This year marks the 50th anniversary of my first publication. In 1964, when we were eleven-year-old fifth graders, my best friend Mace Rosenstein and I launched The Pres-stein Gazette, a not-for-profit monthly. Though the first issue sold well, the second issue never appeared.
One of my contributions to the inaugural issue was a feature article on solar energy, which concluded that fossil fuel “isn’t of such terrific abundance and it cannot support the world for very long. We must come up with some other source of energy. Solar energy is that source … when developed solar energy will be a cheap powerful “fuel” serving the entire world generously forever.”
This statement holds up reasonably well 50 years later. You might wonder how an eleven-year-old in 1964 would know something like that. I can explain …
In the 1950s and early 1960s, AT&T and the Bell Telephone System produced nine films about science, which were broadcast on prime-time network television and attracted a substantial audience. After broadcast, the films were distributed to schools as 16 mm prints and frequently shown to students for many years afterward. I don’t remember seeing any of the films on TV, but I eventually saw all nine in school. It was always a treat to watch one of the “Bell Telephone Movies” instead of hearing another boring lecture.
For educational films, the production values were uncommonly high. Remarkably, the first four were all written and directed by the legendary Frank Capra (a Caltech alum), in consultation with a scientific advisory board provided by Bell Labs. Those four (Our Mr. Sun, Hemo the Magnificent, The Strange Case of the Cosmic Rays, and Unchained Goddess, originally broadcast in 1956-58) are the ones I remember most vividly. DVDs of these films exist, but I have not watched any of them since I was a kid.
The star of the first eight films was Dr. Frank Baxter, who played Dr. Research, the science expert. Baxter was actually an English professor at USC who had previous television experience as the popular host of a show about Shakespeare, but he made a convincing and pleasingly avuncular scientist. (The ninth film, Restless Sea, was produced by Disney, and Walt Disney himself served as host.) The other lead role was Mr. Writer, a skeptical and likeable Everyman who learned from Dr. Research’s clear explanations and sometimes translated them into vernacular.
The first film, Our Mr. Sun, debuted in 1956 (broadcast in color, a rarity at that time) and was seen by 24 million prime-time viewers. Mr. Writer was Eddie Albert, a well-known screen actor who later achieved greater fame as the lead on the 1960s TV situation comedy Green Acres. Lionel Barrymore appeared in a supporting role.
Our Mr. Sun must have been the primary (unacknowledged) source for my article in the Pres-stein Gazette. Though I learned from Wikipedia that Capra insisted (to the chagrin of some of his scientific advisers) on injecting some religious themes into the film, I don’t remember that aspect at all. The scientific content was remarkably sophisticated for a film that could be readily enjoyed by elementary school students, and I remember (or think I do) clever animations teaching me about the carbon cycle in stellar nuclear furnaces and photosynthesis as the ultimate source of all food sustaining life on earth. But I was especially struck by Dr. Baxter’s dire warning that, as the earth’s population grows, our planet will face shortages of food and fuel. On a more upbeat note he suggested that advanced technologies for harnessing the power of the sun would be the key to our survival, which inspired the optimistic conclusion of my article.
A lavishly produced prime-time show about science was a real novelty in 1956, many years before NOVA or the Discovery Channel. I wonder how many readers remember seeing the Dr. Frank Baxter movies when you were kids, either on TV or in school. Or was there another show that inspired you like Our Mr. Sun inspired me? I hope some of you will describe your experiences in the comments.
And I also wonder what resource could have a comparable impact on an eleven-year-old in today’s very different media environment. The obvious comparison is with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s revival of Cosmos, which aired on Fox in 2014. The premiere episode of Cosmos drew 8.5 million viewers on the night it was broadcast, but that is a poor measure of impact nowadays. Each episode has been rebroadcast many times, not just in the US and Canada but internationally as well, and the whole series is now available in DVD and Blu-ray. Will lots of kids in the coming years own it and watch it? Is Cosmos likely to be shown in classrooms as well?
Science is accessible to the curious through many other avenues today, particularly on YouTube. One can watch TED talks, or Minute Physics, or Veritasium, or Khan Academy, or Lenny Susskind’s lectures, not to mention our own IQIM videos on PHD Comics. And there are many other options. Maybe too many?
But do kids watch this stuff? If not, what online sources inspire them? Do they get as excited as I did when I watched Dr. Frank Baxter at age 11?
I don’t know. What do you think?