Innocent Experiments: Childhood and the Culture of Popular Science in the United States

Innocent Experiments: Childhood and the Culture of Popular Science in the United States

Innocent Experiments: Childhood and the Culture of Popular Science in the United States

Innocent Experiments: Childhood and the Culture of Popular Science in the United States

Synopsis

From the 1950s to the digital age, Americans have pushed their children to live science-minded lives, cementing scientific discovery and youthful curiosity as inseparable ideals. In this multifaceted work, historian Rebecca Onion examines the rise of informal children's science education in the twentieth century, from the proliferation of home chemistry sets after World War I to the century-long boom in child-centered science museums. Onion looks at how the United States has increasingly focused its energies over the last century into producing young scientists outside of the classroom. She shows that although Americans profess to believe that success in the sciences is synonymous with good citizenship, this idea is deeply complicated in an era when scientific data is hotly contested and many Americans have a conflicted view of science itself.

These contradictions, Onion explains, can be understood by examining the histories of popular science and the development of ideas about American childhood. She shows how the idealized concept of "science" has moved through the public consciousness and how the drive to make child scientists has deeply influenced American culture.

Excerpt

In February 2012, President Barack Obama hosted a science fair in the White House, where he was photographed with a fourteen- year- old contributor to the fair, Joey Hudy of Phoenix, Arizona. One image of the event captured the commander in chief’s wide- eyed expression as he gleefully operated Hudy’s invention, the “Extreme Marshmallow Cannon.” This image had an afterlife, circulating on Facebook and Twitter (@karinjr, with a link to a Huffington Post article on the event: “In other ‘Obama is Adorable News,’ may I remind you of this? … You may say ‘Aw’ now”; @TJHtwits: “What a lovely man Obama is!”). The Obama reelection campaign recognized the image’s power and created an animated GIF of the event of the cannon firing, posting it on the campaign’s official Tumblr page.

In this image, Obama performed excitement, curiosity, and wonder in the face of a child’s innovation, emotions that he stressed in the speech he gave to the assembled children, their parents, and the press. The subtext of the image: science and technology, especially when practiced by glasses- wearing youngsters, have the capacity to render even such powerful, worried men as Obama momentarily carefree. And by his performance, he was supporting those same glasses- wearing youngsters in an appealing quest for knowledge. Like Neil DeGrasse Tyson of the American Museum of Natural History and Bill Nye, “the Science Guy,” two science popularizers Obama lauded in his presenta-

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