"Science does not have a moral dimension. It is like a knife.
If you give it to a surgeon or a murderer, each will use it differently."
The obviously charismatic Einstein and other early 20th-century physicists
somehow inspired the notion of the Reluctant Mad Scientist
who is actually an idealist and pacifist (possibly a Well-Intentioned Extremist
) but generally beyond good and evil by virtue of sheer genius.
The Reluctant Mad Scientist considers himself a sensible man of science whose quest of discovery is unaccountably misused by his Evil Boss
for destructive purposes. Reluctant Mad Scientists
(and wizardly/seer variants) do not require a change of heart
to do good; they merely need a change of employer, but they have Magic Nerd License to do what they want either way, as attested to in real life characters
Prior to the introduction of this trope, all stories about Mad Scientists
(Faust, original Frankenstein, Lovecraft) seem to revolve around the scientist's own ethical and mental condition, usually involving Things Man Was Not Meant to Know
that somehow cause him to go mad
. In traditional accounts, the mad scientist himself suffers a nervous breakdown
of some sort
and becomes either the villain or the victim of his own experiments. Or at best he'd commit a Heroic Sacrifice
so that our sensible, down-to-earth
protagonists can right the wrongs he created. As if!
The new generation of Reluctant Mad Scientists
mark a refreshing non-villainous departure whose work was undeniably of immediate
value to civilization, but only in the right hands
. Unlike ordinary Mad Scientists, they are not heroes or villains per se; they are simply the only person who can be trusted to handle the new Weapon of Mass Destruction
This set up a new image
of the scientist
as a sort of natural resource
, to be sought after by both sides
. The Reluctant Mad Scientist may
or may not
be tormented by the evil that other men do with his work, but either way he is a Magical Nerd who mortals must tolerate.
The Reluctant Mad Scientist is generally morally neutral
, and is rarely held accountable for the adverse consequences of his work. So long as he avoids romantic entanglements
and anything else that might produce a character arc
and self-doubt, he is ensured of a long and productive career.
As a Magic Nerd, the Reluctant Mad Scientist is usually presented as the only person in the story who truly understands the implications of his work and thus the only person who is truly worried about applying it to good use. When detained by the hero, he will often immediately enter into a lecture warning of the evil to which his own inventions could be turned if used by anyone, such as, say, the evil boss
who has funded his efforts for the past 20 years.
Of course, everyone knows evil people are expected to disregard the Reluctant Mad Scientist's instructions not to use the Death Ray for harm; what's important is the good guy must not be allowed to make a similar mistake, and it is the responsibility of the Hero, not the Reluctant Mad Scientist, to destroy all copies of the Death Plans before they are made operational. Unlike the traditional Anti-Villain
, the Reluctant Mad Scientist is not required to ask "My God, What Have I Done?
Even when employed by the Big Bad
, he is generally portrayed as True Neutral
since he is only concerned with one thing, to continue his work. When the Earth has been blasted into a million pieces, the Reluctant Mad Scientist only shakes his head and says "I told you so"
The Reluctant Mad Scientist is obsessed with his work and is unconcerned with outcomes or prosaic ambitions. He will either work for anybody so long as his work gets funded
, or he will justify continuing his experiments in hopes of some abstract public good regardless of what the Big Bad
does with them. He will immediately start collaborating with the Hero if "rescued", but only if he perceives that the other side values his work and wants to continue it.
It is important to note that the main distinguishing characteristic of the Reluctant
Mad Scientist is that he does not require a Heel-Face Turn
to be persuaded to come and work for the good guys; indeed if he ever does pick a moral side, he is almost sure to be the next character killed
. Nor is he held responsible for righting his previous wrongs, because they are never perceived by to be mistakes, merely discoveries.
- The Reluctant Mad Scientist merely works for whomever is likely to get his ideas out there. After all, Colonel Badass also wants to know how to build a Phlebotinum Bomb in order to study and defend against this new phenomenon.
- Previously motivated only by his work, only The Power of Love can persuade the Reluctant Mad Scientist to destroy all his efforts after declaring that "mankind was not meant to know what I have discovered." This conveniently preserves the status quo, since no one else gets to use his inventions to benefit world civilization in the next episode.
