Hair and the Genius / Mad Scientist

I’ve just finished watching Genius, the television biography of Albert Einstein on the National Geographic channel. I could discuss a number of issues, such as the paradigms of science, the celebrity scientist, and the representation of real people in movies and television. But instead I want to talk about hair.

Yes, Einstein’s hair.

Albert Einstein
The real Albert Einstein and his hair.

Several times the dialog in Genius touched upon Einstein’s unkempt appearance and his “crazy hair,” and I couldn’t help thinking of Roland Barthes and his essay on Romans in the movies. Here’s an excerpt:

 In Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar, all the characters are wearing fringes.  Some have them curly, some straggly, some tufted, some oily, all have them well combed, and the bald are not admitted, although there are plenty to be found in Roman history. Those who have little hair have not been let off for all that, and the hairdresser – the king-pin of the film – has still managed to produce one last lock which duly reaches the top of the forehead, one of those Roman foreheads, whose smallness has at all times indicated a specific mixture of self-righteousness, virtue and conquest.

What then is associated with these insistent fringes? Quite simply the label of Roman-ness. We therefore see here the mainspring of the Spectacle – the sign – operating in the open.

And so it is with Einstein, depictions of Einstein, representations of the genius, and the character of the mad scientist. It’s the hair.

What is the connection between science and hair? Between genius and hair? And how did this sign become part of the genius/scientist/mad scientist myth? Let’s begin an investigation.

First, the phenomenon seems exclusively white and male.

Sure, the Bride of Frankenstein  had pretty crazy hair, but she is not intended to be a scientist or a genius. And, there are definitely people of color with wild hair, like Frederick Douglass  and Don King  ,  but again, not scientists (though Douglass was undoubtedly remarkably intelligent). I feel compelled to also throw Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., into the mix – geniuses, to be sure, but not scientists in the usual sense.

Female scientists are less often culturally depicted, and when they are, they are pressured to conform to male expectations – or purposely flaunt them. 

A Google image search of “female mad scientists” seems to reveal only costumes – but yes, with the wild hair. They are simply male concepts superimposed on females, which is not an unusual occurrence in media representations.

Second, the hair as a sign of genius/mad scientist is long and white or gray.

In the series Genius, the hair of the Einstein character becomes longer and more unruly as time goes on. The younger Einstein, played by Johnny Flynn, has thick curly hair (a wig, no doubt, since Flynn appears to have straight, fair hair). The mature Einstein, played by Geoffrey Rush, has long, poofy hair, similar to the actual the mature Einstein, who wore his hair long and untamed in the 1940s and 1950s, despite the fashion at the time for short and carefully pomaded styles.

Let’s look at the words I’ve used to describe the hair. Wild. Crazy. Unruly. Untamed. Could I add – uncontrolled? Certainly this plays into the idea of the “mad” scientist. Do these words also represent genius? If so, why?

Is there a link between the hair and brain? Does wild hair indicate a wild brain?

Signs and Origins

The next questions: Did cultural representations of the wild-haired mad scientist begin Einstein? Or did he cultivate the wild hair as part of his public image? I can’t answer this second question because I don’t know enough about the real Albert Einstein. I haven’t read the book, Einstein: His Life and Universe, on which the series Genius was based. The series does depict Einstein as someone who enjoyed attention and wanted to be the center of attention.

As for the question of the origins of the crazy-haired scientist, it could be a fun subject of research.

The quintessential mad scientist, Victor Frankenstein, has been portrayed on film numerous times, but in Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein is a young man and scant information is given about his appearance, except in his ragged and wretched condition at the end. The frontispiece of the first edition depicts a conventional-looking Victor  overshadowed by his creature. The 1931 Frankenstein movie also portrayed Victor as clean-cut. It seems doubtful that Dr. Frankenstein is an origin of the myth.

Even earlier, however, was the character of Rotwang in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, Metropolis. Yes, wild and crazy hair.

The image seems to have become part of the myth, at least in movies and televisions. Consider some other examples:

Gene Wilder as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein

By the way, for comparison, here’s a collection of photos of Albert Einstein in the 1920s and 30s.

In researching this post, I happened upon the book, Mad, Bad, and Dangerous?: The Scientist and the Cinema by Christopher Frayling.  Rotwang appears on the cover. Naturally, I ordered it. I’ll let you know what I learn.