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Before Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, There Was Dan Q. Posin

Stuart Vyse

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 41.6, November/December 2017

In the 1950s and 1960s, the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a powerful rivalry. After World War II, both countries began stockpiling increasingly destructive nuclear weapons, and in 1957 the U.S.S.R. shocked the world by launching Sputnik I into Earth orbit, demonstrating that it had sufficient rocket power to deliver a nuclear weapon to Europe or North America. The Sputnik launch galvanized the United States, increasing the demand for scientists and putting much greater emphasis on the teaching of science and mathematics. Each new NASA launch was a national media event, and in 1962 President John F. Kennedy made his famous “We Choose to Go to the Moon” speech, setting the goal of sending an astronaut to the moon and back before the end of the 1960s.

I am a product of that Cold War era. In the late 1950s, I was a young boy living in a suburb of Chicago. At school I practiced civil defense duck-and-cover drills in preparation for a nuclear attack, and at home I learned to use a soldering iron so that I could assemble a Heathkit shortwave radio. I taped newspaper clippings about satellites and rockets to the wall above my bed, and my parents bought me a home planetarium that projected the constellations onto the ceiling of my room.

I also became a devoted fan of a DePaul University physics professor, Dan Q. Posin. Perched in front of our tiny black-and-white television, I watched this elfin mustachioed man prance around a barren television studio, telling fascinating stories about atoms, comets, galaxies, and space travel. Long before the era of computer graphics, Posin used his considerable skills as a sketch artist to illustrate his programs, and he made effective use of props and posters. His daughter Kathryn accurately described his manner as a cross between Groucho Marx and Albert Einstein, and he was frequently accompanied on set by his cat Minerva, named after the Roman goddess of wisdom. Posin was the writer and star of several educational television series, including Out of This World, The Universe Around Us, and Dr. Posin’s Giants, and his shows aired both nationally on the CBS television network and locally on WTTW, the Chicago public television affiliate. He wrote popular books to accompany his television shows, and I owned several of them. I still do.

Long before Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, or Brian Cox, Dan Q. Posin was a very energetic popularizer of science who saw the power of television for education and inspiration. He played an important role in developing my interest in science, and he was a beloved figure for many other people my age. Back then, Watch Mr. Wizard was also on the air, and I have some memories of that show. But it was Posin’s programs and books that fueled my curiosity about space and science.

Sadly, Posin’s story is largely lost to history, and it was not until many years later, when I began to research his life, that I discovered Posin was much more than the happy science teacher I saw on the screen.

Difficult Beginnings

Daniel Posin was born in 1909 in Russian Turkestan on the Caspian Sea, and in 1914 his parents fled in advance of the Russian Revolution. Unlike other areas of the Russian Empire, Jews of western Turkestan were allowed to own property and live relatively comfortably, but with the coming of the revolution, the future must have looked uncertain. As a result, the Posin family undertook a harrowing three-year trip across Asia, finally arriving in San Francisco in the bottom of a cattle ship. Having a knack for languages, Daniel quickly learned English and began to excel in school. He won a scholarship to the University of California at Berkeley, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and went on to get a PhD in physics in 1935. By then, his father, who worked as a janitor, had died of tuberculosis, and Posin had stolen the heart of Frances “Patsy” Schweitzer, a graduate student in English who was dating a friend at the time. Daniel and Patsy’s marriage would last sixty-eight years until her death in 2002.

After graduation, Posin worked as a teaching assistant at Berkeley for two years, and then—after teaching himself Spanish in just two weeks—he accepted a position at the University of Panama, where he taught physics and wrote textbooks in Spanish.1 From there he had short teaching assignments at Montana State University and the Montana School of Mining. By then it was 1944 and World War II was well underway. As a result, Daniel, Patsy, and their two children went off to Massachusetts where Posin took a research position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology doing research on radar systems.

North Dakota: A Beginning and an Ending

After MIT, Posin took his first substantial teaching position at North Dakota Agricultural College (NDAC) (now North Dakota State University), where he would stay for nine years. While he was at NDAC, two important events happened: he started his television career, and he got fired.

Dr. Posin on the set of his Chicago TV program.

Posin’s broadcast debut came on June 1, 1953, when he appeared as Fargo, North Dakota’s, first television weather forecaster, “Dr. Dan the Weather Man.” The studio of WDAY-TV was built in a converted two-car garage, and when mice got into the transmitter, the station manager got a cat. In a move he would repeat on subsequent television shows, Posin tucked the cat under his coat so the two could appear together during the weather segment. His live broadcasts were done in front of a chalkboard weather map, and WDAY-TV colleagues remembered the popular weatherman’s humorous and dramatic on-camera style.

