Review: He was not a scientist

A new book tells how Frank “Dr. Research” Baxter taught science to millions and reminds us what we're missing

February 6, 2016

By Peter Dykstra
Environmental Health News

If you’re bald and somewhere around 60, you generally don’t get asked to host many TV series. Don’t ask me how I know this.

It wasn’t always this way.

In the 1950’s, Frank Baxter was not a TV icon on the scale of Jackie Gleason, Lucille Ball, or Milton Berle. But he was a familiar fixture in American living rooms, thanks to a series of shows in which he played the quintessential smart guy.

Baxter, who warned of human impact on Earth’s climate almost 60 years ago, is a reminder of a time when TV did more teaching.

From the Ivory Towers to the TV set

 

Baxter was a professor and a well-regarded one. After dropping out of high school and serving as a field medic in the trenches of World War I, he received a degree at the University of Pennsylvania, eventually landing as an English literature professor at the University of Southern California.

His classroom style was smart, but not smarter-than-thou, with doses of warmth and wit tossed in.

Eric Niderost’s book “Sonnets and Sunspots” tells Baxter’s story. The English lit professor found himself in front of the camera in an early TV sleeper hit, Shakespeare on TV. The show helped shore up struggling forerunners of today’s PBS, the “educational” TV stations in cities like San Francisco and Houston.

So effective was Baxter as the smart guy that he answered calls for guest spots on comedy and variety TV shows with the likes of George Burns and Tennessee Ernie Ford, as well as a role as the professor in a howlingly bad sci-fi feature, The Mole People.

The Capra Years

Enter Frank Capra. Yes, that Frank Capra. The maker of Hollywood blockbusters like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life was a Cal Tech man after all, with a soft spot for big science.

Capra submitted multiple pitches to potential sponsor Bell Labs, including one written by Aldous Huxley. Capra’s own treatment, with a little more showbiz mixed in with the science, carried the day, and the Bell Science Films were born.

With Baxter as his leading man, Capra made four Bell Science Films designed to appeal to kids and grownups alike, with Disney-grade animation, light comedy and subtle religious undertones.

Bell’s “Our Mister Sun” debuted in late 1956, delayed by what was then a painstaking animation process and squabbles between Capra and his panel of “egghead” science advisors.

Baxter’s character, all too obviously named “Doctor Research,” leads an hour-long discourse on the physics of the sun, the source of its heat, the process of photosynthesis, and much more. His sidekick is the actor Eddie Albert, best known as the star of the cult-classic 60’s sitcom Green Acres. Lionel Barrymore, scion of one of America’s greatest acting families, voices an animated character.

“Our Mister Sun” reached an estimated nine million homes on TV, and tens of thousands of classrooms. Dr. Research and his cast predicted that energy consumption will grow dramatically, and that someday, solar energy will be a big part of the solution. The doctor introduces the audience to the power-generating solar wafer, which was developed, conveniently enough, by Bell Labs.

 

Capra, Baxter and company produced two documentaries the next year. “Hemo the Magnificent” was a tour of the human circulatory system. The animated characters were voiced by Mel Blanc and June Foray, better known as the voices of Bugs Bunny and Rocky the Flying Squirrel, respectively. “The Strange Case of the Cosmic Rays” presented science in a mystery motif.

Both were ratings winners and money losers.

Capra’s final contribution to the series is the one with the most resonance today: “Meteora: The Unchained Goddess” released in 1958, casting Earth’s weather as a temperamental deity. Baxter offers concise explanations of state-of-the-art meteorology, but also a stunning projection on climate change.

“Man may be unwittingly changing the world's climate through the waste products of his civilization,” intoned Dr. Research. “Due to our release through factories and automobiles every year of more than 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide, which helps air absorb heat from the sun, our atmosphere seems to be getting warmer."

The good doctor makes a rare science stumble in Meteora, attributing potentially catastrophic sea level rise to “the melting of the polar ice caps.” While melting of the land-based ice covering Greenland, Antarctica and elsewhere is raising sea levels, the seaborne Arctic ice cap is not.

“Meteora” also lost money, and Capra departed the series. Baxter made four more hour-long films, tackling linguistics, the human senses, genetics, and time.

Reality on TV trumped by Reality TV

As Niderost points out, Dr. Research was not alone as a TV science educator. Walt Disney produced some quality films about the wonders of nature – including a few that were wonderfully staged. Don Herbert, a.k.a. “Mister Wizard,” was academically outranked by Dr. Research but outlasted him – 14 years on network TV and a 1980’s reprise on the Nickelodeon cable channel.

And Jacques Cousteau ruled the deep for decades, exploring the mysteries of the ocean from the late fifties to the 1990’s on ABC, Turner Broadcasting, and elsewhere.

Baxter offer concise explanations of state-of-the-art meteorology, but also a stunning projection on climate change. This kind of programming isn’t gone, but at times it’s almost as if it’s considered to be in bad taste by network execs. Prime time broadcasts like Cousteau’s no longer exist on the traditional broadcast networks, where reality is often trumped by Reality TV.

Cable networks whose origins were in quality educational fare have morphed into voyeuristic sideshows featuring bounty hunters, four year-old beauty queens, hoarders, yokels, and psychics.

The Learning Channel, where “Paleo World” once won awards, has more recently won ratings with Barnum-esque shows about people whose skillsets involve being either morbidly obese or unusually small.

TBS, which in the 1990’s reserved blocks of prime time for documentaries from Cousteau, Audubon, and National Geographic, now fills the hours with second-run sitcoms. Despite stellar exceptions like Bill Nye, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and some quality public broadcasting offerings, we’re hurting for science communication.

The Bell films are surprisingly watchable 60 years later, and Niderost’s book is a quick and engaging read. With science illiteracy on the rise in 21st Century America, they’re both useful reminders of what we’re missing.

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For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski@ehn.org.

 

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