Teaching science with a big ‘poof!’

Special to The Times

A few hours after receiving the Council for Elementary Science International’s Science Advocate Award and a standing ovation from 1,000 science teachers in 2000, Don Herbert was asked to pull a water balloon into a bottle. He used one of his old tricks. As a science educator, he knew them all. And as Mr. Wizard, he’d shown them to the world.

Mr. Wizard was television’s original science teacher, the first guy to use television to teach. His relaxed manner and the quality of his demonstrations made him a household name. David Letterman had him on his first show, because Letterman grew up with “Watch Mr. Wizard.” Herbert’s techniques and performances helped create the United States’ first generation of homegrown rocket scientists just in time to respond to Sputnik. He sent us to the moon. He changed the world.

When you watched Mr. Wizard, it was as if you were visiting him at home. At the start of each show, a kid just like you would stop by his house and, together, the three of you (it felt as if you were right there with him) would go through a series of household science demonstrations. Looking back, these might seem simple, but they were elegant. Their apparent simplicity rendered them all the more compelling -- we all just had to see what happened.


Mr. Wizard stood eggs on end, hammered nails with cryogenic bananas and graphed shrinking gases on their way to absolute zero long before anyone else did. He threw a switch and the bathroom lights came on, but so did the bathtub spigot. Wow, water and electricity can safely mix -- if you know the science behind them. It was all fun, because it was all fascinating.

Young people today might never have heard of Mr. Wizard except in a passing reference by the band Smash Mouth. Well, he’s the no hocus-pocus close-up guy they were talking about. If you’re not hip, you might as well be walking on the sun. (Not possible -- astronomical science.)

If you think about it, your favorite and most influential teachers were or are performers. When they get up in front of the class, they’ve got something to say, and they present with style, the way a comedian delivers material. So did low-key Don, who died Tuesday at his home in Bell Canyon at age 89.

When he started out in the 1950s on live television and film, he was the groundbreaker. Later he re-created his show with “Mr. Wizard’s World” on video in Canada in the 1980s. When science educators started throwing around terms like “discrepant event,” “heuristic determinism” and “counterintuitive,” Don was just intuitive. He knew how to get it all across. Although he aged, he stuck to his approachable yet challenging style. He remained true to his code. Show, then tell -- the essence of science education.

As an informal (non-classroom) educator, I grew up loving Mr. Wizard and then later studying his moves. If any of you reading now have been surprised and happy to learn a few things about science watching “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” keep in mind, it all started with Don Herbert.

At the science convention, with his beautiful trophy on the countertop beside him, Mr. Wizard patiently obliged the crowd. With a swatch of flaming paper, he partially evacuated the bottle. When the fire burned out, atmospheric pressure pushed that balloon right in, as if by magic. But, of course, it wasn’t magic. And in a sense, it’s not even a trick. To Herbert and his millions of viewers, it was a predictable outcome -- a consequence of science.

In case you’re wondering, the balloon doesn’t get sucked in because the oxygen is gone and there is therefore more room in the jar or bottle. It’s just that there’s less gas left after the hot fire has caused it to expand and escape. While the crowd breathed the smell of wet ash, someone challenged him to get the balloon back out. He did, using what he liked to call in his now grandfatherly way a “headache tablet” (fizzy seltzer pill) and water. Simple, if you know the science. You know how I came to know all this? Mr. Wizard showed me.

Thanks, Don; you changed the world.

Bill Nye hosted the Emmy-winning series “Bill Nye the Science Guy” on PBS from 1992 to 1998. He is currently an author, inventor, educator and engineer and runs