At NDAC, Posin was professor and chair of the physics department, and, for many years, all was well. But in 1954, the president of the college, Fredric Hultz, unilaterally eliminated the geology department, setting off a chain of events that would become the state’s biggest news story. Posin was one of four professors who criticized President Hultz’s actions, arguing that the president had violated tenure and that the termination had come too late in the academic year for the dismissed geology professors to obtain other employment. In response, Hultz turned on the four outspoken professors, criticizing some of the articles they had published, which the professors pointed out was a violation of their academic freedom. The conflict grew, and at a particularly emotional meeting, Hultz rose and read a long prepared statement—later referred to as the “The Blast”—which stunned the assembled faculty members. When the president had finished speaking, Posin rose and said, “Did you call me vicious?” To which Hultz replied, “You got ears.”

The controversy came to the attention of the State Board of Higher Education in late 1954, and early the next year the Board requested the immediate resignation of the four professors. Posin and the others refused to resign, and, soon after, President Hultz declared the four had “engaged in a course of conduct deliberately intended to interfere with, undermine, frustrate, and render ineffective the administration of the Agricultural College.” The professors were dismissed, subject to public hearings conducted in May of 1955. In the end, the State Board of Higher Education voted five-to-two to fire the professors. The four appealed to the State Supreme Court, but the court did not take up the case.

I found no evidence that Posin ever spoke publicly about the NDAC controversy, but it must have been a very difficult experience. This episode occurred during a tense Cold War period, just after the peak of McCarthyism. A year earlier, thirty-six days of the Army-McCarthy hearings had been broadcast live on national television with an estimated eighty million people watching. During those hearings, Senator Joseph McCarthy made the following statement:

The thing the American people can do is to be vigilant day and night to make sure they don’t have communists teaching the sons and daughters of America. Now, I realize that the minute anyone tries to get a communist out of a college, out of a university, there will be raised the phony cry that you’re interfering with academic freedom. I would like to emphasize that there is no academic freedom where a communist is concerned.

President Hultz took advantage of the nation’s anti-communist fervor in his attacks on the four dissenting professors. He pointed out that two of the men were Canadians who had not applied for U.S. citizenship, and he singled out Posin in particular, suggesting he was a subversive due to his Russian heritage. The president insinuated that the professors were anti-American, and an anonymous telephone campaign spread the message to “Get rid of the four communist professors at NDAC.”

I Have Been to the Village

Daniel Posin was not a communist, but, as the episode in North Dakota suggests, he was a humanitarian and a man who was not afraid to speak up when he witnessed injustice. In August of 1945, while Posin was working as a researcher at MIT, the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and like many nuclear physicists of his era, Posin felt a special sense of responsibility about the uses of atomic power. During the following summer, Albert Einstein wrote an appeal to scientists in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Posin was particularly struck by this passage:

Our representatives in New York, in Paris, or in Moscow depend ultimately on decisions made in the village square.

To the village square we must carry the facts of atomic energy. From the village square must come America’s voice.2

Einstein felt an especially strong moral obligation with respect to the bomb. His scientific work many years earlier had foreshadowed the prospect of enormous atomic power, and his actions led directly to America’s construction of an atomic bomb. In August of 1939, Einstein wrote a letter warning President Franklin Roosevelt that recent scientific advances had raised the possibility of using uranium to create a new, devastatingly powerful weapon. Knowing that Nazi Germany was engaged in uranium research, Einstein urged Roosevelt to support an expanded atomic research program in the United States. Roosevelt was moved by the letter, which ultimately led to the Manhattan Project and the creation of an atomic weapon. Later, when it became clear that the German program had failed, Einstein felt a sense of regret about writing to Roosevelt—regret that was greatly amplified when the United States dropped two nuclear devices on Japan. He was a life-long pacifist, and he felt his only justification for writing Roosevelt had been the fear that Germany would be successful in building an atomic weapon. As a result, following the war, Einstein helped form the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists (ECAS), whose goal was the containment of nuclear power through a system of world government.

By the time he read the passage above, Posin had arrived at North Dakota Agricultural College, and he realized there was an important role he could play. He was in complete agreement with Einstein and the goals of the ECAS, and as a talented science communicator, he was in an excellent position to take the message of peace to the village square.