- After being rescued/turned by the Hero, they will inevitably show up again after the climax and provide a solution to help the Hero escape from the Collapsing Lair which was usually set off by the failure of the scientist to disarm his own creation, which he was supposed to do while the Big Battle was taking place.
- Corollary: the Reluctant Mad Scientist almost always delivers his creation to the Big Bad before its effects are known and before he has figured out how to disarm the device or reverse the effects. He must then spend the entire story trying to figure this out. He usually fails, prompting the Hero to simply inflict random damage to the Weapon of Mass Destruction causing it to only destroy the boss's lair and nothing else.
The Mad Scientist's Beautiful Daughter
may be his Morality Chain
, or his Conscience
Compare and contrast Cut Lex Luthor a Check
. Related tropes include Motherly Scientist
and You Can't Make an Omelette...
Science-Related Memetic Disorder
is probably the opposite
of this trope.
open/close all folders
Anime and Manga
- Nina Einstein in Code Geass ends up as this. She makes a weapon of mass destruction for Britannia with help from Schneizel (her first few tries are spectacular failures), then after seeing what happens, turns right around and makes the counter-weapon.
- Dr. Onishi, the scientist, in AKIRA. He ignores an order to shut down his work if Tetsuo's vital signs get out of hand. You have two guesses why, and the first guess (deeply cares about saving Tetsuo's life?) doesn't count. Tellingly, nobody ever blames him for the outcome.
- Subverted with Dr. Isaac Gilmore in Cyborg 009. He knew damn well what he was getting into when joining Black Ghost and it took him years to develop enough conscience to drop out. His subconscious doesn't let him forget that detail, either.
- Played straighter with Dr. Finder, however. He first was kidnapped by Black Ghost to force him build a certain super weapon, and when it seemed that he would stop doing that, they kidnapped his daughter Cynthia to twist his arm even more. Then Cynthia is rescued by the Cyborg team...
- Kishin Corps (a.k.a. Alien Defender Geo Armor) has an alternate Eva Braun as a Broken Bird of a Reluctant Mecha scientist who worked on making Imported Alien Phlebotinum into Humongous Mecha for the Axis before being captured by the good guys and working for them with little to no moral difficulty.
- "Seiketsu no Hagurama" had a literally blue-blooded prince construct Steam Punk looking machines called Kirin for his father who, unbeknownst to him, was using them to eradicate the remaining red-blooded refugees in a war between the red-blood and blue-blood groups.
- Will Magnus, creator of the Metal Men, was conscripted to be one in 52. Most of the others in the program were more than happy to go along with it. It's then combined with Beware the Nice Ones when he rebuilds the Metal Men secretly and takes on the evil conspiracy keeping him as prisoner from the inside.
- It's also revealed that he has bipolar disorder which makes him a Mad Scientist. The only reason he worked for the Science Squad is because its members took away his meds.
- Professor Cuthbert Calculus in Tintin, who is also an Absent-Minded Professor; most notably in Tintin The Calculus Affair where he's abducted by Taschists after he invents a Tesla-style sonic superweapon. Calculus is extremely opposed to any government using his invention, goes to meet a fellow scientist because his discovery frightens him, and burns the plans on his own volition. Subversion: he'd become much less of a cloudcuckoolander at this point in the series and more The Professor, even as his inventions became more dangerous and sought-after.
- Dr. Manhattan of Watchmen, especially in the film version.
- Dr. Caitlin Fairchild in The New52.
- The former members of Unit 11 in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) are classic examples.
- Doc Brown, Back to the Future.
Doc, you don't just walk into a store and-and buy plutonium. Did you rip that off? Dr. Emmett Brown:
Shhhhhh. Of course. From a group of Libyan nationalists. They wanted me to build them a bomb, so I took their plutonium and in return, gave them a shoddy bomb-casing full of used pinball machine parts! Come on! Let's get you a radiation suit
- In addition, he cautions about the danger of using the time machine — time paradox!
- Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen, as mentioned in Comics above. Even moreso in the film. Of course it's a justified trope in his case, as he really has no reason to care about what happens.
- Rotwang in Metropolis — at first, then he goes full-on Mad Scientist for some reason. (more proof that love is a bad influence on a previously productive scientist.)
- Unusually, Clockstoppers has one of these held to account (and mocked) for the damage that's come from his research.
