Meet the Hair Loss Heroes of Television’s Pop Science Scene

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HAVING HAIR LOSS MAY MAKE IT MORE CHALLENGING TO GET A DATE, BUT IT SURE HASN’T MADE IT DIFFICULT FOR THESE BALDING SCIENTISTS TO GET LUCRATIVE TELEVISION GIGS.

Holy hairless heroics! Right there on the TV screen (or computer monitor, as the case may be), the dynamic duo of televised pop science aficionados — the smooth-headed Jamie Hyneman and the high-foreheaded Adam Savage — is scientifically examining one of the most cherished of superhero myths: that a costumed do-gooder can use a grappling hook to climb the side of a building in pursuit of nefarious evildoers.

Hyneman and Savage are the leading pop scientists on Discovery Channel’sMythBusters, a delightful, entertaining and engrossing series that uses scientific inquiry to ferret out the truth in hundreds of common myths, from whether rockets attached to a car can cause it to fly to whether eating a poppy seed bagel can cause a person to fail a drug test to whether a large stockpile of antacids could create enough gas to bust out of prison. (The answers, by the way, are no, yes, and no.)

Savage, despite a noticeably receding hairline, has enough hair that he might not be considered part of the hair loss world. But Hyneman, whose trademark jaunty black beret rests atop a proudly hairless head, is very much a member of the community and just the latest in a rather impressive line of bald scientists and researchers who have used their brains and their skills to bring science to the masses.

Hyneman is not your typical scientist; his varied background includes stints as a wilderness survival expert, boat captain, diver, linguist, animal wrangler and machinist, and he comes to MythBusters because of his background in special effects, prototyping and technological development. Nevertheless, what he does, both on the program and as head of his own company, is definitely science.

Pop science in the Eisenhower era

Those who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s might find a connection between Hyneman and another pop scientist, Dr. Frank Baxter. The bald Baxter was the star of and scientific mouthpiece for a number of hour-long Bell Sciencespecials. The specials featured co-stars such as Eddie Arnold and Lionel Barrymore, but the real star of the series was Baxter (usually called “Dr. Research” in the shows). Was he a good actor? Not really. His line readings were a bit calculated, and he didn’t have a natural flair for drama or comedy. What he had instead was an avuncular, friendly, warm air.

In his Bell Science specials, Dr. Baxter interacted with both real humans and animated co-stars to entertainingly spread information about the history of the sun, how blood works and the dangers of radiation. While the shows are dated and offer some unintentionally amusing moments when seen today, they still have undeniable charm, thanks in large part to Baxter.

Interestingly enough, Baxter wasn’t really a scientist: he was instead a very well-respected English professor. But he effectively conveyed the image of a friendly man of science, and that was what was important.

Mr. Wizard keeps the science popping

Fans of Dr. Baxter may also remember Don Herbert, better known as “Mr. Wizard,” another hero of pop science who actually got his televised start a few years before Baxter. When Herbert began the show, he had a receding hairline; as the years passed, more and more of his hair fell away to reveal a nicely shaped bare dome. His original Watch Mr. Wizard program ran from 1951 through 1965 for an amazing 547 episodes. He had another show in 1971 and a third on Nickelodeon, which aired new episodes from 1983 through 1990 (and was rerun for a decade after).

Australians (and some Americans) have fond memories of Julius Sumner Miller (of the program Why Is It So?), a physicist with a lot of hair but a very prominent balding pattern as well. His enthusiasm for science was contagious, as was his love of a well-turned phrase. And British viewers were for many years delighted by Sir Patrick Moore, an amateur astronomer and bald-pated brethren whose The Sky at Night was immensely popular on the BBC.

MythBusters is far from the only current pop science program to feature bald or balding men. The high-foreheaded Les Stroud, for example, has taught a lot of practical science lessons in his Survivorman show as well as on Off the Grid with Les Stroud, which had a pronounced green science approach.

Pop science in the Internet age

One of the most entertaining pop science television programs isn’t even on tube. The bald Stephen Voltz is half of the team that creates experiments on Eepybird.com, a Web site that gained an extraordinary level of fame in 2006, when it created its series of experiments that demonstrate what happens when one mixes Diet Coke with Mentos candies. The result of the first experiment was a viral video phenomenon. They have continued their experiments in this area and have branched out to include a number of entertaining “sticky notes” experiments as well.

Pop science sometimes gets a bad rap because it isn’t serious; however, it provides a valuable service by emphasizing how science is omnipresent in our everyday lives. And it’s a pleasure to note the contribution that the bald fellowship has made in this area.