IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Why we're mad about mad scientists

John Noble, left, plays a charmingly mad scientist who assists an FBI agent (Anna Torv, wearing the electrodes) and his own son (Josh Jackson, at right) on the Fox sci-fi show
John Noble, left, plays a charmingly mad scientist who assists an FBI agent (Anna Torv, wearing the electrodes) and his own son (Josh Jackson, at right) on the Fox sci-fi showMark Ben Holzberg / Fox Broadcasting via AP

When it comes to mad scientists, it's hard to top Dr. Walter Bishop, the eccentric genius at the heart of the Fox TV series "Fringe" —but some of the most famous figures in scientific history have come pretty close. You could even argue that their eccentricity played a role in their scientific success.

At least that's what Baltimore science teacher John Monahan argues in his book, "They Called Me Mad: Genius, Madness and the Scientists Who Pushed the Outer Limits of Knowledge." Today, some of history's most prominent scientists might well have been diagnosed with mental conditions such as Asperger's syndrome or obsessive-compulsive disorder, he said.

"The popular wisdom is that you've got to be kind of 'off,'" he told me. "My take on it is, yeah, in a way, it did help them look at things from a different perspective, to see outside the box, to see stuff that other people hadn't recognized even though they were looking at the same thing. Those sorts of brain differences may be very important to being considered a genius."

And if the differences come out as charming eccentricities, as they do in the case of the fictional Dr. Bishop, so much the better. Here's a guy who spent years in a mental hospital ... who keeps a cow in his lab so he can have fresh milk on demand ... who fantasizes about pancakes as he does brain surgery ... and who blurts out, "Let's go synthesize some LSD!"

They called Tesla mad

No doubt we'll spot more of Walter's eccentricities in a series of new "Fringe" episodes starting tonight, and marvel over the madness of it all. But if Walter Bishop could travel back in time, he might find a kindred spirit in Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), a real-life genius who was equally as eccentric. For example, Tesla would stay in a hotel room only if its room number was divisible by three, and he reportedly became so attached to a pigeon he fed that he was devastated when the bird died.

Bishop may have invented a sparking and sizzling contraption that could thrust him and his "Fringe" teammates into a parallel universe (fictional!), but Tesla invented sparking and sizzling contraptions that opened the way for modern-day AC electrical current and future-day beamed power (fact!).

Tesla's life provides a textbook case on the potential pitfalls of a mad-scientist image. He was engaged in a years-long battle with another famous inventor, Thomas Edison, over whether AC or DC would win out as the standard for electrical distribution. "Edison would use publicity to portray Tesla as a mad scientist, a crackpot, in order to diminish the standing of AC," Monahan said. For example, Edison had an elephant and other animals electrocuted in an effort to show the public that AC was too dangerous. (Which doesn't sound like all that sane of a publicity strategy to me.)

Ultimately, the supposedly mad scientist prevailed. "Tesla won that battle," Monahan said.

Another mad-scientist duel took place after the development of the atomic bomb: After World War II, the Manhattan Project's scientific director, J. Robert Oppenheimer, didn't want the U.S. government to build a more powerful hydrogen bomb. But his rival on the research team, Edward Teller, persuaded the government to move ahead with the H-bomb project. Teller prevailed in part because he was able to tar Oppenheimer with the "mad scientist" brush, Towson University's Glen Scott Allen told the Why Files. (Allen has written his own book about scientific personalities, titled "Master Mechanics and Wicked Wizards."

Archimedes and Frankenstein

Monahan traces the real-life history of mad scientists back to Archimedes (287-212 B.C.), who is known for running out into the streets of Syracuse naked after figuring out the principle of buoyancy in his bathtub. The best-known fictional tale of a mad scientist came much later, of course, in the form of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's 1818 novel about Victor Frankenstein. Shelley's classic was inspired by experiments in galvanism, which involved animating frog legs (or even the corpses of criminals) by jolting them with electricity.

The tail end of the Frankenstein saga has a real-life parallel in the story of Joseph Priestley, the 18th-century English scientist and clergyman who is credited with the discovery of oxygen and the invention of carbonated water. Priestley's political and religious views got him into so much trouble that rioters burned down his house and his laboratory. Eventually, Priestley and his family fled to America, where the scientist spent the rest of his life.

"He ended up being literally driven from England by a torch-wielding mob," Monahan said. (For more on Priestley's life and times, check out "The Invention of Air" by Steven Johnson.)

The present and future of mad scientists

You probably wouldn't call Priestley "mad" in the psychological sense of the word. In fact, psychiatrist Arnold Ludwig reviewed the biographies of more than 1,000 famous people and reported that the lifetime prevalence of psychiatric disorders for the natural scientists on the list was 28 percent — lower than that for the general population. (The comparable number for creative writers and artists, however, was a maddening 73 to 87 percent.)

Other studies have suggested that the cluster of characteristics associated with highly creative people can sometimes look a lot like the signs of mental maladjustment — for example, unconventional beliefs, nonconformity and defocused attention.

"Psychopathology is by no means a sine qua non of creativity," Dean Keith Simonton, a psychologist at the University of California at Davis, reported in one research paper. "Instead, it is probably more accurate to say that creativity shares certain cognitive and dispositional traits with specific systems, and that the degree of that commonality is contingent on the level and type of creativity that an individual displays." 

The specialties of fictional mad scientists tend to change with the times. For Victor Frankenstein, it was reanimating stitched-together cadavers. For Walter Bishop, it's creating interdimensional portals. And Monahan expects that genetic engineering and nanotechnology will become the hot topics for tomorrow's mad scientists. "If I were going write a mad-scientist story set 100 years in the future, that's probably what I'd go for," he told me.

But Monahan wonders if mad scientists will eventually become as obsolete as Tesla's sparking and sizzling coils. In the old days, he said, cutting-edge science was primarily the domain of experimenters working in relative isolation.

"Now science is different," Monahan said. "Now, if you're a scientist, you're probably working for a university or a large corporation or some other large group. It's much more of a cooperative kind of thing. So when you look at the science now that's pushing the envelope — genetic engineering, nanotechnology, that sort of thing — really, it's more of a faceless kind of thing. You don't have this mad-scientist face on it. But the anonymous, corporate world that's behind that is just as threatening. A lot of folks are just as afraid of it nowadays, and you see that reflected in a lot of movies and TV shows."

Like "Fringe," for example. One of the frequent foils for Dr. Bishop and the gang is a mega-conglomerate named Massive Dynamic. (Slogan: "What Don't We Do?") If it comes down to a charmingly mad scientist against a faceless mad corporation, I'll go with the scientist. How about you? Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts about the way science is done, in fiction and in real life, by leaving a comment below. 

More about mad science:

Connect with the Cosmic Log community by hitting the "like" button on the blog's Facebook page or following b0yle on Twitter.