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August 31, 2015

They Blinded Us ... With Science: TV's Greatest Science Guys

by Danny Gallagher, posted May 15th 2010 1:04PM
Don Herbert aka Mr. WizardScience was one of my least favorite subjects in school. The subject material didn't bore me. It actually enthralled me. It makes me wish nutrition class involved more random explosions and pyrotechnics, so I wouldn't have to buy pants in bulk (the actual size, not the amount).

It was the teachers behind that tall mesh of test tubes and beakers that made it so boring. I'm sure they meant well as educators, but as teachers, they had no sense of showmanship. They couldn't sustain anyone's attention for longer than five minutes and their voice inflections could actually make dogs wish they were deaf.

Thank God for television. If it wasn't for TV's vast array of science shows from old favorites like 'Mr. Wizard's World' to newer fare like G4's upcoming spinoff 'It's Efffing Science,' my knowledge on the subject wouldn't reach beyond "Photosynthesis has nothing to do with photos or synthesizers." These are the greatest scientific minds to ever worm their way through the wondrous cathode ray in your TV.

Bill Nye, the Science Guy
First off, let's turn to the man who turned the phrase "science guy" into a recognized title and a copyrighted trademark. Bill Nye actually is one. He earned a degree in mechanical engineering and worked for Boeing before getting bit by the comedy bug and breaking into the spotlight on the cult classic Seattle sketch comedy show 'Almost Live!,' where he earned his now-famous nickname. He parlayed his fame on the sketch show into a popular PBS science show, named after himself and his moniker.

He has since become synonymous with science education and often appears in the news as the resident "science guy." In my heart, he'll always be the "Speed Walker."

Don Herbert aka Mr. Wizard
Every generation that had a TV propped in a cold corner of their living room was educated in some form or another by Mr. Wizard. His broadcasting career dates back to the early 1950's where he invented his TV persona on a local Chicago TV station with 'Watch Mr. Wizard.' His career stretched into the 1980s with classics like Nickelodeon's 'Mr. Wizard's World' and numerous demonstrations on his various TV appearances, including the very first episode of 'Late Night with David Letterman.'

He lacked the flash and style of some other more kid-friendly science shows that followed him, but his delivery made him a legend. He never talked down to the kids who assisted in his experiments or the children who watched him and made science and its concepts as magical and enthralling as the ads for soda and Fruit Roll-Ups that encased his episodes.

Carl Sagan
Are you tired of science shows that try to make science sound more exciting than it really is? Would you rather someone just explain science to you without using anthropomorphic cartoon ferrets and graphics that are so flashy that they could give Ray Charles a seizure? Well you can't spell "boring pretentious television" without P-B-S.

Sagan, a noted astronomer and astrophysicist, hosted his own highly acclaimed series, 'Cosmos,' in the late 1970s. It tackled the baffling scientific concept of the origin of life and mankind's role in the universe. It became a critical and ratings success for the network, a show that wouldn't be surpassed for almost ten years, when Ken Burns' 'Civil War' documentaries hit the network. His greatest broadcasting achievement was his ability to approach these complex subjects in a very accessible presentation, even if the concepts he taught were more over the heads of his viewers than the edge of the Milky Way.

Still, it's harder to explain the concept of a fourth dimension and the existence of Tesseracts if there aren't cartoon sound effects to accompany them. Enter the frizzy-haired host of this critically acclaimed and long running Saturday morning kids show. 'Beakman's World' got its big break in the '90s, back when actual learning occurred on The Learning Channel. It later jumped to CBS's Saturday morning line-up and ran for another five seasons before it was canceled.

The show took a much more stylized approach to teaching kids' scientific concepts, using everything from flashy graphics, crazy parodies and a huge, dumb lab rat to demonstrate everything from the density of air to the causes of halitosis.

Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman
The big payoff from shows like 'Mythbusters' may be watching various large objects explode into dust or poor dummies like Buster get tossed around more than a beach ball at Lollapalooza, but its hosts actually use a fair amount of science. They also use their equivalent loves for destruction and science to explain everything from Archimedes' Law to Bernoulli's Principle.

Of course, it also doesn't hurt that you're learning something while you're feeding your unconscious mind's need for destruction and tragedy, which is more than you can say for another network that literally has the word "Learning" in its name.

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For a TV blogger, you somehow don't know that Discovery dropped "The Learning Channel" a while ago. I assume you don't like Mad Man or Breaking Bad either, because they aren't movies.

More on topic, Beakman was an actor, not a scientist. His inclusion over Julius Sumner Miller is shameful.

May 17 2010 at 12:27 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Paul Shin

It's all about the enthusiasm of the teacher/presenter! Like sales, if the enthusiasm of the presenter is not there, then nobody will be interested in the subject or product, but an enthusiastic enough presenter could sell just about anything!

May 15 2010 at 2:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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