Science Fiction Studies

#111 = Volume 37, Part 2 = July 2010


Jerome Winter

Lab Coats, Not Straitjackets

Glen Scott Allen. Master Mechanics and Wicked Wizards: Images of the American Scientist as Hero and Villain from Colonial Times to the Present. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2009. xii + 305 pp. $28.45 pbk.

David A. Kirby. Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Film. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2010. xiv + 265 pp. $27.95 hc.

In 1954, the United States Atomic Energy Commission conducted a highly publicized hearing that revoked the security clearance of J. Robert Oppen-heimer, former head of the Manhattan Project. The group arrived at this decision in large part based on allegations concerning Oppenheimer’s putative Communist ties and sympathies. Over half a century later, questions linger. Did the making of Oppenheimer into such an easy victim of McCarthyite political jockeying have anything to do with a pervasive, perhaps constitutive American anti-intellectualism? Did this bias fuel the scapegoating of an erstwhile Berkeley radical and theoretical physicist who just happened to be an advocate of the One World or None call for a new post-atomic era of international cooperation?1 Is there a persistent demonization of scientists at work in American culture? These questions are addressed by Glen Scott Allen, whose Master Mechanics and Wicked Wizards argues that US popular attitudes towards the scientist reflect an ingrained anti-intellectualism and xenophobia. As Allen argues, “the public reception and perceptions of the scientist tended to favor the independent amateur over the university professor, the practical inventor over the abstract theoretician, the average tinkerer over the highly trained specialist” (16).

Allen maintains that this divide between the Wicked Wizard and the Master Mechanic stems from an antipathy towards “pure” as opposed to “applied” scientific endeavor, the former of which American culture has tended to disparage as perniciously European and aristocratic. Allen’s provocative thesis builds upon such works as David J. Skal’s Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture, which also critiques the “knee-jerk anti-intellectualism” and “line between pure science and technological applications” (26) evident in popular treatments of scientists. Allen is quick to concede the porous and fuzzy boundaries between the mechanical-practical and theoretical-abstract, but he counters that such a “false dichotomy” (256) nonetheless carries undeniable cultural and iconographic weight. Ultimately, Allen’s book is not successful precisely because of his persistent appeals to a monolithic mechanical-practical “American imagination,” “general public at large,” or “cultural consciousness,” which presupposes a universalized consensus that may not actually exist. The methodological tendency toward “breadth over depth” (9), as Allen himself puts it, becomes especially problematic when—though writing in an engaging and accessible (if cliché-ridden) style—he ahistorically imposes the “mad scientist” trope on an array of cultural artifacts as diverse as Captain Ahab, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Darth Vader, John Glenn, and the philosophy of pragmatism.

Allen not only advances a cherry-picking argument that conveniently ignores, or painfully contorts, counter-examples but also fails to support his contentions with compelling evidence. We are told, for instance, that Oppenheimer’s AEC hearing reflected a “widespread sentiment” in the 1950s that the atomic scientist had “metamorphosed from a figure of immense stature and wisdom to an enemy, an outsider, even a traitor” (88). To defend this claim, as well as the tendentious corollary connection between the One World or None anthology and the Oppenheimer hearing, Allen quotes one fairly non-polemical sentence from a contemporary New York Times article: “because man is a success in physics does it not follow that he is qualified to elucidate political issues that perplex able and honest statesmen” (qtd. 88).2 This is not to imply that Allen’s book is without insight or merit, only that the scope of his project might have been better served by an ampler context or a less rigid framework. In Frankenstein’s Footsteps (1998), for instance, Jon Turney adopts a flexible approach to the myriad popular incarnations of mad science that share filiation with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Tracing the horror of that archetypal figure and his botched creation to the myth of Prometheus, the Judaic golem, Cartesian automata, and the work of Medieval alchemists, Turney sees cultural discourses surrounding science as often pivoting on a central “ambivalence about knowledge” (13). Likewise, in Mad, Bad and Dangerous?: The Scientist and the Cinema, Christopher Frayling highlights how popular anti-science stereotypes, evident in surveys of American high-school students conducted by Margaret Mead in 1957 and David Wade Chambers in 1982, serve as an index of widespread resistance to technocratic power and the deployment of scientific rationalism in the service of military-oriented research. Frayling notes that Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) evokes the apocalyptic meshing of thanatos and eros in the faceless bureaucracy of modern-day mad science partly by way of Nazi chemist Laszlo Jamf’s obsession with Rudolf Klein-Rogge, the actor who played the fanatical Dr. Rotwang in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927).

