Tag Archive | "chemistry"

Science and Madness

Tags: , , , , ,

For many of us, our views on science and scientists have been colored by literature and films.  For baby-boomers, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and various of what are now known as classic science fiction films gave us the strong impression that while scientific objectives were generally beneficial, the end result often produced evil.  Dr. Frankenstein was attempting to create life, certainly a worthy and noble aim.  His efforts, however, went awry, and his creation became a monster.  Tinkering with things best left to God or nature and paying the price through death or lunacy has become a formulaic portrayal of the scientist in the arts and entertainment media.

The image of the “mad scientist” is one that is emblazoned in the psyche and culture of much of the human race.  As is the case with many stereotypes, the image has some basis in reality.  Throughout the centuries, science has attempted to gain understanding of the world around us.  The individual scientist would form a hypothesis based upon observation, experimentation, or a combination of techniques and set out to prove it.  Dabbling in the unknown, however, scientists exposed themselves to hazards of which they may not have been fully cognizant.

Chemistry has often been considered the “central science,” since it connects other sciences such as physics, biology, and medicine.  Rooted in the study of fire and alchemy as mystical forces capable of changing various substances, chemistry erected a systematic structure over the esoteric and haphazard techniques employed by alchemists.  Generally recognized as the father of modern chemistry, Robert Boyle is credited as the first alchemist to utilize controlled experimentation and the scientific method in the mid-seventeenth century, thus creating a science where only an art had once existed.

Boyle, like the generations of alchemists who preceded and the chemists who followed him, worked with elements and compounds that we now know to be toxic in varying forms and degrees.  Mercury, arsenic, lead, and antimony would be found in virtually any alchemical or chemical laboratory of Boyle’s time, as well as those of centuries before and after.  Of these elements, mercury was perhaps the most common.  Among the symptoms of overexposure to mercury are various types of neurological problems and mental derangement.  And thus, we have the image of the “mad scientist.”

Today, scientists have a much better understanding of potential dangers of experimentation and utilize precautions that, for the most part, safeguard them from the type of health hazards that were commonplace among their brethren of centuries past.  Yet, from the perspective of non-scientists, the comportment of some, although not exhibiting the mood swings typical of madness, still differs from that of most people.

Beyond the world of science, similar types of demeanor and behavior prevail among many medical and legal practitioners, business executives, and other seeming experts in their fields.  The demeanor of which I write is best described as a certain aloofness, irritation at being questioned, and preoccupation with their supposed area of specialization.  It is as if these individuals are completely absorbed in subject matter far above the plane of the rest of mankind.

Given the assumption that the vast majority of these individuals are not mentally deranged as a result of mercury or other poisoning, what is the source or purpose of their behavior?  Some of these people may truly be preoccupied with their own areas of endeavor and, therefore, oblivious to those around them.  This group, I am certain, represents a minuscule percentage.  Much more common, I believe, are those who establish a standoffish front to shield themselves from others.  This buffering may be the result of feelings of superiority, inferiority, timidity, lack of social skills, or other causes.

Regardless of the cause or purpose, the answer lies in improved communication.  When we communicate openly with each other, we break down barriers and gain an understanding of the value and dignity of those with whom we are communicating.  Through understanding, behavior is explained and stereotypes dissolve.  Only then may we relegate images of the “mad” scientist, engineer, doctor, lawyer, professor, or other individual to the dustbin of history.

Site Sponsors

Site Sponsors

Site Sponsors

RSSLoading Feed...

Live Traffic Feed

RSSLoading Feed...