20 excellent scientists in mainstream film and TV

More than just brainy plot devices, here's our list of 20 of the best on-screen scientists...

Science is used often in films to move the plot forward or explain strange goings-on. When something unexpected happens, a scientist will often pop up and handily explain the situation and how they’re going to solve the problem (funnily enough, it’s always with science). But how realistic are these people who appear simply to provide some exposition in technical-sounding language?

It’s a good question, and it’s the basis for this list. So: here are my choices for film and TV’s top 20 scientists. I’ve only included research scientists or academics, so this list excludes anyone who is a medical doctor (including clinical psychiatrists or psychologists), an inventor, or an engineer. They are ranked by a highly scientific* system grading them on 1) their intelligence and common sense, 2) their scientific ethics, and 3) their realism as actual scientists.

*Part my opinion, part arbitrary. Science!

20. Ross Geller, Friends

Palaeontologist Dr Geller fell at the cut-off point for inclusion on a good or bad scientists lists, and in truth, I dithered for a long time about which one to include him on.

On the one hand, he’s portrayed as one of those irritating academics who fail to realise that other people don’t feel as enthusiastic about their specialist subject as them. Ross has a habit of boring people with unwanted lectures and dragging his unwilling friends to conferences that are irrelevant to them.

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(Incidentally, it costs hundreds of dollars to go to conferences. No way in the real world would you be able to take five non-scientist friends with you, keynote speaker or not).

He also mentions in one episode that his last few papers have been “widely discredited’. He does get to be keynote speaker at an international conference, but this is only because he tricks his way into the position after the person he is pitching to falls asleep. On the flip side, he also manages to get tenure at New York University.

I eventually decided that it is nice to see someone in a mainstream TV show who just happens to be a scientist but isn’t exclusively defined by this. This is rare in itself, and for that he sneaks onto the ‘good’ list.

19. Sue Storm, The Fantastic Four

Susan Storm was another person whose inclusion I mulled over for some time. I haven’t included comic books, because we’d be here all day, so I’m only including film versions of comic-book characters. Whilst Sue Storm in the comics is not necessarily stated to be a scientist she is supposedly a world-leading geneticist in the films. That said, she is not really shown doing much science and the filmmakers appear to be more interested in finding ways to make her appear naked rather than discussing her scientific credentials.

So why is she here? Well, in part to make a point. Female scientists in movies, especially superhero ones, tend to get far more valued for their looks (the ‘sexy scientist’) than for their intelligence (unlike her male counterparts), which is quite frankly depressing. Especially as it’s not easy to become a world-leading geneticist in the first place.

18. Robert Neville, I Am Legend

While maybe a bit gung-ho for your average scientist, Will Smith’s take on Robert Neville – a different characterisation from the book, certainly – at least manages to stick vaguely within the boundaries of his own field.

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He is a virologist and uses his knowledge of this area to find a cure for the virus that caused a zombie-like plague to wipe out the rest of the planet. To be fair, the actual science in this film is sketchy. Using a virus to cure cancer is not unrealistic, as this is actually the basis for gene therapy. However, finding a single virus that can cure all cancers is hopelessly far-reaching. The chance of a gene-therapy virus wiping out humanity is also infinitesimally small. There are also questions about how a vaccine to a virus can be synthesised from the blood of someone who is immune.

Robert Neville therefore is a pretty realistic scientist in a film that has incredibly dubious science in it.

17. Doc Brown, Back To The Future

Doc Brown could be considered more an inventor than a scientist (else, inevitably, he would have been far higher up the list) but I decided that he can be included in this list as he has an excellent understanding of time travel and so must be a physicist as well. The archetypal ‘mad but benevolent’ scientist, he is often seen with a white coat, crazy hair and crazier ideas.

He scores highly on intelligence (he makes time travel possible) but maybe not so much with common sense. Also there are some sketchy ethics there, what with stealing plutonium from Libyan terrorists and also sending a teenager back in time unaccompanied by a responsible adult, although it is a) accidental and b) for Science!

Of course he is also able to use his great knowledge of science to remedy the situation. Good problem solving skills are one of the key aspects of a good scientist after all…

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16. Grace Augustine, Avatar

Played by Sigourney Weaver, Dr Grace Augustine is the epitome of a scientist torn between her work and the intentions of others. While she wants to study the ways of Na’vi, she is also frequently brought into conflict with idiot warmongers and greedy businessmen.

