Science  /  Book Review

From Boy Geniuses to Mad Scientists

How Americans got so weird about science.

Space toys, model rockets, and science fiction exploring the wonders and possibilities of space travel were wildly popular with Baby Boomer boys, particularly young adult novels by Robert Heinlein—like 1949’s Red Planet, 1953’s Starman Jones, 1958’s Have Space Suit, Will Travel, and 1959’s Starship Troopers—that depicted teenage space adventurers who independently and religiously studied science.

While boys likely took this hobby as seriously as their fathers’ generation had taken their chemistry sets, another strain of marketing set out to placate mothers’ anxieties by convincing them space-obsessed kids were just adorable. Thus, the cute space cadet was born. The cover of Innocent Experiments features an image from the April 18, 1953, edition of “Collier’s” magazine depicting a blond, blue-eyed little boy in a space helmet holding a ray gun. He watches a butterfly that is somehow trapped in his helmet.

“You would see women’s magazine articles about how to understand your space-cadet child, or how to talk to him, or why this interest is okay,” Onion says. “Telescopes were marketed to moms by presenting stargazing as an activity she could do with her son. I found an amazing picture at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York, from a brochure advertising a telescope. It shows a 10-year-old boy looking into the telescope and his perfect ’50s mother with a tiny waist and big skirt sitting adoringly at his feet. This ideal of wholesome fun and family togetherness was folded into the cute space-cadet cliché sold to women.”

Yet, when that space-cadet boy started to go through puberty, suddenly, there was concern he might be strange. Maybe he’s too interested in science and science fiction, and not interested enough in girls, parties, cars, or team sports. What if he grew up and became a mad scientist who turned rats into radioactive human-killing mutants?

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