like Scientists" then we're looking for reason, skepticism, logic, commitment to evidence etc. etc. but I also think it's worth including a Scientist who makes an incredible Scientific discovery. In that regard, one of the greatest fictional Scientists is Hari Seldon.
Seldon's Scientific achievement is one of the most remarkable in all of Science fiction writing. He invents a predictive model for the galactic human civilization. By using thermodynamic theories of particle physics, Seldon is able to create a theory which successfully predicts every rebellion, every war and every dictator that will arise in the coming years. He essentially invents the perfect method for predicting future-history. His model even works when people know it exists and try to rebel against it, because his model predicts their very act of rebellion. How's that for a mind-melt? Today's best Scientists can just about predict the weather 48 hours in advance. Seldon accurately predicts the fall and rise of empires over a thousand year period.
Since governments are made of people, and people are made of chemicals, it should be possible in some massively hypothetical scenario to really link the two. How will the basic laws of physics express themselves through human behaviour, in other words? In order to compose such a theory, Seldon must have an understanding of the Universe utterly unrivalled.
6. Professor Charles Xavier (X-Men)
Xavier was a child prodidgy, graduating from Harvard at sixteen and accruing four PhDs in Biological Sciences at Oxford. Besides this fierce intellect, he's also psychic; possessing the ability to read and control other people's minds. A person with those skills can do pretty much anything they want. So what does he do? Opens a school for vulnerable teenagers.
Xavier's job is, first and last, a teacher. And as we all know, Science teachers are in the business of saving the world. He gives young people hope, education and the ability to control their mutations, besides lobbying political groups and running the X-men, a mutant counter-terrorism organisation.
The most interesting thing about him to me, is that he has the power to end the mutant war easily but chooses not to. He could get inside the minds of every villain and persuade them to start being good guys but he refuses on the grounds that he doesn't want to violate free will. This makes him morally fascinating, not to mention controversial. He has the power to fix the world but avoids it because he doesn't think "ends justify means". He won't brainwash people into being good, but rather, wants to educate them into being better versions of themselves.
5. Rick Sanchez (Rick and Morty)
If you've never come across the animated comedy show Rick & Morty then it's best I don't tell you much about it, although I will say it's definitely not for younger viewers. The Scientist of the show is Rick Sanchez, a brilliant man who's ability surpasses not only the rest of the human race, but the rest of the Universe. But what the show does perfectly, is to depict the price he pays for this genius.
A lot of the show's humour comes from the fact that Rick is simultaneously a Universe-faring adventurer, but also a man living in his daughter's spare room. The clash between the fantastical sci-fi and the domestic quarrels of people trying to live ordinary lives is what makes him unique. And it's this tension between Science and ordinary life that creates Rick's hell.
While Rick himself may not be a particularly moral character to have on the list (he's basically a terrible person) I had to include him because he perfectly encapsulates the dark side to being a Scientist...they are sometimes lonely individuals who struggle with everyday life. When you see the beauty and insanity of the Universe everywhere you look, it can be hard to connect with other humans. Rick Sanchez is on here because every now and then the show hits a heart-breaking home run in depicting the burden of the genius: when you're brilliant, nobody ever really gets you.
4. The Doctor (Doctor Who)
There are three reasons The Doctor is a brilliant Scientist. The first is his sense of hope. While Rick Sanchez essentially gives up on people, The Doctor believes almost anyone can be redeemed and that no situation is truly hopeless. After all, he could spend his life anywhere in the known Universe and yet chooses to invest his efforts protecting a tiny backwater world called Earth. He is optimistic about our planet and sees hope amidst the bleak reality.
The second reason is simple: he's damn good at Science! Not only does he have a limitless knowledge of theoretical physics, The Doctor is also a great problem solver, determined to always think his way out of a problem rather than resorting to guns and intimidation. When everyone else believes in ghosts, The Doctor starts asking questions and doing experiments. He uses logic, evidence and critical thinking in order to save the day. Very few other fictional heroes manage to solve their problems with their brain alone.
The third and final reason is that the doctor is excited by everything! While disaster is the storyline of each episode, it's made clear that this only accounts for a small percentage of what he does. Most of the time he just blazes around the Universe finding out what it's like. He's not doing Science to save lives all the time, sometimes he's just doing it out of sheer curiosity.
