The Halloween Cafe Scientifique: an evening of Mad Scientists

On Halloween, I gave a short presentation as our first Cafe Scientifique of the year. The main intent was to introduce our schedule for the year and to give an amusing introduction to the media image of scientists by showing a few movie clips…and to say a few things about how we really ought to be seen.

I’ve put most of the clips on youtube, so you can see what I was talking about below the fold.

Here’s the schedule for the 2006-2007 year.

28 November : Theodora Economou: Causation in law and science

30 January : The Chemistry Discipline: Chemistry in the home
27 February : Arne Kildegaard: The electricity industry and current renewable energy policy
27 March : Kristin Kearns : Astronomy
24 April : Tracey Anderson: Insects

I know the last two are a little general right now; Tracey and Kristin have a few months to refine them down a little.

The first movie clip I showed was the archetype, the one that really defined how scientists were going to be portrayed in the movies: Frankenstein, the 1931 movie starring Colin Clive and Boris Karloff. This is the sequence where Baron Frankenstein reanimates his monster; just look at the ACTING!!.

One of the common techniques in movies, well overplayed in this scene, is to show scientists as completely oblivious to the consequences of their actions. In this scene from The Bride of Frankenstein, Baron Frankenstein needs a young, strong heart…and sends the delightful Karl (Dwight Frye) off to the “Accident Hospital” to pick one up.

By the way, I wonder if Colin Clive was entirely sober when he was playing this scene.

Scientists, of course, don’t believe in anything, as we see in this clip from The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra.

Scientists are also insufferably arrogant and egotistical. Steve Martin plays a neurosurgeon in The Man With Two Brains.

This is actually a clip I agree with: Christopher Lee instruction a young lady on the applicability of morality to science, from The Horror Express.

One last horror movie: the trailer for Them!. The paranoia of the 1950s illustrates a conflicted attitude towards science: it’s science that sets off the atom bombs that cause the problem, but you still need the darned clever eggheads to help solve the problem.

The giant ants actually made a nice segue into talking about real scientists, and how they don’t seem to be anything at all like the insane monsters of the movies. I first showed part of this recent interview with EO Wilson—the parts where he first talks about his obsession with the ants, and then the segment where he talks about the roles of the scientist, in this particular case in working to recruit evangelicals to help save the planet.

Finally, I’ve mentioned this fellow before: I ended it on Jacob Bronowski and his Ascent of Man, from the “Knowledge or Certainty” episode.

You really can’t get much farther from Colin Clive in Frankenstein than that. Where Baron Frankenstein shrieks about being like a god, Bronowski denies the whole idea that scientists should aspire to godhood—it’s enough that we embrace humanity.

Afterwards, Jen Goodenough of the chemistry discipline showed us how to make ice cream with liquid nitrogen, a good mad scientisty thing to do, and we all had a fun time talking about our favorite scary movies.


  1. says

    Wait, I’m confused by the Christopher Lee clip:
    “If the theory of evolution is confirmed….”
    “It’s a fact.”
    He needs to confirm a fact?

  2. Mnemosyne says

    By the way, I wonder if Colin Clive was entirely sober when he was playing this scene.

    Knowing Clive’s sad history — he died of alcoholism before he was 40 — most likely not.

    I kinda wish you could have stuck to real clips rather than parody ones, but, hey, I’m not doing the lecture, so the comedy probably helped quite a bit. My favorite “mad scientist” of all time is probably Jack Griffin in The Invisible Man. Sure, he went insane from the experiments that he performed on himself, but how can you resist him as he skips along a lane singing “Here We Go Gathering Nuts in May” as a disembodied pair of trousers?

    For a great movie about the compromises that were made in the early days of medicine, I strongly recommend The Body Snatcher with Boris Karloff, set in the days when it was illegal to dissect human bodies and “resurrection men” were sent to cemeteries to dig up the freshly dead. It’s partly based on the notorious Burke and Hare of Scotland:

  3. Mnemosyne says

    He needs to confirm a fact?

    The clip is a little out of context — he needs to confirm that the box of bones is in fact an ancestral human, not evolution.

    It’s not a bad little movie — Peter Cushing is in it, too, and they always played well off each other.

