Do You Have the Mad Scientist in You?


What comes to mind when you hear the term, “mad scientist?”

Marisa Sanders is junior at The College of New Jersey, where she is studying Chemistry and English. She is also the president of the ACS student chapter at her college.

I often think back to my high school days in AP English, where I analyzed how the archetypal “mad scientist” in gothic literature uses scientific phenomena to usurp the “god-like” power of creation. I remember feeling angst-ridden by the false depiction of chemists in these novels; the individuals’ social isolation, manic behavior, crooked teeth, white hair, and white coats inaccurately illustrate real-life scientists. However, the classic “mad scientist” extends beyond high school literature; in fact, this character has been appearing in books and movies for generations. What is it about the distorted “mad scientist” that the public finds so appealing? Is it that their probing of the unknown stimulates peoples’ curiosity? Or that the multidimensional characteristics of a deranged genius are seemingly superior compared to those of the common nerd? I analyzed two classic “mad scientist” movies, Frankenstein and Flubber, as a means of distinguishing true perceptions of chemists from false ones.

Dr. Victor Frankenstein, Frankenstein

Dr. Victor Frankenstein is both an alchemist and a modern chemist.

As both an alchemist and a modern scientist, Dr. Victor Frankenstein is at the forefront of the bridging gap between the genres of science fiction and gothic horror. In all film adaptations of Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein is fascinated with the “secret of life;” he becomes obsessed with the notion of creating life in inanimate matter through artificial means. Frankenstein assembles a humanoid creature perhaps through the use of chemicals, perhaps by stitching together pieces of human corpses, or perhaps through a combination of both methods. Whatever his method, Frankenstein successfully brings his monster to life. Even after his monster kills Victor’s loved ones, Frankenstein refuses to admit to anyone the horror of what he has created.

Throughout the course of the film, Victor transforms from an innocent youth, captivated by the burgeoning world of science, into a disillusioned, guilty man, determined to destroy his scientific creation. Whether it be a means to avoid the public arenas in which science is often conducted, or as a result of his longing to attain the god-like power of creating life, Victor’s lack of humanness sabotages his chances for human friendship. Frankenstein cuts himself off from society and assumes a primitive obsession of revenging himself upon his monster.

While I must admit that Dr. Frankenstein displays the characteristics of a motivated scientist, he transgresses all boundaries without concern. The sort of sabbatical that my professors take to “advance” their research is nothing compared to the vacation Dr. Frankenstein takes from society, adventuring into unknown scientific lands in search of his monster. And does he ever take advantage of the peer review process? No he does not. Dr. Frankenstein is depicted as a social outcast, almost an enemy to the state. This is indicative of Mary Shelley’s eighteenth century Genevan society fear of “Dr. Frankenstein’s” chemistry. While people today still enjoy Frankenstein, chemists are more respected in contemporary society. Our motives are to better the community through research—perhaps this is what Frankenstein failed to clarify in his film. And also why you should attend a social event every once and awhile.

Professor Philip Brainard, Flubber

Robin Williams as Professor Philip Brainard in Flubber.

Professor Philip Brainard (Robin Williams), a professor at Medfield College, is researching a new source of energy in order to raise money and prevent the college from closure. Unfortunately, Philip’s preoccupation with science distracts him from his fiancée, Sara. His obsession has also forced him to miss two weddings, much to Sara’s dismay. Before the third wedding, one of Philip’s former associates, Wilson, who has profited in the ideas stolen from Brainard, exposes his plan of stealing Sara from Philip and making her his wife. Although Philip attempts to make the third wedding, his research shows significant improvement and he misses yet another ceremony to care for his project. The resulting substance created from the experiment is a green slime that wreaks havoc on the neighborhood. Weebo, Philip’s robot assistant (where do I get one of those!?!), describes the substance as “flying rubber.” Philip eventually names the concoction “Flubber.”

Unlike the classical mad scientist, Philip uses his creation for the greater good. For example, Philip uses Flubber to enhance the shoes of the unskilled Medfield basketball team to increase their abilities. Flubber is even shown dancing around Philip’s basement, inflicting damage on his property, but doing so in a cute manner, thus making the destruction acceptable. Despite the emotional turmoil that Philip experiences in trying to maintain his relationship with Sara and tame Flubber, all’s well that ends well as the characters in the film live “happily-ever-after.” Sara and Philip finally get married, Flubber is subdued, and the college remains open.

While Flubber has qualities that are similar to those of the conventional “mad scientist” movie, the film also has characteristics that make the scientist protagonist more human and therefore more realistic. The last name, “Brainard” is intimidating—it communicates an elitist intelligence that makes Philip appear far better than the other characters in the movie, as well as the individuals in his audience. Pair this with Philip’s obsession with his research and you get another socially withdrawn, dysfunctional character. Because Flubber is a Walt Disney Pictures production, all of the many science-caused catastrophes in Philip’s life are alleviated (as all Disney characters MUST live happily-ever-after). Philip is portrayed as a quirky scientist, an individual to whom many real-life scientists can relate. Because Philip is determined to overcome his obsession with his research and get his love life back on track, he represents a respectable chemist. It is Philips’s eccentric flair and “outside-the-box” thinking that make him a comical character and a lovable chemist.

By comparing Victor and Philip, it clear that what divides them has little to do with their eccentricity or their dedication to science. Rather, it is the end goal of their research that pushes them towards the side of good or evil. While Victor sacrifices his personal relationships in pursuit of knowledge for an end not even he can fathom, at least Philip understands that the end goal of his research is the salvation of his college, albeit while ignoring personal relationships. Whether one chemist’s research can help a college like that is certainly up for debate, but at minimum we can see that Philip works within community to save that community, while Victor drives himself away from community to create a being as lonely and isolated as himself. And this is the key difference between the true “mad scientist” and the merely eccentric one; the mad scientist’s work drives her away from people while the eccentric one is eccentric within a workplace, a social network, and a healthy amount of extracurricular activities. Given that Aristotle argued that the foundation of reason was the commonly held opinions of others, it should come as no surprise that community and morality as a chemist go hand in hand.

Both Philip and Victor are entertaining chemists within the scope of their genre, whether it be comedy or science fiction. Their eccentric behavior and oddities are intriguing and alluring to the “normal” human being. While I have not met any chemists as dysfunctional as Victor or Philip through my networking in ACS, it would certainly be interesting to stumble upon them and hear their research stories. In the meantime, with summer vacation on the horizon, I’d recommend that you add the following “chemist-featured” films to your movie list. Though we might not be able to relate to the “mad scientist” archetype alive in these motion pictures, they’re pretty enjoyable and will entertain you on a rainy day.

  1. Frankenstein
  2. Flubber
  3. Dr. Strangelove
  4. The Rock
  5. Iron Man
  6. Back to the Future
  7. Weird Science
  8. Young Frankenstein
  9. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
  10. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

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