Just watch the opening credits for this television show and tell me you are not totally, whole-heartedly pumped. All that action! That funky theme song! The counting backward!
If you were watching daytime PBS any time in the middle chunk of the 1980s, you might remember 3-2-1 Contact. Technically, it was a math-and-science show. But, practically, it was a documentary-adventure show. Viewers vicariously jumped out of airplanes, loop-de-looped on roller coasters, and went SCUBA diving and surfing. They learned about the physics of the perfect baseball pitch from the New York Mets and discovered techniques for best communicating with monkeys and computers.
A trip to a bubble festival became a way to explain surface tension. The thing is, a decent portion of that particular episode is just people playing with bubbles and talking about the ideal ingredients for the ultimate bubble solution. (Eventually they get around to the science behind a bubble’s spherical shape; but there’s a spirit of do-it-yourself experimentation throughout. “Sometimes you just have to try things out for yourself,” says one of the show’s hosts, a girl named Stephanie Yu.)
The show, a production of the Children’s Television Network, was built around removing classroom lessons from the school or lab environment. “Too many children think that scientists are all middle-aged white males in laboratory coats,” Edward Atkins, 3-2-1 Contact’s director of content, told The New York Times in 1983. “We want to introduce them to other kinds of scientists—women, minorities, people using science in daily life—without neglecting the middle-aged men in the laboratory coats.”
So instead of just listening to experts explain scientific concepts, the show’s hosts got to lead the way by asking questions—then interrogating what they’d learned by attempting experiments of their own. There were trips to salt-water marshes, recording studios, lava fields, a remote Australian river (“to study a platypus, you have to find one”), and archeological digs.
There’s no doubt 3-2-1 Contact was an educational show, but it was open-ended in a way that made the world seem expansive and unstructured—pretty much the opposite of required educational tools like math flashcards and science textbooks. I remember as a kid thinking 3-2-1 Contact was just as good as Sesame Street but somehow much cooler. This was by design. 3-2-1 Contact has been described as “a sort of ‘Sesame Street Discovers Science,’” The Times wrote in 1983, but for older kids, aged 8 to 12. It was also a kin to Square One, the math-focused program which featured Mathnet, the memorable sendup of the detective show Dragnet. Naturally, 3-2-1 Contact had its own investigative subplot, in which members of the Bloodhound Gang solved serialized mysteries.
The overarching goal among the show’s creators was to leave kids with “a changed perception of what science and technology are and what scientists do,” Atkins said in 1983. Based on the impression it left on me, I’d say 3-2-1 Contact succeeded. I didn’t grow up to become a scientist, but I did shape my life around asking “why.” And my expansive views of science and technology today mirror the far-reaching views of science and technology that were at the heart of 3-2-1 Contact.
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The show taught me that trying to understand how things work is unequivocally thrilling. It was, in this way, a celebration of curiosity above all. Finding an answer can be satisfying, but asking questions often brings greater joy than the certainty of knowing.
Incidentally, at my first-ever real job, in a coffee shop outside Philadelphia, my boss, who was tired of my many queries, suggested gently that if I could someday make a living from asking questions, I should. I was 15, and he was perhaps teasing me a bit, but he was also echoing an idea that I’d encountered in 3-2-1 Contact so many years before.
And anyway. He was right. So I did.