Another icon from my childhood is gone. Don Herbert, TV’s Mr. Wizard, died yesterday of cancer at the age of 89. While Herbert started his show years before I was born, “Watch Mr. Wizard” was a regular feature of my childhood, and Herbert continued to turn kids on to the wonders of science throughout the 1960s, returning a few times in later decades. I would say that Don Herbert is almost entirely responsible for my childhood love of science and I know that thousands of baby boomers were affected by his passion for the mysteries of the natural world. Herbert's show was astonishingly simple compared to children’s TV programs today, but for me he single-handedly brought to life a subject that was left for dead by the Chicago Public School system.
How I longed to be one of Mr. Wizard’s young assistants when I was a kid. I haven’t seen the show in ages but I can remember the excitement I felt watching Mr. Wizard do his experiments and how I’d scurry to try them myself in our kitchen or living room. Much to my mother’s occasional horror, I might add, as she watched volcanoes of baking soda and vinegar erupt on her coffee table, vacuums created in her heirloom teacups, or eggs magically fitting through the thin neck of a milk bottle. The beauty of “Watch Mr. Wizard” was that Herbert’s impressive experiments were reproducible at home, you didn’t need any expensive equipment. Every item in the house was a potential science project, and after watching his show I busily gathered utensils, paper straws, the tubes from rolls of paper towels, and coffee cans for my makeshift laboratory.
Herbert reminded me of one of his contemporaries, Julia Child, whose first black-and-white series, “The French Chef,” overlapped with his show. Herbert and Child were perfect television personalities, as natural in front of a camera as they were talking to family members or close friends. Their appeal included a vulnerability that is absent from most people on TV today. They’d make mistakes, trudge through experiments or recipes that didn’t work, and then instead of demanding a reshoot, they'd shrug it off as part of life and move on to the next attempt. Herbert and Child were very serious about their work but they didn’t take themselves too seriously, they were able to laugh at themselves while imparting valuable information to their devoted viewers. I loved how Herbert never talked down to his young assistants, he treated them with great respect and answered all of their questions in language they could easily understand. Such could not be said for most of my teachers at the time. Herbert used no quick edits or fancy graphics to sell his message, the show was a hit solely because Mr. Wizard was the real thing.
In addition to Mr. Wizard, my passion for science was further strengthened by visits to Chicago’s glorious Museum of Science & Industry. I’ve yet to find a science museum anywhere in the world that holds a candle to this institution, even today. Back then, visiting the imposing Beaux Arts building in Chicago’s Hyde Park (built for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition) felt as thrilling and universe-bending as accompanying Alice through the Looking Glass. Several of my favorite exhibits still exist such as the exquisite replica of a Coal Mine, the German U-505 Submarine (the birth of my Nazi obsession?), the old-fashioned Main Street (where we’d always get our photos taken at the vintage photographer’s studio), silent movie star Colleen Moore's miniature fairy castle, the real hatching eggs (we’d stand there for hours rooting for the weaker chicks to make it), and the giant beating heart that you could walk through. Others are long gone such as the Bell Telephone Exhibit that included a working picture phone we all thought would be standard fare by 1970. For a while you could use the phone (with a small black-and-white video image) to talk to people at a similar exhibit in faraway Disneyland or the 1964 New York World’s Fair. A miracle! Are the preserved fetuses at all stages of development still on display? I had nightmares about those for years. I remember how just the size of some of the rooms at the museum took my breath away. The model train set seemed to go on for miles, and I could stare at the gigantic backlit Kodachrome image all day long. Our regular visits to the museum’s gift shop always produced either the day-glo “magic crystals” which we’d grow in a glass fish bowls, or the infamous sea monkeys that we’d also hatch at home that were actually some kind of ghastly brine shrimp.
When I think about how nuts I was about all aspects of science back then from Mr. Wizard’s cool experiments and the great interactive exhibits at the Museum of Science & Industry to my utter passion for the Gemini and Apollo space programs, I wonder why I didn’t pursue any of these areas of interest as I got older. I know it’s wrong to cast blame on others and absolve myself of responsibility, but I have to say that it feels like the love of science was beaten out of me by the uninspired science curriculum and burned-out teachers of the 1960s and 70s. With a few notable exceptions, science class had none of the excitement of Mr. Wizard’s informal lab and I truly believe that my natural curiosity was suffocated under a mountain of poorly written textbooks and deadening chapter tests.
Still, just thinking about Mr. Wizard makes me want to get out the baking soda and vinegar and wake Leah up for some late night science fun.