Monday, July 6, 2009

Julius Sumner Miller (TV) (aka "Professor Wonderful")

Professor Wonderful (1962-1980s)
Wikipedia Page

Early TV took its role as an educational medium seriously, and that included science education.  And the king of kid's science programming in the US was Don Herbert ("Mr. Wizard"). 

I never was a fan of Mr. Wizard. Oh, the show was educational enough and Herbert was a successful and earnest popularizer of science.  But Mr. Wizard was the MisterRogers of science -- nice, somewhat bland, and like your science teacher in school*.

Julius Sumner Miller, on the other hand, was a mad scientist.

Miller was born in Massachusetts and got his physics degree in 1933 and started teaching physics in various colleges until settling down at El Camino Junior College in California.  Students packed his lectures, and it somehow got the attention of producers at Disney, who marketed him as "Professor Wonderful" and had him do segments on The Mickey Mouse Club and elsewhere.

Sumner Miller was a hit. With his wild hair and staccato way of blurting out his presentation in short, sharp phrases, and his boundless enthusiasm, he was perfect for television. He would go through his presentations of basic science, pretty much live:  you got the feeling he was improvising wildly to give the demonstrations he wanted.

And he did a lot of demonstrations.  Sumner Miller rarely lectured; he'd show -- and ask you questions as he talked, some of which he left to you to find out the answer**.  The experiments were pretty  basic, but always memorable.

From Disney, Sumner Miller branched out.  He appeared on The Steve Allen Show and The Tonight Show, performing science demonstrations that were as much entertainment as education.  He worked on TV networks in Canada and Australia, as well as on PBS in the States, finding ways to show scientific principles divorced from dry lectures and in an immediate and fascinating way that made you want to run out a learn more.

Miller continued his role of popularizing science until his death in 1987.  There is a foundation in his name that works to get more students to learn about science, but since most of his work was in black and white, and he rarely had a show to his own,*** his demonstrations are hard to find (though there are some Youtube videos).  His importance in popularizing science is incalculable.


*I grew to like MisterRogers and respect Mr. Wizard, but as a kid, I'd change the channel whenever I saw them.

**I'm still trying to puzzle out this one:  you have a metal plate with a pin hole drilled in it.  You heat the plate.  The metal expands, of course.  Does the pin hole get bigger, smaller, or stay the same size?

***In the US.  He did have success with Why Is It So? in Australia.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for memorializing in a small way a man whom I had the pleasure of meeting, whilst he was in Australia renting accomodation from the parent of a school friend in the mid 1960s. Prior to that I also had the pleasure of being the 'guest student' on an episode of Why is it So. Both reinforced my interest in the world around me and to always ask the question - which was his catch phrase.

Bob Gabrielli said...

I am very fortunate for actually having Mr Miller as my Physics teacher at ECJC back in 1973. I can still recall his demonstrations, as well as his car horn under his desk when he thought the class was not paying attention. He was a very tough teacher, locking the door when the bell sounded (no sneaking into his class), and you only had 1 valid missed class. Only about half of his students made it through, but those who did will remember him with great respect.

Anonymous said...

As a child I saw him at El Camino College in Torrance. The auditorium was always packed full and I sat in wonderment listening to him and watching his demonstrations. I was lucky enough to be his paperboy and I fondly remember him always taking the time to talk to me when he was outside his home. I can only wish we had more teachers like him, it speaks volumes for what true education means versus what passes for his craft today. I love a quote from him: "Kids are my favorites," he once said. "Their spirit and curiosity has not yet been dulled by schools."

B. Levy said...

I never forgot him after being in his class in 1963. I still quote him.