UCL News


Review: Who cares when the rockets come down?

25 February 2006

Christopher Frayling's 'Mad, Bad and Dangerous? - The Scientist and the Cinema' shows that the stereotype of the mad scientist is no laughing matter.

American children in 1957 thought of scientists as men in white lab-coats, working day and night in top-secret government laboratories, obsessed with the quest for nature's secrets, cut off from the world, emotionally immature, even a little scary (not to mention the frizzy, Einsteinian hair). According to Christopher Frayling, "it all began" in the cinema. …

But Frayling wants to do more than explore a theme in movie history. He argues that the way scientists are presented in films feeds our current anxiety about science.

In the 20th century "popular films have tended to present scientists as either impossibly mad or impossibly saintly". But it's no surprise that there are more madmen than saints. At least 30 per cent of horror films distributed in Britain between 1931 and 1984 had mad scientists as villains. …

Stereotypes can obscure a more benign reality and lead to distrust between science and society: the public view scientists as "mad, bad and dangerous" and scientists think the public are all pig ignorant. But the figure of the mad scientist can also creatively channel genuine anxieties. Peter Sellers turned Dr Strangelove into a sublimely funny character - audiences laughed at their fears about nuclear war and the alliance of scientists (some ex-Nazis) and generals. Dr Strangelove was a stereotyped mad scientist, but the issues were (and still are) real and terrifying.

Peter Smith [UCL Science & Technology Studies], 'The Guardian', 25 February 2006