- Diamonds Are Forever has Dr. Metz, a "committed pacifist" who lends his expertise to Blofeld to create an orbiting death ray which will ensure world peace...right?
- Professor Deemer in Tarantula wants to use the nutrient he has invented to end world hunger. Unfortunately its side effects include deformity and death in humans and gigantism in animals. Deemer is smart enough to not release the nutrient public until he has fixed these problems. It's not his fault that his assistants kill themselves by taking the nutrient before its ready. Or that before one of them dies he accidentally releases a giant tarantula that they had created while testing the nutrient. Really, the only thing Deemer is guilty of is not thinking to only test the giantism causing nutrient on herbivorous animals.
- In Danger Death Ray, a film bad enough to get the treatment on MST3K, the scientist who invented the titular Death Ray exclaimed that he only wanted his invention to be used for peaceful purposes.
- The scientist who created 9 in order to defeat his previous creation, which wiped out humanity.
- Dr. Serizawa from Gojira. He invents a weapon called the Oxygen Destroyer, but refuses to make his findings public and fears what'll happen if it gets into the wrong hands. It's only until after he sees the destruction Godzilla has caused that he decides to use it...but only once.
- Dr. Regent is horrified when his Death Ray falls into the wrong hands in Chandu The Magician (1932). (What good use he could possibly have in mind for a Death Ray remains a mystery.)
- Leonard of Quirm from the Discworld series (loosely based on Leonardo da Vinci) is a subversion; he never envisions violent uses for his ideas, and immediately becomes horrified and angry if anyone else suggests such uses for them. When one of his inventions is used for ignoble means, he tries to have it — and all of his plans and diagrams — destroyed out of shame.
- Dr. Kokintz, the inventor of the Q-Bomb in The Mouse That Roared.
- Ender Wiggin was more a soldier than a scientist, but otherwise fits this one to a T.
- In the Star Wars Expanded Universe, Qwi Xux and the team of scientists that built the Death Star, which they believed was for blowing apart asteroids to get at the valuable minerals inside. Unusually, she does get called out on her naivete (for example, believing that anything called "Death Star" wouldn't be used for exactly that), and winds up siding with the New Republic.
- Of course, according to the Empire's propaganda department, the official name for the Death Star was Imperial Planetary Ore Extractor.
- It should also be noted that her part in this trope is taken to Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds levels, as the reason why she even felt as though she had to solve problems no matter the cost is because Wilhuff Tarkin, after taking her from her family, had to go through an intense high-risks mathematics/science course taught by him and his underlings. And by "high-risks", we mean "if one of the students failed to answer a question correctly, Tarkin will force said student to watch as his/her home village is destroyed from orbit, and then executed shortly thereafter" kind of "high-risks". The fact that she, not to mention her home village, were the only ones that literally survived that harsh course makes matters a lot worse.
- Years before Galaxy of Fear, Mammon Hoole was one of these. He and his colleague were conducting experiments on the nature of life. His colleague knew the latest one would backfire horrifically and wipe out all life on the planet, and after consulting with the Emperor decided not to tell him. Hoole felt responsible, went into hiding for a few years, and came out as a different kind of scientist - an anthropologist. Some of his old work still came up in the series.
- In Engines of Creation, the Blue Seer Mika Sephalon is an example of this trope.
- Deconstructed with Dr. Robert Stadler of Atlas Shrugged. He sees himself as a noble pure scientist who seeks only to discover truths about the physical cosmos, and he is shown to have real tendencies to live up to his values of achievement and humanitarianism. However, his allowing himself to be co-opted by the evil government of looters—laying the groundwork for a weapon of mass destruction—is not portrayed as excusable, and he is often considered to be the most evil villain in the book (not least because John Galt's speech calls him out by name). He has a moment of Ignored Epiphany when he gives a speech about how great it is that he's given the government an increase in firepower—though he's selling out his true belief, that he disapproves of how the weapon (best known as Project X) will obviously be used for repressive purposes. And his end is somewhat similar to the tropes of a character who's a just-plain Mad Scientist: He begins to believe that it's okay to force the masses into doing his will, he ends up fighting with another character who, like himself, is planning to defy the bosses in Washington to use the Project X weapon to take over a part of the country, and both are destroyed by the weapon that Stadler helped to invent.
