In introducing classic images of the scientist in popular culture, we've started with the essential prototypes: the heroic scientist and the mad scientist. The heroic image gets a huge boost at what history came to see as the culmination of the scientific revolution in the model of a quasi-divine Isaac Newton (1642-1727). This image is captured in the poetic sentiments of Edmund Halley, in his description of Newton's mind in 1687: "Nearer the gods no mortal may approach" -- and in Alexander Pope's famous couplet: "Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night: God said, Let Newton be! and all was light!" (published in this form in 1735). [Or check out Newton's monument in Westminster Abbey.] A worthy assist to this image was carried forward, for example, in the praises sung of Benjamin Franklin's work on electricity as in Benjamin West's famous rendering from 1816, which shows heavenly light breaking up a raging storm as Franklin draws fire from the sky bare-knuckled, surrounded by cherubic assistants. The flip side of the heroic scientist is the mad scientist, whose power stems from base motives or infernal regions, and is familiar through countless renditions of the Frankenstein image. As the nineteenth century progressed, fresh literary forms such as science fiction offered ample display space for presentations of the compromised scientist, as in H.G. Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and The Invisible Man (1897) -- examples that would prove to have a long-lived future in films on through the next century.
We'll pick up sf later in the semester, but our next step will to be to take under consideration the appearance of another variation of scientific man that was brought into being in the nineteenth century, in the emergence of stories of the scientific detective. That's shown in the image at the upper left, which features the famous Sherlock Holmes. The caption reads: "Holmes was working hard over a chemical investigation;" it's from a short story titled "The Naval Treaty" from 1893. In the first Holmes story by Arthur Conan Doyle, "A Study in Scarlet," Dr. Watson is told by a mutual acquaintance:
"Holmes is a little too scientific for my tastes -- it approaches to cold-bloodedness. I could imagine his giving a friend a little pinch of the latest vegetable alkaloid, not out of malevolence, you understand, but simply out of a spirit of inquiry in order to have an accurate idea of the effects." (quoted in E.J. Wagner, The Science of Sherlock Holmes, p. 3.)
Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales depend on scientific imagery in a number of different ways. For example: 1) as with the chemical investigation above, he is seen as being a competent scientist himself, applying scientific techniques to crime detection; 2) he is seen as having certain characteristics that call up conventional images of the scientific persona as seen in Romantic era critiques ["a cold-blooded...spirit of inquiry"]; and, 3) his relentlessly logical mind is seen as the literal embodiment of analytic method, as empirical data are cognitively sorted into causal chains of truth, that reveal the ordered reality beneath a surface of disorder, much as a computer program might be portrayed as doing so today. This successful working out of the "calculus of probabilities" [a term first used by Edgar Allen Poe in relation to his scientific detective, C. Auguste Dupin -- see below -- and repeated by A.C. Doyle] is in principle within the reach of anyone willing to reason accurately, but is shown to be beyond the grasp of nearly all within Holmes' orbit -- and that includes us, his readers!
The rise of detective fiction in the nineteenth century -- inaugurated by Poe in 1841, in his introduction of the detective C. Auguste Dupin -- and elaborated by Doyle in his Sherlock Holmes tales -- helps to point us to broader portrayals of the image of science that circulated within popular media, and especially to an emphasis on portraying the scientific mind. As Richard K. Ho notes in a discussion of the rise of the scientific detective,
"The genre of crime fiction had come into its own in the nineteenth century, amidst a time of great intellectual advancement. Thanks to the influences of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, advances in science, technology, and rational thought began to find their way into contemporary literature. Victorian writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle incorporated these modern ideas into their fictional works, lending the credibility of science to the practical tasks of criminal detection and investigation."
While detectives such as Dupin and Holmes embody scientific characteristics, it is still the case that they occupy a space that is not strictly of the laboratory, and the ways in which they choose to spend their time differs from the normal round of what will come to be seen as the scientific enterprise. They will make an interesting case study for us of how scientific characteristics are mixed together with dimensions that may appear to be at odds with definitions of conventional scientific life, representing perhaps a hybrid creature that integrates scientific values and humanistic values, particularly perhaps in the detective's role as an agent of moral order.
As an opportunity to generate hypotheses of our own, we'll probe the literary creations of Poe and Doyle (Dupin and Holmes) and then compare these nineteenth-century depictions with a more modern-day version of the scientific detective: Lieutenant Columbo of television fame from the 1970s. In looking at the episode "A Stitch in Crime," we'll even get bonus representations of the "evil" scientist and the "good" scientist in addition to our ratiocinating detective as parts of the plot: a three-pack of images of the scientific mind and character, as we start to explore what all this imagery within popular culture may mean, then and now.
For more: For an intriguing web exhibition about forensic science, see this National Library of Medicine project, "Visible Proofs" -- don't miss the section on "Riding the Forensic Wave," which discusses the circulation of ideas such as the scientific detective in the popular press. For a discussion of how Poe influenced Doyle, see this online article by Drew Thomas. And here's an earlier post on CSI.
Images: Upper left from "Visible Proofs" at http://www.nlm.nih.gov/visibleproofs/galleries/exhibition/wave_image_2.html; Newton, from Westminster Abbey's site [scroll down] at http://www.westminster-abbey.org/history-research/monuments-gravestones/people/12186; and the Invisible Man poster via wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The-Invisible-Man.jpg