A recent survey showed that when children are asked to draw a scientist they consistently draw a figure “with wild hair, lab coat, staring eyes, coke-bottle glasses, a withered hand; in some cases they’ve even written the word “MAD” with an arrow pointing at the scientist”. Well I guess it might be a bit annoying if everyone always stereotyped my fellow professionals as loonies too (rather than humourless administrators). But is this really the kind of barrier stopping people get into science itself? Surely science being hard is the main barrier.

If our career advisors are just asking kids what they want to do on the basis of its image then sure a lot of scientists have a problem. And that problem is not the coke bottle glasses or the disembodied arrow hanging over their head saying MAD. Instead it is the sad truth that actual jobbing scientists often don’t get out much. They are stuck in the lab where comfy and practical clothing rules the roost. Not only that but science IS hard. Not at school level, not even so much at degree level. But if you are on the cutting edge, then you do need to take a bit of time to explain exactly what you are doing. Not easy in soundbyte culture.

So I think the loony mad scientist stereotype is actually a good one. First it assumes that scientist opt out of the rest of the world, making them to some degree cool. Second it marks them out as being special. And also, and most usefully, it attracts all the mad clever kids who would otherwise be committing fiendishly complex crimes.