Superheroes do not fail. They succeed in their quest for justice and move on to the next target. Think about the scientist characters that you see in superhero comics. How often are they the hero? Whether you like it or not, science is something that permeates nearly every facet of our culture as it is quite literally the study of everything. Because of this, it shows up in our entertainment media quite often, especially in superhero comics and movies. The fact that science is so all encompassing is something that makes it both difficult and easy to gain an interest in. At some point, everyone wonders how DNA makes our eyes different colors or how insulin is made to treat diabetes, but few ever aspire to figure it out. It takes a special kind of person to do that type of research. One has to have an open mind and be willing to soldier on in a new direction with each failure. The willingness of scientists to continue on in the face of failure makes it easier for writers to put scientists in the role of villain, or at the very least, a scientist who makes a huge mistake and is thus hated by all mankind. However, are scientists truly bad, or is their constant persistence misunderstood?
Dr. Manhattan in the film version of “Watchmen” is an example of a scientist who accidentally ends up being seen as the villain. Originally Nuclear Physicist Dr. Jon Osterman, he became known as Dr. Manhattan after a lab accident gives him amazing powers. He becomes the “bad guy” at first to only his beloved girlfriend. In the end, he is made to be the villain by doing what scientists are required to do; he shared his research to try to get input and broader understanding of what he was doing. In turn, the research was developed into a weapon that destroyed a large part of mankind. The blame was set on Dr. Manhattan and the nations of the world united against him.
Dr. Manhattan is an example of how comics make the study of science seem unattainable to the average person (a subject we’ll get into in subsequent posts!). In his world, most people have no idea what exactly Dr. Manhattan is, as he is the only hero with superpowers. Even when Dr. Manhattan talks about science in a way people should be able to understand, they automatically assume he is speaking above them, because he is on an intellectual and superpower pedestal. In addition, he can somehow move forward and backward in time and make multiple copies of himself to accomplish tasks. The writers use Dr. Manhattan to show only the most intimidating parts of science, and then amplify this intimidation factor by giving him god-like superpowers that make him seem indestructible.
Just as we see in comics, the media in real life is more likely to paint a picture of the evil scientist. When a Korean scientist claimed to clone a human embryo, the media jumped on it and talked about the ethical issues it caused. When it came to the surface that the scientist had forged his research and had not actually accomplished such a feat, the media again spent a large amount of time dissecting what had happened. At the same time, there were some major breakthroughs in studies on human diabetes. Not one word was spoken on the air about it. Major discoveries in the world of science do get coverage, but not nearly the coverage that Donald Trump gets when he runs for president or when a famous celebrity dies.
What does this portrayal mean in our culture? The current view of science in comics and even the media places a barrier between science and the consumer. Our culture sees science as extremely difficult and unattainable. People think a special genius is required to study itt, so they do not take the time to see how amazing it is. Ask a child what he wants to be when he grows up. You might hear him say that he wants to be a dad or a superhero, but never a scientist. Too many of them are the villains. Kids want to be the good guy first, even if they are interested in science.
As a student scientist, I may be biased toward the study of science myself. I get the opportunity to perform research that may impact lives. I am by no means a genius, and I have no intentions of creating a giant tumor that will take over the world. Science is not scary. Science is the study of everything. What subject could be better than that? It all starts with a question: “How does this work?” All we have to do is find out the answer.
Real scientists are superheroes. They work for the greater good. The goal is to learn something and to use it to make the world a better place. Modern culture ignores this, which is why the comic book scientist as a cultural figure is almost always the supervillain. This perpetuates society’s fear of the sciences. Comic book scientists have made us believe that we are not intelligent enough to pursue science, and comic books and the media have made the bad scientist the model that comes to mind for many when they hear science, DNA, cloning, stem cells, nuclear, or any term associated with science. I experience the stereotype every day. Some are convinced that I am up to no good simply because I know how to insert a piece of DNA into a cell. At the end of the day, remember that science is not bad. No matter how it is portrayed in the media, you wouldn’t be reading this blog on your smartphone or laptop without it.
The superman logo is owned by DC Comics, Inc. A subsidiary of Time Warner (c)2015. for Superman logo. It was obtained here and is fair use.The image is of the watchman cast with Dr. Manhattan in blue. The image was obtained here and is fair use.