Top 10 Pro-Science Fictional Characters
Here on Skeptoid we've listed the best pro-science celebrities, the worst anti-science celebrities, unsung women of science, and even the scientists who took one for the team by experimenting on themselves. Today we're going to look at a group that we haven't before: science superheroes from the realm of fiction, including TV, movies, books, and even comic books. Fiction has given us some truly enduring characters who have become household names, and fiction has given us some great scientists who made the pursuit of knowledge their core character trait. Today we're going to have a look at where these two groups intersect: the most famous characters who are also the best inspirations for the cause of scientific truth.
First, an explanatory note about the criteria to be included in this episode. There are many, many characters throughout the world of entertainment who are engineers or scientists but where that rarely or never becomes a driving element of the story. We're looking instead for the characters where that science-driven approach is fundamental to who they are and to their minute-to-minute decisions. Moreover, we're looking for characters from books, movies, TV series, whatever, that have become true cultural fixtures: characters who will still be household names in fifty or a hundred years. These are the characters who have become our society's true influencers for the cause of science. I argue that that is a high bar.
And so I now present you Skeptoid's list of Top 10 pro-science fictional characters:
10. Ms. Frizzle
For more than three decades, the beloved driver of The Magic School Bus has transported countless millions of kids on fascinating field trips where they've learned about — well, everything. There probably isn't a single subject Ms. Frizzle hasn't taught us. She is the Mr. Rogers of science. She has an almost Zen-like way of finding a science lesson in anything; the class gets eaten by a dinosaur, she takes it as a lesson on exploring its digestive system. Ms. Frizzle had seemingly dozens of catchphrases, usually some combination of "Get out there, explore, and get messy" — exactly the process followed by the multitudes of people who chose a career in the sciences — including the many who have cited Ms. Frizzle as their direct inspiration.
9. Dr. Gregory House
I almost didn't include the star character of House, MD because I'm a bit dubious that he'll rise to the level of being a true permanent fixture in fiction. But in all the conversations I had with so many in the planning of this episode, his name came up consistently. And he's a good fit. The bristly and incisive character was known for his scientific skepticism — always coming up with the correct diagnosis and treatment that the other doctors could never see. Although this ability sometimes fell into the trap of being an unrealistically prescient and inadequately founded instinct, much of the time his process was depicted as a genuine scientific investigation. House almost always followed our three C's: he would Challenge the status quo; he would Consider alternate explanations; and he would Conclude which one fit best. House was a skeptical hero.
8. Bruce Banner
This Marvel character is the Dr. Jekyll to The Hulk's Mr. Hyde — almost. Both were complex characters with inner struggles represented by their violent alter egos. But while Jekyll's internal conflict was one of good vs. evil, Banner remained ever the scientist, seeking ways to contain and control his unwanted and loathsome transformations. As one of history's best known comic book characters, his multiple Ph.Ds made it cool to be smart, and quite a few of today's scientists have named Banner as one of their early influences. Many characters are written as scientists or engineers, but it's usually just window dressing and doesn't actually drive that character's hour-to-hour decisions. Bruce Banner, on the other hand, was consumed by the scientific method, and it truly did govern his choices as a fictional character. That's the difference between a character who just has "scientist" written into their biography, and one who is a true disciple of the process. Compound that with his influence as a Marvel superhero, and you've got a true force for good in the world.
7. Ellie Arroway
The movie and novel Contact might not be the household name of science fiction that we're ultimately looking for, but since it was written by Carl Sagan, it gets a free pass onto this list. The protagonist, radio astronomer Dr. Eleanor Arroway, has to compete for her spot to be the sole human sent to visit an alien race — and she initially loses, because she's the one candidate unwilling to compromise her scientific and rationalist principles. Her rivals do compromise theirs, and capitulate to the spiritualists and wooists and metaphysicists, and thus win the world's support. Arroway thus becomes a rare paragon of scientific integrity, an example every one of us should follow — but how many of us, given the stakes she faced, would cling so hopelessly to our moral courage; when for the price of a few fibs, we could literally explore the galaxy?
6. Sherlock Holmes
While other famous literary detectives of the day relied on a certain amount of intuition, inside knowledge unknown to the reader, or even just plain deus ex machina, Sherlock Holmes did things the hard way, employing nothing more than grand-scale observation, deduction, and — in a literary first — realistic forensic science. It was this aspect of Holmes that truly set him apart. There is even a substantial body of academic work written about Holmes' employ of forensic sciences such as ballistics and fingerprinting, comparing them to what was actually in use at the time; and it finds that his techniques were not only accurate, they were often ahead of the times.
