On Tuesday June 24th, our own Kelly Jensen (Digital Production Assistant) will be giving a talk about the Academy Archives as part of Odd Salon. Topics will include our recent digitization and preservation projects, particularly the film reels of the Academy’s 1950s-era television show, Science in Action.
Science in Action was one of the first television shows to present science in an entertaining fashion, with a different guest each week to explain topics as diverse as “Exploring Mars,” “Muscles,” or “Trout Lore – Fact and Fancy.” Hosted by Earl S. Herald, director of the Steinhart Aquarium, the show was a popular institution in the Bay Area and paved the way for later programs like NOVA, Connections, and Cosmos.
In an effort to preserve the films, we are currently in the process of digitizing as many as we can, both to create digital surrogates, and to make the programs viewable by the public. We’re very grateful to the California Audiovisual Preservation Project for their support in digitizing these films; with their help we expect to have 30 more episodes available soon!
In 1949, the California Academy of Sciences furthered its longstanding mission to engage and educate the public in the sciences by expanding to the media of television. With generous underwriting from the American Trust Company (now Wells Fargo Bank) the California Academy of Sciences was able to produce Science in Action, a half hour science program which consisted of twenty-two and a half minutes of programming on a specific scientific topic, presented by the Academy’s then curator of the Steinhart Aquarium Earl Herald in tandem with a foremost expert on the show’s subject. Over its sixteen year run, the show included interviews with several Nobel Laureates, including Harold Urey, Linus Pauling, Glenn T Seaborg, and Wendell M Stanley, all recipients of the Nobel Prize for chemistry who spoke on topics ranging from the Earth’s origins (Episode 107) to Cancer research (Episode 191). Science in Action also featured great innovators of American craft and design like Buckminster Fuller and Charles Eames.
Episode #355, “Earth’s Radiation Belts,” explored the methods used by scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to determine the intensity and effects of Van Allen radiation belts surrounding the Earth. This particular episode aired in 1959 – two years after Soviet dog Laika became the first animal in orbit, two years before Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin completed the first successful human spaceflight, and three years before astronaut John Glenn piloted the Mercury-Atlas 6 around the Earth. In 1959, the question voiced by host Earl Herald was one of the key scientific mysteries at the start of the Space Race: “What [are these radiation belts] going to mean for the first person to take off from the earth as a space traveler?”
Herald interviewed three researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (then known as the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory at UC Berkeley). Dr. R. Stephen White (Leader of the Nuclear Effects Group), Dr. Stanley Freden (Senior Staff Physicist), and Mr. Albert Oliver (Head of Processing Department), explained LLNL’s method of radiation testing in the Van Allen belts: mounting an emulsion stack on a rocket, which was then launched into the region of the radiation belts using a rockoon (a rocket suspended from a high-altitude balloon), recovered upon returning to Earth, and processed to test for radiation intensity.
In Dr. Herald’s own words: “Compared to the excitement surrounding the man/satellite program, this little box [the emulsion stack] may not seem like much. But when you stop and think of the fantastic amount of vital information that has been derived from it, and what this information will mean to the safety of future space travel, and a better understanding of the mysterious forces which surround the earth, then this little box takes on quite a different meaning.” The subject interview was followed by a three minute “animal of the week” segment featuring Academy Herpetologist Ted Papenfuss and a series of rattlesnakes he collected from Southern Arizona and New Mexico.
As the first science television show on the west coast, Science in Action quickly made a name for itself as the finest in family programming with praise and support pouring in from both the media and viewers. The media regaled the show as one which “far exceeds anything else in the field of educational and science television.”[i] Fan mail from children, parents, and educators indicated that the show was regarded with great affection. In 1951, Science in Action’s ratings indicated that the show tied for second place in children’s programming alongside Howdy Doody and trailing only slightly behind Hopalong Cassidy and hedging out the Lone Ranger! Additionally, Science in Action went on to win five Emmy Awards for Best Cultural and Educational Program (1951 and 1952), Best Live Show (1952), Special Achievement Award (1954), and the Excellence in Education Award (1955). The show also received a host of local and national awards for excellence.
Special thanks to Jim Oliver for generously providing the funding to transfer this classic from 16mm film to preservation-quality digital video. We salute you!
In the spring of 1950, “Science in Action” began as a fifteen minute segment on a popular Bay Area television program called “The Del Courtney Show.” Academy staffer Tom Groody made a guest appearance on the program during which time he discussed scientific topics and brought in animals from the Academy’s Steinhart Aquarium. The segment was wildly popular and Groody was invited to return and further discuss contemporary science issues. Eventually, Groody’s Science in Action segment became a regular thirteen week feature in the program.
“Science in Action” # 26 – “How Television Works”
Shortly thereafter, a half-hour weekly evening television series was developed to discuss timely and significant scientific subjects with guest scientists, demonstrations, and an animal of the week exhibition. By fall of 1950, the “Science in Action” television show was the first live science program on television in the country and forged the path for science programs as we know them today.
“Science in Action”. Animal of the Week – Earl Herald, Anita Fiala and snakes.
In 1952, Academy superintendent Dr. Earl Herald took over the role as host of Science in Action. Herald’s spontaneity and charm quickly put guests at ease and made the topics easily understandable for the audience at large. The program raised public awareness and increased traffic to the Aquarium, especially the animal of the week exhibition, which featured wild animals on live television. In one reported incident, newly born water snakes had escaped from the set of Science in Action into the television studio during a live broadcast. Because of this publicity, over five thousand people stopped in to the Aquarium the following week asking to see the baby snakes. Additionally, it was not uncommon to see a handler get bit or an animal defecate and without missing a beat, Herald would offer the clever banter that endeared him to home audiences. In June of 1966, due to rising costs of production, Dr. Herald hosted the 626th and final episode of “Science in Action”.
We are pleased to announce the newest addition to our library collections website: The Science in Action Television show archives. There you can learn about the items that the Academy holds in its Science in Action collection, which includes over a thousand reels of 16mm film, hundreds of scripts, and hundreds of photographs. Owing to preservation concerns and a lack of on site resources only digitally preserved versions of the television show can be viewed, and currently, very few of the films exist in this form. However, the films are available to be digitized for a fee, and we’re hopeful that the website will draw attention to the collection and generate contributions to the digitization effort.