Story by Rod Charles
Vacay.ca Deputy Editor
TORONTO, ONTARIO — I’ll confess back in high school I wasn’t the most enthusiastic science or chemistry student.
The things my teachers taught just didn’t make sense and even when some did, I didn’t understand how any of it applied to me or my world. Try as I might I just didn’t see the point of dissecting a pickled frog and to this day, I still believe Ne and Rh on the Periodic Table stand for Nevada and rhubarb.
But making our world make sense is what Bob McDonald of CBC’s Quirks & Quarks has been doing for years, expertly cutting through all the details and skilfully connecting scientific fact to breaking news events happening in the real world. And McDonald doesn’t just turn these scientific trinkets into anecdotes that make sense for the masses — he makes them interesting and fun, too.
McDonald, who was awarded the Order of Canada in 2011, recently visited the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, where his career in science began as a tour guide. His knowledge and personality landed him on TV for frequent appearances, and that led to full-time broadcast opportunities with CBC.
In my conversation with him, McDonald spoke with enduring admiration for the Science Centre, as well as about the nation’s contribution to science and his broadcast programs, Quirks & Quarks and Heads Up! Above all, he talked about his travels, and how seeing the planet has helped him understand its inner workings.
“The Science Centre is so important. You can bring kids here and just let them run wild,” said McDonald, who spoke at length about some of the places in Canada and abroad he’s enjoyed visiting. “This place encourages kids to do that, and to get involved with doing things with their own hands because you learn best when you experience something and not just when you hear about it.”
Travelling Creates a Real “Buzz”
One thing that makes his eyes light up is when he talks about Canada’s national parks. He’s had the opportunity to visit several in his career, including in 2012 when he travelled to Alberta as a guest speaker at the Jasper Dark Skies Festival. There he praised the beauty of the region and the educational value of the event, saying, “I think that’s an important lesson when you look at the dark skies, like we are in Jasper. You see that the earth is only one planet of a family of planets going around one star, that’s part of a huge galaxy that’s rotating through space, and that galaxy is only one of billions of other galaxies out there in an expanding universe, and even though we’re tiny, we know that. And that’s profound that we know our place.”
But it isn’t just the dark skies that were beautiful — there was lots to appreciate on the ground in Jasper, too. McDonald said every Canadian should make an effort to take advantage of the nation’s natural riches.
“Our national parks — just to go to one and experience nature at its best. Canada has some of the best nature on the planet,” McDonald noted. “You can go right to the Columbia Icefields and go on it with a bus. How remarkable to see nature in so many ways in this country?”
If checking out Canada’s parks is one of the things McDonald enjoys most, then hanging out with astronauts is a close second. During his speech in Jasper, McDonald talked about meeting legendary Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin while taking part in a zero-gravity flight over the Gulf of Mexico. He offered to take Aldrin out on his boat for a ride after their stomach-churning adventure. How many people get to hang out with a moon-landing pioneer during their travels?
He also talked about his admiration for another news-worthy astronaut, Commander Chris Hadfield. When Hadfield was in space this year, McDonald explained the impact of his star trek, and why Hadfield was connecting so well with Canadians.
“I’ve known Chris for 17 years now. In fact, I first met him at the Science Centre,” McDonald said. “I went to Russia the first time he went up on the Mir Russian space station. I’m working on a documentary on him right now. I’m also playing the guitar with him … I’m not very good, but he plays with me, and we’ve had some fun doing that.”
Making the News Make Sense
Nowhere is McDonald’s skill as a teacher more evident than in those occasions when news intersects with science. When the US space shuttle program was retired, McDonald was there to break down the legacy of these pioneering vehicles, including the role played by the Canadarm. When the Haiti earthquake struck in 2010, or the South Asian Tsunami in 2004, there was McDonald on CBC explaining the science behind these horrible occurrences. Some of you thought the world would end in 2012 with the slow, torturous countdown of the Mayan Prophecy, but McDonald made sense of those End of Days predictions.
And by the way, what’s up with those solar storms? What’s with all those asteroids coming so close to Earth? Is there life on Mars? Should we be worried about climate change? And for crying out loud, what the heck is “The God Particle?”
These questions, and others that may or may not keep you up at night, are answered with clarity on Quirks & Quarks. Words, facts, numbers and statistics that are like a soothing lullaby in the mouths of many teachers, professors, researches, scientists and experts snap out of McDonald’s mouth like a glitzy trailer of a blockbuster movie. So even if you think you don’t care about the way shark embryos cannibalize their siblings, the science of kangaroo burps or the story behind bisexual beetles, trust me — after a few minutes listening to McDonald, you’ll probably care a little.
Not so big a feat, perhaps — especially when you’ve seen as much of our world as he has, met so many people from different continents, and seen with his own eyes the natural beauty that surrounds us.
“The best thing that I ever did in my life was in my late twenties, I went all the way around the world by myself just to see what it looks like,” McDonald said. “I took six months to do that, and the best lesson that I got from that is not only is the world a beautiful place, but people are good. It’s not what you see on the news. And I think it’s just the best thing you can do is to travel, especially getting off North America. Go somewhere. There’s only one earth, there’s nothing like it.”
Great advice from an experienced Canadian traveller who has made it his mission to help us understand our world better. Now if only he would explain why Nevada and rhubarb are on the Periodic Table.
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