Books and the image of science


I’ve been catching up on classics, and recently read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (first published in 1818) and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, from 1962.

These are two very different books. One is a horror story and the other is a non-fiction book about the effects of pesticides on the environment. Okay, that’s also a horror story. In fact, both of these books are about ways in which modern science can interfere with nature, and they have both influenced the public perception of science and scientists, and not always in the best way

The image of the lone scientist intent to create and invent something new and possibly dangerous is a trope in pop culture that is ultimately based on Frankenstein.

Meanwhile, supermarket and health food store aisles are packed with products that supposedly contain “no chemicals”, which is physically impossible and alludes to a misuse of the word “chemical” to mean “something bad”. This use of “chemical” in a negative way can be traced back to Silent Spring, where Carson writes things like “the chemical war is never won” and “the full scope of the dangerous interaction of chemicals is as yet little known”. Over and over, she talks about specific harmful chemicals and groups them under the name “chemicals”, giving the impression that all chemicals are harmful.

Silent Spring became a hugely popular book among the environmental movement, which itself became a hugely popular and influential movement to the point where it’s now thankfully mainstream to want to save the planet. Thanks to Silent Spring, people became aware of the dangers of pesticides on wildlife, but as a side effect, people also unintentionally picked up the idea that “chemical” is a bad word. Now, this use of the word “chemical” as “a bad thing” is still widespread in the same communities that read her book, but not necessarily directly by people who read the book. It took on a life of its own.

The same happened with the Frankenstein-inspired idea of the Mad Scientist. Frankenstein has been around for much longer than Silent Spring, and the effect is more distorted. Where the mad scientists creating creatures in cartoons are always wild-eyed and crazy-haired, Shelley’s Frankenstein is actually quite subdued and remorseful about his creation.

So, part of the current image of what science and scientists are like comes indirectly from books published in 1818 and 1963. It’s not the authors’ faults. Mary Shelley and Rachel Carson were actually quite fair in their descriptions of science in their books, but books get their importance from interpretations by readers, and they take from it what they find important.

Because books have such a big influence on how we perceive the world, including on how we perceive science, I decided to make some videos about the ways that books and science are related. This was the first, but there will be more!