We need more Mr. Wizards to bring science to the people

June 22, 2007|By Steven Gimbel

Don Herbert, who died last week from cancer, was better known to generations as Mr. Wizard. The irony in the name is that he was nothing like a wizard. He did not stand apart from us as a purveyor of secret magic, a power over which he alone had command, inspiring awe. Instead, in two popular TV shows spanning nearly half a century, Mr. Wizard brought science to all of us.

Lacking the flash and dazzle of today's children's programming, Mr. Wizard would present an interesting situation and provide room for us to think along as he guided us to an understanding of the world we live in. His demonstrations grabbed our attention, but he always left us appreciating the universe as a well-organized place. His most important contribution was to show us that you do not have to have a white lab coat and an advanced degree to grasp the general principles used in understanding why things happen. We can all figure out the way the world works; science is for everybody.

Maybe it was because he was not exclusively a scientist himself that his approach was so inviting. In college, he majored not only in general sciences but also in English. Sadly, these days, we often pigeon-hole ourselves so that students with backgrounds in literature feel comfortable - sometimes even taking it as a source of pride - that they know little about science. Our approach to teaching science in our schools since the Cold War has come to reflect the need to produce the next generation of technicians and engineers, rather than having as a central mission inspiring all children to have the twin senses of wonder and comprehension that are the hallmarks of science.

I see the results of this state of affairs today in my classroom. I teach philosophy at the college level, but I make it a daily ritual to take the first few minutes of every class meeting to encourage my students to ask any question they have on any subject. It is amazing how frequently students have questions - good, Mr. Wizard-type questions - about science. Yet most of these students will never take any more science classes than are required of them.

Blame for this national science-phobia is placed on faculty, for not teaching the sorts of classes that interest students who are not seeking professional careers in science; on students, for being afraid to take challenging classes and not wanting to work hard; and on our secondary educators, who did not prepare the students with the basics of scientific literacy.

But whatever the cause, it is a deeply worrisome condition. As Carl Sagan, another master at bringing science to normal people, wrote in his last book, "We have designed our civilization based on science and technology and at the same time arranged things so that almost no one understands anything at all about science and technology. This is a clear prescription for disaster."

The outsourcing of technical jobs to places such as India may indicate a troublesome lack of qualified technicians. But our problem is not only that we are not producing sufficient numbers of technical professionals to fuel the technological engine that helps run our economy; it is also the fact that science is not seen as common property. Our general lack of connection with science allows for it to be distorted, to be misrepresented for political and financial purposes. It leads to the ignoring of leading experts on subjects crucial to policy decisions.

In these times, we need more Mr. Wizards. He not only inspired lots of young people to consider science as a lifelong pursuit, but he also gave to so many of us who would never be scientists a sense that the world is not inscrutable, not beyond our understanding, but a place to be looked at with joy, admiration and comprehension.

Steven Gimbel, a Mount Airy resident, is an associate professor of philosophy at Gettysburg College. His e-mail is sgimbel@gettysburg.edu.

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