Note: Although many of you have pointed out that Holmes actually used induction, Holmes (via author Arthur Conan Doyle) always (incorrectly) called it deduction. —BD
5. Victor Frankenstein
When Mary Shelley's 1818 book was published, it was the first time that a scientific experiment gained worldwide popularity in fiction, a popularity that has never diminished in the slightest. Frankenstein's experiment to reanimate a corpse with electricity was the results of years of careful study. Although it turned out badly — obviously — Frankenstein was the first superstar scientist character who was neither mad nor evil, and who brought his complex human traits to bear when it became time to track down and destroy his own creation.
Correction: An earlier version of this incorrectly awarded Victor Frankenstein a Ph.D and referred to him as Dr. Frankenstein. Not true. In the book, he leaves the university before completing his studies in order to hunt down his monster, and never returns to complete them. —BD
4. Roy Hinkley, aka "The Professor"
Setting aside all the hoary old jokes about how he could make anything out of a coconut but couldn't fix a hole in the boat, the Professor still remains so many people's favorite castaway from Gilligan's Island. It was a rare moment indeed that he ever broke character. Every word, every action, every choice was about finding a science-based solution to the problem at hand. Interestingly he personified the (somewhat negative) stereotypical scientist: a middle-aged white guy who was always dry and serious and devoid of any human passions; even the island's resident movie star Ginger complained that the Professor was only interested in her mind. While this certainly made him more relatable to the non-scientifically literate general audience, it quite possibly made him more inspirational to the rest of us who sought a role model that would make it OK to be absorbed in one's own world, fascinated with the coils of coconut fiber that would breathe life into the makeshift conch-shell satellite telephone, free of the banal social obligations that more conventional society expected of us.
3. The Scooby Gang
If you're the right age but you didn't watch Scooby-Doo as a kid, you're a liar. You already know that the trailer park ghost is just the groundskeeper scaring people away for some insurance scam. Fred, Velma, Daphne, Shaggy, and Scooby never even paused to consider whether the ghosts were real; instead, they fearlessly charged right in to set an elaborate trap. More than anything else, the Scooby gang taught us that "Not a ghost" should be our default null hypothesis... and so far, it's never been proven wrong.
2. Dana Scully
So many shows have claimed to pair a skeptic with a believer, but almost none so successfully as did The X-Files with FBI agents Dr. Dana Scully and UFO believer Fox Mulder. No matter what tangent Mulder flew off on, Scully was always there to bring him back down to Earth, and was always seeking the natural, evidence-based explanation for the countless strange phenomena they investigated. The pursuit of science was key to her character in everything that she said and did.
Fans of The X-Files may remember that in the later seasons, Scully and Mulder's positions essentially reversed. Scully had received so much scientifically valid confirmation of supernatural activity that the woo explanation for anything became her go-to null hypothesis; and Mulder, upon learning that a government conspiracy was behind anything and everything, became the ultimate cynic and believed in nothing. But this reversal was only the case according to a superficial examination. Their underlying character motivations remained unblemished: Mulder still brushed aside the evidence in front of him and insisted upon a view that clashed with the data; and Scully — forever our skeptical hero — changed her conclusions as newer data came in. A scientist to the very end.
And who could ever sit at the towering apex of this lofty list? Who could possibly be the very best of this inestimable group? You already know the answer. It can only be:
1. Mr. Spock
Only in the obscurest of references in the history of fiction had any crew of any vessel had a science officer, until the archetypal Mr. Spock made it one of the essentials. To this day, Spock's absolute adherence to logic and rejection of emotion remain the standard by which any fictional science officer is measured.
Often, episodes of the original Star Trek series would end with Kirk and Bones kicking back on the bridge, having some little joke at Spock's expense. It was the perfect metaphor of playground bullies picking on the nerd. And as any true science nerd will agree, such ribbing is often privately relished. Yup, we might think, I couldn't be happier than to have that difference exist between me and the rest of you. Who among us was not secretly quite happy to be derided as the class Brainiac?
Spock established the essentiality of the scientist in any quorum of protagonists. While Kirk provided the muscle and the passion and the intuition, Spock made them a balanced duo with his intellect, analytics, and even a brain-based superpower or two like the mind meld. In cases where their citations needed to be recited on the show, Kirk's record was a veritable encyclopedia of decorations for valor and courage, while Spock's was every bit as impressive as a compendium for awards in the sciences. It was only when paired with Spock's unwavering commitment to scientific integrity that Captain Kirk succeeded so comprehensively. While others on this list made it cool to be a scientist, Mr. Spock made it an indispensable component of The Complete Human.
And so we conclude with an exhortation for all of you out there who work in the sciences or who aspire to it: Keep on top of your fiction. Keep reading, keep watching, keep playing. Keep flying the flags of fandom. We are our fictional characters, and they are us.
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