Sneak Peek's Favorite Scientists of Pop Culture

Earlier this week, the world lost one of our most well-known and well-respected scientific minds. Much like Albert Einstein or Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking sought to make scientific concepts accessible to the general public. His wit, passion, and determination are the stuff of legend, and he no doubt inspired thousands of young scientists throughout the world. To celebrate his accomplishments, we’ve decided to look back and pick 14 of the top fictional scientists in film, TV, and other pop culture! Look below to see if your favorite scientist made the cut!


14. Walter White - Breaking Bad

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While he’s certainly not the friendliest guy around, you have to admit that this chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin is one of the most compelling television characters in recent memory. Thanks to Bryan Cranston’s electrifying portrayal (which legendary actor Anthony Hopkins called the most brilliant acting he’d ever seen), we were able to see the slow descent of a man first motivated by a desire to provide for his family, then by a desire for the power and influence that he’d been denied in his life. When this guy is the one who knocks, you make sure you answer!

13. Dexter - Dexter’s Laboratory

A favorite of 90’s kids everywhere, this pint-sized roboticist and inventor was brought to life by Genndy Tartakovsky, who is also well-known for his work on the groundbreaking series Samurai Jack. His scientific genius allowed him to come up with solutions to giant monsters, world-ending plagues, and pretty much every other threat you can think of… except the unending threat of his sister Dee-Dee, who simply could not be stopped from coming into his lab. Of course, more than anything else, he’s probably most influential in changing the way a generation of kids in the early 2000s pronounced the word “la-bor-a-tory.”

12. Gordon Freeman - Half-Life

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Don’t let the glasses fool you; this MIT-trained physicist is NOT someone to be messed with. As the silent protagonist of Valve’s record-breaking video game series, Half-Life, Freeman was forced to take up arms and fight off an army of alien invaders storming the secret research facility where he worked. Armed with only his wits, a crowbar, and the weapons he picked up along the way, Freeman ripped through elite alien forces and near-mythical creatures like they were tinfoil. And if that wasn’t enough, he did it again in the sequel, almost single-handedly demolishing legions of troops that had invaded Earth in his absence. Not bad for a Ph.D who had never picked up a gun before the incident.

11. Ryan Stone - Gravity

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If you’re going to be an astronaut, it’s pretty much required that you have to be awesome. When you combine that with the already-awesome Sandra Bullock, you know you’re in for a fantastic character. She was sciencing the **** out of things two years before Mark Watney in The Martian, and her unwavering determination to survive is second to none. Through an intense combination of scientific smarts and quick thinking, she’s more than able to handle whatever the universe might throw at her.

10. Rick Sanchez - Rick and Morty

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Everyone’s favorite beer-swilling, sociopathic mad scientist, Rick has firmly established himself in the current pop-cultural arena as a force to be reckoned with. Using a combination of his portal gun and a seemingly never-ending stream of one-liners and catchphrases, Rick has engaged in some of the most insane adventures ever shown on television. When a fictional scientist can force a fast-food chain to reintroduce a dipping sauce that hasn’t existed for 20 years, you know that the public loves him.

9. River Song - Doctor Who

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As one of the most popular companions on the long-running series Doctor Who, River Song has fought off her fair share of threats across all manner of time and space. As a trained archaeologist, and one of the only humans alive who can effectively pilot The Doctor’s famous time machine, The TARDIS, River proves time and time again to be an invaluable member of the time-traveling crew. Of course, she’s also one of the only humans to defeat a member of the oft-recurring Dalek race, and she’s seen more disruptions of the space-time continuum than you would think possible, so she’s definitely up there in terms of saving the day with science.

8. Tony Stark - Marvel Comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe

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While the genius engineer and inventor behind the Iron Man suit has been a favorite of comic-book aficionados since his introduction in 1963, his past 10 years in the Marvel Cinematic universe have cemented Tony Stark as one of the most popular scientists, and movie characters in general, in film history. Due to the absolutely perfect casting of Robert Downey Jr. in the role, Stark has successfully merged scientific know-how with an unflappable cool. In his own words, he’s a “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist”, and you could bet a stack of Iron Man suits that he’s going to be prominent figure on the silver screen for years to come!

