Absent-minded professor

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For the 1961 Disney movie, see The Absent-Minded Professor.
The Astrologer who Fell into a Well because he kept looking at the stars. John Tenniel's illustration from the 1884 edition of Aesop's fables

The absent-minded professor is a stock character of popular fiction, usually portrayed as a talented academic whose focus on academic matters leads him or her to ignore or forget his or her surroundings.

The phrase "absent-minded professor" is also commonly used more generally in English to describe people who are so engrossed in their 'own world' that they fail to keep track of their surroundings. It is a common stereotype that professors get so obsessed with their research that they pay little attention to anything else.

The stereotype is very old: the ancient Greek biographer Diogenes Laërtius wrote that the philosopher Thales walked at night with his eyes focused on the heavens and, as a result, fell down a well.[1]

Examples of real absent-minded professors[edit]

Isaac Newton, Adam Smith, André-Marie Ampère, Jacques Hadamard, Sewall Wright, Nikola Tesla, Norbert Wiener, Archimedes, and Albert Einstein were all scholars considered to be absent-minded by their contemporaries – their attention absorbed by their academic studies. William Archibald Spooner, who gave his name to the spoonerism, was known for his absent-mindedness and eccentricity.

Fictitious absent-minded professors[edit]

Examples in film of absent-minded professors include "Doc" Emmett Brown from Back to the Future, the title character in the film The Absent-Minded Professor and its less successful film remakes all based on the short story A Situation of Gravity, by Samuel W. Taylor, as well as Professor Farnsworth of Futurama and Professor Frink in The Simpsons. Professor Kokintz in The Mouse That Roared by Leonard Wibberley is an example from literature, while Professor Branestawm, created in the 1930s by Norman Hunter is an earlier archetype, and Jacques Paganel from the Jules Verne's 1867 novel In Search of the Castaways is probably the codifier of the archetype in the modern literature. Comic strip examples include Professor Calculus, in The Adventures of Tintin, Eli Eon, from Little Orphan Annie,and Professor Edgewise, a minor recurring character in Marvel Family stories. Professor Caractacus Potts in the story of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang qualifies as an absent minded inventor. Multo, one of the characters in the hit series The Zula Patrol, is an example of an absent-minded professor. One in Television is that of Walter Bishop in the Fox television series Fringe. Isaac Kleiner, from the Half-Life saga as well as Professor Harold MacDougal from Red Dead Redemption, are examples in videogames.

The archetype is sometimes mixed with that of the mad scientist, often for comic effect as in the Jerry Lewis film The Nutty Professor. However, the mad scientist archetype usually has malevolent connotations, while the absent minded professor is typically characterized as benevolent.

The fictional absent-minded professor is often a college professor of science or engineering; in the fantasy genre, a similar character may appear as a wizard. An example of this would be the characterisation of Merlin in The Sword in the Stone—particularly the Disney adaptation—and Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter.


  1. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, "Thales"

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