His show went on the air in 1951, the year before I was born, so my memories of him pick up in the late nineteen-fifties, the immediate post-Sputnik era when science was patriotic. It was also fun and suggested that things happened for reasons that could be discovered and understood. The world was an orderly, law-driven place as well as a disorderly mess. When I was driving home from work one evening in June 2007, I heard on the radio that Herbert had died and I was unexpectedly saddened. The loss of a real teacher is rare and painful.
A.M. Juster publishes an elegy for Herbert, “Farewell, Mr. Wizard,” in the November issue of First Things:
“I conjure NBC in black-and-white.
You drop dry ice in water; fog is rising.
You sell us Celsius and Fahrenheit.
“I lose you in a cloud of advertising—
Winston, Esso, Zenith, Mr. Clean,
those thirty-second breaks for Ovaltine—
then smile at Bunsen burners and balloons,
more ropes and pulleys. You are mesmerizing
as familiar things become surprising.
I dream of robots, rayguns, Mars and moons,
and know that someday Chevrolets will fly.
“POOF! Static. I can’t make your show go on.
Space shuttles fall; the pumps are running dry.
Jihadists shop for warheads…Godspeed, Don.”
That’s the lasting lesson of a good teacher: “You are mesmerizing / as familiar things become surprising.”