Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Don Herbert, 1917-2007.

American television icon Don Herbert, better known to fans and pop culture mavens as "Mr. Wizard," died yesterday at age 89. Listening to NPR this afternoon, I heard a commentator (Robert Siegel, I think) allege that only those old enough to have seen Watch Mr. Wizard in the 1950's and '60's would know who Don Herbert was. Not so. I and many of my generation got to know Mr. Herbert through Mr. Wizard's World, which aired on Nickelodeon during the 1980's. In contrast with the loud, flashy programs that tend to dominate children's television, Mr. Wizard's World took a decidedly no-frills approach. Filmed on a set that looked (if I remember it correctly) like it might have been the inside of Mr. Wizard's home, Mr. Wizard's World consisted of little more than Don Herbert conducting low-tech science experiments with items available around the house, assisted by children who (with gentle guidance from Mr. Wizard) could often explain the science behind the experiments.

Quoted in Mr. Herbert's NYT obituary, physicist Frank Wilczek hits upon what I think was the key to Mr. Wizard's popularity: "[H]e talked to the kids as if they were real people." Mr. Wizard took the intellectual curiosity and potential of children seriously, and by doing so he encouraged generations of American kids to get interested in the world around them. As the NYT obit observes, Don Herbert's example helped launch countless careers in science, which isn't bad for an English major whose skills in science were entirely self-taught. Though I never felt the pull of a scientific career, that I enjoyed science as much as I did in elementary school is probably due in some part to Mr. Wizard's World. May Don Herbert rest in peace, and may his example continue to inspire curious kids who want to know more about the natural world. AMDG.


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