Obviously, as the lead on this massive project, she needs to be rated highly on the intelligence scale. Her work, however, brings to mind an interesting concept that faces some scientists: how much can you interfere with a native culture for the purposes of research (something also explored in the decent animated movie, Epic)? There’s a balance between understanding a culture and intruding on it, and she certainly crosses the line into the latter.

Ultimately it is her work that stokes the interest of those with less honorable intentions for Pandora. However, she also clearly has deep love and respect for the Na’vi and did not intend for them to come to any harm. She’s a good scientist.

15. Erik Selvig, Thor/The Avengers

Dr Selvig is the epitome of a superhero’s scientific sidekick. He is an astrophysicist who conveniently understands what it going on when a superpowered being from another world is mysteriously transported to his exact location.

He is widely used for exposition in the Thorfilms and the first Avengers (although he’s barely in Age Of Ultron). There is nothing wrong with this of course, but it doesn’t bring anything new to the depiction of scientists in films. Selvig also makes this list at the expense of his protegee Jane Foster because he gets to do more science, whereas Jane’s role eventually becomes more that of a love interest.

Selvig is shown to be highly intelligent and he has unshakeable ethics (when he’s in control of his mind). However beyond this, there is not much detail about his scientific knowledge, except that he always seem to know exactly what science they need to do to save the day. Not a bad quality…

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14. Reed Richards, The Fantastic Four

Reed Richards scores higher than his on-screen future-wife for the obvious reason that he’s more well-developed as a scientist in the films. He scores highly on the intelligence scale – in fact, his intellect is so great that it pushes him several places down on the realism scale. In the comics at least, he has a mastery of basically every form of science, which is, of course, laughably unrealistic. Even world-leading scientists tend to be restricted to quite a narrow field.

His intellect also takes a hit as it’s his miscalculation that causes the gang to get their powers in the first place. He also falls down this list for the lazy portrayal of the ‘scientist ignores love life due to his important work’ stereotype in the second film. Only time will tell how Miles Teller’s portrayal of Mister Fantastic in the upcoming reboot will go. Hopefully the filmmakers will take a more nuanced approach and allow him to be a more realistic scientist.

13. Jemma Simmons, Agents Of SHIELD

Apologies to all the Fitz-fans out there, but he’s more of an engineer and so doesn’t qualify for this list. His counterpart, Jemma Simmons is, however, explicitly stated to be a scientist.

Scientifically speaking, she is a ridiculous overachiever, regularly crossing the boundaries of different scientific fields. Most obviously she is shown being able to perform medical procedures and even autopsies despite being a biochemist by training. This isn’t actually that unrealistic, as many clinicians are also trained as laboratory researchers, and in some places such as the US it is possible to simultaneously qualify as both a medical doctor and a scientific researcher.

It could also be argued that the resources available to S.H.I.E.L.D. would allow her to get advanced training not available at your average university. But she also seems to have a throrough understanding of non-biochemical/non-medical fields, especially electromagnetism. Finding that level of expertise in any scientist would be very rare.

Given that Dr Simmons has unshakeable ethics (at least up until the midpoint of the second season) and is even willing to sacrifice herself for others, then she deserves a place on this list. The reason she is not higher up is due to her lack of character development. We know she loves science and is a bad liar but not much else. For her to be a more realistic portrayal of a scientist, it would be nice to see other aspects of her personality and interests, seeing as most scientists have at least one outside hobby.

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12. Hank “Beast” McCoy, X-Men

Although clearly extremely intelligent, Dr McCoy does lose common sense points for somehow managing to muck up his experiment so badly he turns himself permanently blue and hairy. His ethics are also called into question a bit in X-Men: Days Of Future Past, when he acts as a “de-powering” enabler for the disaffected Charles Xavier, although he’s just trying to do the right thing.

He gets extra respect points in the later-set films for managing to use his intelligence to influence scientific policy, and using his huge intellect to try and make life better for people.

11. Violet Barnes, The Five Year Engagement

Here’s a curveball. Although Violet, played by Emily Blunt, is a psychologist, she can be included here as she works in academia, rather than as a clinical psychologist. What’s more, this character is the most relatable academic I think I’ve ever seen on screen.

