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Sherlock Holmes is Actually a Brilliant but Slightly Scary Scientist

At least 75 different actors have taken Sherlock Holmes on, making him the most portrayed character on television and movie ever. Ian McKellen becomes the latest one to add his name to the roster, playing a Sherlock Holmes in a movie set in 1947. The BBC’s Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, is now back for a third season. Also, there are rumors of the third movie in the Robert Downey Jr. franchise.

It seems we can’t get enough of Sherlock. Why? On paper, Holmes appears not to be a hero. He is arrogant, callous, bad tempered, and never has love affairs and hates social. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle described his character as a “calculating machine.” This is probably his appeal – Holmes is not only a mystery solver, but he himself is also a mystery.

 Sherlock series three

Holmes portrayed by Cumberbatch.

Innumerable reinventions have played with each aspect of Holmes’s character and world – setting, time period, costume, gender, sexuality – but there is one thing never changes:  he is a scientist. His personality is a mashup of every stereotype we have ever thought about a scientist – introverted, solitary, reckless, daring, cruel, obsessive, slightly inhuman, imaginative and brilliant.

The world of Holmes was originally created for was a world obsessed with science. The Victoria era witnessed the birth of Charles Babbage’s own “calculating machine”, a pioneer of modern computers. Many early fictional detectives, such as Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin, Jacques Futrelle’s “Thinking Machine”, were all characters who are proud of themselves for their unemotional, systematic approach to solving puzzles.

Holmes also boasts of his emotionless character, too – “I am a brain, Watson. The rest of me is a mere appendix” – and his capability of separating fact from theory. “I make a point of never having any prejudices,” he tells Inspector Forrester in The Adventure of the Reigate Squires, “and of following docilely wherever fact may lead me.” Just like Babbage’s Difference Engine, there is no personality involved, just the application of a method. “He was,” says Watson, “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen.”

Robert Downey Jr

Holmes portrayed by Robert Downey Jr.

However, Conan Doyle also knew that no scientist could survive on cold, mechanical logic alone, let alone a commercial literary character. The dogged, unimaginative fact collector – a role in which Doyle rather unkindly casts the whole professional police force – is not our only stereotype of scientists. Moreover, Holmes is also an eccentric, reclusive bohemian, living on intuition and mysterious flashes of insight.

He says to Watson in Silver Blaze: “See the value of imagination,” having conjured a scene in his mind and discovered evidence to justify it. “We imagined what might have happened, acted on the supposition, and find ourselves justified.”

In The Red Headed League, Holmes pauses mid-investigation to visit “violin land”, where he “sat in the stalls wrapped in the most perfect happiness, gently waving his long, thin fingers in time to the music.” He solves the mystery of The Man with the Twisted Lip by spending a night sitting on a pile of pillows built as “a sort of Eastern divan”, smoking, “his eyes fixed vacantly upon the corner of the ceiling.”

He abandons his cerebral methods at other times and chooses to use good old fashioned fisticuffs. “The next few minutes were delicious,” he tells Watson in The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist. “It was a straight left against a slogging ruffian.” At other time, he claims to be “the most incurably lazy devil that ever stood in shoe leather.”

Sherlock Holmes: Jeremy Brett

Holmes portrayed by Jeremy Brett.

If we bring altogether these seemingly contradictory characteristics, Sherlock Holmes becomes a more realistic scientist, and human being, than any of his fictional rivals. He also lends himself to adaption well – every new Holmes has a whole suite of characteristic traits to select from. Some of them highlight the narcotics abuse, some others the violin playing, some the cutting wit. Robert Downey Jr. focusses on his physicality, while Jeremy Brett was quietly mysterious and Basil Rathbone outgoing. Cumberbatch’s Holmes is brilliant to the point of madness. But they all have something in common – they are all scientists, because what never changes is the goal and the method.

Just as Holmes says in A Study in Scarlet, ‘There is the scarlet thread of murder running through the colorless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, isolate it and expose every inch of it.”

 Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce In The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Basil Rathbone as Holmes.

This, perhaps, is at the heart of our addiction with science and Holmes. We are comforted by the idea that, however baffling the puzzle, there is always a solution to be found and someone who is capable of finding it. It’s reassuring that Holmes uses nothing more than logic, imagination and sometimes street urchin to solve problems, rather than implausible gadgets or superpowers. But our love of Holmes, and science, are tinged with apprehension. We are never quite certain about how far he may go in the pursuit of truth.

Source: The Guardian

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