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Mad scientist (also mad doctor or mad professor) is a stock character of a scientist who is described as "mad" or "insane" owing to a combination of unusual or unsettling personality traits and the unabashedly ambitious, taboo or hubristic nature of their experiments. As a motif in fiction, the mad scientist may be villainous (evil genius) or antagonistic, benign or neutral; may be insane, eccentric, or clumsy; and often works with fictional technology or fails to recognize or value common human objections to attempting to play God. Some may have benevolent or good-spirited intentions, even if their actions are dangerous or questionable, which can make them accidental antagonists.
The prototypical fictional mad scientist was Victor Frankenstein, creator of his eponymous monster, who made his first appearance in 1818, in the novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley. Though the novel's title character, Victor Frankenstein, is a sympathetic character, the critical element of conducting experiments that cross "boundaries that ought not to be crossed", heedless of the consequences, is present in Shelley's novel. Frankenstein was trained as both an alchemist and a modern scientist, which makes him the bridge between two eras of an evolving archetype. The book is said to be a precursor of a new genre, science fiction, although as an example of gothic horror it is connected with other antecedents as well.
The year 1896 saw the publication of H. G. Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau, in which the titular doctor—a controversial vivisectionist—has isolated himself entirely from civilisation in order to continue his experiments in surgically reshaping animals into humanoid forms, heedless of the suffering he causes.
Fritz Lang's movie Metropolis (1927) brought the archetypical mad scientist to the screen in the form of Rotwang, the evil genius whose machines had originally given life to the dystopian city of the title. Rotwang's laboratory influenced many subsequent movie sets with its electrical arcs, bubbling apparatus, and bizarrely complicated arrays of dials and controls. Portrayed by actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Rotwang himself is the prototypically conflicted mad scientist; though he is master of almost mystical scientific power, he remains a slave to his own desires for power and revenge. Rotwang's appearance was also influential—the character's shock of flyaway hair, wild-eyed demeanor, and his quasi-fascist laboratory garb have all been adopted as shorthand for the mad scientist "look." Even his mechanical right hand has become a mark of twisted scientific power, echoed notably in Stanley Kubrick's film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and in the novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) by Philip K. Dick.
A recent survey of 1,000 horror films distributed in the UK between the 1930s and 1980s reveals mad scientists or their creations have been the villains of 30 percent of the films; scientific research has produced 39 percent of the threats; and, by contrast, scientists have been the heroes of a mere 11 percent.
Post–World War II depictions
Mad scientists were most conspicuous in popular culture after World War II. The sadistic human experimentation conducted under the auspices of the Nazis, especially those of Josef Mengele, and the invention of the atomic bomb, gave rise in this period to genuine fears that science and technology had gone out of control. That the scientific and technological build-up during the Cold War brought about increasing threats of unparalleled destruction of the human species did not lessen the impression. Mad scientists frequently figure in science fiction and motion pictures from the period.
- Absent-minded professor
- British scientists (meme)
- Crank (person)
- Creativity techniques
- Creativity and mental illness
- Edisonade, a similar trope, about a brilliant inventor, but of positive attitudes
- Fringe science
- Girl Genius
- List of mad scientists
- Mad scientists of Stanislaw Lem
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- Garboden, Nick (2007). Mad Scientist or Angry Lab Tech: How to Spot Insanity. Portland: Doctored Papers. ISBN 1-56363-660-3.
- Haynes, Roslynn Doris (1994). From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-4801-6.
- Junge, Torsten; Doerthe Ohlhoff (2004). Wahnsinnig genial: Der Mad Scientist Reader. Aschaffenburg: Alibri. ISBN 3-932710-79-7.
- Norton, Trevor (2010). Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth. (A witty celebration of the great eccentrics...). Century. ISBN 978-1-84605-569-0.
- Schlesinger, Judith (2012). The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the Myth of the Mad Genius. Ardsley-on-Hudson, N.Y. Shrinktunes Media ISBN 978-0-98369-824-1.
- James T. Webb, Ph.D. (September 12, 2012). "A Book Review of The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the Myth of the Mad Genius". The National Psychologist. Retrieved 28 May 2015.
- Schneider, Reto U. (2008). The Mad Science Book. 100 Amazing Experiments from the History of Science. London: Quercus. ISBN 978-1-84724-494-9.
- Tudor, Andrew (1989). Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Movie. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-15279-2.
- Weart, Spencer R. (1988). Nuclear Fear: A History of Images. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Mad scientists.|
- Gary Hoppenstand, "Dinosaur Doctors and Jurassic Geniuses: The Changing Image of the Scientist in the Lost World Adventure"
- The Scarecrow's Brain – images of the scientist in film, Christopher Frayling
- Breaking Down the Stereotypes of Science by Recruiting Young Scientists
- The Mad Scientist Database with links and Looks
- Mad Science Experiments