Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, May 5, 2014

real-life science heroes!

I recently stopped reading the much-acclaimed comic The Manhattan Projects largely because of its mindless violence — and I really do mean mindless: a ceaselessly repetitive proliferation of amputations, decapitations, and (especially!) acts of cannibalism that do nothing to advance the story or contribute to characterization but rather profoundly retard both. I do not like violence in art but can accept it when it has a purpose; in this case the mindlessness results from writers and artists having decapitated their own critical faculties, leaving them subject to the residual twitchings of their nervous systems. Page after page, the doltishness piles up and piles on.

But before I rescued my own brain from further neuronal degradation, I couldn't help noticing that The Manhattan Projects exemplifies a weird cultural archetype: a version of the comic-book science hero that demonstrates its respect for real-life scientists by turning them into action figures.

The term “science hero” is associated with Alan Moore, but while there are countless instances in the comics literature, the figure that has done the most to fix the archetype in our minds is Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four. Richards is a scientific super-genius who happens to acquire superpowers but is also incredibly rich — an almost universal theme in the science-hero genre, one picked up in an especially dramatic way in Nowhere Men, another story-in-progress from Image Comics, whose tagline is “Science is the new rock-and-roll.” Its Fab Four protagonists, research scientists who created the biggest company in the world, are basically the Beatles crossed with Steve Jobs.

But though the science hero typically enjoys fabulous wealth, what makes him — of course it’s almost always “him” — a true science hero is that he acquires it, as the British were said to have acquired their Empire, in a fit of absent-mindedness: it just kinda happens. Which perhaps explains why the paradigmatic real-life science hero is Nikola Tesla, who made money only intermittently and died poor, as opposed to Thomas Edison, whose sharp and occasionally unethical business practices made him almost as rich as Reed Richards. (This very contrast is at the heart of the well-known — and highly inaccurateTesla-as-über-geek post at The Oatmeal.) In one of the most enjoyable current comics series, Atomic Robo, Tesla gets his fortune posthumously, as it were, through his creation of the series' titular sentient robot; and many other entertainments work similar territory, as a brief look at the “Tesla in popular culture” Wikipedia page reveals. It’s noteworthy, in light of the portrayal of scientists as rock stars in Nowhere Men, that in the film The Prestige Tesla is played by, yes, an actual rock star, David Bowie.

In The Manhattan Projects most of the famous scientists are skilled — or maybe natural-born — killers. (Pro tip: don't mess with Einstein or Robert Oppenheimer. They’ll take you out.) And they have access to an unlimited supply of money. Sure, this is a comic book, and much of this is being played for (sick, perverted) laughs, but it suggests what consumers of this genre really admire. Who really cares about Indiana Jones’s anthropological research? — well, except for his tenure committee, of course.

In some ways this kind of thing is unavoidable, especially in a society that has for many decades now — at least since the height of the Cold War, when popular magazines regularly praised our scientific leaders, like Werner von Braun and John von Neumann, for protecting us against commie nukes — wanted to think of itself as Believing in Science without actually knowing any science. So we make our scientists into the kinds of people we already admire on wholly other grounds — thus creating a new caricature that’s not any closer to reality than the older caricature of the absent-minded professor.

Not that closer-to-reality is everything, but.... A few years ago my wife and I were on a hiking vacation in British Columbia and happened to eat breakfast with the same couple, the only other guests, three mornings in a row, which naturally led to some chatting. The woman was friendly and talkative, the man friendly and quiet, shrugging apologetically at the kinds of vacations he had been subjecting his wife to over the years. (“I like to sleep in tents.”) Only on the third day did I learn that he was Peter Goldreich, a very distinguished astrophysicist. He didn’t say much about his work, but I remember his commenting that he could do it anywhere, since he only needed a pencil and a legal pad. It just might be worth our while to exercise our imaginations in an unfamiliar way, so as to entertain the thought that exceptional works of science are getting done all the time, even in this digital age, by unassuming, ordinary-looking people who kill no aliens, who lack fabulous wealth, and who do their best work with a pencil and a legal pad.


  • People who have read The Manhattan Projects may want to tell me that the scientists who do the nasty things in the story aren't Albert Einstein and Robbert Oppenheimer but their Evil Twins. I know. But for the purposes of my argument it doesn't really matter. It's not like by assigning murderous Evil Twins to famous scientists you're addressing the situation I'm discussing.

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