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Book Review: Science on the Air: Popularizers and Personalities on Radio and Early Television by Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette

Review by Rachel Ehrenberg

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Sponsor Message

"Facts — Interest! — Thrill!! Newspapers using Science Service have discovered that science is not necessarily dry as dust.”

This 1926 advertisement conveys the excitement and lament of those dedicated to popularizing science. In plain prose, LaFollette provides a detailed account of the people and organizations that strove to bring science to the masses from the 1920s through the 1950s. As radio fever swept the country, and the medium’s audience expanded to millions, these individuals realized that an interest in asteroids or echinoderms did not belong solely to the educated middle class. Anyone could tune in — and people did.

LaFollette quotes extensively from archival material, conveying the pleasures and frustrations of those bridging the divide. Yet with the exception of Science Service (today Society for Science & the Public, publisher of Science News), science quickly became marginalized in most outlets, even following World War II when radio was informing atomic energy debates, LaFollette writes. “Science represented only one message among many, a statement of reason tucked amid music, laughter, sermons, sports and soap operas.”

Even today the path to a scientifically literate populace isn’t clear. LaFollette does not blame the media alone, but also the scientific community, which has had little interest in reaching larger audiences and has felt little responsibility to do so.

Univ.
of Chicago, 2008, 314 p., $27.50.

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