My Favorite Mad Scientists

In this article, originally written in conjunction with ScriptPhD.com, I pick my favorite eureka-bellowers of all time.

An astute cartoonist once observed that most so-called mad scientists are actually just mad engineers.

You can see the original comic here, but the gist is this: A mad scientist proclaims that he’s invented a death ray. A nameless troublemaker asks him if he’s testing any mad hypotheses with mad experiments and mad control groups. Good stuff. That comic served as the inspiration for this list, in which I assemble the best mad scientists from pop-culture who actually act like scientists. They conduct experiments. They record data. And they’re fucking bonkers.

Dr. Emmett Brown, Back to the Future

ImageGreat bronze statues should be raised in honor of Christopher Lloyd’s performance in the BTTF movies, but naturally, his performance in the original stands above the other two – though I’m a huge apologist for part II. In any event, Lloyd sets the tone for his performance with the first three words he says when he appears onscreen. Think back to the movie and remember how Doc Brown’s life is presented. He hangs out with a kid half his age. He disappears for no reason. A decrepit Rube Goldberg continues to chug along in his abandoned lab. He steals fissile material from terrorists.

But when Lloyd lurches out of that DeLorean in a nimbus of steam, he turns to Michael J. Fox, smiles and says, “Marty! You made it!” That warmth influences his whole performance, in which he manages to avoid the father-son trap that I suspect would have sunk many other actors and instead focuses on his friendship with Marty.

That said, let’s focus on the science. Unfortunately, Universal apparently polices the Internet like the Galactic Empire, so there aren’t many clips of this online, but think back to the first temporal experiment and recall Brown’s methodology:

• He videotapes the experiment.

• He takes copious notes.

• He uses a control watch to confirm the success of the experiment.

Watch Lloyd in action:

 

 

 

OK, now that I’ve praised Lloyd for his performance, I’d also like to offer a pet hypothesis of mine:

I don’t think temporal experiment number one was temporal experiment number one.

Why? Twenty-five minutes.

Remember when Marty gets to Doc’s Office at the beginning of the movie to practice his guitar? He thinks it’s 8 a.m., but when Doc Brown calls, he finds out that all of the clocks in his office are 25 minutes slow. (Well, all but one of them. I think there’s a clock next to the plutonium that’s on time.) And remember: Marty asks Doc where he’s been all week, and Brown cryptically responds, “working.”

I submit that Brown had already conducted a successful temporal experiment, and that somehow, the experiment threw off all of his clocks. Maybe it happened the first time he hooked up the flux capacitor. Maybe he tested the DeLorean out in the desert and jumped ahead 25 minutes. Who knows?

But I still think he had already conducted an experiment, because if he didn’t, then he is one mad motherfucking scientist. If he hadn’t already tested the DeLorean, then he was so sure of his “calculations” that he was willing to risk getting hit by a car going 90 miles per hour.

Seth Brundle, The Fly

ImageWell, once again, the Internet has thwarted me. I can’t find any decent footage of David Cronenberg’s excellent remake of The Fly online, though both this and BTTF have had a lot of dance-remix videos done in their honor.

Anyway, Cronenberg’s science-fiction shocker has held up well over the years, mainly because of its intimacy. It tells a powerful story of obsession and abandonment with three extremely well drawn characters led by Jeff Goldblum’s pitch-perfect performance. When I think of Goldblum, I think of a stuttery, stammery speech patterns. I think of quantum leaps in thought. I think of an agile intellect. (Think of how Goldblum’s character in Buckaroo Banzai figures out the ubiquity of the name John within a matter of seconds.)

Goldblum’s character in The Fly, by comparison, exhibits the same agile intellect, but more important, Cronenberg’s movie shows us a scientist trying to do one of the most important thing a scientist does: reproduce results.

When Brundle’s experiment goes haywire and he finds his genetic code spliced with a fly’s, he loves it at first, but as the movie progresses and his condition worsens, he tries in vain to recreate his experiment – presumably to see if he can unweave two lifeforms as easily as he wove them. Witness his efforts in a deleted scene that’ll give me nightmares-a-plenty tonight:

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Egon Spengler, Ghostbusters

ImageI suppose that all of the Ghostbusters could join this list, but I submit Harold Ramis’ Egon because he best exemplifies another cartoon I like – this one from the masterful online ‘toon XKCD:

The Difference Between a Normal Person And a Scientist

 

 

Righteous. Again, science is all about reproducing results, and in the case of Egon, we have the most hardcore of hardcore scientists ever. Remember these memorable lines:

VENKMAN: Egon, this reminds me of the time you tried to drill a hole in your head.

EGON: That would have worked if you hadn’t stopped me.

Furthermore, Egon (and Ray Stantz, to be fair) both show us the real joy to be found in science. Think of when Venkman gets slimed, and their initial reaction is “Great!”

But even more than that, I admire Egon – and all the Ghostbusters – because the entire movie extols an idea I like to believe in: That if paranormal phenomena were real, the people who would discover them wouldn’t be psychics or clairvoyants or mediums or any of those cranks. Nope – paranormal phenomena would get their cover blown by the men in white lab coats, baby.

Ghostbusters backs up this idea in a movie that manages to portray skeptics as evil – William Atherton’s EPA bureaucrat – while also lionizing scientists in a narrative that (as far as I’m concerned) takes place in the Buffyverse. Consider: The Ghostbusters encounter a cataclysmic paranormal threat, and they go to the library to fight it. The scene in the jail where they confab around the blueprint of Dana Barrett’s apartment building could have taken place in the Sunnydale library.

But I digress. Scientists are awesome, and as tired a device as the mad scientist is, it’s great when pop-culture can smuggle in some good science in the form of one.

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