Furthermore, The Five Year Engagement also covers issues that many academics face, mostly relating to work-life balance. Due to the fact that a lot of universities that specialise in certain subjects can be in the middle of nowhere, there’s often a risk that your partner may not find suitable work in that place. This happens to Violet, who finds a great job in Michigan but by accepting it, she forces her fiancé to quit his job at a high-powered San Francisco restaurant and take one that is well below his skill set.

It’s also very refreshing to have a female character in a rom-com who just happens to be an academic. She’s not a geek or socially awkward or hyper-intelligent, her job just happens to be in academia. When most women in romantic comedies seem to work in marketing or for a high-end fashion magazine, Violet Barnes is someone with a PhD, and a central character.

So why is she down the list? Well, at one stage she was a lot higher. However, when I decided on my criteria she slips down significantly for two reasons.

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One is ethics – she does (spoiler) sleep with her boss. The other is intelligence. She’s not close to the ridiculous levels of clever exhibited by most others on this list (superheroes especially) and at one point in the film (spoiler alert again) she is outrightly told that she’s not actually a very good psychologist. This actually adds to her appeal in my mind, showing that she’s fallible and occasionally stupid. Unfortunately it also makes her fall quite a few places down on this list.

10. Leonard Hofstadter, The Big Bang Theory

In the interests of saving space, I’ve had to make some tough choices regarding The Big Bang Theory gang. Leonard is probably the closest to an ‘everyman’ scientist of the core three PhD-wielding characters. He is nerdy but not to the extent of a certain other physicist present on this show.

A constant criticism of Leonard in-universe is that he doesn’t do original research, instead validating the work of others. This may seem like a cop-out but it is actually very important. Replication is the cornerstone of scientific achievement. Something is not considered scientifically valid until other people have independently reached the same conclusions.

This method has caused many high-level ‘discoveries’ to be revealed as fraudulent due to people using flawed or fabricated data. Therefore what Leonard does is actually a huge contribution to science and in a way, given Sheldon and Raj’s career issues, makes him the most successful male scientist on the show.

9. Bruce Banner, The Incredible Hulk/The Avengers

Ah, Bruce. He clearly scores highly on the intelligence scale but maybe not so much on the common sense side of things. My sympathies are limited for people who manage to get themselves caught up in lab accidents. Safety protocols are there for a reason. Tsk.

Lab accidents also don’t happen nearly as much as movies seem to think that they do. I also don’t think being exposed to high amounts of gamma radiation would tap into your latent anger issues, so Bruce isn’t doing too well on the realism front either. Plus he turns green when he’s angry. That’s not too common.

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His scientific talents also appear to be vague – although supposed to be a physicist, he doesn’t seem to do much physics in The Avengers. He is first seen acting as a medical doctor, then on the Helicarrier staring mostly at screens and sighing (actually I take that back, a lot of physicists do actually do that).

One thing you can’t fault Bruce for (although this doesn’t include his Hulk-y counterpart) is his ethics, as he lives in almost constant terror of hurting people.

8. Jon Osterman, Watchmen

I am only considering Jon Osterman here, as there is some doubt as to whether his alter-ego Dr Manhattan would be considered a “scientist.” Obviously, Dr. Osterman is highly intelligent but again is sort of lacking in common sense, having managed to get himself locked inside a lab and exposed to massive doses of radiation.

His transformation, however, has been hailed as being actually quite scientifically accurate, in that someone who gained superhuman intelligence would probably develop feelings of apathy and disconnection from the world. Jon therefore is probably the most realistic of the ‘lab-accident-turned-superhero’ branch of movie scientists.

7. The scientists in Contagion

No one in Contagion particularly stands out as an especially good or bad scientist, though the film in general is praised for a thoroughly realistic depiction of how science works.

The scientific advisor on the film, Dr. Ian Lipkin, was involved in helping to manage a SARS outbreak in China in 2003 and used this to inform the filmmakers of the correct protocol. This means that in general, the language and methods used are true to life rather than someone just saying scientific sounding words, which is what most scientists do in films.

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The steps taken to identify the cause and source of a virulent pandemic and find a vaccine for it are said by scientific experts to be very much like how it would happen in real life, albeit sped up a bit. Similar steps will have been taken to try to stem the recent Ebola outbreak, including trying to fast-track experimental treatments and using them on human subjects.

