In Praise of the Mad Scientist

No more plans to contact E.T.'s—but here's another remedy for erectile dysfunction!

Before Tesla's death, two years prior to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there were rumors that he had developed a death ray, a weapon so powerful that Tesla, a pacifist, believed it would end all war. He argued that when faced with the very real possibility of total annihilation, humans would recognize the senselessness of war. Despite such forward thinking, Tesla's assumptions about human nature were naive. The atomic bomb proved that our inventions could mature into faithless nightmares previously unimagined and that responsible science requires ethical regulation. In short, the possibility for free scientific investigation was ruined for the rest of us.

It's nearly impossible to operate your own independent lab these days. Scientists are beholden to those with legal power and capital: the Department of Defense, Monsanto, or the pharmaceutical companies who, though perhaps making strides to save lives, are more interested in improving the bottom line than improving the human condition. In order to be independent one needs to be a millionaire, like Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, the motorized scooter briefly hailed as the invention that would revolutionize our mode of transportation, our cities, our entire lives. And even then, money does not always purchase access to the necessary supplies such as stem cells or particle accelerators.

The consequences of such a stifling scientific climate is that as we lose independent inventors, democracy will lop off the extreme ends—the artists, the Teslas—and thus create a mean. Design by committee is all too common in the bureaucracies of government and corporations, and produces homogenized ideas. No more brilliant plans to contact outer space. No more brilliant plans, period—but here comes another remedy for male erectile dysfunction!

Even more terrifying, scientists and inventors who cannot operate laboratories without government funding find themselves bound to a near medieval morality.

President Bush, in an August 2001 speech delivered at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, stated, "I'm a strong supporter of science and technology, and believe they have the potential for incredible good—to improve lives, to save life, to conquer disease." But he then followed up that statement by saying, "I also believe human life is a sacred gift from our Creator," and, "I have made this decision [to curb the types of embryos that can be used in stem-cell research] with great care. I pray it is the right one."

In such a climate, what will happen to the independent scientist? Somewhere they are toiling in suburban basements, on city rooftops with well-thumbed copies of Popular Mechanics piled by their sides, but with evolution being labeled "just a theory" in some textbooks, try building a submersible airplane in your garage or grafting your own DNA with the great blue heron's today. Try building a ring around the equator or drafting plans for population control that read like poetry. Chances are your neighbors will turn you over to the Department of Homeland Security. And so after praying for a winning lottery ticket, independent scientists should start to pray for a government that doesn't use prayer to draft scientific policy.

Samantha Hunt, author of The Seas (MacAdam/Cage), is working on a novel about the life of Nikola Tesla.

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