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!
For more information about Science in Action, visit http://research.calacademy.org/library/collections/archives/SIAtelevision and feel free to drop us a line.
- Heather Yager and Yolanda Bustos
Archives and Digital Collections
[i] Foster, Bob. “S.F. Holds Its Own in TV Shows Locally Produced”, San Mateo Times. August 8, 1951.