  4. HP says

    Speaking of chemically altered actors playing mad scientists, check out Bruce Dern in The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant. I don’t think Dern was drinking, but I dare you to watch his performance and not think, “Cocaine’s a bitch.”

    Karloff is great in The Body Snatcher, but then he was working with Val Lewton and Robert Wise. The film’s climax is terrific, as is the scene where Karloff “burkes” Lugosi (who was already declining from heroin addiction when this was filmed — do I detect a theme?).

    One of my favorites is a little Poverty Row picture called “The Ape,” also starring Karloff. Karloff plays a researcher looking for a cure for infantile paralysis. He finds one using a derivative from human spinal fluid. But where to find living spinal fluid donors? An escaped circus gorilla provides him the cover he needs to continue his experiments, and to rid the town of narrow-minded hypocrites in the bargain. (For some reason, this movie gets consistently bad reviews. Buncha philistines, if you ask me. Someone should dress up in a gorilla carcass and drain their spines.)

  5. ATM says

    They said I could never reanimate a corpse, the boy at Radio Shack said I was mad! Mad! But who’s mad now?! Muhahahahaha!

  6. Mnemosyne says

    And how can anyone have a mad scientist thread without mentioning Re-Animator, the grisliest, gruesomest, wrongest take on the Frankenstein myth ever?

    If nothing else, it has the best tagline:

    Herbert West Has A Very Good Head On His Shoulders… And Another One In A Dish On His Desk

  7. NotStuartGordon says

    Ah, but with Re-Animator – love it or hate it – Barbara Crampton will always have a place in film history.

    From Beyond features some world-class screaming, too.

  8. RCP says

    I like how the other scientists in the first clip jump whenever lightning strikes. If I was stuck with somebody ranting about magic life-rays and grave robbing, lightning would be the least of my concerns.

  9. G. Tingey says

    I saw the whole of the Bronowski series when it came out – I still had a TV in those days.

    I’m afraid watching it again, all these years later, moved me to tears.

    He is, from beyond his grave, also giving a warning – because who has god-like certainty that they are right, and that god is on their side?

    Geo W. Shrub, and Ahmenidjad, that’s who.

    Now that’s really scary

  10. bernarda says

    Here is another brain transplant classic for you, The Astro-Zombies. John Carradine was in it.

    Here is a 1960’s film describing LSD use.

    A movie about who finances some scientific research.

    “The most fiendish, the most fierce, female that ever lived”.

  11. Frumious B says

    4 films, 6 male scientists, 1 female. two real life interviews, 2 males scientists, 0 females. All white.
    Image of scientist portrayed: white guy.

  12. says

    That issue came up in the discussion afterwards, too. I agree that it’s a real problem, and I honestly tried to find examples of crazed female scientists in the movies (it’s hard!) and counterbalancing images of real women scientists (examples are easier to find, but videos are more difficult.) At least last year we had Tyrone Hayes give a talk on campus, and he’s an excellent example of a black scientist doing good work and getting public exposure.

  13. says

    I agree that it’s a real problem, and I honestly tried to find examples of crazed female scientists in the movies (it’s hard!)

    Well, there’s that grade Z movie Carnosaur, obviously created as a Jurrasic Park ripoff, that has a crazed geneticist played by Diane Ladd (who is, amusingly, Laura Dern’s mother in real life — I guess starring in cloned dinosaur movies is a family tradition or something.)

  14. Mnemosyne says

    Image of scientist portrayed: white guy.

    Speaking solely to the image of the scientist as portrayed in popular culture, that’s absolutely true. In fact, it’s usually an older white guy, a fatherly type. A patriarch, if you will.

    Do you kinda see where I’m going with this? :-)

    If you’re interested in the topic, Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film by Vivian Sobchack is a good intro to the themes and symbolism of classic sci-fi films.

  15. Frumious B says

    I honestly tried to find examples of crazed female scientists in the movies (it’s hard!)

    I gave you a list in the comments. It took me half an hour googling and searching IMDB to compile it. Granted, it was only women and not minorities, I admit my white privilege caused me to miss that boat. I’m calling you on your male privilege.

    And yeah, Mnemosyne, I see where you are going. If you take the gender blinders off, you might go somewhere more interesting.