Scientists in fiction
Science and scientists are a huge part of our society. So, perfectly reasonably, a good number of men and women in white have had starring roles in our fiction. Be it in books, comics, or even on the silver screen, there really are a vast array of fictional scientists influencing how people perceive science-types and, by extension, the disciplines they devote their lives to. In this post, I want to discuss why I’m not entirely comfortable with some of the ways scientists have been represented in recent years, and muse over some of the problems Hollywood et al may be causing.
To put it straight out there, my major gripe with science in fiction is what I like to refer to as the polarisation of fictional scientists trend. By this I essentially mean that, more often than not, a fictional scientist is either a saint-like expert who is ignored as he/she warns of impending disaster or doom (think Dennis Quaid in The Day After Tomorrow), or an evil-genius who is hell-bent on causing said disaster or doom (think Syndrome in The Incredibles).
‘But wait!’ I hear you shouting at your screen, ‘Surely it’s good that fiction is warning us to listen to the under-appreciated scientist, and to be wary of all the evil genii plotting away out there?’ Well, to a point I suppose, but painting this extreme picture of scientists denies what they really are: normal human-beings with a normal amount of strengths and shortcomings. Having the public believe they must always listen to what someone says because they are a scientist is dangerous, and, perhaps just as vitally, it has the potential to put people off from engaging and debating with scientists about something they feel passionate about. And I think we can all agree, that is a very bad thing.
I admit that not all fiction is wide of the mark. Way back in 1818 Mary Shelly published the sublime Frankenstein which is a groundbreaking account of a conflicted scientist who tries to do good but ends up, well, causing a stir to put it lightly. More recently the film Contact did a decent job of showing physicists as they (sort of) are, and I think we need more of such works to better portray scientists and encourage confident engagement/debate.
In my first novel, Tethers, I tried my best to write a scientist (Dr Parfitt) who is an accurate representation of a real scientist/human. He is a man on the verge of a world-changing discovery but, to develop his ideas, he makes some very questionable decisions. I cannot say whether such actions are ever justified, it’s a topic that requires wider debate. And really, that is my point; we need to be encouraging conversation and engagement between scientists and the wider public, we shouldn’t put scientists on pedestals where they are totally out of reach!