Mass destruction—killing on a vast scale—is a uniquely human concern. It’s not that other animal species aren’t threatened by it. Many have been driven to extinction, and many more now teeter on the brink. But unlike human beings, even the most intelligent animals don’t worry about the possibility of being wiped out in a terrible catastrophe. It is only thanks to the human ability to contemplate the future that fears of mass destruction have arisen. As the continued popularity of disaster movies at the box office demonstrates, we are all too aware how, as a race, we might be wiped out.
Mass destruction has, historically, been a natural phenomenon. The Earth has witnessed widespread devastation numerous times, most famously in the destruction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. We could still see a similar act of mass destruction in the future that does not require a human hand behind it. But with the introduction of the weapon of mass destruction, the notion is most commonly associated with the work of the mad—or at best, amoral—scientist.
The term “weapons of mass destruction” first appeared in a Christmas sermon by the archbishop of Canterbury in 1937. He encouraged his audience to promote peace. “Who can think without dismay of the fears, jealousies and suspicions which have compelled nations, our own among them, to pile up their armaments,” he said. “Who can think without horror of what another widespread war would mean, waged as it would be with all the new weapons of mass destruction.”
The archbishop was concentrating on the political will to use such weapons. His was a generation that had lived through the First World War, expecting it to be the “war to end all wars,” yet was seeing the rapid buildup of military might in Europe as the Second World War loomed. However responsible politics was for the warfare, though, it goes without saying that scientists would be the ones who made such weapons exist.
It’s a truth that can’t be avoided. Science itself—or at least, the application of science—has a dark side. Scientists present us with dangerous gifts.
This isn’t a new idea, though for a brief period—from Victorian times through to the mid-twentieth century—scientists were seen in quite a different light. New technologies and scientific developments transformed the unpleasant life suffered by the vast majority of the population into a new kind of existence. It was no longer necessary to spend every moment scratching out a living. For the first time, it wasn’t just the rich and powerful who had time for leisure and enjoyment of life. Scientists were briefly considered saviors of our race.
These men (and back then they almost all were men) were bold bringers of wonderful new things, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny rolled into one real package that delivered all year round. All the marvels of electricity, of modern medicine, of new modes of transport and labor-saving devices, were their gift. And we still see echoes of this in TV ads for beauty products, where the person in the white coat is the bringer of magic ingredients that are guaranteed to make you look better and younger.
But the warning of Pandora’s box, the dangers inherent in bringing knowledge into the world, could not be held off for long. If you live in a physically dangerous environment, trying new things, finding things out, is a high-risk strategy. If a cave person decided to experiment with a new approach to saber-toothed tigers, patting them on the head instead of sticking them with a spear, she would soon be a one-armed cave person. For most of history, the scientist and his predecessor, the natural philosopher, have been characters of suspicion, closely allied with magicians, sorcerers, and other dabblers in arcane arts. This was not a stereotype that even the wonders of nineteenth- and twentieth-century technology could hold off for long.
Scientists as dangers to the world would return in pulp fiction and cheap movies, where they are often portrayed as barely human. At best, these driven souls are over-idealistic and unworldly. They are what my grandmother would have called “all cleverness and no common sense.” They are innocents who don’t know—or don’t care—what the outcomes of their acts will be. At the nasty end of the spectrum, they are even worse, evil beings filled with a frenzied determination to achieve world domination or to pursue what they see as scientific truth at any cost.
Such two-dimensional, caricature scientists don’t care whom they trample to reach their goal. They have a casual disregard for the impact of what they do on human life—or even on the planet as a whole. They are scientific Nazis for whom the end always justifies the means. They are nothing short of monsters in human form.
Practically all the scientists I have ever met are not like this. They are warm, normal people. They have the same concerns as everyone else about the world their children will inhabit, the same worries that preoccupy us all. Admittedly some are unashamed geeks—and if you consider a “geek” anyone who has a sense of wonder about the universe he lives in, it’s a group in which I happily proclaim my membership—but they aren’t inhuman thinking machines. So where did this idea come from?
