When Don Herbert died last weekend, many offered tributes to this television pioneer of science education (our contribution here). Herbert was TV’s Mr. Wizard and many of us scientists-to-be loved to watch him. Maybe we should have been out playing stickball or strikeout or whatever (I became pretty proficient at strikeout later when I started dating). But instead we were inside watching grainy black and white science on TVs with tiny screens and rabbit ears (rabbit ears were part of an early form of wireless).
There were many heartfelt blog pieces from the many who remembered Mr. Wizard with obvious warmth. Weirdly, one of the best was in my daily Woot offering. If you aren’t familiar with Woot, it is a site that offers a single overstock item each day. Sometimes the deals are good, sometimes not so good. Sometimes the products are overstock for a reason: they are real crap. But a lot of them aren’t and I’ve bought more than a few. And the pitch that introduces each is often — really, usually — a hilarious send up of the product. The product a couple of days ago was a Vivitar 8 megapixel digital camera, $140 + $5 shipping. So how do you pitch it while paying tribute to Don Herbert?
This is how:
We’re Off To Take Pictures Of The Wizard
A glass of water sat on St. Peter’s gold-trimmed marble desk. On the surface of the water sat a small box-like structure, made by folding up the sides of a piece of ordinary window screen. Eyes a-goggle, St. Peter stared in wonderment as the screen boat lazily floated across the water.
“I give up, Don,” St. Peter finally laughed. “Why doesn’t it sink” I mean, the thing’s full of holes! And it’s made of metal! What gives, huh? What gives?”
The new arrival smiled. “You see, all matter is made up of tiny particles called molecules. Molecules are all attracted to other molecules, some more strongly than others, and this attraction is called adhesion. The adhesion of the water molecules to each other forms a kind of “skin” on the water’s surface, which is strong enough to hold up the screen without breaking. This is called “surface tension.” Now, er, if you’ve seen enough, maybe I can go on through the gates-”
St. Peter waved a hand impatiently. “In a minute, in a minute. What?s the hurry, right? Eternity isn’t going anywhere.; With an eager flourish, the white-bearded saint produced a glass milk bottle, a hard-boiled egg, a strip of newsprint, and a match from beneath his gossamer robes. “First, how about the egg-in-the-bottle trick? Please? I’ve never seen this one in person.”
Don sighed a weary sigh. “OK, but take a picture. I”m not going to do this every time you want to see it.”
“One step ahead of you there.” St. Peter turned on his Vivitar 8600s 8.1MP Digital Camera. “Check this Vivitar out ” an 8 MP sensor, a 2.8″ LCD, and a 6x optical zoom. That’s twice the zoom of your standard camera. Pretty scientific, huh, Don? Ooh, I know! I’ll take a video! The 8600s takes VGA mpeg4 video at 30fps!”
Keeping his opinions about the Vivitar brand to himself, Don started the experiment. He’d done it a thousand times before. Light the strip of paper on fire. Drop it in the bottle. Set the egg on the open neck of the bottle. SHLUP! In goes the egg, fully intact. He couldn’t believe he was running through this banal stunt once again, while all the delights of Heaven waited for him just beyond the gates. But Don’s impatience turned into delight when he saw the awed grin on St. Peter’s face. This was what he’d lived for. So what if I’m dead?, Don thought. Life is temporary. Science is forever. (Woot promotional copy)
Life is temporary. Science is forever. We’ll miss you, Mr. Wizard.