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Seth Shostak

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Heed the Robot

Posted: 01/31/2012 2:58 pm

If robots have tear ducts, they'll be giving them a good workout this week. Dick Tufeld, the voice of one of television's most famous robots, has died at the age of 85.

In case you don't remember, the TV robot in question was the mildly helpful, low-grade artificial-intelligence-on-wheels in the 1960s series Lost in Space. More loquacious than R2-D2 but less worldly than C-3P0, the robot was best known for his trademark alarm "Danger, Will Robinson!" Apparently, and despite his obviously limited abilities to walk or change expression, this mechanical sidekick was possessed of some kind of sixth sense for imminent threat. He could have snared a job at a convenience store.

I didn't know Tufeld. But I did meet Bob May, the actor who was actually stuffed into the robot's metal carcass. I encountered May 10 years ago, when I was a contestant on a popular TV quiz show, To Tell the Truth.

The conceit of this quiz was that May and another contestant pretended to be me. Their task was to fool a panel of semi-celebrities into thinking that one of them -- and not I -- was the scientist who uses radio telescopes to search for intelligent life in space. Panel members posed questions to each of us in an effort to sniff out the real Seth. I had to answer these queries truthfully, but the two impersonators were free to make stuff up. The more panelists we fooled, the more money we won.

The producer picked May as one of the "Seth impersonators" since he had notoriety, but was unrecognizable to panelists (after all, he was the guy inside the robot). In addition, May was assumed to know a great deal about outer space, having been lost in same for 85 episodes.

That assumption was wrong, as I found out shortly. Before the cameras rolled, the producer asked me to grill May on some elementary astronomy to make sure he couldn't be quickly spotted as a phony. I cornered him in the hallway.

"What's the planet with the most spectacular ring system?" I asked. "Jupiter," was May's response.

"About how big is the Milky Way?" I queried. "Oh, about a light-year," he replied.

He fumbled most of my questions. But May was able to project such confidence in his answers that listeners wouldn't question their accuracy.

An hour later, the taping was over, and we had fooled every single one of the panelists. Not one of them believed that I might be an actual astronomer. Neither my answers nor my appearance (according to one panel member) were consonant with a science background. The player garnering the overwhelming majority of votes as likely to be "Seth" was... Bob May.

This was good news and bad. The good news was that we contestants were paid enough winnings to buy a week's worth of decent dinners. The bad news -- at least from my point of view -- was that a panel of educated adults could not ferret out the factual from the phony. Not even a little bit. And, I'm told, astronomy is one of the two sciences that the general public actually finds interesting (the other is biology).

Of course, this was only a quiz show. It was merely entertainment; not a reliable gauge of science literacy. But we all know what the reliable gauges show. A report of the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress released last week indicated that only 60 percent of American high school seniors have mastered a "basic" understanding of science.

There's endless hand-wringing over these dismal results, especially in light of two things: (1) the large number of major challenges faced by America that, at root, depend on understanding science (e.g., climate change; high-end health care), and (2) the far better showing of dozens of other countries' kids, suggesting that we might soon lose the hi-tech high ground.

In his recent book Fool Me Twice, Shawn Lawrence Otto laments the fact that the presidential candidates won't even talk about science, if they can possibly avoid it. There are too many third rail issues that could cost them votes.

We've been here before. Fifty-five years ago, when the Soviets put Sputnik 200 miles above our heads, the nation was spurred to push science education at a level never previously experienced.

We could do that again. Or we could continue to argue about tax returns and marital history, and just assume that the five decades of American science and technology leadership that followed Sputnik were some sort of national entitlement, talent that gets automatically wired into the genes of anyone living in the mid-latitudes of North America. But to that I say, "Danger, Will Robinson!