Inevitably science fiction has to bear a fair amount of the blame for this portrayal. When the teenage Mary Godwin (soon to become Mary Shelley) first penned Frankenstein on a traumatic vacation in an Italian villa, she certainly had in mind that her character was playing God. He admits as much in his confession that opens this chapter, “It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn.” There is no modesty here—Victor Frankenstein wants to be a master of the universe, and his talkative creation, very different from the shambling, incoherent creature of the movies, spends great swaths of text agonizing over the dangers of this philosophy.
Yet Mary Shelley’s Baron Frankenstein is not quite yet the archetypal mad scientist—an expression that would become so common as to be a cliché. It first took those doyens of nineteenth- and twentieth-century science fiction, Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, to show us just how driven their imagined scientists could be. So Verne’s Captain Nemo could be a merciless killer, and Wells would give us characters like the Invisible Man, driven insane by his search for knowledge, and Dr. Moreau, who despoiled animal and human alike with his merciless vivisection.
The final nail in the coffin would come with the contribution of Hollywood. Here Victor Frankenstein would be transformed from a thoughtful (if megalomaniac) philosopher to a crazed, wide-eyed freak. On celluloid would be born the evil genius Rotwang in Fritz Lang’s stunning silent movie Metropolis, and Peter Sellers’s darkly humorous portrayal of the appalling Dr. Strangelove. These movie madmen would be joined by the living incarnations of evil comic-book scientific geniuses, from Lex Luthor to the Green Goblin.
Even when a scientist managed to be one of the good guys, such as Doc Brown in the Back to the Future series of movies, he still sported the wild hair (Einstein can probably be blamed for this) and semi-irrational behavior of his more dangerous equivalents. Perhaps most telling of all, Hollywood would give us Forbidden Planet, with Doctor Morbius and his “monsters from the id”—destructive forces released by expanding the capacity of the human mind.
Forbidden Planet gives us the real clue to the long-term origins of the mad scientist—because Forbidden Planet was based on Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. Dr. Morbius stands in for Prospero, a philosopher whose world is distorted by the forces he has brought into play and which he can no longer control. This was an image with a long history in literary and folk tradition. Often in the early days it was considered that anyone who worked in natural philosophy—what we would call science—was dabbling with magic and dealing with the devil. Such early “mad scientists” were often thought to have their own equivalent of Prospero’s magic servant Ariel in the form of talking metal heads.
The earliest Western owner in legend of such a marvelous but terrifying engine was the French cleric Gerbert of Aurillac. By the time this scholarly abbot became Pope Sylvester II in 999, he had already gained the reputation of being a black magician, a fate that seemed to attach itself to anyone with scientific leanings. Gerbert was associated with a talking brass head in one of the anecdotes used by the monk William of Malmesbury to liven up his histories.
He tells us that Gerbert imbued the head with its magical powers by casting it using “a certain inspection of the stars when the planets were about to begin their courses.” It was inevitable that Gerbert should have been seen as a necromancer. He was a man who had no qualms about investigating the mysterious workings of nature. Not only did he write books, he also described marvelous devices and drew strange diagrams that looked like magical symbols if you didn’t understand the science he was attempting to portray.
Anyone who delved into the workings of nature was regarded with suspicion at a time when the study of natural philosophy was only just beginning to creep back into Europe. Western scientific knowledge was based largely on the work of the Greek philosophers, who from around 500 BC had begun to speculate on the nature of the universe.
With the fall of Greek civilization, what knowledge there had been was lost, or at least mislaid. Hundreds of years later, the Arabs began to discover the remnants of Greek libraries, and set about a painstaking reconstruction of what had been known, to which they added their own insights; but it was only when Christian scholars brought this Greek-Arab amalgam into Latin-speaking Europe that the study of nature began to find acceptance, and then only among the cognoscenti. For the common people it was all still a mystery—with its adepts branded as sorcerers.
