24 September 2012

Frankenstein and Galileo

They often say there are only a few basic stories, and everything is just a variation on those. Hero’s journey. Small band of heroes against an evil empire. Revenge. Boy meets girl.

I was thinking about what makes a story “anti-science” (prompted by some online discussion with Karen James about The Lizard in this summer’s The Amazing Spider-Man - I may have more to say about this later). I was trying to think about the deep archetypes in stories about science, and I’ve identified two so far. Pehraps not surprisingly, they are the opposite numbers of each other, tragedy and triumph.


Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a modern myth about science. But it is a deeply pessimistic one. It is a story of overreaching, failure, and in the end, a morality tale with the message, “There are things humanity was not meant to know.”

It is a phenomenally popular story archetype. It’s Wells’s Doctor Moreau and Crighton’s Jurassic Park and I don’t even want to guess how many others. It’s easy to see why: it has a flawed lead character with a (scientist with great pride), and a failed experiment that immediately creates conflict.

Weirdly, I don’t think the anti-science theme in such stories always discourage people from science. Jurassic Park is a classic cautionary “It’s not nice to mess with nature” tale, yet it got a lot of people interested in paleontology anyway.


Galileo is arguably one of, if not the first, scientist in the modern sense. His famous “disagreement” with the Church is an optimistic take on science. It is a story of a lone genius taking on the establishment, and in the end, it tells us, “Truth will out.”

The story of Galileo is a real story, of course, but it has become larger than life. Berthold Brecht turned it into a play, but you can find variations of Galileo’s story in all kinds of art. The old movie Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet tells the story of Paul Ehrlich much like Galileo: lone genius fighting ignorance. Robert J. Sawyer turned Galileo into a dinosaur in his novel Far-Seer. Ellie in the book and movie Contact face Galilean types of challenges.

While the “lone genius” story has roots in reality, it can be almost as unrealistic as Shelley’s ghost story. Most successes in science are recognized as such pretty readily, and many people who like to pain themselves as put down by the establishment are just wrong.

Are there other science story archetypes that I’ve missed?

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