Live Action TV
- Yvonne Hartman, Director of Torchwood in the Doctor Who episode "Army of Ghosts" widened an apparent power source leading to the void between realities, and let through an army of Cybermen.
- Adam Baylin of Kyle XY not only created Kyle, but designed the artificial womb that contained him and Jessi for 16 years.
- An episode of Hogan's Heroes has a Russian Von Braun stand-in working for the Nazi rocketry program. He built the rocket just to test his theory and then programmed it so it would turn right around and kill everyone at its launch point, including himself. Fortunately, his plan was thwarted.
- Mohinder Suresh in the first two seasons of Heroes, particularly in the episode "Five Years Gone." In the third season he drops the reluctance and just goes full-on Mad Scientist.
- The town Eureka exists in part to keep these people from falling into the wrong hands.
- A That Mitchell and Webb Look sketch featured the unfortunately named Professor Death, a textbook Reluctant Mad Scientist. His "Giant Death Ray" was only so called because he invented it; its intended purpose is scanning groceries... or with the power turned up, to perform delicate eye surgeries.
- Topher Brink of Dollhouse is an interesting example. At first, he seems the perfect man for the job, a sociopath who sees human beings as toys. However, it soon becomes rather clear that much of this is merely scientific detachment, and although he's immature and his morals are shaky, his favorite parts of the Dollhouse are the assignments that make him feel like a good person (like the Priya storyline...at first). By the end of the series, his loyalties are clear.
- Phil and Lem from Better Off Ted invent exactly the kinds of things mad scientists are supposed to but are shown following not only proper lab procedure (most of the time) but also keeping strictly to testing protocols. The dubious legal and ethical grounding of their work is mostly a matter of what Veridian Dynamics assigns them to develop than personal insanity.
- Milton in The Walking Dead. He has a better insight into the Governor's true nature than most Woodbury residents — even enabling several of them as the resident Smart Guy — and turns a blind eye due to interest in the experiments he is able to perform under his patronage.
- Dr. Ian Asmodeus, a sweeter, prettier Mad Scientist from the virtual pet site Subeta will create potentially dangerous items for anyone who provides the materials, and stated in his Q&A thread that he'll work for anyone who funds his projects.
- Otacon in the Metal Gear series, who created the Metal Gear Rex under the impression that it wouldn't be used offensively. "I just wanted to make robots!"
- Sokolov from Metal Gear Solid 3 has a slightly less incredulous tale: he was originally a rocket scientist, who just wanted to build rockets to go into space. However, due to the escalating arms race, he was forced by the Soviet government to build nuclear missiles, eventually culminating in the Shagohod, which he was literally forced at gunpoint to build. He requested that the American government give him asylum, because he knew the weapon, if completed, would plunge the world into chaos.
- Similar to both Sokolov and Otacon (the latter of whom turns out to be his son), Huey Emmerich agreed to work on Hot Coldman's Peace Walker project only so he could apply deterrence in such a way that wouldn't result in launching a nuke even once (as well as having to put up with it as, because he was born incapable of walking presumably due to his father's involvement in the Manhattan Project, he can't work in any other place than nuclear deterrence-related developments). As soon as he learned that Coldman was planning on launching a nuke as part of his test (something that Huey never agreed to), he immediately quit and defected to the Militaires Sans Frontieres, and also deeply considered quitting the field of science due to his unintended role in nearly causing a nuclear holocaust.
- Dr. Andonuts in Mother 3, who created the chimeras. (And ultimately tricked the Big Bad into sealing himself in a capsule with no escape.)
- Professor Mei Ling Hua, Mei Fang's creator in Arcana Heart who was kidnapped by the Big Bad to help her cause a rift in the dimensional boundary that would lead to the merging of this world and the Elemental world. She secretly placed a failsafe mechanism to prevent the merge from happening, but if you get the Bad Ending, you'll learn that it wasn't very effective.
- Academician Prokhor Zakharkov has this as his starting morality as explained through his backstory, which involved building Powered Armor for the Russian Republic to fight the USA before defecting to the UN to build space ships. Whether or not he actually stays reluctant is entirely up to the player. He's essentially a Russian Werner von Braun, ballancing between Mengle and Einstein in morality.
