Ratio of mad scientists to eccentric boffins

12th May 1995 at 01:00
Maureen Cooper analyses Scottish primary pupils' ideas about men in white coats. Eleven-year-old pupils were challenged to "Paint a Scientist at Work" at a competition held during the SET95 Science Days at Stirling University in March. They were asked to say briefly what their scientist was doing and to name a scientist they knew of.

My own memories of early science were of rather boring nature study programmes on the school radio and I was "switched on" to science, and chemistry in particular, in my first year at secondary. So I might have been forgiven for expecting most top primary pupils to be fairly science-neutral and that strong impressions of science would be largely the responsibility of secondary science teachers.

But several years of extensive research watching early morning weekend TV and "young" films with my daughters modified this view. Scientists are often portrayed as the Mad Scientist (in Superman, Batman, Captain Planet), the Eccentric Boffin or Misunderstood Genius, young or old, often toiling in his garage or attic, (in James Bond films, Dr Who, Back to the Future, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, soap-powder adverts). So when I launched this competition I expected to find many of these stereotypes either in the pictures or the names of scientists.

Three hundred and thirteen entries were received from 15 schools. Of these, 176 (56 per cent) were by boys and 137 (44 per cent) by girls. Yet only 33 female scientists were painted (9 per cent) compared with 322 males (91 per cent). Five boys painted women scientists, two of them working on their own, three as part of teams. Girls who painted women scientists had women working on their own 15 times, eight as part of a team (where they generally seemed to be equal members of the team), one group containing a man and two women and another where a woman was showing a little girl an explosion. Interestingly, only one female mad scientist was painted.

In the remaining artwork there were 18 pictures of two men, two with three men, two heads and one indeterminate (that is, not clearly male or female from the artwork and no clues from the legend).

This left 258 pictures of lone men to be analysed, 111 of them painted by girls! Several were of "mad scientists" or fell into the "boffin" category. The rest appeared to be ordinary men wearing ordinary clothes. The boys' pictures could also be put into these three major categories, with more of them going into both the mad scientist and boffin category.There were 62 paintings of known scientists, three by girls of Marie Curie, the only women scientist to be named or painted. Einstein was painted 12 times, Logie-Baird 10, Fleming six, Galileo, da Vinci and Frankenstein four times. Several other scientists were painted once or twice each.

One hundred and sixty-four pupils named, or painted a named scientist. Again, Einstein was well ahead of all other scientists (45 citations including the 12 paintings), with Baird still in second place (18), Alexander Graham-Bell and Fleming on 12 each and Galileo and Newton on seven. Marie Curie was named nine times (including the paintings) with three citations by boys. The named scientists were generally dressed in ordinary clothes, sometimes period dress, and looked like ordinary people. The nearest to a named mad scientist was a depiction of Logie-Baird with a black face after his prototype television had blown up in his face.

Most of the other ordinary scientists were described as doing some sort of biomedical research into cures for disease or illness whereas most of the mad scientists were working on a "poshun" which had just blown up in their face, or on an invention which had gone wrong yet again, sending them back to the drawing board.

The only living scientist named was Patrick Moore - twice. This was highly significant since it would have been reasonable to expect David Bellamy or David Attenborough, Carol Voderman or some of the other presenters of current science programmes to be included. The only fictional characters were Doc Brown (of Back to the Future fame, Frankenstein and Dr Findlay).

It appears that these pupils could distinguish clearly between fact and fiction in terms of the personalities but that they saw science being done in special rooms - only about six paintings showed people working outside - that were often full of dangerous or poisonous chemicals and to be separate from life outside (few of the rooms had windows). Judging by the many "Keep out" signs, visitors were not welcome, and most were happy with the idea of the lone scientist (only 32 showed more than one scientist). It appeared to be an almost exclusively white male preserve. In fact several of the women were painted in back-view, suggesting that the girls were not sure what she should look like.

Girls' pictures tended to contain more "human" touches, such as pictures of family on the wall. They were also more likely to give clues to a life outside the lab or to allow their scientists to have human feelings. One scientist was sighing because he was tired, another was working on a cure for a disease his daughter was suffering.

Biology and environmental science scarcely featured. Medical research was acceptable, since it was being done by real-looking people, but overall their perception of science was of a lone pursuit, wet and nasty, involving potions and dangerous chemicals or dangerous inventions.

Dr Maureen Cooper is in the department of biological and molecular sciences at Stirling University

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