Scenes of Science



Perceptions of research and its societal impact in science fiction.

Flasks bubble, mixtures trouble, and explosions tumble forth as the scientist strides into his lair, that most reclusive of worlds known only as the research laboratory. Its location — a secret cavernous lair, an abandoned ruin, the basement of a seedy Victorian brownstone — is as varied as it is unknown, for the scientist works alone, with perhaps only a hunchbacked assistant or one of his own creations as hired (or enslaved) help. And from here his inventions stream forth: machines for turning back the years, reanimating the dead, potions of youth and life and love, all products of his strange and recondite knowledge.
This is the world of science as envisioned historically by popular culture, an abstruse realm in which the scientist is but an individual heroically (or insanely) removed from the dull workplace realities of desks and human resources and office politics. The reality, of course, is quite different: modern science, though still perhaps one of the most exciting fields to work in, is still bound by the usual squabbles over salaries and indeed is characterized as much by desk work as any other profession. The real divide between the depiction of science in the arts and reality, however, lies not merely in deskwork or office debacles; rather, it lies in the way science itself is depicted, from the means with which it is measured to the individuals who conduct it. The bubbling flasks and occasional explosions have, of course, given way to racks upon racks of beige instruments, pipette tips, and complex machinery, edifices to the sheer cost of science as it stands in this day and age. The people too have changed: the mad alchemist and gentleman scientist have been swapped out for a diverse array of professors, post-docs, graduate students, undergraduates, and even high school students.

But this divide between scientists’ realities and popular representations did not simply spring up out of nowhere at some single, random point in history. Rather, its rise coincides with the rise of science itself, emerging with the inexorable growth of human knowledge and its expansion into the realm of natural philosophy, the mastery of our universe and its secrets. To simply begin at the beginning of human knowledge in our understanding of science and its evolution in the public eye, however, is of little utility. We seek to analyze science as a discipline in and of itself, not as some unknown facet of natural philosophy or medieval alchemy. So the divide began in earnest, therefore, with the development of scientific theory by the beautifully-named Sir Francis Bacon and the emergence of science as a functioning discipline in the Enlightenment of the 1600s. At first, however, this divide wasn’t much of a divide at all. Although many scientists of the era were indeed coffee-house debaters and philosophers, the alchemists of the era still did labor and toil in the stereotypical manner — and there did not even exist any speculative science fiction to document their feats in the first place.

Fast-forwarding into the modern era, however, the divide suddenly becomes apparent, and in a big way. Though the old alchemists had long gone, science-fiction authors now turned to them (and their mad-scientist ilk of the late 1900s) to sell copies and shill magazines, a point illustrated well by none other than that founding mother of speculative science fiction at large: Mary Shelley. With her Frankenstein, and more specifically her protagonist Dr. Victor Frankenstein, Shelley set an archetype that has since seen repetition both the world and the centuries over: that of the mad scientist with his mad lair. Shelley, of course, had deeper purposes in mind for her mad scientist than the mere establishment of a cultural archetype. Rather, her novel (and her characters) dealt with the weighty issues of those Gothic days: the role of man versus nature, the incontrovertibility of death, and the very nature of sapience — weighty issues of literary import that resonate to this day.

What stuck with popular culture, however, was mostly the archetype of the mad scientist and his dangerous creations, a fact confirmed by the now-ubiquitous status the Frankenstein monster (and for that matter zombies in general) have asserted in popular culture. Their ubiquity, however, is not necessarily interesting on its own: that is signified easily enough by everything from the good Captain Nemos and Dr. Jekylls of 19th-century speculative fiction to the modern-day stereotypical nerds adorning Caltech in The Big Bang Theory. What is interesting is the juxtaposition Frankenstein (and for that matter the zombies it inspired) pose with regard to the evil that science can do. From Shelley onward, science-fiction writers and blockbuster shifters alike have relied on the notion of science as a bogeyman, as that which pries open the Pandora’s Box of natural secrets, wrecking individuals or humanity at large in the process. Shelley’s rationale for such argument is certainly sensible in the context of her time, what with the anxieties many experienced regarding the rise of the Industrial Revolution and the scientific marvels it occasioned. Modern examples, again, are numerous and reach far beyond Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel as well: from World War Z to Godzilla to Planet of the Apes, science in pop culture has certainly wrought its fair share of civilization-wrecking harm.

This is not to say, however, that science fiction has presented an exclusively negative view of the hand – or rather the scientific advances – that have nourished it so well through the ages. Indeed, science itself has seen considerable promotion in numerous science-oriented media, what with Star Trek’s adulation of its science officers and Isaac Asimov’s tales of humanist science applied to society. At this juncture, some could certainly argue that such media are enjoyed most explicitly by science-oriented individuals. This is valid enough, at least as a statement of support for the sciences. But the oft-hawked idea that science-critical works (the sort inspired by Shelley) detract from the edifice that is modern science is not so tenable. Science is a neutral force, and it takes society and social criticism — be that through hard literature or soft sci-fi-schlock — to mold that force into something that can ultimately be harnessed for the betterment of humanity, the self-betterment that lies at the real core of all scientific research.

And science fiction also prepares us quite well for any sort of zombie apocalypse too, I guess.

Andrew Lin ’17 (andrewlin@college) is sincerely opposed to the concept of a zombie apocalypse, although he does at least know he will survive owing to his roommates’ excessive viewing of The Walking Dead.