Jack Knox: Seriously, fun-loving Dr. Zonk fostered scientific literacy

First, we should acknowledge the lunacy of allowing me to write about science.

When it comes to physics or geology or astronomy, let’s just say that my pool of knowledge is not about to burst its banks.

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My understanding of such fields topped out somewhere around Grade 6 and Our Friend Photosynthesis. When the other students were inside the school memorizing the periodic table of elements, I was outside learning to smoke.

Later, when my child loaded up with science courses, I told the chemistry teacher that I could help with English and history homework, but the rest was beyond me. “I’ve read your column,” he replied. “I wouldn’t help with English, either.” He was joking. I think.

But jeez, at least I recognize my own ignorance, unlike President Bleach Boy, whose eyes either rolled or glazed over every time Dr. Fauci opened his mouth, and unlike the people who think the two whole days they spent “doing my research” on Google made them smarter than virologists who have dedicated their entire careers to fighting infectious disease.

And that brings us to today’s subject: the value of scientific literacy, and the loss of Dr. Zonk.

Dr. Zonk
University of Victoria professor Reg Mitchell, seen here in 2008 as his alter ego of Dr. Zonk. TIMES COLONIST FILE PHOTO

Whole generations of Victorians will remember Dr. Zonk. He was the joking, animated livewire in the green fright wig who kindled kids’ interest in science in the best way possible: by blowing stuff up. Beginning in 1974 and continuing for 34 years, he staged his chemistry magic show 300 to 400 times for a combined audience of maybe 60,000 people.

In real life, Dr. Zonk was Reg Mitchell, an English-born, Cambridge-educated scientist who came to teach at UVic in 1972 and retired from its chemistry department in 2008. He died May 23 at age 77, having earned a list of honours that included the Royal Society of Canada’s McNeil Medal and the UVic Alumni Excellence in Teaching Award. A testimonial on the university website notes that Mitchell “had a world-wide reputation from his research in the aromaticity of large ring systems which resulted in 160 publications, three books and many invited and plenary lectures.”

That’s what people forget about the man who played Dr. Zonk, says Alex Brolo, who chairs UVic’s chemistry department. “Sometimes people don’t realize he was a great scientist as well.”

And as entertaining as Mitchell’s chemistry show was, it had a serious purpose: to create interest in science and make it accessible to young people. It was the same reason the professor devoted so much time to organizing the Vancouver Island Regional Science Fair.

“Sometimes, science can be a little intimidating,” Brolo says. Mitchell’s idea was that by highlighting the Harry Potterish bits, the chemistry shows would awaken kids’ curiosity. “His role in communicating about science and getting people excited about it was very important in our community.”

Mitchell described the process to the Times Colonist’s Jeff Bell in 2008: “To start the show I explode hydrogen, then I explode hydrogen and air, and then I explode hydrogen and oxygen. And the bangs get bigger and bigger and bigger.” Another experiment released a ghastly boiled-cabbage smell.

“The whole point of the show is yes, to dazzle people and to amuse them with chemistry, but I also to keep trying to tie it back to something they’re familiar with,” Mitchell told Bell. “All the time I do the show, I try to relate it back to stuff that is relevant out there.”

And, yes, it was fun to make things go bang. The fun-loving, gregarious Mitchell was known to give the fire department a heads-up before conducting his shows. “He tripped the alarm a few times,” Brolo says. Brolo also says his friend Mitchell was particularly proud that one demonstration left a permanent scar on a bench in a brand-new lecture hall.

Brolo and others took over the chemistry show when Dr. Zonk retired, though Brolo didn’t don the green wig. The clown shoes were too big to fill, as it were.

But, like Mitchell, Brolo recognized the value of scientific literacy, of opening the door to young people. That’s particularly needed now to counter the unfiltered online “truth” that arms people like me with just enough confidence to march off a cliff.

“These days, people are getting their information in different ways, and a lot of the information is not accurate,” is Brolo’s diplomatic way of putting it.

Real science is no laughing matter, except, as Mitchell showed, when it is. A UVic scholarship is being established in his name.

jknox@timescolonist.com

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