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The ultimate irony about the man who will be instantly and forever known as the Professor is that he wasn’t one.

The Professor was all about facts—not rumor, superstition, or hyperbole.

And while he had a PhD, the character played in the awful but enduring 1960s sitcom Gilligan’s Island by the actor Russell Johnson was a high-school science teacher, not a university professor.

At a time when science became mistrusted for having brought not better lives, but pollution and the fear of nuclear annihilation, he was a rock of reason, patience, and precision, level-headed and respected.

In the years after he was lost, with his fellow castaways, in the turbulent sea of network cancellations, truth somehow seemed to become more open to interpretation. And men and women of science, from Steve Urkel to Cindy “Mac” Mackenzie, came to be portrayed as socially and sexually awkward nerds.

Now popular culture has returned to the idea that science can solve almost every conceivable problem with nothing more than sand and coconuts (other than refloating The Minnow, apparently).

There has been a television series called Eureka, about a town populated by geniuses, where the whiz kids pick on the jocks. Smart people also star or have starred in Fringe, The Mentalist, Alphas, Bones, Touch, Breaking Bad, The Big-Bang Theory, and other hits. They’re newly hot (and very, very rich) in real life, too: Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg.

These people, real or imaginary, represent the promise of science and the constancy of truth.

The man portrayed by Johnson, who has died at 89, stood up for knowledge in the face of fear. And though he wasn’t really a professor, that is the ideal of one.

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Jon Marcus writes and edits stories about, and helps plan coverage of, higher education. A former magazine editor, he has written for The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Wired, Medium.com...

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