Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Thanks, Mr Wizard

On October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union sent Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, into space, folks here in the States went bonkers. Suddenly, we were "behind." Suddenly, we discovered a science "gap." Suddenly, the German rocket scientists from World War II, which we had 'recruited' (Werner Von Braun and others) were not as smart, as skilled, as wonderful as their counterparts who had been 'recruited' by the Soviets (that, or they had not smuggled out the right information!)

As I kid, I wondered what all the fuss was about. Why was everyone so worried? After all, we had Mr. Wizard on our side!

Starting in 1951, Mr. Wizard began broadcasting his show, a show that immediately became one of the most popular for kids. Sitting on the floor, in front of 7 and 9-inch television screens (shown in black-and-white, of course), Mr. Wizard looked - and was - larger than life.

Why? Because he had the incredible gift of being able to explain, in terms a child could understand and using 'equipment' we could find in our house, the science behind the things that surrounded us. For instance, one time he showed how to take a glass in your hand, fill it to the brim with water, and then cover the opening completely with a playing card. You then took your other hand, placed it on top of the playing card. "What is holding the card to the glass? Your hand." Then, still holding your hand tight on top of the card, you flipped the glass and card, so the hand holding the card was on the bottom. Now, you removed your bottom hand and, wonder of wonders(!), the card still held to the glass. "What is holding the card to the glass now? Air pressure." Simple, fun, easy.

No wonder that by 1955, there were more than 5000 Mr. Wizard clubs in America. No wonder so many chemistry sets were sold to kids. No wonder we grew up believing that we could indeed build rockets that would launch into space. No wonder we believed, without a doubt, that we could put a human being on the moon. No wonder we believed that all those 'fictional' marvels we read about in sci-fi books just might come true. Thanks to Mr. Wizard, we could dream, we could believe, we could dare, we could.

Don Herbert, Mr. Wizard, died yesterday at the wonderful age of 89.

And all of us scientists, and wannabes; all of us who stunk up the basement with our chemicals, and drove the cat into hiding with our experiments; all of us who burned off our eyebrows making "rocket fuel" and messed up the carpet when we didn't have the playing card on the glass of water just right; all of us who looked to the stars and dreamed, and still do . . .

all of us give thanks to God for Mr. Wizard.

(c) 2007 Thom M. Shuman