Thursday, June 14, 2007

Mister Wizard

I was trying to think of something to write about the death of Don Herbert, whose "Mr. Wizard" television program was the introduction to science for millions of children--including many who went on to become real scientists and never forgot how important he was to them.

But in fact Mr. Wizard's heyday was a little before my time and I don't have vivid memories of his program, which ran from 1951 to 1965. I know I saw it, and grew up with a general awareness of Mr. Wizard's responsibility for the dry cell batteries and coils of wire that cluttered the floor under my bed. I read one blogger who called Mr. Wizard "a Mister Rogers for geeks," and that sounds about right. Herbert had the same even, direct, patient tone as Fred Rogers, and he never condescended to kids. Mr. Wizard understood that even though you might not know how a coil of wire around a nail becomes a magnet or how a needle gently placed on a cup of water can float, you weren't an idiot.

Still, not really being a rabid first-hand fan, I was probably going to let Mr. Wizard's death pass unmentioned until my newspaper editor friend Mike Peterson referred me to a nice remembrance on the Huffington Post by Marty Kaplan. He wrote anything I might have better than I could have. An excerpt:

It's a pity that scientists today, including those who owe their career starts to him, are so often snobbish about show biz. That mandarin condescension toward the masses is why Carl Sagan, one of Don Herbert's television successors, was dismissed as a vulgar popularizer by many of his peers. Entertainment, as Herbert knew, is the art of capturing attention. Scientists depend on public funding, and therefore on the theater of persuasion. Scientists, like it or not, have become hostages to culture warriors, and their ranking in the public's hierarchy of epistemologies, like it or not, depends on the sympathies of citizen audiences. Evidence and proof, conjecture and refutation, theory and argument: these may be defined by scientists with reference to a community of their peers, but if they have any hope of staving off a new Dark Age, it's their non-peers to whom they must also communicate....

That's one good reason why Mr. Wizard was important and will be missed.


Anonymous said...

Here is something that Mr. Wizard would approve of- A cancer blasting video game Kate from The Health Desk at

Brian Fies said...

Kate, Although your post has all the earmarks of spam I'll let it stay because the video you link to looks legit and might be of interest to some of my readers.

I must say I'm dubious of visualization therapies that try to make a cancer patient feel like they're in control of their disease on a microscopic level, zapping cancer cells like targets in a video game (which is what the video touts). I used to think those kinds of things were harmless at worst and perhaps, at best, helpful in bolstering spirits and one's will to live. However, I now think they can do real harm, especially when the visualization doesn't "work." You've got cancer, you're sick, maybe dying, and it's your fault because you didn't visualize correctly or enough? I don't like the flip side of beating-cancer-through-happy-thoughts that burdens people with the responsibility and guilt of failing.

I'm also unsure Mr. Wizard--a champion for reasoned thought and empirical evidence--would have approved. I didn't know the man, but I doubt it.

Brian said...

As a child of the 80s, I had fond memories of "Mr. Wizard's World", which aired regularly on Nickelodeon. His remaining hair had grayed by then, but his friendly and easy-going demeanor (and his collection of sweaters) made me appreciate him back then as a sort of "Mr. Rogers for kids that are a little too old for Mr. Rogers." I also love the fact that his experiments were done with everyday household items, which made the show that much more engaging to watch.

I heard a nice mini-tribute by Newton Apple's Ira Flatow and Robert Siegel on NPR's All Things Considered last night. I'd never realized that the man wasn't actually a scientist, and that he actually started in show business. He was a self-taught man, and that had me respecting both him and his work even more.

Ed said...

I wish I could find a hot nanobot like Roxy! All of the nanobots I tend to meet look like they spend a lot more time at Burger King than they do at the gym.

That said, "a stronger sense of power and control over their disease?" Simply by playing a videogame? If true, perhaps more games should be created to reverse baldness, reduce fat cells, or eliminate gullible thoughts. As long as all the in-game heroines share Roxy's incredible attributes, of course.

Best regards,
Edward T. Shroomhead, Esq.

Natasha said...

I thought you might enjoy this new MICHAEL W. SMITH video. The song is featured on his new album STAND with lyrics written by AMY GRANT. Enjoy and please pass on to any who might be interested. Thank you.