Screenshot from www.thefreedictionary.com/MAD
And I am angry. The link in this tweet set me off the other day. The article is about 10 fascinating and beautiful chemistry experiments, and it is safe to say that the execution of any of them is no cause to doubt someone’s mental stability.
The link in question is:
Example number 1 is the Briggs-Rauscher reaction, an elegant oscillating reaction that reveals its complexity through a number of repeating colour changes until one reagent is consumed. The other examples include wonderful demonstrations (mercury heart, elephant’s toothpaste, dry ice and magnesium) and other examples of chemistry such as flame tests and ferrofluid.
For some reason I had forgotten that chemistry was the domain of the unpredictable and dangerous scientists, the mad scientists, and that any example of the subject that might interest or captivate anyone must be linked to mental illness. I’m not sure where the greater disservice lies, in the casual disrespect for very serious, life altering conditions, or the perpetuation of a lazy stereotype. In any case, it’s time to get a better vocabulary to describe science that we can’t easily explain, that may scare us a bit and that appears almost magical in effect.
In case you were wondering, the images of mad scientists are pretty much widespread. I think we’ve talked about this before. http://www.possibilitiesendless.com/?p=835
I did have a passing interest in the first usage of the phrase ‘mad scientist’ so decided to use the Google Ngram Viewer to look it up.
http://books.google.com/ngrams/ search mad scientist.
As you can see there are a a few mentions in books prior to 1940 then the usage takes off. I suspect that there are many reasons that this could be related to – improved media coverage, greater public awareness of science and scientific discoveries (now that could be ironic), and greater public awareness of the destructive power of some applications of scientific knowledge.
The mad scientist image is extremely damaging, both for science in general, but for the participation of underrepresented groups as well and it takes a great deal of effort to counteract it (for example: http://ed.fnal.gov/projects/scientists/ ). Seriously, get a better stereotype.