Science and scientists are a huge part of our society and, perfectly reasonably, this means that a good number of men and women in white have had starring roles in our fiction. Be it in books, comics, or on the silver screen, there really are a vast array of fictional scientists out there influencing how people perceive science-types and, by extension, the disciplines they devote their lives to. In this post, I discuss why I’m not entirely comfortable with some of the ways scientists have been represented in recent years, and speculate wildly over some of the problems Hollywood et al may be causing.
To put it straight out there, my major gripe with science in fiction is what I like to refer to as ‘the polarisation of fictional scientists trend’. By this I essentially mean that, more often than not, a fictional scientist is either the saint-like expert who is ignored as he/she warns of impending disaster or doom (think Dennis Quaid in The Day After Tomorrow) or an evil-genius who is hell-bent on causing said disaster or doom (think Syndrome in The Incredibles).
‘But wait!’ I hear you shout angrily at your screen, ‘Surely it’s good that fiction is warning us to listen to the under-appreciated scientist, and to be wary of all the evil genii plotting away out there?’ Well, to a point I suppose, but painting this extreme picture of scientists removes them from what they really are: essentially just normal human-beings with a normal amount of strengths and shortcomings. Having the public believe that they must always listen to what someone says because they are a scientist is dangerous, and, perhaps just as vitally, it has the potential to put people off from engaging and debating with scientists about something they feel passionate about, or perhaps feel needs to be better explained to a wider audience. And I think we’ll all agree – that is a very bad thing.
I admit that not all fiction is wide of the mark; way back in 1818 Mary Shelly published the sublime Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, which is a ground-breaking account of a conflicted scientist who tries to do good but ends up, well, causing a stir to put it lightly. More recently the film Contact did a superb job of showing physicists as they (sort of) are, and I think we need more of such works to better portray scientists and encourage confident engagement/debate.
I have recently published my first novel, Tethers, and in it, I tried my best to write a scientist (Dr Parfitt) who is an accurate representation of a real scientist/human-being. He is a man on the verge of a world-changing discovery but, to develop his ideas, he makes some very questionable decisions purely because he believes in the greater good of what he’s doing. I cannot say whether such actions are justified; it is a topic that requires wider debate. And really, that’s my point; we need to be encouraging conversation and engagement between scientists and the wider public – we shouldn’t put scientists on pedestals where they are totally out of reach!
- The idea for Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein was the result of a dream.
- Carl Sagan conceived Contact in 1979, eighteen years before the film was released.
- To learn more about Tethers, visit Jack Croxall’s author website or view the book’s GoodReads page.
Do you agree with this article? Can you think of any good/awful representations of scientists in literature or film? Let us know in the comments section below.