How many seconds are there in a year? If the Northern Lights are called the Aurora Borealis, what are the Southern Lights called?
These were two of the questions that children between the ages of four and sixteen were asked to answer on the Quiz Kids, a famous radio program that began in 1940 and later went on television in 1949, where it ran for another seven years. Each week five children were dressed in academic caps and gowns and seated behind school desks, as the host, first a homespun, ex-vaudevillean named Joe Kelly, and later the urbane Clifton Fadiman, assailed them with the questions that had been sent in by the listening and viewing audiences. Many of the hundreds of children who appeared on the program, most of whom were from the Chicago area, had IQs that placed them well in the genius bracket, and one, Ruthie Duskin, tested at over 200. For each week that a child appeared on show, she or he received a $100 savings bond -- times (and the quiz show purses) certainly have changed.
The show was originated by Lou Cowan, who would later be disgraced by the scandal that arose over his adult quiz show, The Sixty-Four Thousand Dollar Question. But there was no answer-feeding for the Quiz Kids, and one of them, James Watson, went on to win the Nobel Prize for his part in the discovery of the Double Helix. Some of the kids became academics, but others went on to careers as admirals and movie directors, actresses and philosophers. Six-year-old Joel Kupperman, who answered the question about the seconds and had one of the highest IQs ever measured by the Chicago Public Schools at the time, gave the wrong answer first; he'd said that a year had "31,536,000" seconds. Almost instantly Joel corrected it to 31, 536, 360 -- to allow for leap year.
Joel and the comedian, Fred Allen, met each other and became friends; but Fred could never quite understand the boy who was always so far ahead of him. Allen said, "Engaging Joel in conversation is not unlike talking to a vine. Every time you turn around, the vine has grown out of earshot." For his part, Joel thought Mr. Allen was pretty dumb when it came to numbers, but he nevertheless sent the comedian the next baby tooth he lost -- for safe-keeping. And Allen wrote back to say that he left candy for the tooth, just in case it got hungry. Ah, those were kinder, gentler times.
By the way, the answer to the second question is: Aurora Australis.
Copyright 2003 © John Cech
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