Tom Jonard, Armchair Scientist

Science has always been important to me.  Perhaps it was the influence of my father, an engineer.  Now I know that engineering is not science, but when I was young these distinctions were not yet formed and my father and my grandfather represented to me models of a material world manipulated by men.  (And it was men then not people.)  My grandfather was a carpenter. My dad not only worked at the fringes of science -- engineering test equipment for wheels and brakes at Goodyear Aircraft (which later became Goodyear Aerospace), he also bought me my first telescope (and later my second).  He took my mind which was wondering around in TV-based science and science fiction of the ‘50’s and put a little bit of science into it.  The rest seemed to come naturally.

Television of the '50's was an inspiration to me.  There was Mr. Wizard -- a show in which Don Herbert (Mr. Wizard) and a young experimenter (supposedly a kid from Mr. Wizard’s neighborhood) explored various scientific phenomenon and principles with equipment available at home.  It opened up the whole world of amateur science, which has a long tradition.  Scientific American magazine even had a classic Amateur Scientist column I discovered when I began to subscribe in my teenage years.  And there were other shows on TV about science.  American Cyanamid sponsored a weekly Saturday afternoon science show.  And Bell Telephone produced several specials such as “Hemo the Magnificent” – about blood -- and "The Great Cosmic Ray Mystery".  Even Disneyland had "Tomorrowland" segments on science and particularly three shows on space exploration.

I also remember early science fiction on television and it may have done as much to pique my interest in science as factual shows.  While the latter might show us how to do something or explain something the science fiction stretched our imaginations to show us where we might go.  These shows included the corny Captain Video; Tom Corbet, Space Cadet and Space PatrolStar Trek came much later but it was much better both in production quality and in writing. Science Fiction Theatre was a 30 minute weekly show from the '50's that was much less speculative and stuck closer to science fact. The Outer Limits on the other hand was pure science fiction.  Maybe too much science fiction kept me from developing a solid interest in real science.  It also led to being known as “space happy” by some of my peers.

My dad provided additional encouragement in the form of a basement full of tools and machines and the usual collection of assembly toys:  Erector sets, Lincoln Logs, building blocks and model kits.  With these a boy could build whatever he could dream.  Or at least try to and then try to work around the frustrations of these systems which resulted from the pre-conceived uses and limits built into them by their producers and marketers.  When the frustration was too much I would turn to the tools and boxes of scrap wood and electronic parts to make from scratch that with which mass marketing had yet to sell.

It was wonder-full!  I built a tethered race car, which ran in circles.  I built rubber band powered model rockets (the ones with real motors were deemed too dangerous!) and launched them.  I built equipment to measure how high they went years before taking Trigonometry in school.  Perhaps the culmination of my youthful career as homo faber was the construction of a wind tunnel for my 7th grade science fair project.  It carried me to the district science fair.  And by then I was dreaming of a career in science.  And it was a good time to have such a dream.  The space race made science and basic research attractive and important.  By high school it seemed to me that basic research in one of three fields at the frontiers of science – molecular biology, nuclear physics, and astrophysics and cosmology -- was the place to be.  Naturally I chose the latter and looked forward to the day in the hopefully not too distant future when someone would be needed to man an observatory on the moon.  Perhaps me.

The pessimist says that life is a cruel joke.  Sometimes things happen to our plans and dreams that can make it seem this way.  Whether we allow these negatives to define our lives is one of the things that define us.  Perhaps life is not a cruel joke but sometimes funny none the less.  My lot in education was to attend not the best high school in Akron, OH, but one of less academic stature and challenge (well, maybe the least).  I finished 3rd in my class but the preparation for a career in science was less than adequate.  I did not have calculus in high school and math turned out to be the big deficiency that would sink my career as a scientist.  But I never lost my interest and I never canceled my subscription to Scientific American.  And while my telescopes collected dust for years I continued to read everything I could about Astronomy and whatever else captured my interest.

In my lifetime I have witnessed the following:

There are probably innumerable other things I could put on this list.  It all really just comes down to a matter of how detailed I want it to be and how much I was paying attention.  After all these are not my discoveries -- somebody else did the work.  But they are mine because they belong to us all as a species.  They are the measure of both how far we have come and how far we have to go.  Like a balloon, as the volume of scientific knowledge increases the surface of that volume which touches the unknown increases exponentially.  I.e., there is more to learn and more that will be learned with each passing year.  We always think ourselves lucky to live in these times.

But imagine what is to come!

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Created April 1, 2002, 
© 2002, Thomas A. Jonard