by Gillian Crowley –
Bob McDonald, long-time host of CBC Radio’s Quirks and Quarks, thinks kids aged eight to 14 ask the best questions about the world around them.
“So often those questions lead to very complex answers from our science experts,” he says.
Bob’s latest book, his fifth, is titled An Earthling’s Guide to Outer Space: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Black Holes, Dwarf Planets, Aliens, and More (Simon and Schuster). Although it’s written for “tweens,” he has dedicated the book to “curious minds everywhere.”
The idea evolved from his Gemini award-winning, three-year series for children on TVOntario called Heads Up!, which he both wrote and hosted. Questions from kids on the show form the backbone of this book, including “Do UFOs Really Exist?”, “Why do Some Planets have Rings?” and “How Much Junk is in Space?” Along with Bob’s lucid explanations are fun activities that readers can do alone or with friends to better understand the concepts.
Another popular question kids ask is: “Are there aliens in space?” Based on current knowledge, Bob says there’s a good chance the universe is teeming with life but the challenge is that we’re all so far away from each other in time and distance. “Although, if an alien should happen to land in front of City Hall, I’d want to ask it where everyone else is in the universe – I’d want a map!”
One secret to Bob’s success is that he’s a science journalist, not a scientist. “I was too frightened of math to be able to take advanced courses in the sciences,” he says, and instead he took university courses in Philosophy, English and Drama before dropping out. Luck and his unflagging enthusiasm landed him a job in 1973 at the Ontario Science Centre. As part of his position, he often appeared on television where he would use common objects like coffee cups to explain scientific principles. From these experiences he eventually took up science journalism and broadcasting full time.
Bob always seems to know when to ask experts to unpack their jargon and complex explanations. “Because I’m not a scientist I know when I need to ask the expert to help me understand a concept for myself.” He tells the story of an unnamed scientific organization that often provides experts to Quirks and Quarks. “One of the scientists told me they have a contest to see who can avoid my saying ‘Let’s see if I’ve got this right …’ If I don’t say this during the interview, they know they’ve been clear enough.”
In 2011 Bob left the centre of the Canadian universe – Toronto – and now lives in Victoria where he enjoys sailing his 41-foot sailboat on the Salish Sea. Of the many accolades he’s received, he says becoming an Officer of the Order of Canada was “a huge honour.” Another thrill was having an asteroid named after him, proposed by David Balam, a Victoria astronomer, and officially approved by the International Astronomical Union. It’s also not surprising to learn he is friends with another very effective communicator, astronaut Chris Hatfield.
Bob indicates no signs of slowing down. He plans to pitch a follow-up book to his publisher called An Earthling’s Guide to Earth which will look at the various “spheres” – geo, hydro, bio and cryosphere. Travels include a speaking gig on a small cruise ship exploring the Arctic this summer and a safari trip to Africa in summer 2021. In between he hosts Quirks and Quarks from Victoria and continues with speaking engagements.
Bob feels strongly that science doesn’t have to be complicated. “It’s a pair of glasses we put on that lets us see everything in exquisite detail and that shows how everything is connected. Science can be wondrous.”
Photo courtesy Simon & Schuster.