Jeers and Caveats

Science as we know it has not been around forever, nor did it spring fully formed into existence. In the seventeenth century, investigative science in Europe was an emerging institution that had to prove itself to be “a form of knowledge worth pursuing in spite of both the jeers of the unlearned, and the caveats of the philosophers.”* Most people knew little of science and largely dismissed it or viewed experiments and machines as novelties or parlor tricks: the serious scholars seeking membership to the Royal Society of London (formed in 1660) or the French Academy of Sciences (formed in 1666) were few in number compared with the hordes of skeptics who had doubts about the ability of natural philosophy, with its microscopes, telescopes, and equations, to solve the many problems facing early modern society. From one side of the debate came groundbreaking papers from the scientific societies and individual scholars who were cataloging stars, codifying the nature of air, and discovering components of life indiscernible to the human eye.

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But from the other side came many anti-science screeds, in both fiction and nonfiction, dismissing these inventions, these lofty goals, and even the very impulse of curiosity in the natural world. These skeptics were not necessarily unlearned, nor were they philosophers: they were simply wary of anyone who claimed to have definitive answers about the world or who spent more time looking through an artificial lens than at the tangible things around them. And, of course, there was plenty of science going wrong alongside the science going right. As experimental science slowly became assimilated into the public consciousness, the problem became one of distinguishing genuine and necessary progress from hypocritical and dangerous nonsense. At the center of this problem were not only the scientists themselves but also the writers who responded to them and the fictional/fictionalized characters whose personae and actions reflect, elevate, and critique them.

So, why study the perceptions of scientists in the early days of the profession? Surely, we’ve progressed as a society since then: after all, we’ve come to accept Galileo, Newton, and Einstein as geniuses, men whose tireless work helped define the world and our place in it and who deserve our utmost respect. And yet scientists, and science, are still mistrusted, harangued, laughed at, dismissed as out of touch with the real world. A direct connection in fiction can be drawn, for instance, between Thomas Shadwell’s 1670s play The Virtuoso and the 1960s movie The Nutty Professor. The plots vary, but Jerry Lewis’s Julius Kelp is a mirror on Shadwell’s Nicholas Gimcrack: an unkempt, socially inept scientist whose experiments are counterintuitive as well as utter, and hilarious, failures.

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To some critics, scientists (and implicitly anyone with a single-minded curious impulse) are just the butt of the joke. Gimcrack, the misguided natural philosopher, learns to swim like a frog even though he despises water; Jonathan Swift’s scholars at the Academy of Lagado in Gulliver’s Travels spend much of their time trying to turn excrement back into food. Yet, broadcast television, electric cars, dark matter, sending humans to the moon, video conversations with people on the other side of the world: these were also once laughable prospects. At what point does a project stop seeming silly and turn into a legitimate endeavor worthy of attention, respect, and even funding? Why do scientists seem to bear the brunt of our frustrations about the unknowns and unsolved problems of the universe? When a laboratory invents a new material to produce a more comfortable pillow, the response chamber usually echoes with “. . . and cancer goes uncured.”

The goal of The Virtuoso (this twenty-first century version) is to explore the role of science in our lives with some reflection on what has changed, or hasn’t, in our expectations, perceptions, and responses to it. Fiction, nonfiction, and visual arts that criticize as well as celebrate science have shaped it just as much as science has shaped them. The mad scientist and the inept scientist still exist alongside the hero scientist, but who are they really, and what do we want from them?

*Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

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