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Genomics Forum · News

Scientists in fiction – creative or crazed geniuses?



Science at school is seen as a facts and figures discipline but it’s a rich source of innovation..


Mention scientific research to non-scientists, and visions of methodical, sedate, even tedious experimentation often spring to mind. Yet this image of scientific work is often at odds with how scientists are portrayed in popular fiction. From Dr Jekyll to Dr Frankenstein, why are scientists so frequently depicted as crazed geniuses, when in reality leading scientific figures, such as Hawking, Higgs and Einstein, are creative visionaries? These are issues that will be debated at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, in an event taking place on Wednesday 22 August.

Supported by the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum, Scientists in fiction – creative or crazed geniuses? will consider whether the way in which authors portray scientists within their work reflects the collective fears and insecurities of society. Leading the debate will be a panel including: author Sophie McKenzie, who has written about genetics in her Medusa Project and Blood Ties series, exploring the emotional, social and scientific consequences of manipulating genes. Her scientists are complex, ambiguous characters. Sophie is joined by Dr Alistair Elfick, Director of the Centre for Biomedical Engineering at the University of Edinburgh and Dr David Kirby, Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at the University of Manchester.

Speaking ahead of the Scientists in fiction event, panellist David Kirby said:

“Since the Victorian age, popular fiction has frequently portrayed scientists as either mad, evil or both. It’s interesting to consider if the appearance of such characters results from fiction reflecting deeper insecurities in society. For example, did the anxiety stemming from the rapid technological changes of the Victorian era feed into the persona of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? Similarly, how influential was cold-war paranoia in shaping characters such as Ian Fleming’s Dr No?

“Our Book Festival event will explore how and why authors so frequently frame scientific characters – such as geneticist William Fox, who appears in Sophie McKenzie’s Medusa Project novels – as either creative or evil geniuses.”


Extract from the cover of the Book Festival programme 2012