Media

The household word that isn’t known

Marci McDonald December 18 1978
Media

The household word that isn’t known

Marci McDonald December 18 1978

The household word that isn’t known

Media

Fernand Seguin had just finished shooting 13 weeks of an Englishlanguage TV series when the CBC let him know that it wouldn’t be requiring his services any longer. “They told me,” he remembers with some wryness, “that they didn’t like my accent.” That obsession with perfectly pear-shaped tones may explain why, when UNESCO awarded him its prestigious Kalinga prize for popularizing science last week, most of his countrymen had never heard of the distinguished Québécois who was following Julian Huxley, Bertrand Russell and Margaret Mead onto the prize roster. Although his name is virtually a household word in Quebec and his popular science shows have been sold to 20 countries around the world from French West Africa to Australia, Seguin noted that even the news of his award never seemed to have crossed the Ottawa River. “Let’s just say,” he smiles, his impeccable English hanging in the air like an unspoken reproach, “the two solitudes rise again.”

In that restive solitude east of the nation’s capital, Seguin’s first enthusing about the glorious moments of the great men of science over Radio-Canada screens just over 25 years ago are credited with inspiring two generations to fill up Quebec classrooms studying everything from botany to anatomy. * Now, at 56, the image of an ebullient Charles Boyer has mellowed into that of a sagacious Maurice Chevalier warning against science’s “suicidal course.” As a

friend points out, “this isn’t just a guy who finds the right words to translate scientific terms for the cretins. This is a man of wide-ranging vision—a genuine humanist.”

Already the host of a science classroom of the air on radio, when television came to Quebec in 1952, he was invited to translate his enthusiasm into visual terms. “At that time, science in Quebec was like a desert,” he says. “There were almost no funds, very few researchers. It seemed to me that to get rid of this hostility, we had to create a scientific climate—and the way to do that was to approach adolescents.” The fact that he reached them was given vivid testimony when 300 letters a week used to pour into his shows, Fireside Science, The Joy of Knowing, the longrunning Romance of Science and in later years, an hour-long live interview show called Salt of the Week.

These days, Seguin watches with some interest how English-Canadian TV has followed him with its own science star David Suzuki. Seguin still broadcasts his weekly radio series, has just finished shooting a National Film Board feature on the brain and behavior with Gilles Phérien, but since September most of his time has been spent in bringing to Quebec TV an idea he has been promoting for 20 years—the need to integrate scientific news into the nightly newscast. One of his most recent reports was on Britain’s test-tube baby, a development which he derided. Indeed, Seguin lately finds himself often criticizing science, rather than celebrating it.

“Look at nuclear experiments, the degradation of the environment,” he says. “Big science has this human pride in mastering nature, sometimes no matter what the consequences. Scientists should be more conscious of their social responsibility. If there is no quality of humanism to temper their work, we are on our way to catastrophe.” As he received the Kalinga prize at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters late last month, he also warned the Third World to look carefully at the much vaunted technology they were importing from the West. “We forget that when we deal with any export, even cultural,” he said, “it is in actual fact a Trojan horse which has with it an arsenal of values from the country of its origin.”

Seguin knows about cultural values. His shows have been translated into a handful of languages, including Japanese, but the one place where they have not been shown, besides English Canada, is France. “I was told,” he says, “that it was because the French could never accept a stranger telling them about their own scientists.” Nothing to do with his accent, as it turns out.

Marci McDonald