There tends to be some mystique attached to the image of the scientist in fiction. The scientist is mostly a tool, an antagonist, a source of information or a vehicle through which we learn things. Having worked as scientist, I find the portrayal of scientists in fiction amusing, because even many of the more realistic works perpetuate scientist myths that are just that, myths. Let’s mention a few:
The mad scientist myth
We all know the type. Often evil, poorly-dressed with popping eyes and Einstein-like hair, walking around gibbering formulae.
Reality: If you’re mad, you probably won’t make a very good scientist. Just like other people, a percentage of scientists suffer mental or other issues. They’re neither mandatory nor conducive to good science.
The lab scientist myth
Complete with thick glasses, this creature spends most of his time in the lab behind bubbling equipment. Lab coats are mandatory.
In reality: the scientist who leads a science team spends little time doing the hands-on research work. He or she has a team of junior workers, research staff and students, who do on-the-ground work. This could happen in a lab, but more often than not, it happens elsewhere. When I worked in science, we used lab coats only when going into the seminar room. I worked in the tropics and while the temperature in the rest of the building justified the wearing of shirts and shorts, the seminar room was always freezing cold. Hence: lab coats! Seeing as the seminars were open to anyone, we may have helped perpetuate the idea that scientists wear lab coats by being the only people prepared for the arctic conditions in the seminar room. At least we were still conscious as the visitors collapsed with hypothermia.
The lone scientist myth
Often a little bit odd, this scientist works alone in a lab or office. He rarely goes home, or if he is home (having been dismissed from a previous research position), doesn’t leave the office/library. He doesn’t have much of a social life.
In reality: working in science is about teams, so no scientist works alone. The smallest unit in science is the project, and even the smallest project usually involves one research scientist, one or two assistants, a part-time admin person and one or two students. Large projects can involve a lot more people.
The rich scientist myth
This sportscar-driving species can do whatever he likes, because he’s got all the money in the world and can decide his own research, ethics be damned. This personality is often evil, because fiction tends to dislike people with money.
Reality: Yeah–right. If anyone is this rich, they don’t study science. If you want to be rich, you don’t study science. Have you looked at the salaries lately? Job security anyone?
The glamorous scientist myth
Often of the female persuasion, this scientist gets by purely by looks and by giving stunning presentations. She is the eye-candy for the otherwise dull and grey-suited crew.
Reality: scientists are often middle-aged, because of the time it takes to get through university, a PhD followed by work experience. The wearing of pretty clothing and make-up is not usually very handy when doing field or lab work, and in general, the people for whom looks are important are not much attracted to science. Also, high heels are extremely impractical.
The all-knowing scientist myth
This personality turns up in the plot, gives the protagonists all information they need, neatly packaged. This type of scientist is the science fiction equivalent of the Wise Old Woman in fantasy. If you’d listened to her, you’d have gotten things right the first time.
Reality: yeah, right. Most science projects are too narrow and focused to offer ready-made, clear-cut answers to any questions.
So, what is a real scientist?
So, having worked in science (read about what I used to do here), can I give an example of a fictional scientist I thought well-portrayed in a realistic way?
An example that most people will be familiar with is Sigourney Weaver’s character in Avatar. She’s got a team and a project which she viciously defends. She’s fairly narrow-minded in defending it against budget cuts and other skullduggery, almost to a fault. She smokes, which is not typical for scientists at all, but it is what makes the character real.
Mostly, scientists are people. They can be nice, smart, sociable, helpful, arrogant, amazingly dumb or socially inept. The same characteristics that make people in general successful also apply to scientists. They don’t work in isolation, they’re not mad, they don’t have Asperger’s (whoever came up with that cliché?) and they don’t wear lab coats.