Today is a double birthday in Canadian public science; Dr. David Suzuki turns 75 and the CBC program “The Nature of Things” turns 50. The two are inextricably linked it is impossible to think of Suzuki without thinking of his voice opening “The Nature of Things” or “The Nature of Things” without Suzuki – earlier this year I saw an episode without that familiar voice narrating and it was very surreal. They made science public in late twentieth century Canada and we are better people for it.
The television show has been around longer than Suzuki’s been associated with it, but it was not until he moved from radio to television and took on hosting duties that “The Nature of Things” became the cultural institution it is today. Television and the CBC created a format that engaged the public, that showed them what was happening in the world around them, and could demystify science and scientific knowledge. But showing people how science works does not guarantee viewers or the longevity of a program. Everyone remembers the really bad science films from elementary and high school that induced more naps than insight into the complex world we live in. It takes a knowledgable, approachable, enthusiastic person to front the program to have the success of “The Nature of Things.” Suzuki’s passion for nature and science and the environment, and his natural way of making all make sense regardless of your education level are have defined “The Nature of Things” since 1979. Together they have produced a generation with greater scientific literacy than ever before and made science cool for kids across Canada by showing all the questions and answers about our world it give us. Together they took science public, stripped it of the lab coats and pocket protectors, and made it accessible. No longer a mystery except in the sense that for every question science answers ten more arise.
The next research trip I take will be to Vancouver to look through the papers in the David Suzuki Collection at the UBC Archives, there will be a chapter about his role and the role of “The Nature of Things” in taking science out of the ivory tower and getting people to think about the environment in my dissertation. On of my all time favourite moments from Q was Jian Ghomeshi’s interview with Suzuki and Al Gore where when asked about being an environmentalist Suzuki speaks eloquently about what it means to be an environmentalist and how he came to be one (Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring), while Gore states he sees himself as a politician not an environmentalist. Come to think of it, the only reason I would jump through the ridiculous hoops of ethic clearance for oral interviews is if there were a chance to interview him – it would make my 4 year old self very, very, happy.
As a child I thought David Suzuki was the smartest person in the world. He was my hero and the reason I wanted to be a scientist. Twenty-some years later instead of becoming a scientist I study how their work shaped modern environmentalism. Really environmental historians are not too far removed from scientists. I’ve dragged friends to theatres to see “Force of Nature” with me on a Friday night with the promise of crepes, twice saved my vinyl of “Space Child” from my parents’ garage sales, and this Christmas found an old cassette of “Finding Out About the Environment” in my stocking and a copy of “The Legacy: An Elder’s Vision for Our Sustainable Future” under the tree. It seems fitting that today I will spend the evening at a talk on “Endangered Native Grasslands”.
Happy Birthday Dr. Suzuki!