- Abrahim Zherkezhi of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, a chronicaly naive computer theorist who only wants to use his unblockable magic hacker-program to promote the course of 'world peace'. It's not his fault he chose Douglas Shetland as a partner.
- Jade Empire has Kang the Mad, who only really cares about building and improving his Steampunk Schizo Tech, and literally couldn't care less about what it's used for. He betrays his boss Gao the Greater at the first opportunity, but that's only because Gao dared to make copies of his inventions, not because he was using those copies for slaving and piracy. This is mostly attributable to him being Lord Lao, a member of the Celestial Bureaucracy, all of whom seem to have a noninterventionist Above Good and Evil kind of worldview.
- Dr. Mikhail Cossack in Mega Man 4 was blackmailed by Dr. Wily into creating a series of killer robots and taking the blame for their rampage.
- Sheegor from Psychonauts is a twist on this trope, a Reluctant Igor (and a girl one; note pun in name). She is completely opposed to her boss Dr. Loboto's plans, but has a childlike mind and fears for her beloved pet turtle who Loboto has taken hostage. She instantly switches sides when Raz rescues him—-indeed, using Clairvoyance reveals that she sees him as a shining, angelic savior.
- Professor Minas and Leo Folias from Infinite Space, who are such big geeks to the point they don't seem to be bothered at all with who becomes their boss. Well, except when the former is under Desmond's watch...
- Litchi Faye-Ling used to be a scientist who made a device similar on how to make a Nox Nyctores. Later on, she became a doctor after a freak accident that created Arakune and seemed really content with her life as a doctor while seeking to cure Arakune. Until the side effect of said freak accident started to affect her and the appearance of Hazama made her aware that NOL may have the answer to the cure of Arakune and herself, and her old mentor rejected her plea for help. As she didn't have much respect on NOL previously, after a lot of hesitations, she ends up retaking her old science way and becoming their Reluctant Mad Scientist (compared to the very much less reluctant Relius Clover) only for the cure of Arakune (and herself)
- One of the missions in Borderlands 2 involves finding ECHO entries of Hyperion's slag experiments. The ones you find involve a scientist by the name of Dr. Samuels who isn't happy about performing cruel and decidedly pointless experiments but is forced to do so due to Handsome Jack threatening to kill her wife. In a sidequest of the Son of Crawmerax DLC, it's heavily implied that she was the one who killed Krieg's assassin, out of deep regret for what she did to him.
- Deconstructed in SOMA where the head scientist, Catherine, views herself as this and essentially uses it as an excuse to perform her research which is producing no viable results and causing the subjects to kill themselves. She gives off a lot of lines similar to the typical Reluctant Mad Scientist, but instead of showing that she's blameless it just makes her look even more self-absorbed and inconsiderate.
- While the whole point of Girl Genius is that "Mad Scientists rule the world. Badly," most of the main characters are Reluctant Mad Scientists. While they are still afflicted by "The Madness Place," they work very hard to control it and are defined by their ability to actually use their Sparkiness to make the world a better place. Klaus Wulfenbach does this by being a Magnificent Bastard; Othar Tryggvassen (Gentleman Adventurer!) tries to make the world better by ridding it of all Sparks (including, once his "job" is done, himself); the others are just trying to do their best in a world pounded into submission and littered with wandering monsters.
- Ironically, this may involve pounding the world into submission and/or creating armies of monsters.
- Dr. Lee of Skin Horse. Her morality is nebulous at best; she feels terrible about doing things like scooping out a man's brain to turn him into a weapon, yet she goes right on doing it.
- Riff from Sluggy Freelance just likes inventing stuff (especially exploding stuff) because it's cool. A recurring plot thread is the damage that resident Big Bad Hereti-Corp can do using Riff's technology. His attitude towards the whole thing is best summed up here:
Riff: How could my innocent inventions be used to harm people? (beat) OK, blowing stuff up can harm people if not done with proper precautions (...) Anywho my inventions weren't designed to be used to destroy the world. Well, except for that one device I built to destroy the world. I was just seeing if I could!
- Doctor Universe of Spinnerette used to be this trope, before the government aborted his project to prevent China from using his studies to make Super Soldiers.