By the thirteenth century, the legend of the head had transferred itself from Gerbert to another figure. It was now said to be the creation of the Bavarian Albertus Magnus. Albertus was a great encyclopedist of science, but in England it was Roger Bacon’s name that stuck in the popular mind, and by Tudor times the head of brass had moved again, now firmly established as Friar Bacon’s property. Bacon too was an early scientist, writing a huge book on the scientific knowledge of the time. He was explicit in his denial of the existence of magic, explaining everything by nature and art (human work), but again his natural philosophy made him considered a magician. After his death, Bacon became the legendary owner of the talking brass head.
Even though the tale of the head is clearly fictional, such was the strength of the legend that it came to influence reality. Two colleges at the venerable Oxford University have in the past claimed Bacon as an alumnus—Merton and Brasenose. Both claims are highly doubtful. Although there was probably some overlap between the existence of Merton College, founded in 1264, and Bacon’s second stay in Oxford, Merton was originally dedicated to educating the sons of Walter of Merton’s seven very productive sisters. That hardly made it a likely home for Bacon.
It’s at Brasenose, though, that the head appears to emerge into real life. The Brasenose story has even less going for it than Merton’s, though the college has to be admired for the sheer cheek of its attempt to claim Roger for its own. Brasenose didn’t open until 1509, more than two hundred years after Bacon’s death. But by then the brass-head legend would have been well established, and it could well be that the “Brasenose” of the name, an oversized brass nose placed over the gatehouse of the college, was believed to be a remnant from the explosion that was said to have destroyed the famous brass head.
By the sixteenth century, the tale of the head and other stories had solidified into the lively, earthy collection of tales called The Famous Historie of Fryer Bacon. Soon afterward, Bacon’s adventures were brought to life for the public in a play based on the Historie entitled The Honourable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, by Robert Greene, a largely forgotten contemporary of William Shakespeare. Greene’s Bacon was a Faustian figure—in fact, for a long time The Honourable History was thought to be a rip-off of Christopher Marlowe’s play The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus. Marlowe himself was not above a little plagiarism, using as his source the legend that had built up around the fifteenth-century German scholar and magician Johann Faust.
The real Faust was born in Württemberg around 1480. He went to university, but found the easy life of fortune-telling and conjuring more attractive than his studies and began to travel from town to town, making money wherever and however he could. To boost his reputation he openly boasted that he had sold his soul to the devil, a claim that Martin Luther took seriously enough to brand him a master of demonic powers. Others thought Faust an opportunistic charlatan, but nonetheless a dangerous man to have around. He was thrown out of the city of Ingolstadt in 1528. The municipal records note that “a certain man who called himself Dr. Johann Faust of Heidelberg was told to spend his penny elsewhere, and he pledged himself not to take vengeance on or to make fools of the authorities for this order.”
After Faust’s death, his reputation started a legend that spread throughout Europe. Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus tells of a man obsessed with power. In exchange for his soul he gains knowledge and influence. By the end of the story he repents of his actions, even though he is too late to be saved from damnation. It’s easy to see an early form of the mad scientist here. Faust didn’t care about the thing that really mattered—his soul; instead, the rampant search for knowledge drove him to the devil.
In the whole picture of human beings “playing with forces we don’t understand” that dominates these medieval tales, there’s an element of reality. Science really does put human existence at risk—not because there are madmen in charge of laboratories, or because knowledge has somehow warped the scientists’ brains, but because human beings have a relentless, unstoppable urge to venture into the unknown, an urge that outside of science is generally seen in a much more favorable light.
It’s the same spirit that sent the pioneers out to the American West, that Star Trek urge to “boldly go where no one has gone before.” Inevitably, such exploration can take us into danger. We do our best to keep that danger to a minimum, but we can’t make the risk entirely go away. Science will always involve an element of danger, just as being human always involves an element of danger. And as our science gets deeper, more fundamental, then the potential scale of that danger grows.
This is why in 2008 a group tried to get a court injunction to prevent the turning on of the biggest machine human beings have ever contemplated building. The group was convinced that throwing that switch would do nothing less than destroy the world. It would, they believed, not just kill off the human race, but threaten the whole existence of reality as we know it.
Copyright 2010 Brian Clegg