The Paris Review

Who Gets to Be a Mad Scientist?

Photograph from the soundstage of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

In a fit of enthusiastic madness I created a rational creature. —Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus

Theatrical as it is, the cliché of the mad scientist—a wild-haired, goggle-eyed maniac pacing around a laboratory, operating buzzing contraptions with the help of a hunchbacked assistant—reveals something important about our relationship to knowledge. At least since Aeschylus, science and technology have been bound to madness and criminality: when Prometheus rebels against Zeus, steals the “fire that makes all skills attainable” from the gods, and gives it to the humans—together with tools, technical and scientific knowledge, language, and reason itself—he “is mentally straying, robbed of [his] wits, like a bad doctor who has fallen sick.”

Some two thousand years later, a different incarnation of this paradox helped give birth to modern science. Descartes, one of the founding figures of our scientific method, started out by imagining a “malicious demon of the utmost power” that deceived him and confounded his mind so that he doubted everything that presented itself to his senses and his mind. “I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colors, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgement,” he writes in his first Meditation. “I shall consider myself as not having hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood or senses, but as falsely believing that I have all these things.” Descartes’s radical skepticism, a deliberate form of madness, is the cornerstone of his method: the demon makes him doubt everything—except that he doubts and therefore thinks and therefore exists. Rationalism is, then, the product of an evil genius.

To this day, metaphors of insanity and normalcy are ingrained in the philosophy of science: epistemologists like Thomas Kuhn call “normal science” all work that is done within an accepted paradigm. This, of course, implies that all revolutionary science is, at first, abnormal—or “Abby Normal,” as Igor calls the brain he gets for the creature. 

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Paris Review

The Paris Review8 min read
The Jets, The Bills, And The Art Of Losing
Our favorite poet/sports correspondent is back, this time with some very strong feelings about football. Photo: Rowan Ricardo Phillips “We’re from Buffalo. Obviously. That’s why we’re driving through this tunnel with you.” It was Sunday, around noon
The Paris Review8 min read
Re-Covered: Margaret Drabble’s 1977 Brexit Novel
Margaret Drabble is so well known that seeing her included in this column might confuse some readers. Writing in the New York Times only two years ago, when Drabble’s most recent novel, The Dark Flood Rises, was published, Cynthia Ozick described the
The Paris Review5 min read
Staff Picks: Metaphors, Messengers, and Melancholy
Jacqueline Novak. Photo: Monique Carboni. Everything about the comedian Jacqueline Novak’s Off-Broadway stand-up show—recently extended through October 6—is clever, beginning with the title: Get on Your Knees. Before the curtain rises in the West Vil