Sun Ra - Column for 1/27

Diffident Insanity

So, one of the advertisements during yesterday's "Pick-A-Pirate" SuperBowl was a comedian riffing on the use of the word 'crazy'. And, naturally, this got me thinking about Mad Science.

Why is only Science stuck with the label "Mad"? After all, many other areas of human endeavor push the envelope. Some aren't even near the envelope. But you only get Mad Scientists, never Mad Lawyers or Mad Poets.

What I concluded is that this is because only Science, by its very nature, needs to prove itself. If you are a Mad Poet, people have to take you at face value. You can't really do anything one way or the other to affect your output being called "Mad". They call you Mad, you write more poems. Not so for Mad Scientists. If your magma-powered toothbrush fails, well, it wasn't really Science, was it? But if it works, you vindicate yourself (at least, to yourself).

Except that the need to prove your ideas makes it harder. If you are a Mad Poet, you can simply decry your critics as "not understanding your work", which is true, and thereby feel better about yourself. In fact, I would observe that as far as Art goes, the lunatics have captured the asylum, lock, stock, and wallet. If any of the Renaissance masters were alive today, they'd wind up illustrating book jackets while basketballs with poop on them would continue take the millions at Sotheby's. But enough about that.

So if you are a Mad Preacher, you can start your religion happily, without worrying about what the non-cultists think of you. You are Right, they are Wrong, and either they accept Ba'al or they don't. But Science has to work. That's the point of it. This is why Mad Scientists are the only ones always disclaiming "I'll show them! I'll show them all!" Because they have to. If they can't show them, then they were wrong. And no one wants to have to concede that they were wrong.

And the funny thing is, it usually won't matter. Even if the Mad Scientist does show them all, they're still thought of as Mad.

"So, Doctor, ah, how's it going with those three-headed cats of yours?"
"Great! I've sold four to eccentric millionaires! And you thought I was crazy."

Or even:

"So, my Lord, now that your army of telekinetic jellyfish has taken over Scandinavia, what are you going to do next?"
"I'm going to make them award me the Nobel Prize!"

It's a self-defeating proposition, really. Well, in the sense of achieving public acclaim, not in the sense of taking over Scandinavia. That could happen. But the thing all those Mad Prophets and Mad Painters and other folks have going for them is self-confidence. They never have to prove that they are right. Whereas Science is all about proving you are right. So unless your line of investigation is well regarded from the get-go, you'll never shake that Mad label. Because if you have to prove yourself - even if you do prove yourself - the general public won't take you seriously. Only constant, iron self-confidence can do that. And "I'll show them all" just doesn't convey that self-confidence.

Of course, this is not to say that there haven't been cutting edge scientists that have had such self-confidence. And not all of them were considered Mad. Benjamin Franklin, for instance, invented the lightning rod (think about that. Before him, it didn't exist. Church steeples blew up all the damn time.), and was a pillar of the community. Bagged lots of French tail even as a septuagenarian, too. Thomas Edison was a master of inventor's P.R. All those dour Scotsmen who invented things like asphalt and the Mackintosh in the early nineteenth century - and probably were mad - were uncaring enough of public opinion that when they became wealthy and powerful, no one sniggered at their Science. Their manners and clothes, sure. But not their Science.

But then you have a genius like Tesla, who was always too swarthy Eastern-European-ish to really appeal to America, and who would never have been invited to the better cocktail parties.

So, for all you aspiring Mad Scientists - no matter how much you may actually be doing it to Show Them All, never admit it. Keep it under your hat. You are doing it because you are Right, and it Must be Done. No other reason.

Then you can show them all.

- Sun Ra

Columns by Sun Ra