Thursday, June 22, 2006

Movies, mad scientists and image makeovers

Scientists must be the most ill-treated and maligned community, at least in cinema. At least on celluloid, there are no normal, peaceful, life-loving scientists.

Hollywood has made millions out of making scientists (a) freaks (think of The fly), (b) crazy (how many movies can you think of where the intelligent scientist wants to rule/destroy the world? If I got a nickel for each one you could think of, I’d be rolling in bagfuls of the stuff by now), (c) Goofy, absent-minded and nutty (like, Honey, I shrunk the kids or Back to the future), (d) Schizophrenic (popular now, especially after A perfect mind), or (e) completely expendable, and the first person to die when the monsters/dinosaurs/volcano/shark/terrorists/any one else attacks. There never has been a scientist who has fit in to (f) none of the above.

Sad, but unfortunately true.

Why is that, I ask? Most scientists I know (and I know a few, being one myself) usually fit neatly in to (f) none of the above. Most of them do not have crazy white hair. At that age, they’re retired, or called “professor emeritus” (i.e. guy who doesn’t need to do any work). Some are (unfortunately) bald, but that’s just bad genes, and the percentage of bald scientists are the same as that of bald men out selling dope on the streets. Some poor sods are absent minded, but never so absent minded that they don’t remember their own names.

But these poor souls, who have worked hard to provide Hollywood with so many ideas, remain sorry caricatures. If it weren’t so funny, it would be tragic. And here’s Hollywood, using the nice technology scientists create (CGI, any one), who make a special-effects filled movie where the super-scientist, brain of the first order, is crushed to pulp by a dim witted guy bitten (say) by a radioactive spider, who usually can’t decide if he wants to be a super-hero or not. Science, clearly, has no role in success.

The poor scientist (if it’s male) has not once chance in hell of even having a girl ever like him. So, he ends up kidnapping the prettiest girl on screen, who happens to be the hero/superhero’s girlfriend, and therefore aforementioned scientist will meet his doom, after cackling loudly on screen. The one chance out of a million that there’s a female scientist in the movie, it’s a dimwitted bombshell (Denise Richards in “The world is not enough”, anyone) who falls for the guy who can start a stalled car. Is there no justice in this world?

Bollywood goes even further to make the scientist a bonafide lunatic. Here’s how casting parts go. Doctor? Good. Engineer? Good. Underworld don? Fantastic. BA “gold medalist” without connections and therefore without a job? Perfect. Knows how to play solitaire on a computer? Outstanding. If you’re Shilpa Shetty and can do that, even better than outstanding.

Scientist? You get to be Doctor Dang in Subhash Ghai’s Karma. Or else, a guest appearance (Rakesh Roshan in ”Koi mil gaya”) as a scientist who believes that aliens with supernatural powers are likely to invade earth.

Either that, or there’s option (3), as Anil Kapoor’s now dead blink-and-you’ll-miss-the-role dad who can make a watch that will make people disappear, but will never get to wear that watch (and therefore be cool, and get girls to like him) because, duh, he’s dead.

Science itself will be conveniently relegated to the “evil black-magic” category, and Sai Baba’s grace giving a blind woman her eyesight will be hailed with rousing cresendo of euphoric cheers.

Such is life. In some random gathering, people will introduce themselves, with grand descriptions of what they do (I have a “business” (translation "I sell stuff through Amway"), and will be met by approving looks.

And then I’ll say I’m a scientist, and will be met with looks of pity (“I’m so sorr…..I mean, that’s great”), shock (“Really? Why the fuc…..I mean, really, that’s great”), derision and mockery (“Scientist? You’re one of those guys sitting in a lab at midnight growing bacteria? I mean, that’s great.) (Ok, there might be some truth in that), utter contempt (“That’s great. I work for a start-up. Oh, by the way, I just bought a plasma TV”) (translation “you pathetic fool still doing research and only able to afford a second hand TV”), or sympathy (“That’s great. What do you do?”).

And, in all their eyes, I can see a little twinkle and an image of crazy-white-haired-dork flashing by.

Hollywood, Bollywood, some day us scientists will have the last laugh.