Allen’s book thus taps into a rich vein of anti-scientific tropes and images, even if he fails to exploit this profusion of material for a deep and original synthesis. The volume is comprised of eleven chapters, with the penultimate chapter containing a lengthy discussion of Benjamin Franklin as the “Prime Pragmatist.” The first three chapters cover representations of science in nineteenth-century America, including a description of the Boston scientific intelligentsia and close but narrow readings of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories. In these chapters, Allen also provides rapid-fire glosses of Charles Wilson Peale’s naturalist painting, technology fairs, Thomas Edison and the Great Independent inventors, and brief overviews of Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James. Chapter 4 includes an analysis of Howard Scott’s and Thorstein Veblen’s defenses of technocracy and passing references to the 1920s and 1930s pulp magazines. Chapter 6 consists of detailed readings of the films The Thing from Another World (1951) and Forbidden Planet (1956), cogently contending that the movies concentrate less on the threat of Soviet invasion than on the fear of domestic fifth columnists, figured as the mad scientists Dr. Carrington and Dr. Morbius, respectively. Chapter 7 charts what Allen considers a growing disenchantment with atomic science, aligning the development of the hydrogen bomb, Eisenhower’s dire warnings about the “military-industrial complex,” and Reagan’s ill-fated attempt to allay nuclear anxiety via the Strategic Defense Initiative. Chapters 8 and 9 concern the Space Race, with particular attention paid to Project Mercury, the first US manned space-flight program, emphasizing astronaut worship, gadget fetishism, nationalism, and the role of engineering prowess in the media’s portrayal of NASA.

Rosalynn D. Haynes’s foundational work From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature (1994) also concludes that fictional representations of the scientist have tended to be skeptical, unflattering, or openly hostile in their depictions of scientific endeavor. With relatively few exceptions, what we now call “science” has been consistently critiqued in cultural forms as various as the overweening Faust, the irresponsible Victor Frankenstein, the megalomaniacal Dr. Moreau, the spastic Dr. Strangelove, and the schizophrenic Dr. Bluthgeld from Philip K. Dick’s Dr. Bloodmoney (1965). While acknowledging in passing that current cinematic portrayals of scientists do continue this longstanding tradition of interrogating the adverse consequences of the misuse of science, David A. Kirby, in Lab Coats in Hollywood, seeks to refocus attention on how even negative representations of scientists depend on the legitimating authority of scientific knowledge to undergird their dramatic narratives. To this end, Kirby mobilizes a series of critical ideas from science studies, film theory, and a wealth of interviews with science consultants, as well as archival research conducted, for example, at Touchstone Pictures and Warner Brothers studios. Thus a film like Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003), despite its deep ambivalence regarding the bourgeoning disciplines of genetic engineering and nanotechnology, nonetheless relies heavily on science consultant John Underkoffler’s research into the ways green fluorescent proteins produce coloration in the Aequorea Victoria species of jellyfish. This relevant scientific fact is conveyed to the observant audience member in the movie’s opening credits. With this shrewd move, Kirby shifts away from the general scholarly tendency to explore how film and literature shape the cultural image of science to focus instead on how science gives a stamp of legitimacy and an air of plausibility—though not necessarily approval or accuracy—to filmic representations.

Trained as a molecular biologist and now Senior Lecturer in Science Communications Studies at the University of Manchester, Kirby, as we find out in the last chapter, is also a consultant’s consultant, advising studios and science advisors on how to advise. A signal hazard of his approach in this book is the absence of critical distance that can derive from the institutional biases and prerogatives of such a Hollywood-insider line of work. Kirby’s contention, for example, that the use of science in films produces a suspension of disbelief on the part of the moviegoer assumes a gullible, unsophisticated viewer easily duped by cinematic sleight-of-hand. Anyone who has watched one of the wildly successful films of Michael Bay—whose Armageddon (1998) Kirby singles out for its egregious errors—must ask themselves: do viewers really expect films to be even remotely scientifically plausible? It may be an unquestioned guiding light to a working science consultant that “to be successful, a modern science-based film must adhere to a sense of scientific authenticity” (221). Such an assumption may be challenged, however, by viewers and critics not so directly invested in the money-making proposition of buying and selling scientific verisimilitude. Despite this criticism, Kirby does foreground and scrutinize a heretofore overlooked dimension of cinematic texts—namely, the collusion of scientific communities and entertainment industries in their production.

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) marks a point where the incorporation of science into film reached a zenith. Kirby uses this film as an introductory case study illustrating the thorough intermeshing of science popularization and commercial entertainment, with Kubrick’s magnum opus serving as a benchmark against which other films are measured. First, there was the extensive fact-checking mounted by Kubrick and his primary science consultant Frederick Ordway, who contacted over sixty organizations for the purpose of gathering information related to aerospace engineering. Also relevant, in terms of the aesthetics and iconography of the film, were Kubrick’s efforts to capture a look of accurate science, with over $750,000 allocated to create an operating artificial-gravity centrifuge for David Bowman to jog around in the spaceship Discovery. Another key criterion Kirby stresses is the benefits of advertising and publicity that films offer to filmmakers, scientists, and the industries surrounding science. An often overlooked aspect of 2001, after all, is the extent to which the film provides an orgy of product placement for IBM, Bell Telephone, Honeywell, RCA, and General Electric. Kirby analyzes the deep interpenetration of science, film, and business in the form of research funding, equipment supply, and opportunities for profitable public relations and saturation-level media exposure.