- Walter from Dubious Company. He is one of very few Magitek engineers in the world. All he wants to do, however, is fly around in his airship and play pirate. The urging and endangerment of his friends changes him from Boisterous Weakling into Captain Science Hero.
- Robert Oppenheimer, the inventor of the first atomic bomb.
- The link goes into great detail about his unusual perspective on science and ethical responsibility.
- Einstein also later lamented that his work on nuclear reactions had led to the escalating nuclear arms race.
- Edward Teller, the 'father of the hydrogen bomb'note turned the trope Up to Eleven by going where Oppenheimer refused to go. An advocate of Mutually Assured Destruction, Teller even proposed using hydrogen bombs for peaceful uses, such as excavating harbors, drilling for oil, and widening the Panama Canal. (In the end, it proves that the Russians had taken him at face value, using nukes to seal leaking oil wells.
- Leo Szilard, a Hungarian-born physicist, was one of the earliest developers of nuclear chain reactions and was the first person to conceive of an atomic bomb. Concerned that Germany might be attempting to build such a weapon, he wrote the famous letter to Roosevelt (signed by his more famous colleague, Einstein) that directly led to the creation of the Manhattan Project. Once it became clear that Germany was not working on the bomb, and concerned about the increasing militarization of the project, he drafted a petition (signed by more than a hundred scientists) to ask for a demonstration of the bomb's power to Japan before actually using it, but the petition never made it to President Truman. After the war he was so disturbed by atomic weapons that he switched his specialty to molecular biology and even published a book of short stories, The Voice of the Dolphins, dealing with the morality of atomic bombs and the Cold War.
- Alfred Nobel, the creator of dynamite, was so ashamed of its violent applications that he left much of his estate to found the Nobel Prizes. Ironically, he had originally invented dynamite to help exonerate himself of some of the poor reputation his work with explosives and work as an arms manufacturer had left him with, by making nitroglycerin safer to use—Nobel's dynamite is a mixture of nitroglycerin (which is very unstable) with inert diatomaceous earth, making it very stable, but still very potent, and therefore useful in such things as blasting mines and tunnels. Unfortunately, this also makes it safer to use for military purposes, as well. When an erroneous obituary showed him that even with dynamite, he would be remembered as a "merchant of death", he established the prize so he'd have some legacy other than this.
- Ken Alibek, Soviet microbiologist, a guy who would invent Ebola virus (if it didn't already exist) out of pure scientific curiosity, arguably counts. He defected to the USA.
- Nikola Tesla, an actual Mad Scientist, was this type. Allegedly invented a sonic superweapon while also working on a giant coil that was intended to electrify Earth's atmosphere, so that people would not have to pay for electricity. He refused royalties for his inventions, claiming that the betterment of mankind was reward enough.
- The original Gatling gun was designed by the American inventor Dr. Richard Gatling in 1861. He wrote that he made it to reduce the size of armies and so reduce the number of deaths by combat and disease.
- Not reduce the size of armies but reduce the length of conflicts. Since at the time the vast majority of soldiers died of disease during a war there was actually some logic to this.
- Only part of a long history of scientists inventing new, powerful weapons, hoping nobody would be willing to use them. (The ancient Roman ballista, for example, was supposed to end war because no one would want to attack an enemy who had them.) It seems it only actually worked once they got up to the A-bomb and even that came pretty close.
- The Wright brothers started building military planes in WWI, Orville was convinced that airplanes would "win the war and put an end to war." He lived long enough to see airplanes used to deliver atomic bombs, and was still hopeful that this would finally make war unthinkable.
- Arguably it worked. Modern armies are smaller and leave much less collateral damage when they leave. Conflict where aggressors intention is to conquer is relatively rare today and most powerful countries on this planet weren't involved in mutual war for decades.
- Leonardo da Vinci, most famous nowadays for his art and ingenious designs for gadgets years before there time, was fairly pragmatic about the fact that the best source of a steady income during The City State Era of Italy was as a retained inventor for a wealthy duke, and what they needed inventing was artillery. What's especially terrifying (and the inspiration for Discworld's Leonard of Quirm, above) is when he combined his skills and came up with charmingly anachronistic weapons of mass destruction scattered among his other idle doodles.
...Here, you activate the device and tell me what happens.