7. Egon Spengler - Ghostbusters

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While the Ghostbusters as a whole could likely count for this list, Spengler deserves special mention for creating the legendary Proton Pack. Spengler and his colleagues worked tirelessly to rid New York of spectral threats, resulting in one of the most fun and endearing adventures in 1980s cinema. While some of his scientific methods may be questionable (he never DID explain why he once tried to drill a hole in his head…), there is no questioning that Spengler and his friends deserve a spot here.

6. Ms. Frizzle - The Magic School Bus

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No matter how cool your elementary school was in the 90s, EVERYONE wanted Ms. Frizzle to be the teacher. Her daily field-trips were instrumental in teaching students about the wonders of everything from anthropology to zoology, and reruns of her adventures are still shown in schools to this day. Despite Arnold’s insistence that he should have stayed home today, the rest of the class (and the audience) could rest assured that a day with Ms. Frizzle would be a day that made learning fun.

5. Mr. Spock - Star Trek

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It’s only logical (Captain) that our favorite pointy-eared Science Officer would be on this list. It takes a very special type of character to somehow overshadow William Shatner, and Spock’s enduring popularity over the past 50 years is a testament to exactly how well he did that. He was one of the first to make science cool, and while the great Leonard Nimoy may no longer be with us, his continued portrayal by Zachary Quinto will ensure that Spock is always there to get the rest of Starfleet out of their latest jam. We can only hope that the character will continue to live long and prosper.

4. Shuri - Black Panther

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On its way to grossing over $1 billion at the box office, one thing about Black Panther became very clear: Letitia Wright as Shuri stole absolutely every scene she was in. By combining Tony Stark’s smarts, Peter Parker’s snark, and Black Widow’s fighting ability, we have a character who was able to stand out in what was already an amazing film. Not only did she upgrade T’Challa’s suit to the point that he was nearly unstoppable, but she is also NOT afraid to use her scientific knowledge to defend her family and her home. And, she even made a functional version of the auto-lace sneakers made famous by Back To The Future II. Although the MCU is filled with tons of cool scientists, future films in the Marvel Universe will likely see Shuri standing at the top of fan favorites.

3. Doctor Emmett Brown - Back To The Future

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Great Scott! If there was anyone who could surpass Egon Spengler as “Top Scientist of the 80s," it’s Doc Brown. Thanks to building a time machine (“...out of a DeLorean?!”) and generally being just an incredibly energetic and fun dude, Doc is probably near the top of the list of “scientists you’d want to hang out with.” Plus, not only is he a man of science, he’s also a man of action, as his time in the Old West in Part 3 shows. No matter how heavy things get, Doc will do his best to help out his friends and avoid the destruction of the space-time continuum.

2. Jeff Goldblum - Pretty much every role he’s ever played

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While the actor himself is not fictional, if you needed a scientist from 1986-2000, Jeff Goldblum WAS the man to get. Whether fighting off aliens with Will Smith in Independence Day, warning against the dangers of chaos theory in Jurassic Park, or scaring the absolute hell out of you in The Fly, there is no better actor alive to play the part of the awkward, stuttering scientist. He’s returning to his famous role as Ian Malcolm for the upcoming Jurassic World: The Fallen Kingdom, and you can be certain that life will always find a way to bring him another scientist role.

1. Stephen Hawking

So, this one might be cheating, but Hawking has appeared in more than enough media to count as a character in his own right. He’s repeatedly antagonized Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, had his story told in The Theory Of Everything, and even shared a beer with Homer Simpson. When it comes to making a splash in popular culture, Dr. Hawking had nearly as big of an impact as he did on the world of theoretical physics. He will definitely be missed, but we can certainly find solace in the fact that the work he produced and the people he influenced will carry on his legacy.

*A Brief History of Time (trailer above) is the critically acclaimed Errol Morris documentary about the life of Stephen Hawking. The film is available to University of Texas students on Kanopy.