As a trade-off for the plausibility science provides, film offers scientific enterprises such as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory or the National Academy of Science’s Science and Entertainment Exchange the chance to collapse C.P. Snow’s “two cultures,” which Kirby characterizes as a false binary (220). It remains an open question for Kirby whether a film like The Core (2003), which posits a uranium ball at the Earth’s center, only manages to spread misinformation and scientific illiteracy or whether scientific communities still benefit from the media exposure, if only in the opportunity for a post-facto debunking. But it is definitely the case, as Kirby points out, that Marvin Herndon’s “nuclear earth” theory exploited the resultant publicity, with the publication of his controversial Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences article timed to correspond with the movie’s release. One of Kirby’s key insights is that the construction and dissemination of scientific knowledge is a complex process in no way divorced from the broader technoscientific imaginary in which the representational agendas of entertainment and science coexist.

Chapter 2 concerns scientific plausibility and verisimilitude in film, a fuzzy criterion Kirby counterposes to strict realistic accuracy. He explains this specifically cinematic form of authenticity by developing Steven Shapin and Simon Shaffer’s concept of “virtual witnessing technology,” the naturalizing power of what film scholars call the “reality effect,” and through examples taken from Jurassic Park (1993), Destination Moon (1950), Contact (1997), and 2010 (1984). Chapter 3 outlines five basic types of science consultancy, such as the on-set advisor, the consultant think tank, or the superstar consultant (e.g., the astrophysicist Brian Cox, with his work on Sunshine [2007]). There is then an extended discussion of the symbiotic relationship between scientific institutions and film as illustrated by the National Severe Storms Laboratory’s work on Twister (1995), the US Geological Survey’s involvement in Dante’s Peak (1997), and NASA’s consultation on a number of space-based films, most dramatically Deep Impact (1998). Chapter 4 highlights the issues involved in actors effectively portraying scientists and production design adequately evoking scientific authority. Kirby draws on a series of interviews with science consultants to outline common industry practices; these consultants include Donna Cline for Outbreak (1995), Josh Colwell for Deep Impact, John Underkoffler for Minority Report (2001), Wayne Grody for The Nutty Professor (1996), Daniel Kubat for K19: The Widowmaker (2002), and Samuel Herrick for The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Chapter 5 lays out a tripartite classification of textbook, public, and folk science, featuring extended discussions of Fritz Lang’s Woman on the Moon (1926), Finding Nemo (2004), and Mission to Mars (2000), with its dubious promotion of the “Face-on-Mars” legend.

Chapter 6 focuses on the evolving and unsettled nature of scientific discourse, with special attention to the ways that dinosaurs have been portrayed in film. AsKirby shows, Willis H. O’Brien’s three-fingered Tyrannosaurus in King Kong (1933) is now considered inaccurate; more recently, paleontologist Jack Horner has worked to craft plausible rationales for the fast-moving, warm-blooded, evolved-from-birds dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Chapter 7 counterposes the plausible, if unlikely, deflecting of a near-earth object in Deep Impact with the fantastic but scientifically grounded function that consultant John Underkoffler performed for Hulk. Chapters 8 and 9 respectively concern the prevention of imaginary disasters through scientific means and the potential for developing new technologies via film, the latter of which Kirby labels “diegetic prototypes.” In Chapter 10, Kirby concludes his book by arguing for more practical collaborations between the scientific and entertainment communities. Whether or not filmmakers take Kirby’s advice, his book is a worthy contribution to the growing scholarship on representations of science in film.

Taken together, these two volumes indicate a growing scholarly attention to the ways in which popular images not only reflect but also shape prevailing views regarding science and scientists. While Allen’s breezy chronicle tends to oversimplify the complex transaction between the creators and the consumers of popular culture, subsuming both into a hypostatized “American imagination,” Kirby goes some distance towards showing how this imagination is formed through the collaborative agendas of filmmakers and scientists. Given their focus, one might have wished for a more direct discussion of the role of science fiction, certainly a privileged site of (quasi)scientific representations since the end of the nineteenth century, but neither Allen nor Kirby is particularly interested in questions of genre. Still, both books offer valuable information that will be highly useful to sf scholars.

1. Edited by Dexter Masters and Katherine Way, with the cooperation of the Federation of American Scientists, One World or None was a “Report to the Public on the Full Meaning of the Atomic Bomb,” published in 1946 to widespread acclaim. Boyers offers an insightful analysis of the volume (77-80), claiming that it was “the quintessential expression of the sense of urgency and febrile optimism that characterized one strand of the early reaction to the atomic bomb” (80).
2. Allen actually quotes Boyer’s quotation (274) of this passage.

Boyers, Paul. By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age. 1985. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1994.
Frayling, Christopher. Mad, Bad and Dangerous?: The Scientist and the Cinema. London: Reaktion, 2005.
Haynes, Rosalynn D. From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994.
Skal, David J. Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture. New York: Norton, 1998.
Turney, Jon. Frankenstein’s Footsteps: Science, Genetics, and Popular Culture. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1998.


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