Of particular delight is Chapter Six, "It, Son of Them." (Remember, in space no one can hear you laugh.) The title's references are, of course, to all of those 1950s Hollywood threats called "It" [It Came from Outer Space (1953) - in 3D, It Stalked the Ocean Floor (1954), It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), It Conquered the World (1956), and It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)] and the huge box-office smash Them! (1954) which represents all the "giant ants or grasshopper or spiders or flies or scorpions or daddy-long-legs or mantises or reptiles or moles or cats or crabs or tree stumps" (198). Unlike earlier films about Pasteur, Edison, and Curie, these films placed a mutant face on the work of the scientist and warned us yet again of how dangerous science could be.
Looking at films such as Gorillas in the Mist (1988), Awakenings (1990), Medicine Man (1992), Jurassic Park (1993), Outbreak (1995), Contact (1997), The Matrix (2001), A Beautiful Mind (2003), and the Indiana Jones pictures, Frayling concludes his cinematic journey by asking, Have scientists fared any better in recent years? To answer this question, he moves outside of the theater and asks a group of 7-9 year-olds (79 boys and 65 girls) to etch-a-sketch-of-a-scientist (actually, he uses the 'Draw-a-Scientist' test developed by D. W. Chambers). Alas, from Frayling's perspective, the majority of images of the scientist drawn (over 50 per cent) are still of the stereotypical 'mad, bad and dangerous' scientist. "So where does the imagery come from?", he asks, "The answer is comics, cartoons, computer-games, comedy and adventure films" (221). Unfortunately, the reference to "comics, cartoons, [and] computer games" as additional sources does weaken slightly his thesis.
According to Christopher Frayling, almost everything we know about what scientists do we have learned from the movies. Thus, we are mired in a cinematic mythology that serves up science and the scientist as 'mad. bad and dangerous'. As he depicts this widening gap between scientists and their specialized knowledge and the lay public's need for understanding, we are reminded of C. P. Snow's famous lecture and later book about the split between the arts or humanities and the sciences. Almost 50 years ago, Snow, too, warned of a major breakdown of communication between non-scientists and scientists. And Frayling seems to update and refocus this debate by uncovering an equally worrisome communication rift between the public and senior scientists that the physicist Carl Sagan saw as "a prescription for disaster" (226).
Fraying's work is not some academic or higher brow rant against the cinema for bringing disrepute to science as well as to scientists. He loves those bad B movies as much as anyone -- he's just the messenger. However, he does have a message that he hopes will bridge the gulf. Frayling concludes: "In the end, deeper public understanding of science -- and deeper understanding of the public by scientists - may indeed save humanity" (226). After all those hours of watching bad movies about reel-life scientists, I guess we can't expect a more real or specific solution from our author.
© 2008 Lawrence D. Hultgren
Lawrence D. Hultgren, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy, Virginia Wesleyan College