Celluloid Scientists: Futures Visualised

  • Roslynn D. Haynes

Abstract

Roland Barthes maintained that all human creations are, in a sense, media, since they are encoded with latent messages. In this chapter I want to consider the latent messages about society’s attitudes to scientists that are encoded in the particular creative medium of film and to suggest some of the cultural background for these projections. Film-makers in several genres frequently draw on contemporary scientific discoveries or, more exactly, on popular beliefs about the interface between the technologically known and a hypothesised future knowledge; but even documentary films are never innocent of ideological, political and social overtones. In particular, they are social texts in which sub-rational hopes and fears of change, whether Utopian or dystopian, of progress, of powerful factions and of the unknown, are visualised, explored and dealt with in a cathartic way. These ‘landscapes of fear’, to use Yi-Fu Tuan’s evocative phrase, incorporate both the universal terrors that have been a cumulative part of our cultural myths over centuries, and the particular contemporary anxieties elicited by the half-formulated realisation that technological triumphs inevitably bring socio-moral consequences in their wake.

Keywords

Dust Europe Uranium Radium Expense 

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Notes

  1. 3.
    Andrew Tudor, ‘Seeing the Worst Side of Science’, Nature, 340 (24 August 1989), 589–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 5.
    Rush Welter, ‘The Idea of Progress in America’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 16 (1955), 283–6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 6.
    Carlos Clarens, An Illustrated History of the Horror Film (New York: Capricorn, 1967), p. 64.Google Scholar
  4. 8.
    However, by the end of his life Edison had more than one thousand patents to his name, including the electric light bulb, the phonograph, the carbon resistance telephone transmitter, which greatly improved on the audibility of Bell’s model, and the kinetograph, the first fully effective motion picture camera. All these adjuncts to daily living kept Edison’s name and fame before the general public to a degree that was unique at the time and has scarcely occurred since. See Wyn Wachhorst, Thomas Alva Edison: American Myth (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981). The Edison myth passed through several phases from the wizard image (arising out of his invention and exploitation of the phonograph) through the ‘innocence and power’ stage associated with the experiments with electricity, to the ‘practical, democratic individualist’ identified with the great American.Google Scholar
  5. 9.
    See, for example, H. Bruce Franklin, ‘Strange Scenarios: Science Fiction, the Theory of Alienation and the Nuclear Gods’, Science Fiction Studies, 13 (1986), 117–28.Google Scholar
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    Quoted in Spencer Weart, Scientists in Power (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979), p. 284.Google Scholar
  7. 19.
    Spencer Weart, Nuclear Fear: a History of Images (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988). See especially Chapter 10, ‘The New Blasphemy’.Google Scholar
  8. 20.
    See Paul Brians, Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction 1895–1984 (Kent, Ohio: Kent State UP, 1987), p. 29.Google Scholar
  9. 21.
    For a discussion of the appeal and encoded gender messages in the Star Trek characters see Anne Cranny-Francis, ‘Sexuality and Sex-Role Stereotyping in Star Trek’, Science Fiction Studies, 12 (1985), 274–84.Google Scholar
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    Martin Tropp, Mary Shelley’s Monster: the Story of Frankenstein (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), pp. 85–6.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • Roslynn D. Haynes

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