Mr. Spock and Dr. Strangelove


Friday, January 27, 2012

Samantha Hunt describes the turning point in Tesla’s life when he began acting like a mad scientist we recognize from movies. In 1899, Tesla lived in a mountain lab in Colorado Springs and "he went through a million dollars in about eight months," Hunt explains. "He fancied himself a magician but then insisted it wasn't magic." Tesla could actually command lightning bolts out of the palm of his hand. But he also tried to listen for signs of intelligent life in outerspace, and drew ridicule for it. It was a reputation he was never able to shake.

Biologist Vincent Pieribone traces how scientists have been portrayed on screen — from Dr. Strangelove (1964) to Independence Day (1996). He remembers watching Star Trek's Mr. Spock struggle to balance logic and emotion. "Scientists in film are more likely to put people at risk for scientific gain," he says. And that’s a result “of the atomic bomb era,” he argues. “One of the most horrific things that has ever been brought to the human race. And brought to us in full color by scientists." But Pieribone thinks that Hollywood’s most dangerous fantasy about “mad scientists” is that scientists have any power at all.

(Originally aired: January 25, 2008)

→ Samantha Hunt reads from her novel The Invention of Everything Else

    Music Playlist
  • White's Dream
    Artist: Plaid
    Album: Tekkon Kinkreet Soundtrack
    Label: Sony
    Purchase: Amazon


Samantha Hunt and Vincent Pieribone

Comments [2]

Jenny from Studio 360

@todd -- Thanks for your comment. Really interesting point. Which movies get engineers wrong? Do any get it right? And would you classify a character like 'Back To the Future''s Doc Brown a scientist or an engineer?

Jan. 30 2012 09:35 AM

Although I believe Vincent's essay on the misperception of the power of scientists is spot on, as an engineer I am once again disappointed the profession is not even mentioned in a discussion of the lack of a role for technical professionals in guiding policy makers. At least scientists have a powerful Hollywood persona; engineers only have pocket protectors and taped up glasses (as well as a habit of whining about the laws of physics getting in the way of time critical work demands).

Jan. 29 2012 11:22 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.