Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Spring - Summer 2008

 

This illustration by Charlie Williams shows Mr. Wizard teaching Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger

Mr. Wizard & Harry Potter

Gregory Benford

Illo by Charlie Williams

Mr. Wizard of TV fame died last summer. He was Don Herbert, a Wizard who showed me and millions more wonders made all the more wonderful because they were hiding in plain sight, right at home. He helped make me a scientist.

His show was very successful, making 547 live episodes before it was canceled in 1965. He showed something amazing happening, then made it comprehensible, by building it up step by step in front of your eyes. The shows were broadcast live, set in what looked like a kitchen. As anyone who tries to convey science to an audience knows, such apparent simplicity demands considerable art and labor.

Other wizards are more famous.

About the time I started watching Mr Wizard, 1953, I also saw The Wizard of Oz. This wizard was a fraud who used deliberate mystification. He is the fictional prototype of ancient tricksters, going back to the temple priests of ancient Egypt and earlier, and on through to Uri Geller and a host of lesser charlatans today. Their elaborate houses of cards collapse under the pressure of curiosity, so they ward off curiosity.

Harry Potter, and somewhat differently the "magic realism" genre, presents essentially an irrational world. They have less ironic detachment than Frank Baum's Oz series. In those worlds, curiosity gets no traction. Anything can happen, so what you discover today tells you little about what will happen tomorrow. Great power is distributed randomly and whimsically—or even worse, by tradition -- and does not emerge from intellectual work. Success in such worlds has, in Bertrand Russell's memorable phrase, "all the advantages of theft over honest labor." These fictional conceptions, absorbed and internalized, work toward intellectual passivity and wishful thinking as the right way to approach the world.

How should we react to the apparently irrational? Each wizard teaches a different way. The Wizard of Oz says to worship and fear the irrational. (To be fair, the author of the Wizard of Oz debunks him.) Harry Potter says to accept the irrational at face value. Work with it, don’t question that the world is that way.

I became a scientist because I got Mr. Wizard’s message, and ignored Tolkein’s. Mr Wizard says to poke around, ask questions, and try to understand it. He is the true wizard, and the best.

 

 

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