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Science on American Television

A History

As television emerged as a major cultural and economic force, many imagined that the medium would enhance civic education for topics like science. And, indeed, television soon offered a breathtaking banquet of scientific images and ideas—both factual and fictional. Mr. Wizard performed experiments with milk bottles. Viewers watched live coverage of solar eclipses and atomic bomb blasts. Television cameras followed astronauts to the moon, Carl Sagan through the Cosmos, and Jane Goodall into the jungle. Via electrons and embryos, blood testing and blasting caps, fictional Frankensteins and chatty Nobel laureates, television opened windows onto the world of science.
But what promised to be a wonderful way of presenting science to huge audiences turned out to be a disappointment, argues historian Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette in Science on American Television. LaFollette narrates the history of science on television, from the 1940s to the turn of the twenty-first century, to demonstrate how disagreements between scientists and television executives inhibited the medium’s potential to engage in meaningful science education. In addition to examining the content of shows, she also explores audience and advertiser responses, the role of news in engaging the public in science, and the making of scientific celebrities.
Lively and provocative, Science on American Television establishes a new approach to grappling with the popularization of science in the television age, when the medium’s ubiquity and influence shaped how science was presented and the scientific community had increasingly less control over what appeared on the air.

296 pages | 23 halftones, 1 table | 6 x 9 | © 2012

Biological Sciences: Natural History

History: American History


“[A] well researched, thought-provoking book.”

Eugenie Scott | Nature

“[A]n informative, well-documented history of science, scientists, and American television. Those who wonder why so little meaningful science programming exists on television will find that this book details the reasons. . . . Recommended.”

C. L. Clements, Richland College | Choice

“[I]t is most valuable to have LaFollette’s book; here we have the basis for understanding what happened in American science television, a huge lacuna in the literature up until now.”

Tim Boon, Science Museum, London | British Journal for the History of Science

“To the chagrin of scientists, modern populations are not well-informed about science—its nature, its method, and its content—and Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette seeks to show why. She introduces us to sages, pundits, intellectual prizefighters, and mandarin scientists, some shy and apolitical and others relishing the chance to appear on television; producers with an eye for what goes well on the medium; and sponsors who foot the bill and eye the audience numbers. Rooted in sixty years of television history, in which there have been some great successes but where the overall story is of hopes disappointed, she tells a fascinating story of attempts to get those millions of viewers, who are paying for science through taxes and purchases, to love it.”

David Knight, Durham University

“What many scholars attempt to do, Marcel LaFollette accomplishes. Picking up where Science on the Air left off, Science on American Television explores the peculiar relationship between broadcast television and popular science education, and its history of false starts, wrong turns, and cultural touchstones.”

Matthew H. Hersch, University of Pennsylvania

“This is a smart and thorough history of the contested place of scientific knowledge on American television. Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette skillfully revisits an array of efforts that from TV’s earliest years sought to teach Americans about science and scientists, including educational and entertainment programs as well as news documentaries. Science on American Television will engage historians of science as well as those who study the history of broadcasting and science communication, and those baby boomers who remember Mr. Wizard with affection.”

James L. Baughman, author of Same Time, Same Station

“A fascinating and compelling story of the dance between science and television over the decades. This beautifully written and solidly researched account of scientists, scientific institutions, and the world of television is a wonderful story and also one of profound importance because of the centrality of science to the future of our nation and world. Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette has produced that rarity: a work of great scholarship that is as accessible as television itself.”

Thomas Lovejoy, George Mason University

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Chapter 1
Inventions and Dreams

Chapter 2
Experimenting with Illusion

Chapter 3
Elementary Education, Basic Economics

Chapter 4
Dramatizing Science

Chapter 5
Taking the Audience’s Pulse

Chapter 6
Saving Planet Earth: Fictions and Facts

Chapter 7
Adjusting the Lens: Documentaries

Chapter 8
Monsters and Diamonds: The Price of Exclusive Access

Chapter 9
In Splendid Isolation: The Public’s Television

Chapter 10
Defining What’s New(s) about Science

Chapter 11
Entrepreneurial Popularization

Chapter 12
Warning: Children in the Audience

Chapter 13
Rarae Aves: Television’s Female Scientists

Chapter 14
The Smithsonian’s World: Exclusivity and Power

Chapter 15
All Science, All the Time

Manuscript Sources
Selected Bibliography
Illustration Credits

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