Thursday, June 14, 2007

Farewell to Mr. Wizard

It was with a tinge of sadness that I read in yesterday's newspaper that Don Herbert, a.k.a. Mr. Wizard, died Tuesday at the age of 89. When I was a wee lad, I watched Mr. Wizard's World, a series of short science segments on the Nickelodeon TV channel in the 1980s. I enjoyed watching a bunch of science experiments I could do at home, though I suspect my parents wished I wouldn't try those experiments myself.

At the time I didn't know that Mr. Wizard had been around in the early 1960's, when my parents were kids; back then he also inspired many young people to think about science.

One question that continually arises among scientists is how we can inspire more young children to be interested in science. Back in the 1960s, the Cold War resulted in a large push for science education. These days, people acknowledge that science and scientific research are a vital part of our technological society. But these same people view science as a very esoteric and hard-to-understand subject, something best left to brainiacs or other people.

An interest in science does not mean that it becomes somebody's career, or even their hobby. It just means a desire to learn something about it, a desire to keep up on current events. How much time does the average person spend each day catching up on how their baseball team is doing, or how Paris Hilton is faring in jail? If only a fraction of that time were spent reading up on a bit of science news, that would make many of us happy.

The need for some interest in science is based in our democratic society. Science research costs money, but often doesn't generate money for years down the road, so business is slow to invest in science research. That means government funding is necessary. And government funding is distributed by politicians, who need to keep an eye on what is popular and will give them an edge in the election. If even a small fraction of Americans asked their representatives to increase science funding, you can bet it would be done.

So, how should we inspire interest in science? That is a subject of much debate, and probably requires multiple methods. Press releases on exciting research is one way. Outreach programs to send scientists to schools or to bring field trips to laboratories is another way. And television programming is yet another way. To that end, Mr. Wizard contributed a lot, for which we scientists are grateful.

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