Starting in October of 1946, Posin went out on the road. He developed a speech on the two uses of atomic energy: peaceful and destructive. The life of Marie Curie, whose discoveries led to the development of life-saving medical treatments, was an important part of the peaceful side of the story, but he also covered the destructive power of the atom bomb and the dangers of radiation poisoning. Like Einstein, Posin argued that a system of world government (“a supra-national political organization”) was necessary to contain nuclear weapons and ensure peace. He ended his talks with an appeal for donations to the ECAS.

Between 1946 and 1948, Posin gave his “atomic talk” two hundred times throughout the country. He spoke in community halls, at parent teacher association meetings, and in public parks. After hearing him speak, people of very modest means contributed money, which Posin sent off to the ECAS. His audiences encouraged him to give the talk as often as possible, and people volunteered to organize repeat performances. Posin described his experiences in his 1948 book, I Have Been to the Village, for which Einstein wrote an introduction:

Dr. D. Q. Posin’s book bears eloquent witness to the sincere and self-sacrificing way in which the best among the scientists try to fulfill their duty towards the community. This sense of duty is simply due to the fact that, as a result of their profession, scientists are acutely conscious of the perilous position in which all of mankind has been placed by the new means of mass-destruction.

In his attack on the dissenting professors, NDAC president Fredric Hultz urged Posin to stop giving his talks, suggesting that they were anti-American. Once again, Posin ignored Hultz. Ultimately, Posin would give his atomic energy talk over three thousand times between 1946 and 1995. He spoke to groups throughout the United States, as well as in Canada, England, and France.

Success in Chicago

After his dismissal in North Dakota, Posin was hired as a professor of physics at DePaul University in Chicago, a post he would hold for eleven years. It was in Chicago that he achieved his greatest success as a public intellectual and educator.

The Posin family arrived in Chicago in 1956, and by February of 1958, he was a local celebrity with a profile in Newsweek magazine and his face plastered on the sides of Chicago Transit Authority buses. An April 1958 article in the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper identified Posin’s show The Universe Around Us as an important ingredient in the financial success of WTTW, the local public television station. One of the many fan letters he received was from a ten-year-old girl who had saved a dollar from her quarter-a-week allowance to send to Posin: “I hope this will help keep your program on the air.” While in Chicago, Posin would win six Emmy awards for educational programming.

In addition to teaching at DePaul and starring on television, Posin ran a lecture series for high school and junior high school students at Chicago’s popular Museum of Science and Industry and held training sessions for teachers of high school science. He wrote articles for local and national newspapers and magazines, and he pioneered distance education by teaching an early televised course at DePaul. Also, during the Chicago years, Posin wrote several of his best-known science books, including Dr. Posin’s Giants and Life Beyond Our Planet. It is hard to imagine how he did all this and still held down a job and maintained his family life, but somehow he did.

Back to California

By 1967, both Posin’s son, Dan Q. Posin Jr., and his daughter, Kathryn, were grown, and he took a position in the physics department at San Francisco State University. For Posin this was a return to his beginnings as a young boy in San Francisco and a college student at UC Berkeley. It was also the place where he and Patsy met.

In 1968, Posin worked with KQED television making a series of half-hour television programs called Science in the Age of Space that were designed to augment the sixth-grade science program in the California schools. In 1970, he achieved a breakthrough when he produced a series of five programs broadcast for the first time in color over the National Educational Television network. The topic of the programs was the possibility of life in other solar systems, and they featured performances by his daughter, Kathryn, who was by then a professional modern dancer. Kathryn’s role on the show was described as “illustrating space events and findings.”

In California, Posin’s life would once again bump up against the tide of history, as he returned to humanitarian causes. By coincidence, Posin arrived in San Francisco during the Summer of Love. It was the height of sixties counterculture revolution, and pictures of the physics professor from that era show a man—still sporting his trademark mustache—but now framed by a longer salt-and-pepper pageboy cut. He continued to give his talks on atomic energy for another thirty years, and in March of 1969 he organized a “Day of Concern” at San Francisco State University (SFSU) to express “care over national policy of using scientific knowledge in weaponry and space projects.” In 1973, as the Vietnam War dragged on, Posin founded “Professors for Peace,” a group aimed at ending the war in southeast Asia and war in general. “If there is definitely injustice, wars are sometimes necessary,” he said in a newspaper interview. “But we still have to work towards building non-violent alternatives.”

