Well, maybe not mad (you want mad, you want Walter Bishop from Fringe), but this week’s Straight Dope covers DARPA, the US Department of Defence’s R&D arm. No idea is too crazy for these guys; sometimes it really pays off, especially the ARPANET (the proto-internet).
Of course, the Mad Scientist archetype is a fun one – it covers everyone from the Doctor to Lex Luthor to Doc Brown in Back to the Future. In real life it seems a bit of a cruel label to pin on people – scientists such as Nikola Tesla may have had their eccentricities, but let’s not dismiss them (although maybe Tesla’s idea for a death ray was a bit out-there). Then again, you get guys like Giovanni Aldini, whose experiments in pumping electricity into dead people may have been an inspiration for Frankenstein.
Possibly the king of mad scientists was Jack Parsons. By day, one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a bona fide expert in rocketry. By night… Well, he was into black magic and summoning supernatural entities. His story also includes ‘Wickedest Man in the World’ Aleister Crowley and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, and he accidentally blew himself up with chemicals he happened to have at home.
But let’s leave ourselves with a more positive depiction of the wonders of science, although with all this talk about mad scientists, we should remember their assistants. Often unfairly depicted as Igors, lab assistants have an heroic dedication to the cause, often in the face of exceptionally trying circumstances.