Don Herbert died Tuesday.
While that name won’t ring a bell with a lot of folks, for a whole generation – hail, hail Boomers – he was a spirit guide to a world of discovery through science.
Don Herbert was Mr. Wizard.
In Watch Mr. Wizard, which was produced from 1951 to 1964…Herbert turned TV into an entertaining classroom. On a simple, workshop-like set, he demonstrated experiments using household items.
Watch Mr. Wizard won a Peabody Award – the most distinguished of television awards in many ways, since it’s given for both creativity and service to the public.
What made Herbert’s show so special and such a touchstone for Boomers?
It taught us how to be curious about the natural world and its processes. It showed us how to do science using simple household items. It insisted that the only irreplaceable piece of scientific gear was a kid’s mind.
The pace of the show was slow (think Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood - with science!) but Herbert’s relaxed persona, his willingness to answer questions with questions, and his ability to prod the curiosity of his young “assistants” over the years modeled a pedagogy that many a science teacher would (or should) emulate. He made thinking critically about the world and how it works both fun and, in a weird, almost subversive way, he made school make sense. Don Herbert was first and foremost a teacher – the kind of teacher any Boomer kid – hell, any kid – wouldn’t have minded taking a class from.
I watched Mr. Wizard almost every Saturday afternoon from the time I was 6 or so (about 1958) until the show left the air in 1964. He taught me about wind currents, about chemical reactions, about energy created by fire and electricity and water.
He also taught me to ask questions and to be willing to do the leg work to get answers. He taught me that “getting it wrong” was just a step on the way to “getting it right.”
Like any great teacher, he made me want to be smart like him.
Thanks, Mr. Wizard….