Finally, he brought his two primary causes together in a popular course at SFSU called “Science and Human Values.” In 1974, the class organized an effort to send 250 boxes of food and clothing to the victims of a hurricane in Honduras. I found this online comment from a former student:

Dr. Posin was one of my professors at San Francisco State University. I still read his books, 30 years later, and have very vivid images of him lecturing. As a graduate student I got to build some of the RF and electronic devices that were utilized by other students performing research under Dr. Posin in many diverse areas, from plant biology to magnetocardiography. Then it all came together in his class “Science and Human Values.” What an amazing man! I feel fortunate to have known him.

Posin would not retire from teaching until 1996, at which point he was eighty-seven. While at SFSU, he won the James T. Grady Award of the American Chemical Society for “interpreting chemistry for the public” and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize six times.

After Posin retired from SFSU, he and Patsy moved to a house next door to their son and his family in New Orleans. By that time, Dan Jr. was a law professor at Tulane University and the father of three. In a profile of Dan Sr. that appeared in the New Orleans Times-Picayune he said, “We’re here because it’s about time we got to know our grandchildren.”

Patsy was raised as a Methodist, but as an adult she adopted the Bahá’í faith. Posin had always been resolutely nonreligious. Kathryn remembered having no religious background at all and going to a synagogue for the first time when a friend dragged her to one when she was a teenager in Chicago. At the end of his life, Posin began to show the signs of a late-onset dementia, and Kathryn said her father became more open to his wife’s faith saying, “I want to go where she’s going.”

Patsy would die in 2002, and Daniel Q. Posin died less than a year later at the age of ninety-three.

Meeting Einstein

When I began to research Posin’s life, I looked for his children and learned that Dan Q. Posin Jr. had died in 2006 but that Kathryn Posin was still alive and still dancing. Kathryn is a choreographer and director of Kathryn Posin Dance, a well-known company in New York. She also teaches dance and choreography at New York University. A few years ago, I spent a very enjoyable afternoon in her NoHo studio, which is in the same building where the artist Chuck Close has his studio.

Dan Q. Posin's daughter, Kathryn

Kathryn was effusive about her father. She referred to him as “Pop,” and she was obviously pleased that I was taking interest in his career. She kept his Emmy awards on display and had held on to old tapes of his programs and other memorabilia. She said he was a wonderful parent—as was her mother—and he had been very proud of her as a dancer. She had many fond memories of appearing on his television programs.

Kathryn told me a story about the Posin family driving from Fargo, North Dakota, to Princeton, New Jersey, to meet Albert Einstein. Over the years, Einstein and Posin would become friends, united by their work for peace and against nuclear war, but this was their first face-to-face meeting. The eminent scientist had written an introduction to Posin’s book, and the Posins traveled east to thank him in person. When they finally arrived, Einstein was sailing with his daughter, and the Posins waited outside for him to return. Kathryn was just six years old, and this was the first time she had ever seen her father nervous.

Recently Kathryn had been practicing dance in the basement of the Posin’s home in Fargo, where her father stored a number of extra copies of his book on the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev, the inventor of the periodic table of elements. A picture of the rather hairy-looking Mendeleev appeared on the cover of the book, and when the bushy-headed Einstein finally appeared, Kathryn ran toward him with arms outstretched shouting, “Mendeleev! Mendeleev!”

Kathryn remembered that Einstein laughed graciously at her mistake, but somehow she became aware that she had embarrassed her father, prompting her to run away and hide under a nearby car. She still remembered the smell of gasoline. Eventually the group recovered from this dramatic start, and they had a very pleasant visit.

I would love to know what the two men talked about on that day. They were both scientists but with very different talents. Two immigrants to the United States from different parts of the world, both with lives that were touched by history. But two men who, nonetheless, shared very similar goals. As much as Posin might have been in awe of Einstein, I like to think that Einstein, in his own way, might have been equally admiring of Posin.



Notes
  1. Posin donated the royalties from his Spanish textbooks to a scholarship program at the University of Panama.
  2. This article was evidently reprinted in a pamphlet that was sent out to many scientists. Posin reported reading this passage in the pamphlet rather than the New York Times article.

Stuart Vyse

Stuart Vyse's photo

Stuart Vyse is a psychologist and author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, which won the William James Book Award of the American Psychological Association. He is also author of Going Broke: Why American’s Can’t Hold on to Their Money. As an expert on irrational behavior, he is frequently quoted in the press and has made appearances on CNN International, the PBS NewsHour, and NPR’s Science Friday. He can be found on Twitter at @stuartvyse.