Dr. Faustus, Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Strangelove

History warrants humanity's distrust of scientists and of the technologies that science generates. Over the centuries this fear of what unforeseen disasters scientists cause has been has been the stuff of myths, poems, plays, novels, and today, movies and TV.

More than two thousand years ago, some anonymous Greek imagined the myth of Prometheus. The chief god Zeus had hidden fire from man because he believed man would misuse that mighty power. When Prometheus tricked Zeus and gave fire to mankind, Zeus punished him: chained to a mountaintop rock, each day Prometheus suffered as an eagle feasted on his liver. After the liver was restored each night, the eagle returned at dawn to feast again. Mankind has benefited much from the power of fire, but we have also used fire to develop an ever-more-powerful series of weapons, culminating in the atomic bomb.

Christopher Marlowe, the Elizabethan playwright, had an audience that believed the cosmos was the setting of a great eternal drama pitting God and the forces of Good against the Devil and the powers of Evil. In this drama each human must choose a side.

Doctor Faustus, central character in the tragedy by that name, chose evil. Early in the play Mephistopheles, an agent of Lucifer, visits the doctor. Mephistopheles knows that Faustus is ripe for temptation because the highly educated Doctor has already renounced his baptism. Mephistopheles offers Faustus this deal: in exchange for twenty-four years of great worldly power, Faustus must give his soul to Lucifer. Of course, Faustus' new life is not quite as rewarding as he was expecting. And right on time, Mephistopheles shows up to collect the tormented soul of the fearful doctor.

Today we have the expression "a Faustian bargain" to express the notion that an overweening lust for scientific knowledge coupled with the sin of pride may have horrible consequences for the one who chooses to pursue knowledge at all costs.

Mary Shelley was the seventeen-year-old wife of the poet Percy Shelley. She and her husband and their friend the poet Byron were revolutionaries of a sort, very critical of the fast-moving changes brought on by science and technology. One winter day they challenged each other to create a story employing the new technique of "galvanism," the passing of electric current through inanimate matter.

Mary's story was the best. It was published anonymously in 1818 as Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. The story centers on Victor Frankenstein, a medical doctor who succeeds in collecting human body parts and animating them to create a manlike monster. Eventually that monster turns on Frankenstein and destroys him.

Today we have scientists who would like to clone newer and better humans. Who will decide what kind of human should be designed? And what unintended consequences might result?

In the 20th century, after Einstein demonstrated the immense power within the atom, it was only a matter of time before this discovery-a new kind of fire-was utilized not only for the peaceful generation of power but also for horrendous weapons.

Doctor Strangelove is the eponymous mad physicist in a 1964 film, one of the best black comedies ever made. The film satirizes Cold War leaders pursuing the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction. Strangelove, a closet Nazi, is chief scientific advisor to the U.S. president. Like most of the other characters, the doctor is a composite and a caricature of real people who played a part in the Cold War when the U.S. and Russian bluffed each other with great arsenals of atomic weapons. The mentally unbalanced generals and scientists set off a war that destroys humanity. The plot and the wacky characters make for creepy comic scenes about the unthinkable-which is just what many citizens were thinking about in the strange and frightening atmosphere of the Cold War.

Right now we are dealing with an uncontrolled leak of radiation from a nuclear power plant with six reactors that were designed with a multitude of safety features and various contingency plans. None of these measures were of much use when an earthquake and tidal wave overwhelmed the plant. Who could have foretold such a disaster?

Perhaps the same Greek who so long ago imagined a character named Zeus.


Last modified onThursday, 18 August 2011 10:22
More in this category: « The Deaths in My Life

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