by Terry Hogan
Back when I wore a young boy's clothes and TV was in black and white, as were our views of the world, there was Mr. Wizard. Mr. Wizard brought science into the home of lots of boys and girls. He made it interesting. He made it work with simple examples and experiments that you could do at home with everyday home items. He wasÉa wizard.
I had not thought of Mr. Wizard for many years until I heard on the radio that he had died in June at the age of 89.
At the mention of his name, a memory crawled out of a crevice of my mind, stretched its dendritic arms and caused the firing of some synapses that probably stirred a few dust balls into motion. The net effect was for me to recall one of his TV experiments of long ago that taught me a little more than just science.
I was young. I was watching Mr. Wizard on a Saturday. Mr. Wizard was demonstrating how a Ping-Pong ball could be suspended in mid-air by placing it carefully in the vertical jet stream of air created by the exhaust of a vacuum cleaner. I was enthralled. Here, on the TV screen was a ping pong ball, floating in mid air, gently bobbing up and down - no strings attached.
I had Ping-Pong balls. My mother had an Electrolux vacuum that had the ability to attach the hose to the pressure end as well as the suction end. I was in business. I wanted to see if Mr. Wizard's experiment would work at home. I got out Mom's vacuum cleaner. I reversed the attachment of the hose to the pressure end of the horizontal vacuum cleaner . I got a Ping-Pong ball. I plugged in the vacuum cleaner and moved it to the very center of the living room, to provide maximum room for the ball to float magically in the air.
With great anticipation and the faith that only a child can muster, I turned on the vacuum cleaner with one hand while holding the ball in the other. To my "shock and awe" (to borrow a bad phrase), the living room filled with dust, debris, and beagle hair as the blast of air blew all the stuff that had hung up in the vacuum hose. Mr. Wizard had failed to warn me that reversing the direction of flowing air in a vacuum hose was a good way to dislodge that which had been vacuumed but not deposited in the vacuum bag.
Dust was everywhere. Stuff floated around the room, clearly visible in the sunlight still making an effort to penetrate the full width of the living room through the odd, murky cloud. My mother was not amused. She wanted an explanation. Just what did I thought I was doing with the vacuum cleaner.
I explained as all children do. "It wasn't my fault." I explained about Mr. Wizard and the suspended Ping-Pong ball. Once the dust cleared, I tried again. It worked. There was magic in my own living room. The pressure of the flowing air around the symmetrical and light Ping-Pong ball balanced out against the force of gravity. The ball was suspended in mid-air. And because I had blown all the dirt of the hose on the first attempt, I could actually see the Ping-Pong ball.
I learned a little science.
I learned how to clean out a vacuum cleaner hose.
I learned to check with Mom first before using the vacuum cleaner.
I learned a lesson that I have relearned many times in later years - "the devil lurks in the details."
Mr. Wizard had a real name. He was Don Herbert. He died of bone cancer. But I'm pretty sure that he is known to a lot of us as just "Mr. Wizard". He taught some of us more than he expected.