3. Dr. Emmett Brown (Back to the Future Trilogy)
Steven Spielberg described reading the script for Back to the Future as “like someone emptying a dump-truck of good ideas into my brain”. It's hard to disagree with him, it is a truly brilliant film. Also the most wholesome and upbeat film about incest I've ever seen. And one of the main reasons the movie works so will is the impossible-to-dislike Doc Brown.
I’ve mentioned Doc Brown before because I love the way he describes himself as “a student of all Sciences”. He just finds the Universe fascinating and invents time travel as a tool for learning more about it. When Marty McFly tries to use the machine to cheat at sport, Doc Brown reminds him “I didn't invent the time machine to make money, I invented the time machine to travel through time!!!” In some ways, Doc Brown is a lot like The Doctor, he’s just a more upbeat version without a dark brooding interior. It's hard to picture this guy having a grumpy day.
Partly thanks to the wonderful performance of Christopher Lloyd, Doc Brown's portrayal of a Scientist is someone who is friendly, funny, admittedly a bit strange, but ultimately warm and caring, particularly in his loyalty toward Marty and Clara. While The Doctor and Rick Sanchez might be equally briliant, Doc Brown is someone you'd actually want to hang around with.
2. Dr. Eleanour Arroway (Contact by Carl Sagan)
In my list of Sci-fi media that got the Science right, Contact was featured pretty highly. I've also talked about Ellie Arroway before in my blog on why we need a better representation of women Scientists in movies. But I really do think Ellie Arroway is worth talking about, so I'm going to talk about her again.
Arroway is the voice of reason amid a political circus that erupts when humans finally make contact with aliens. Played perfectly by Jodie Foster in the movie, and written beautifully in the novel by Sagan, Arroway finds herself constantly alone for the simple reason that she is right. While Arroway argues for reason, she is constantly overthrown by small-minded politicians who just want to get their angle in, missing the bigger picture. But, unlike Rick Sanchez or The Doctor, Arroway doesn't isolate herself from people and brood...she gets ready for a fight and never backs down.
Arroway is also ruthless when it comes to the Scientific method. She relies solely on evidence to form every aspect of her worldview and refuses to bow to public opinion or human desire. She is a Scientist to the very last page, keeping her mind open to every possibility, but matching it with a healthy skepticism. In fact, her commitment to Scientific thinking is topped only by one other character I can think of...
1. Spock (Star Trek)
Who else? Honestly, who else could top a list of fictional Scientists? Even people who've never seen Star Trek recognise Spock. It's hard to think of another Scientist who is so universally recognised and admired. Leonard Nimoy's portrayal of Spock is as much a part of modern cultural history as The Beatles or Marilyn Monroe.
The whole purpose of the Enterprise’s mission in Star Trek is Scientific discovery and, as the Science officer, Spock is therefore key to the show. But the reason I’m picking him is because he comes from a planet run by of Scientists. Vulcan.
People often miss the point of the Vulcan race. They’re misrepresented as emotionless, cold and clinical observers of the Universe with no thoughts of compassion. But Vulcans do feel emotion, violently so. The logic and reason they use is an evolutionary defence-mechanism to keep themselves from murdering each other. Logic is their way of taming their wildness.
Anyone who thinks Spock lacks emotion needs to watch Wrath of Kahn and anyone who thinks Vulcans lack empathy needs to watch The Voyage Home. Vulcans are highly compassionate people, they just control their emotions through sheer will of thought and commitment to reason.
The Vulcan race gives us a glimpse of something beautiful: a society which actually works. We're nowhere near it at the moment - humans are still caught in webs of tradition, selfishness and ego - but we have also evolved the capacity for thought, selflessness, empathy, and rationality. This battle rages across our countries and in each of us internally. The sensible, logical side, and the cruel animalistic drive. If the latter wins, we will destroy our planet and ourselves. If the former wins, we will ascend to greatness.
Spock is the epitome of what a Scientist tries to be. We aren’t cold, we aren’t clinical, we aren’t emotionless and we certainly aren’t mad. We just want to learn things. We just want to live long and prosper.
I love science, let me tell you why.