Don Herbert, military hero, educator, and scientist, died today at the age of 89. He was more commonly known to his fans as “Mr. Wizard.”
While those younger than about 25 may only know of another famous science educator, Bill Nye the Science Guy, Don Herbert was certainly the model of modern television science education. Herbert’s shows specialized in demonstrating short experiments ending in unexpected and (sometimes, but not always) flashy results. The lab assistants were real kids with a genuine interest in science. The experiments generally used equipment readily available at home, and Herbert asked his viewers to try as many experiments as possible at home so they could experience science for themselves. (With parental supervision, of course.)
While I’m personally unfamiliar with the earlier iterations of the Mr. Wizard shows Watch Mr. Wizard (1951-1965, 1971-1972), I watched a great deal of Mr. Wizard’s World on Nickelodeon during its run from 1983-1990. While I was always interested in science, I watched every episode of Mr. Wizard’s World I could absorb. To this day I can still picture some experiments I first saw on the show: crushing a can with water, exploding a hydrogen balloon, keeping surface tension intact using lycopodium powder, and using a starter pistol and walkie-talkies to determine the speed of sound.
The American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), an organization in which I am a member, granted Herbert the Robert A. Millikan award for “notable and creative contributions to the teaching of physics” in 1991. This is essentially the group’s “lifetime achievement award” and there are few teachers more deserving of it than Don Herbert. Certainly no small fraction of scientists and engineers who came of age during the runs of Watch Mr. Wizard or Mr. Wizard’s World owe their fascination with science to Don Herbert.