Do You Have to be Mad to be a Scientist?

Great Scott!

“Doc” Brown, from Back to the Future, is peculiar among fictional scientists, because he’s not a villain. A survey of about about 1,000 horror films released between 1930 and 1980 reveals that in about a third of the movies, the bad guy is a mad scientist. And while scientific research produces about 40 percent of the threats, scientists are heroes in just one every ten films. But even though Doc is an outlier in intent, he still looks the part: his appearance is modeled after the most famous scientist of all time.

That’s wonderful, right? The greatest genius of them all showing you his quirky side. Nearly everyone will be able to tell you that this is Albert Einstein: good luck having people recognize any other scientist from a photograph. That’s because Einstein is obviously very famous, but also because this photograph conforms beautifully to the stereotype of the mad scientist. This other picture of him is not quite as popular:

But this is the guy you want! He’s the one who came up with the theory of Special Relativity and discovered the photoelectric effect, for which he got a Nobel Prize: both accomplishments came in 1905, when Einstein was 26 years old, working at the Swiss Patent Office in Bern, Switzerland. Take a look at good old Charles Darwin, here:

He’s 65 in this iconic photograph, looking like an old sage. Which is probably what you expect him to look like, because we’re somehow primed to associate science with long, white beards. When he boarded the HMS Beagle and started a voyage that would take him around the world and inspire the theory of evolution, he looked more like this:

He was just 22. And he had already become a celebrity in scientific circles by 1836, at the age of 25. So much for the old man that looks like Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings.

James Maxwell, probably the greatest physicist of all time after Newton and Einstein (who kept a photograph of him in his study), wrote an essay about the nature of Saturn’s rings in 1859, aged 28, which remained our best understanding of the problem until the Voyager flybys in the 1980s. He produced his seminal contributions to electromagnetism before he turned 30. Edison and Tesla laid the foundations for their War of Currents in their early 30s. And beloved physicist Richard Feynman developed his Feynman Diagrams, which he would use to formulate the theories that won him a Nobel Prize, in his late 20s.

You get the gist of it. Great science comes from young people. But we’re stuck with this ridiculous stereotype of a hoary old man with goggles and smoking flasks. The scientific community is well aware of the problem. Nobel laureate Harry Kroto goes as far as calling the iconic old Einstein “an imposter”, in a brilliant presentation during which he raises this very point. A group of researchers even published a paper, called Breaking down the stereotypes of science by recruiting young scientists, to suggest that the stereotype should be fought by engaging kids in science at an early age.
They write, «If you ask the average ten year old in America what a scientist looks like, they almost always describe an older man with crazy white hair and a lab coat. Students are often repeatedly confronted with stereotypes of science and scientists via television, cartoon, and comic book characters as well as uninformed adults or peers».

Up until 1905, over 60 percent of Nobel laureates had completed their prize-winning work before turning 40, and about 20 percent did it before 30. But by 2000, things had changed: less than 20 percent of winners in physics were rewarded for research concluded before they were 40, and in chemistry the percentage dropped to nearly zero. There are of course many factors at work here, including the fact that it now takes longer to complete your academic training compared to a century ago. But it doesn’t help that the young are forced to perceive science as something that must be in the hands of the old (and crazy).

In 2005, an Australian physician named Barry Marshall won the Nobel Prize for medicine: he discovered that ulcers, forever thought to be the work of stress, food, and acid, were actually caused by bacteria, so they could easily be cured with antibiotics. But when he first proposed the idea in 1982, at the age of 31, he was a young doctor from Perth (not the scientific center of the world by any means) trying to overturn a long-standing principle of medical doctrine: he was ridiculed and no scientific journal accepted to publish his study. So he had to ingest the bacteria himself to prove that he was right.

Stereotypes are very sticky, and this one seems to work particularly well. Einstein used to say, «A person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of 30 will never do so». While this may be debatable today, it is essential to engage young people earlier on and get rid of this mad scientist crap. Even at the cost of no longer being allowed to say: «Great Scott!».


3 thoughts on “Do You Have to be Mad to be a Scientist?

  1. Another well constructed and interesting post. Thomas Khun tried to attack the second great myth of science (that’s it’s linear and deliberate, smoothly flowing from one breakthrough to the next – in fact it’s a lot about luck and accident, and old theories fighting new ones).
    We do love our stereotypes, and I was surprised at how young these guys were – even though I’ve read a little of them – the facts soon melt away and the myth returns.

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