Mr. Wizard’s World

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When I was a kid, I liked to know how things worked, especially if I could then explain it to someone else and help them understand it. It turned out that I liked the explanation part so much, it led me to my career as a teacher. But why science? In some part, I have Mr. Wizard to thank for that.

When we first had Nickelodeon on cable, I stumbled upon this show out of the blue. It didn’t take long for me to become enamored with Don Herbert, better known to me then as Mr. Wizard. He demonstrated so many aspects of daily life and explained the science behind it. I wanted to know what he knew. I wanted to do the things he did. And more than that, I wanted to be one of those lucky kids on his show. Of course, it was all in reruns by the time I was watching it, so that was clearly impossible without some time travel magic.

I remember an episode about Newton’s Law of Inertia, which says an object in motion stays in motion unless an unbalanced force acts on it. (It also says an object at rest stays at rest unless an unbalanced force acts upon it, which is more obvious.) The “motion” part of the law doesn’t make a lot of observable sense in our daily lives, if you look around. Roll a ball across the floor, and it certainly comes to a stop. Even a billiard ball on a perfect pool table stops eventually, as does an ice skater plying her craft. So how is this law true?

Well, in each of those cases there are two forces at work against the object in motion: friction and, to a lesser degree, air resistance. Both work to stop the object even though we can’t see some magical Gnome of Friction pushing on the ball to stop it. No, instead it is science and exploration that has the answer.

And Mr. Wizard explained it on a bicycle. As a child, I was amused by watching this sciency grandfather guy on a bicycle with a tennis ball, but there he was, and I still remember it. He tossed the ball up and caught it. Easy. Then he rode the bike forward and tossed it up, and he still caught it. You see, the ball has forward momentum because it was moving with him on the bicycle. Tossing the ball straight up, it did go up, but it also went forward because it had momentum in that direction that was uninterrupted and therefore its inertia kept it moving forward.

You can easily try this. Take any object and practice tossing it straight up and catching it. Once you’re good at it, do the same thing while walking forward. You will still be able to catch the ball because it is moving with you. If you toss the ball up and then stop moving, the ball will fall in front of you because it will keep moving forward.

It seemed so easy when I saw it. And two years ago when I had my high school physics class, I suddenly remembered this example and used it to demonstrate the concept. It is part of my repertoire with my middle school students too now.

Mr. Wizard also taught me about electricity, magnetism, chemical reactions, and even why fireworks light up different colors. When I committed myself to following my passions for science and teaching, I wanted to follow in Mr. Wizard’s footsteps and inspire my students the same way.

I hope, as Dr. Wolf, I do help inspire them.

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