(Laughter fades. I plan my newest scheme for world domination….)


Anonymous said...


Interesting and very apt observations ! Scientists are way too much caricatured in real life and the media.

As a biological scientist working on very basic research, I can't tell you the number of times I have disappointed people by saying that I am not about to find a breakthrough solution to a major disease. Some people have even mistaken my doctoral degree and asked me for medical advice.

However, I wonder if as scientists we are also partly to blame for this - not getting the message across and all. I met a professor at a conference recently who mentioned that while growing up in USA in the 60-70s, she felt that studying science or technology related subjects was actually considered 'sexy' (part of the goverment initiative to win the space race at that time). Perhaps there will be a return to such days after Mr Bush's so-called competitiveness inititative ?

Finally, if you consider TV and movies, other professions such as lawyers or doctors are also potrayed in a very single dimensional manner.

The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

that was so funnt i sent the link to my sister and brother-in-law. both scientists by the way. and i must admit i have been guilty of the 'what u sit in a lab all night and watch bacteria grow' one myself. :D

TomCruiseChellumm said...

Some perfectly normal householders (grihastas in sanskritised tamil of tambrams) go around with scietific solutions to pressing problems. Like this gentleman in Chennai who claims that he has a solution to the perennial water problem.
Yes he talks of mixing 2 parts of H with one part of O and producing water in what he calls copious qtys.
Into which category do you fit?
He is bald

Anonymous said...

I sure hope I don't go bald..not a good thing for a guy but even worse for a girl:(.

And my friend, you forgot the silver lining, Back to the future, the scientist is featured as half crazy but not a bad guy:)

Anonymous said...

yeah, and if you are the really cool types, you can "invent" a computer that can see the future. yes, the future. in full technicolor.

(heh, haven't watched Kkrish, any of you, have you? you talk about Koi Mil gaya! heh again. don't)

Anonymous said...

I am scared....really scared, especially from laughter at the end.

Wavefunction said...

Amen. Most scientists are quite normal. Even those who are perceived as eccentric are a world apart from the caricatures in movies. Freeman Dyson is a good example. For all purposes, he is one of the most sensible and reasonable human beings I have heard about, in spite of his sometimes wild theorizing and futurizing.

Unknown said...


Sunil said...

Bongopondit......nice point about "science being made sexy".......but I'm sure you had your tongue firmly in cheek when you talked about Bush's "competitiveness initiative". I guess that goes along with reductions in NIH and NSF budgets :-))

Shoefiend.....:-). I hope your sis and bil liked this one. I feel their pain.

Tomcruisechellum......(that's some name).....I want to meet this gentleman you alude to. Wonderful. You wonder why so many scientists didn't think of that one.

Anonymous.......I'm bald too (or getting there). Bald men rule!

Charu......i'm cool then....I see the future in technicolor every day. In that future I'm obscenely rich, and am overlord of a thousand minions. should be scared. See comment above.

Ashutosh......Freeman Dyson's in interesting example. Where did you hear him speak?

Myviews..........very scary.

karrvakarela said...

Mr India also had Dr. Fu Man Chu, one of Mogambo's minions who watched people jump into an inscrutable acid that ate away the flesh and left the skeleton untouched.

apu said...

You've left out one stereotype..the scientist who's made that fantastic invention which cant be controlled anymore! Started as Frankenstein...and goes on... till Spiderman...

Sunil said... could i ever forget Fu Man Chu. The man, the legend.

Apu.......I am that scientist :-)

Unknown said...

karrvakarela - Having buried the prime of my socially relevant years in acids, bases and some essentially unknown hydroxylamines and amino acids, I can safely attest to the fact that acids do, in fact, eat through flesh much more efficiently than they would go through bones. It would take awfully long for even the strongest acids to corrode your bones.

Yes, that was me proclaiming my scientific pedigree. I did surrender to the real world eventually, and gave up my amazing technicolour labcoat (which I dyed myself!) for a job in advertising (don't ask).

Anonymous said...

I am a 6th grade science teacher, and a movie lover. Any suggestions for movies that include or demonstrate Scientific Method?

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