Other aspects of the film are also true to life, for example the urgency and pressure on the scientists to identify and find a way to prevent the virus from spreading. There are roadblocks too, both biological and bureaucratic, that get in the way of the research.

Challenges from areas such as conspiracy theorists are also realistic, as there are always people who don’t believe or understand that the scientific process can take a long time. There is also a very real danger of scientists that are studying a virulent disease becoming infected with it, as happens in the film.

This film stands up as an example of how good films based on science can be if the proper research is undertaken and experts are consulted. The scientists in the film do not have particularly in-depth characterisation because the virus and the process of controlling a pandemic are the focus rather than the people.

Of course, it would be daft to argue that films such as The Avengers and Back To The Future show realistic science as that’s not what they are about, but it is nice to see that it can be done.

6. Ellie Arroway, Contact

Contact is quite possibly the most realistic film portrayal of the “science of the unknown.” This is hardly a surprise, as it was based on a book written by the astronomer and great science communicator Carl Sagan. Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan also helped with the story outline.

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The film is a portrayal of the issues that face scientists in the event of major, world-changing findings. At the heart of all this is Dr. Ellie Arroway, a scientist at SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) who can’t help feeling that we cannot be alone in this vast universe. Dr Arroway is stubborn and single-minded in her search for alien life. Her passion drives her work but also affects her ability to form relationships. This may be bordering on scientific cliché, but that doesn’t mean she is unrealistic.

Many of the obstacles that Ellie comes up against are those that face real-life scientists, such as funding crises and vocal criticism from other members of the scientific community. As the film progresses, Ellie is also unwittingly drawn in to the ongoing battle of science versus religion as the consequences of her discoveries begin to spread throughout the world. The media circus that surrounds her discovery also rings true, as it is so very easy for people to interpret scientific findings in their own way when they don’t have the facts or expertise to come to a well-informed conclusion.

One of the more subtle aspects of Contact that really hits home for a scientist is the issue of credit for scientific discovery. Several times, Ellie’s work and expertise are hijacked by a senior male colleague, David Drumlin. Drumlin takes over the PR work for the discovery and on several occasions pushes Ellie onto the sidelines.

This tale very sadly reflects countless incidents of junior scientists having someone else take the credit for their hard work. It’s been a particular problem in the past for female scientists (one of the most infamous examples being Rosalind Franklin, overshadowed for the discovery of DNA structure by Watson and Crick despite her experiments being an instrumental part of the process).

We are given some insight into Ellie’s motivations for becoming a scientist but the film does not dwell too much on the sentimental. At times it seems clear that it is her love of science and thirst for the unknown that is driving her as much as her childhood issues. The film portrays science and Ellie in a muted, realistic way. You can easily imagine that if SETI or another organisation did find a signal from another planet, this is exactly how it would play out.

5. Ellie Sattler, Jurassic Park

Another Dr Ellie, Ellie Sattler is one of the best scientific role models for people who grew up in the early ’90s. She is shown to be adorably geeky about old plants and dinosaurs and is genuinely fascinated by the park and the technology behind it. She also shows a lot of grit and determination during her ordeal, highlighting that resourcefulness is a strong personality trait in many scientists. She also successfully applies her knowledge to solve mysteries, such as helping to diagnose a sick dinosaur.

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You could argue that Sattler and her fellow scientists would know enough science to realise that the way the dinosaurs are created in the park is actually impossible, therefore they should lose realism points. It would obviously make a much more boring film if they all read the proposal and said ‘that’s impossible’ and not bothered to visit the park. However I’ve also deducted realism points for lab-accident-superheroes so I will be a stickler for consistency here.

4. Sheldon Cooper, The Big Bang Theory

I find Sheldon a bit of a double-edged sword when it comes to the portrayal of scientists on TV. He is obviously the character that keeps the viewing figures for this programme astoundingly high and it’s nice to see science being popularised. To say that he is unrealistic would also be untrue – there are certainly scientists who have very Sheldon-like qualities. My issue with the character is the extended implication that all scientists at the top level of their fields (as Sheldon is) are like him, which isn’t true.

One thing that The Big Bang Theory does well is it generally manages to keep people within their respective fields of knowledge. There is a tendency in entertainment to have scientists just know science, whether it is biology, physics, chemistry, or medicine (see also: Reed Richards, Jemma Simmons). One wonderful episode shows Sheldon being hopelessly incompetent in Amy’s neurobiology lab, nicely highlighting that expertise is generally restricted to certain aspects and subsets of science. If you asked Stephen Hawking about the evolution of the fungus group Candida, he’d probably be as clueless as you are (unless you’re an evolutionary biologist specialising in Candida of course).

