How Mr. Wizard Inspired Me – A Conversation with Smithsonian Magazine

“Doing experiments with household items makes science accessible to the masses.”
– Don Herbert

Spangler-MrWizard

This picture was taken in 1998 when Don Herbert received an honorary doctorate from Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. I was invited to speak at his ceremony as we celebrated a man and his passion for inspiring young minds to learn more about science.

A reporter from the Smithsonian Magazine contacted me several months ago wanting to talk the influential role Mr. Wizard played in shaping and molding my career as a professional science communicator today. Don Herbert paved the way for many of us who find great joy in communicating the wonders of science to public audiences whether it’s at our local museum, a science festival or even a television talkshow.

Here’s a classic clip from Don Herbert’s original Watch Mr. Wizard show, circa 1952.

Here’s the strange thing… I never saw an original Mr. Wizard Show on television during the 1950s or 60s. I’m one of those kids who grew up in the 70s when science was something you studied in school. It wasn’t until 1990 (I was in my mid 20s) that I watched Mr. Wizard’s World on cable television and I truly understood the depth of his Mr. Wizard’s genius. While it was easy to be mesmerized by the kooky science demonstrations, I was drawn to watching and learning from the techniques Don Herbert used to engage his “helpers” and the viewers watching at home. His style was calm and laid back. The focus was on the curiosity at hand and not one-liners or goofy bits of business. Yet, his experiments and the experiences he created were so entertaining. Don Herbert understood the science of engagement.

In 1991 I was approached by NBC television to host a science segment on a program called News for Kids. Remember, this was pre “Bill Nye the Science Guy” or “Beakman’s World.” As I worked with the producers and writers to plan the look and feel of the segment, something inside told me to find Don Herbert and see if he might give me some advice. In this pre-internet age, the search tool of choice was the phone, and it took about two days to finally track him down. Don was so kind and generous with his time on the phone, and his advice truly surprised me. “Don’t let them put you in a lab coat if you don’t want to look like a doctor or research scientist… just be yourself,” Mr. Wizard told me with real conviction in his voice. “Kids don’t want to see a character… they want to see someone who is genuinely excited about the science you’re presenting. If you’re excited, they will be excited… and that’s the greatest gift you can ever give someone.”

But the most important piece of advice Mr. Wizard ever gave me was this… “Don’t ever let the gee-whiz over-shadow the content you’re trying to teach.” In other words, it’s so easy to get caught up in the erupting foam or exploding egg or bubbling concoction that you forget to actually teach some science. “Use the gee-whiz to grab their attention and then do something meaningful with it.”

I was excited to follow-up with Don and share some of the episodes from my science segment on News for Kids that were inspired by the man himself.

A popular guest on the Johnny Carson Show and later on David Letterman, Don Herbert was truly an inspiration to an entire generation of science enthusiasts and career scientists. This video is from David Letterman’s first show on NBC in 1982 when Mr. Wizard was a guest. You’ll notice that Don isn’t wearing a goofy tie-dye lab coat pretending to be a zany character. Instead, he’s just a guy who is passionate about sharing the wonders of science. If I tried to recreate any of these experiment on television today, producers would be eager to make the demonstrations bigger with more wow-factor and pizzazz. Yet, there’s something really cool about just sharing the experiment. Take a look…

A large collection of his documents and photos were recently donated to the Archives Center of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History by Herbert’s step-daughter and her husband, Kristen and Tom Nikosey. A small selection from the archive is on display through October 2, 2015, in the museum’s newly renovated west wing, but the bulk of the materials are available by appointment. Read the entire article from the Smithsonian Magazine entitled Meet Mr. Wizard, Television’s Original Science Guy.

Read the article from Speaker Magazine from February 2012…

April 2012 issue of Speaker Magazine featuring Steve Spangler as photographed by Shawn Campbell.

 

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