Today, the mad scientist. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
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,
egomaniacal. He tells "The Foundation" about his
humanitarian aims, while something in his animal
nature drives him to darker things.
That recurrent image of science and technology is
too strong to shrug off as junk fiction. It lures
us all, now and then. We find ourselves nodding in
assent as the hero intones, "He dealt in things
that should be left to God alone." So, where does
that mad scientist image come from, and what does
Trace backward in time, and he seems always to be
there. In 1817, Mary
Shelley published her version of the story. She
told how young Victor Frankenstein learned his
black arts at the University in Ingolstadt,
Germany. And there we have a clue, since that was
one place where the earlier legend of Faust was
The real Faust was a shadowy figure in early
sixteenth-century Germany. He was a self-styled
magician and hell-raiser. The Faust legend was soon
recast in the language of the Protestant
Reformation. The Faust we know, the Faust who sold
his soul for knowledge, took his present form,
not with Goethe, but in
1607, when Christopher Marlowe's play The
Tragicall History of Dr. Faustus was published
(shortly after his death.)
But that was also when modern science was taking
shape as technology's
companion. Two hundred years later, Shelley's
Frankenstein took Faust a step further. Knowledge
alone wasn't enough. Frankenstein had to create
life as well as understand it.
So, we might well wonder, what science drives the
obsession in any age? Faust studied alchemy, which then dominated
science. Frankenstein rode the new forces of
electrochemistry on his trip to Hell. Later
nineteenth-century mad scientists added hypnotism,
and then the mysterious new forces of X-rays and radium. The early
twentieth century gave us, not scientists, but
Faustian technologists: Captain Nemo, or the huge
soul-eating mechanical city of Metropolis. Last year's mad
scientist was wed to his computer. Today's Faust is
Each new discovery or invention calls forth new
fears that we won't be able to control it. Then it
calls the mad scientist up in some new incarnation.
Robert Louis Stevenson added a fine twist when the
monster Mr. Hyde emerged from his gentle Dr. Jekyll
when Jekyll lost control of his knowledge. Jekyll
and Hyde touch something about our nature that we
know is accurate.
The Faustian mad scientist is not about our
science-based technologies at all. It's fictional
shorthand for the sound of our own inner voice.
It's obvious that we can't turn our backs on
genetic engineering, neural networks, or cloning.
That inner voice tells us to stay wary and be
afraid of Mr. Faust-Frankenstein-Hyde-Nemo. The
only reason for raising the warning is that we know
it's completely against our nature to actually
leave that wonderful laboratory.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Sources for various ideas in this episode can be
found by clicking on the underlined links.
You might also be interested in Karl Shapiro's
poem, "The Progress of Faust" which, alas,
powerfully captures the popular view of science as
This a greatly revised version of Episode 129. Also, I do a much more extensive commentary of the implications of the mad scientist image in this talk from 2001.
From the Frontispiece of the 1831 edition of
Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2000 by John H.