Sheldon also scores highly on the rest of my criteria being both super-intelligent and highly ethical (mostly because he is incapable of lying). Later episodes also explore what happens to scientists when they reach a dead-end with regards to their research and the resultant crisis of confidence. This shows that even the best of us can end up going down the wrong avenue – there are no guarantees when it comes to science and there is always the risk that your research will end up taking you nowhere.

3. Bernadette Rostenkowski-Wolowitz, The Big Bang Theory

The female characters in The Big Bang Theory are actually more realistic portrayals of scientists. Bernadette is, in my opinion, the most realistic scientist on the show. She is clearly intelligent and being headhunted by a large pharmaceutical company shows that she must be a very good scientist. However she is also perfectly normal socially – she can chat as easily to down-to-earth Penny as she can with super-scientist Sheldon. She does lose some points for ethics as there are several casual mentions of poor lab practice, such as not always washing her hands after handling deadly microbes.

She also loses some points for cheerfully turning up to the Cheesecake Factory and casually announcing that “I successfully defended my thesis. I’m getting my PhD!”. In the real world she’d have spent the first hour after this staring wide-eyed at the wall, occasionally wondering out loud if that four-hour grilling had really happened and if the process is really, finally over and then collapsing in a heap.

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It would have been nice to include Amy Farrah-Fowler in this list as well, particular as the actress that portrays her, Mayim Bialik, actually does have a PhD in neuroscience. However, Amy’s presence on the show is more to do with her relationship with Sheldon and we actually don’t see much of her as a scientist beyond cutting up brains and dealing with monkeys undergoing nicotine withdrawal.

Whilst Bernadette is refreshing in the fact that she’s a normal (ish) person who just happens to be a scientist (she’s even less ‘geeky’ than Ross Geller), Amy doesn’t really bring anything new to the genre, which is a shame as they could do so much more with the character.

2. Professor Xavier, X-Men

Although it’s not clear from the first X-Men trilogy that Charles Xavier is a scientist as opposed to a teaching professor, he is shown in X-Men: First Class as having written and defended a thesis, meaning that he has a PhD. As he manages to mostly stay within his field of genetics during the sciencey parts of First Class, he scores some points for realism.

He is an uncommon example of a scientist in a superhero film who is not there for exposition or to use complex sounding words to save the day, giving the character much more depth than examples such as Erik Selvig. Of course, much of this is to do with being a high-level, powerful mutant, but Xavier’s appeal goes beyond the fact he has those powers. He wants to use knowledge to help people rather than for his own selfish gain – a theme that comes up a lot in films that focus on scientific achievement.

Knowing that many of the films’ superpowers come from genetic mutations may help him to realise that deep down, humans and mutants aren’t so different really. We are strikingly similar when it comes down to the genetic level – about 99.9% of our DNA is the same as every other human on earth.

The fact that it’s not even clear that he’s a scientist until the prequel shows that his character development is not tied entirely to his level of intelligence. He is also clearly ethical and cares deeply about his students, but he has fallibility too and makes mistakes. He is an example of someone who uses their knowledge to try and make life easier for people.

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I think many scientists can also empathise with his struggle to make those in charge to see scientific sense. Many can also identify with having an ideologically-opposed colleague, although maybe not quite to the same extent.

1. Mr. Spock, Star Trek

I devised the order of this list before the sad passing of Leonard Nimoy, and Spock was already at number one. Because, bluntly, he’s Spock. He stands for so much, and respects his science, and the character – across decades of screen time – is pretty much without parallel. Although he is not in possession of a PhD, I don’t think there is any doubt as to his scientific credentials. He is a Starfleet Science Officer for a start.

As for my criteria, there is no doubting his intelligence and obviously his defining trait is his logic. You could even argue that he is ethical when compared to his Vulcan peers, as that pesky human half can on occasion interfere with that logic – where a Vulcan may do something logical but unethical, Spock may consider the ethical implications as well.

As for realism? Well, Spock is probably the most realistic character on a show where William Shatner is considered to be one of the most active lotharios in the universe…!

Rest in peace Mr Nimoy. Live long and prosper.

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