Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Science broadcaster flees the centre of the universe

Bob McDonald of CBC Radio's Quirks & Quarks got his start as a science educator doing demonstrations at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
July 11, 2011


HYPOTHESIS: Life is better on the West Coast than in the centre of the universe (aka Toronto).

TEST SUBJECT: The host of CBC Radio’s Quirks & Quarks.

PROCEDURE: Sail the Salish Sea before testing the waters of the Inside Passage.

DATA COLLECTION: Take each sunny summer day as it comes.

Bob McDonald, the hyperkinetic science enthusiast recently named to the Order of Canada, no longer classifies himself as Homo sapien Torontosaurus. He has just moved into a century-old bungalow in Victoria’s Fairfield neighbourhood. Technicians will install a studio in a basement room from where, sometime next year, he will celebrate his 20th anniversary as host of the popular radio program.

On the weekend of the launch of the final Space Shuttle mission, a broadcaster who has covered the program for 30 years, including witnessing three launches in Florida, could be found navigating the calm waters off Sidney.

“When I’m not Mr. Science, I’m Capt. Bob,” he said aboard his 41-foot Morgan sailboat.

Bob McDonald
Mr. McDonald will spend his first months as a resident of Victoria exploring marine reserves, enjoying mountain parks, “and, of course, waiting for the Big Earthquake. I hope to be on my boat when that happens,” he quipped.

The newcomer has already adopted a jaded local’s insouciance about the activity along the Juan de Fuca Plate.

“I understand you Islanders believe that when the Big One happens the rest of North America is going to slide into the Atlantic.”

The self-described space nut considers geology his second great scientific passion. As he contemplated a coastline backdropped by mountains and volcanoes, he described it as “the crumpled fender of North America as we slam into the floor of the Pacific Ocean.” That’s the kind of simple but memorable metaphor that has made him so popular a science educator.

The surprising truth is that this recipient of six honourary degrees, as well as a prestigious honorary life membership in the Sigma Xi Society, has not had advanced formal science education.

“I’m terrible at math,” he confessed. “I can’t remember formula. I find it really tedious to do calculations.”

At university, he studied arts and philosophy. He also performed on stage. Fans of the irrepressible educator will not be surprised to learn he was cast as Grumio, a fool, in The Taming of the Shrew and as Puck, a jester, in A Midsummer’s Night Dream. “Leapt all over the stage, had a lot of fun,” he said.

Born in Wingham, Ont., to parents originally from New Brunswick, he grew up in Orillia, the picturesque lakeside city that provided the inspiration for Stephen Leacock’s Mariposa. His father laboured as a brass moulder in a foundry, dying young. His mother took odd jobs to keep the family together.

The boy took a keen interest in the race to space.

“I remember Sputnik and watched all the moon landings — all of them, not just the first one, and stayed up late at night watching them,” he said.

As a young man, he earned a living as a truck driver working for a sign company that made billboards. One day, he drove his 10-ton stake truck to the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto deliver a resumé. He was ushered in and met a manager. “I just blathered on about why I thought the science centre was such a fabulous place and why I wanted to work there. He said, ‘You’re the kind of guy we want. You’re in.’ ” The manager had not even had time to read the application.

Mr. McDonald’s first thought was one of joy. His second thought: “What does Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation really mean? I had to learn all that stuff. But when you’re scared, you learn really fast.”

Soon, he was on stage performing science demonstrations. He still often makes classroom appearances. These days, he finds many of the brightest students are information rich but knowledge poor. They have facts, or know where to find them, but do not possess fundamental knowledge of the scientific world.

As for the Space Shuttle, he admits he was never a fan of a “magnificent machine” that “doesn’t go anywhere. It only goes 400 kilometres up.” That distance is not quite the length of Vancouver Island.

CONCLUSION: It does not take a rocket scientist to determine whether life is better in Lotusland than in The Big Smoke.

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