Editorial | Published:

The mad technologist

    Naturevolume 441page908 (2006) | Download Citation

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    Hollywood warms to science, but fears technology.

    Cinema has been around for more than 100 years now, but the world has not tired of it. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, 9.6 billion tickets to the cinema were sold around the world in 2004. Film was, arguably, the single most important artistic medium of the twentieth century. Its resonance and power alone make it an object worthy of study.

    It is also an art that technology has rendered possible. More than an opera, a play or a novel, film is a technological product, spawned directly by the inventions of electricity and celluloid. Before the Lumière brothers' cinématographe showed moving images of Lumière factory workers knocking off work for the day, the groundwork was laid by the invention of the pinhole camera and Eadweard Muybridge's motion-capturing photographs, for example.

    So how does this most modern of media see science? On-screen, apart from a few earnest biopics of Louis Pasteur or the Curies, scientists are often portrayed as comically inept eccentrics or evil geniuses bent on world domination. They frequently re-enact Frankenstein-creator Mary Shelley's lesson about playing god — and are almost as frequently dispatched by their own twisted creations.

    “Films such as Primer and Schläfer have given the world a more realistic look at scientists, albeit ones with more interesting lives than most.”

    Yet scientists are less interested in creating things than in finding things out — discovering new species, rather than manufacturing them. Many ‘mad scientists’ on film are really engineers of one kind or another. They are technologists.

    This muddling of science and technology is common, and it could be argued that scientists haven't helped things by claiming full credit for technologies — such as nuclear power or modern medicine —that they merely made possible through their discoveries. If we tease science and technology apart, we find that pure scientists are often treated kindly by film-makers, who have portrayed them sympathetically, as brooding mathematicians (A Beautiful Mind) and heroic archaeologists (Raiders of the Lost Ark).

    It is technology that movie-makers seem to fear. Even the best-loved science-fiction films have a distinctly ambivalent take on it. Blade Runner features a genetic designer without empathy for his creations, who end up killing him. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, computers turn against humans, and Star Wars has us rooting for the side that relies on spiritual power over that which prefers technology, exemplified by the Death Star. Why would an inherently technological medium seem to be so wary of its own creator?

    Modern technology has changed lives considerably, as becomes clear when we consider that television has been around for only about 70 years. No doubt technology has improved lives in ways that can easily be felt and measured. But it takes some getting used to. Many people find the constant introduction of new gadgets and the faster pace of life alienating and exhausting. It may be that our first completely technological art form is the one best suited to exploring how we feel about modern life.

    At any rate, the mad scientist is not the only image of science. Films such as Primer and Schläfer (see page 922) have given the world a more realistic look at scientists, albeit ones with rather more interesting lives than most. There is drama and pathos to be found in the laboratory, even without the wild hair and insatiable desire to rule the world.

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