Role Models

When I was a child I had but one ambition for my future life and career.
All my friends wanted to be firemen and astronauts, certainly worthy
pursuits, to which I devoted occasional fantasies and game playing time,
but not what I had in mind for my future at all. My aspiration, since
I can first remember, was to grow up to be a Mad Scientist. My earliest
role models were Baron von Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll – not monsters themselves,
but rather good men who became the creators of monsters in the service
of science.

Now that I’ve reached a certain stature at the mid-century mark (in other
words, it’s all downhill from here), perhaps it is time to evaluate to
what degree (if any) I have realized this lofty childhood ambition.

First of all, let me say that at that age and at that time, my impressions
of what madness and science we all about were composed largely of images
from American classics like "The Bride of Frankenstein" (in which a compassionate
but misguided scientist tries to bring peace and marital bliss to his
poor creation), "The Island of Dr. Moreau" (which illustrated the timeless
theme "Don’t mess with mother nature") and Mad Magazine (scientists in
huge eyeglasses with kaleidoscope lenses). But those images merely adorned
a desire as deep as anything I can remember to harness nature through
science in previously unimagined ways.

It was probably not a true calling to science as a vocation. I guess
science was just the popular religion of the fifties. Its miracles were
all around us, in the news, in our skies, highways and kitchens. It was
a means to do the incredible, the impossible, the transcendent. Maybe
if I had been a little kid in the sixties it would have been Merlin and
magic. Still, I had an intense desire to create something truly new.

In third grade I formed a secret society called "The Bachelor Inventors
Club". The twin aims of the club were to eschew the incomprehensible
but obviously fatal temptations of what was still at that time widely
known
as the "weaker" or "Opposite" sex, and to invent all of the great stuff
we were sure was right around the corner, like videophones, anti-gravity
cycles and instant learning skullcaps to allow us all to be geniuses
without the need to go to school or study.

So how have I done, on the Mad Scientist scale? Answering this question
forces me to face one of the Fundament Questions of Life, a question
which obsesses some, but which is rarely asked by those who really need
to hear the answer. Am I mad?

Quite frankly, I consider myself the sanest person I know, although I
doubt many of my colleagues or acquaintances would agree. Years of psychedelic
group and self-therapy (statute of limitations long expired) and study
of arcane metaphysical disciplines (still practiced) as well as a long
apprenticeship with a legendary Peruvian shaman have allowed me to explore
the furthest nooks crannies of my mind. Despite some truly discombobulating
discoveries, I have come to know and love its weirdness and idiosyncrasies.

However, there are other meanings for "mad". There is the sense of "Angry",
or "Mad at the world", which I nearly never am, even perhaps when I should
be, for my own good. And there is the Kerouacian meaning, as in "Madcap,
inspired, manic, incandescent," which I aspire to but rarely if ever
achieve.

The mad scientist role-models of my youth were not evil men, although
they could unleash great destruction on the world, unwittingly. They
were not Joseph Mengele or Hannibal Lector. They were closer to the edge
than the Nutty Professor who invented Flubber, or for you youngsters
Dr. Emmett Brown from "Back to the Future", but not demented to the point
of Drs. Strangelove or No. More like well-meaning, absent-minded, socially-inept
geniuses who end up wreaking havoc through flagrant disregard of the
laws of nature. Perhaps my career resembles theirs in the flagrant disregard
department, but in little else.

The question of whether I can call myself a scientist is quite a bit
easier to answer. The answer is "No". I studied Anthropology in college,
a "Social" science, but gave it up after concluding that 95% of what
I was reading was bullshit, and not especially clever or well-written
bullshit
at that, and what I got out of the other 5 % could have probably been
more efficiently and effectively communicated through a short story or
a folk song.

I switched to Physical Anthropology in graduate school on
the theory, propagated by practitioners of that bastard discipline,
that numbers and measurements were more rigorously scientific than
that touchy-feely
cultural anthro. I subsequently gave that up upon realizing that
one could lie just as convincingly, and much more authoritatively, by
using
numbers and statistics rather than words.

Both of my stabs at a doctorate washed up on the shoals of my persistent
inability to abide fools. The articles and chapters I have published
were in obscure journals and out-of-print collections referred to
only by the most thorough or desperate researchers. Most of my career up to this point
has been
spent as a university lecturer and administrator, decidedly non-scientific
endeavors.

The only lasting legacy of my career are the students, strewn across
the map of the world, getting on with their lives and only occasionally,
and in isolated cases judging from my email, remembering their old
professor. Their names, however, are all in a book, and I dream of
someday, in a
comfortable retirement, taking a Global Grand Tour, visiting Princes
and Presidents. Dream on.

All in all I would have to say I failed miserably in my quest to
be a scientist. I’m not sure I even believe in Science anymore, as
a religion.
And although it may undermine any future attempts on my part to resort
to an insanity defense, I can’t honestly say I conform to any of
the commonly
accepted definitions of "mad". So it would seem safe to say that
I am closer today to being an astronaut or fireman than to being
an authentic
mad
scientist.

But this frank assessment doesn’t mean I am without hope for the
future. I have decided to reactivate the Bachelor Inventors Club.
Given the
increasing jealousy show by Norma Yvonne toward the time I spend
with my blog (which
she calls my "other woman"), I may be a bachelor again sometime soon.
And I am now really ready to invent all of the great stuff I am sure
is right
around the corner, like a cure for tennis elbow, a fat-free eclair
which tastes like the real thing, and instant learning skullcaps
to allow us
all to be geniuses without the need to go to school or study.

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13 Responses to Role Models

  1. Lisa Williams says:

    I wanted to be a mad scientist when I was a kid too. Like a lot of kids my confidence sank in junior high and the resulting bad grades sorted me out of the more challenging science classes, something I still regret. However, as an adult, I realize being a scientist is nothing like being a *mad* scientist. Real scientists write grants and have office politics, and their gadgets are largely gray plastic boxes that print out charts of results.

    As an adult I learned to brew beer, and I realized I liked it because it was exactly like what I thought being a mad scientist would be like when I was a kid. Lots of weird solvents, bloobing liquids in big jars that I pipe back and forth through tubing, taking measurements in flasks, etc. Highly recommended for the inner mad scientist.

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  9. Aileen Lee says:

    This is a very entertaining blog. I also aspired to be a “mad scientist” when I was much younger, and although being a stay at home mom is a far cry from the stereotypical mad scientist role, work for moms, from a stay at home mom’s perspective parallels the role.

    Thank you for sharing your perspective and humor.

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