Wednesday, July 16, 2014

I Enter the World of Not So Mad Science

I’ve always had kind of a soft spot for mad scientists. Always been a fan. Good or evil, it didn’t matter. I didn’t care if they were trying to save mankind or enslave it, to improve the world or destroy it.

From Frankenstein to Frank ‘N’ Furter, whether they were conquering death or causing it, these dudes (and they were pretty much all dudes, the glass ceiling being what it is in mad science like most other professions) captivated me, held me in a chemical spell. Maybe it was their earnest, creative spark, or their penetrating sincerity and faith in whatever scheme they were engaged in. They were always so damned sure of themselves, the mad ones.

In fact, these guys made such an impression on me at an early age that I created a cartoon character called Poindexter in high school. It became a cartoon strip in college, called ‘Poinzy.’ It’s your typical boy meets world, boy tries to destroy world story.

Standing about 5’2” and weighing in at 92 pounds, Poinzy is picked on mercilessly by the other kids at school. As a means for revenge, he tries to concoct a chemical quick fix, but is mutilated in a lab explosion that blows off both of his hands, forcing him to build new metal hands – deadly claws, really – using his teeth.

First he exacts terrible revenge at school, and then becomes a self-made (and worse, self-taught) megalomaniacal scientist, a not-so-super villain whose amazing, impossible inventions always seem to backfire, if he doesn’t destroy them himself on a whim.

In one strip, for example, he builds a planet-sized spaceship and fills it with thousands of Poindexter clones, the ultimate weapon to destroy the Earth. But at the last moment, he orders his clones to fly the ship into the sun, which they do, singing “We Are Marching to Pretoria,” as they sweat and melt faithfully in their stadium seats, while Poindexter flies off in an escape pod.

By the way, this all started in the 1970s, before Star Wars and its planet-killing Death Star(s), before Freddy Kruger and his murderous claw hands, and before the animated TV show, ‘Dexter’s Laboratory’ (the only similarities between that Dexter and mine was that they both wore lab coats and glasses – mine definitely wasn’t for kids). So, while much of Poindexter was derivative (I blame the movies and their perverse if sometimes subliminal impact on me), it didn’t steal from those things.

But it didn’t occur to me until fairly recently that Poindexter was really about biotechnology. He cloned himself, repeatedly, building and destroying army after army of contrived doppelgangers. He changed himself, gave himself wings and gills, and at one point, an array of bionic weapon limbs: eight arms that could shoot bullets or fire or missiles, or grab, stab and cut (an incarnation that my co-conspirator in much of this “work,” Mike Ricks, and I dubbed ‘Cephalopod’).

Basically, Poindexter was an evil bioengineer, which means he’s the opposite of the people I write about at Georgia Tech, in the Parker H. Petit Institute for Biotechnology and Bioscience. The smart people I work with use engineering principles to analyze and solve problems that plague mankind, while Poindexter uses his knowledge of science and engineering to cause them.

That minor difference aside, this is my roundabout way of saying that Poindexter is kind of what led me here to Georgia Tech, via the scenic route. I’ve worked as an Indian in a Wild West show, a pin chaser and short order cook in not one, but two bowling alleys. I’ve worked on factory production lines, in different warehouses, on a construction crew; I sold knives door to door, and operated a printing press; been a truck driver, a sports writer and a business journalist. But now, I’m as close to being a Boswellian Ygor as I’ll ever be, and my back is still straight. Give it time.

I have a hard time describing myself as some kind of ‘science writer,’ considering my preparation for this gig involved, among other things, creating a mad scientist cartoon character, and repeated viewings of Fantastic Voyage. There's the 25-plus years of journalism, sure ... but I haven’t taken a biology class in 30 years. Maybe I’ll catch up eventually. For now, I'm content in being a simple storyteller, a guy who writes about really cool stuff and people at a really cool university.

So, my intent is to use this blog as a place for stories from Georgia Tech’s bio-community (it used to be a bio-quad, but we’re growing). Please understand (as if it isn't clear enough already) that the human behind this is only half-mad, and not a scientist, but also remember what film director David Cronenberg said: “Everybody’s a mad scientist, and life is their lab. We’re all trying to experiment to find a way to live, to solve problems, to fend off madness and chaos.”


  1. Nice Blog Mr. Grillo. Here's a good scientist for your collection, a video worth watching:

    1. Love it, Alan. Thanks for sharing the "key."

  2. I remember Poindexter. And I am really jealous that you get to work with a bunch of Tony Starks...engineers...scientists.