In Praise of the Mad Scientist


Inventor Nikola Tesla is beginning to remind me of the Michigan Mushroom—that underground fungus, nearly as large as its native state. He keeps cropping up unexpectedly like a truth suppressed. In 2004 this once forgotten scientist peppered films as motley as the smoky Coffee and Cigarettes, the silicone-sleek Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and the shoestring Primer.

Tesla, beside inventing the radio (check with the Supreme Court, Marconi fans), the radar, remote control, and alternating current (AC electricity), also tinkered with a series of dreamy though equally ingenious ideas: plans to light the oceans, photograph thoughts, use insects to create a harnessable power supply, communicate with life in outer space, harvest free energy from the Earth’s atmosphere, control the weather with electricity, even build a ring about the equator that, by remaining stationary while the planet rotates, would make it possible to travel around the entire world in one day.

At the start of the last century, Tesla’s mind-bending inventions foreshadowed a future in which an enlightened citizenry, wardrobed in silver space suits, would travel about a world where no one was ever hungry and war existed only in memory—where scientific wonders were invented every day in backyards, garages, and small workshops. Tesla, the cult hero of independent invention, is materializing again, a bright-red streak on the gray background of corporatized science, to remind us that something went awry.

Maybe he’s angry that the future he imagined failed to arrive.

At the climax of Sky Captain two brilliant Tesla coils, terrific towers topped by metal balls, spew mini lightning bolts over the heads of Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and a covey of wiry-haired, lab-coated inventors, a stereotype of a species who seem to now exist only in film. And one wonders: Where have all our mad scientists gone? Where are our modern-day Teslas?

Though born in Serbia, Nikola Tesla lived most of his life in New York City, where from 1884 to 1943 he often toiled independently, at times without the benefit of a laboratory. Tesla, who had no head for business or capitalism was, despite his germ phobia and unease among actual humans, a humanitarian, a freethinker with a flair for altruism seldom seen today. He believed that his inventions belonged to the world, not to him. This helps explain his laxity in protecting his patents, his lifelong struggle to stay financially solvent, and why his legacy is dimmer than the one he deserves.

Tesla was one of the last “mad scientists,” though mad he was not.

Brilliant, yes. Angry, perhaps so, at a time when marketing geniuses such as Thomas Edison reaped great financial rewards from inventions far less astounding than those of Tesla. (Edison commissioned an eponymous polka in order to sell phonographs.) What good is Edison’s lightbulb without Tesla’s AC power to light it?

Tesla once celebrated America as the place where the artist could become a physician, an electrician, an engineer, a mechanist, or even a financier and still be an artist. Science and art were, to him, two blooms on the same vine—though it seems that in the 60 years since his death, the two have utterly parted company. America, rightly or wrongly, is quite comfortable with the idea of starving artists. We excuse the artist’s poverty as the wages of such a noble occupation, or at least accept it as the mother of artistic invention. But a starving scientist seems futile. How would he or she invent with no funding? And yet money’s interference—including the greed to make more, the conveniently flappable righteousness of investors, governmental meddling, and corporate sluggishness—all help to detach science from its artistic side.

Not surprisingly then, the most fantastic scientific transgressions are coming from the art world. Consider Steve Kurtz, who was recently detained without charge, suspected of bioterrorism—his home and entire Buffalo block cordoned off because of an art project that used Serratia marcescens, a pigmented bacteria that turns red and is often used to track germs. (The compound is readily available on the Internet for junior high science programs.)

Or consider Rupert Sheldrake, a British biologist who says, “Scientific theories come from the dream realm.” Sheldrake, a living heir to the mad scientist mantle, has been working for many years to explore a phenomenon he calls “morphic resonance”—a theory that claims our cells have a memory far older than our bodies, a collective unconscious of biology that proves our interconnectedness. His necessarily low-budget investigations include studying the highly organized, unspoken structure of termite communities, whether or not people can tell when their photo is being looked at in another room, the direction-finding instincts of homing pigeons, and why so many people have found that if they think about someone they haven’t thought of for a while, that person telephones. In a science that borrows much from Buddhism, the results of Sheldrake’s work do suggest that we are indeed all one, not just spiritually but materially—an enlightened position Tesla also espoused. Sadly, consequently, Sheldrake, like many groundbreaking scientists before him, exists on the fringe of the scientific community most commonly serving as the butt of jokes.

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.