- Innocent Experiments: Childhood and the Culture of Popular Science in the United States by Rebecca Onion
By Rebecca Onion. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. Pp. 240. $29.95.
Many of us (at least those of a certain age) can recall a variety of childhood experiences with science. There were the chemistry sets that showed us how to produce dramatic color changes in a test tube, the science fairs where we could watch a simulated volcano fizz and bubble, and field trips to science museums where we encountered awe-inspiring displays that excited our interest in the natural world. These are the activities Rebecca Onion chronicles in her book, Innocent Experiments: Childhood and the [End Page 197] Culture of Popular Science in the United States. In this work, Onion examines the “emotional pedagogy” that occurred in various spaces outside of the formal school curriculum, where children encountered science with all its social and cultural appurtenances and explores, in particular, the longstanding association between ideas of childhood curiosity and scientific thinking—the idea that the young child is a scientist by nature in her wonderment about the world around her. Throughout, she applies a cultural lens to consider how issues of race, gender, and class were woven through the fabric of the out-of-school activities she describes.
Although there is no strong historical narrative connecting the various episodes of the book, each contributes in its own way to our understanding of how science and children have come together in a variety of informal settings during the course of the twentieth century. She opens with a look at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, where white, middle-class children were provided their own space to internalize adult values of “community building, carefulness, and thrift” as they collected and studied birds, minerals, and other natural objects. This is followed by a historically rich look at the efforts of chemical manufacturers and commercial toy companies to sell chemistry sets to boys in the interwar years. The detailed instructions they provided for putting on “chemical magic” shows for appreciative audiences—with the help of an assistant dressed as “an Ethiopian slave”—are particularly fascinating. Onion goes on in the longest chapter (which seems more a stand-alone piece than an integral part of the whole) to detail the history of the Science Service and Westinghouse-sponsored science talent searches following World War II, using it to argue for a shift in the public perception of science from something to encourage for its natural ability to inspire (as depicted in the Brooklyn Children’s Museum of the early 1900s) to a career goal to which adolescents might aspire.
The last two chapters cover young adult science fiction novels of the 1950s and the story of the founding of the Exploratorium in San Francisco in 1969. The discussion of science fiction centers on the writings of Robert Heinlein, of Stranger in a Strange Land fame, and his efforts to reassert a vision of rugged individualism for boys in the face of the overly feminized culture of mid-1950s America. In the story of the Exploratorium, Onion comes back to the theme of youthful delight and engagement with the wonders of science. She relates the radical vision of free play and active engagement that the founder Frank Oppenheimer (brother of Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb) advanced in the space of the museum. It was a place where even adults could be children again as they pushed, pulled, and climbed on the various elements of each exhibit.
Beyond the delightful stories of the individual chapters and the rich historical details they contain, it’s difficult to see any strong argument being made about the interactions between children and science across these spaces and times. Onion makes her points about the exclusion of girls [End Page 198] and the privileging of middle-class sensibilities and whiteness along the way, to be sure. But these points don’t seem to tell us much about the particular issue of how children and science came together—they could be...