Friday, 19 July 2024

Missing Mr. Wizard

I often wonder why the media, meaning primarily network television and most radio, doesn’t carry the important news. I mean stuff that really affects either our lives as we now live them, or us an individuals based on the lives we have thus had.

Here’s a great example of this hypothesis (which is a science term you’ll understand in a moment):

If you’re under 45, stop reading this now. It won’t make any sense to you. But if you’re like me, mid-50's something or perhaps older, and grew up anywhere that television reception was possible, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

On June 12, 2007, another icon of our youth was lost to eternity. His passing by itself doesn’t mean much, other than the end of a long and probably meaningful life. In the past 40 or more years, his name hasn’t appeared anywhere, but as a footnote to some other story about the golden age of television, or the current state of educational television and the decline of science education in America.

But if you’re of the right age, with memory intact, and understand basic principles like the displacement of a body in water, or what static electricity is and how it works, or why the filament in a light bulb glows to light our hours of darkness, you may want to thank one man: Mr. Wizard.

“Watch Mr. Wizard” was a television program in the infancy of the medium, originally broadcast from Chicago, then later from New York. It featured a very pleasant man in white shirt and tie, sleeves usually rolled up to show he was serious about his science. He did something rare in those early days, starting in 1951. He didn’t talk down to children, or adults. Oh and they watched too.

Before the thought gets lost in the nostalgia, here’s the main question: What was his name? We all knew he was Mr. Wizard, but to the world at large, he was Don Herbert. Mr. Wizard hit the airwaves and stood his ground for 14 years, on network television, and his show was even revived for a new generation much later. But he was personally responsible for the love of science by many young people, including me.

When he left network television, Mr. Wizard would appear on other shows from time to time, including “The Tonight Show” and “Late Night with David Letterman” among others. He won a Peabody Award for his television show, and later was seen on the cable channel Nickelodeon for a brief time.

What most people don’t know is that Mr. Wizard was an accomplished actor, and in private life, had been a bomber pilot , flying missions over Germany and Italy, and received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Mr. Wizard knew that science and magic were the same things, but science could be explained. It was still magic by another name. He let his young audience share his awe of the majesty of its principles, and respect for its unbending rules. He explained the forces of the universe without resulting to a heavy hammer, but instead did so with an appreciation of the simplicity of its rules.

As I wrote once before, upon the passing of Bob Keeshan (“Captain Kangaroo”), we will miss Mr. Wizard. Not for who he was, but for what he left to us, and what he let us become.

Doug Rhoades is an attorney. He lives in Lakeport.


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