Bob McDonald translates science to the masses

One of Canada’s leading science journalist weighs in on using good storytelling to teach complex issues

  • Mar. 13, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Bob McDonald

Armed only with ginger ale, a bowl and a candle, Bob McDonald won over a cafeteria full of young students.

McDonald recalls demonstrating an “invisible fire extinguisher,” using the carbon dioxide in pop fizz to extinguish a flame. This is among the tricks Canada’s best-known science journalist has used to get children interested in the basic principles of science.

“You can introduce kids to the most complicated subjects, but as long as you bring them into it in a very straight forward way, they’ll stay with you,” said McDonald, who relocated from Toronto to Victoria last summer.

“You’ve got to make it look magical and then say, ‘No, it’s not magic; it’s science. Science can be magical and it’s wonderful.”

The host of several past children’s television shows and CBC’s long-running radio science program, Quirks & Quarks, McDonald doesn’t limit using fun to just teaching kids.

He studied English, philosophy and theatre and has been able to stay at the cutting edge of science journalism simply by coming to interviews prepared. He writes about science news using standard tenets of good storytelling: settings, characters, plot lines and tension.

Since his days working at the Ontario Science Centre in the 1970s, where he was occasionally asked to comment on local news programs, McDonald has demonstrated a knack for engaging these skills and translating complex scientific happenings into terms the general public can understand.

“It’s not about me,” he said. “It’s about the stories. I just happen to have an entertaining way of telling the stories that people like. … As journalists we offer stories. We’re not handing out PhDs; we’re entertaining people.”

Larry Yore, a retired distinguished professor from the University of Victoria’s department of curriculum and instruction and expert in the field of science education research, sympathizes with the task laid on journalists when it comes to reporting on scientific matters.

“If you’re not aware of the subtle differences in how scientists use language and how we, as lay people, use language, you frequently miss the message that is being transmitted,” said Yore.

“As an interface between those communities, (journalists) are constantly looking for ways in which you can keep the spirit of the message, but get it across in lay terms,” Yore said. “That is a very difficult task.”

McDonald doesn’t limit what topics he’ll cover, but during his formative years he followed early space exploration. That contributed to a lifelong passion for everything extraterrestrial.

Medical science, however, has presented some challenges, he admits, particularly around some of the physiological terminology.

“There’s a difference between being stupid and being ignorant,” McDonald said. “I see myself as a translator between people who speak a foreign language – science – and the person on the street. Sometimes when I get a guest who (falls back on) scientific jargon, I’ll stop the tape and say we have to speak in plain English. … It’s not dumbing it down. It’s clarifying. It’s making it clear, so that it’s understandable because that’s our job.”

With with help of three producers, McDonald continues to produce Quirks & Quarks from the basement of his home in Victoria’s Fairfield neighbourhood.

McDonald was honoured with the Order of Canada in 2011 and holds six honorary degrees from Canadian universities. He has published several books, including “Measuring the Earth with a Stick: Science as I’ve Seen It,” a collection of essays recounting his experiences as a science journalist.

McDonald is the inaugural speaker for the AXYS Group Distinguished Lecture series hosted by the University of Victoria’s faculty of science, which begins today (March 14). McDonald’s lecture on his experiences in science and technology is sold out, and no tickets will be available at the door.

Just Posted

Growing protests over U.S. school shootings felt in Victoria

Greater Victoria School District officials confident about student safety in local schools

Latitude 48 Paddling Club races through Victoria waters

Local team clinched victory in Nanaimo to kick off season that will see them compete in Hawaii

Reconciliation and Mozart features four arias and narration

Net proceeds of the March 24 performance go to Reconciliation Canada

Brentwood Bay hosts 24-hour cancer fundraiser

Monster and Sea 24-hour Paddle is grassroots fundraiser

Greater Victoria police busy with St. Patrick’s Day calls

Victoria police respond to 82 calls for service

Victoria airport terminal expansion under way

Videos posted showing work in progress over the next 27 months

Most people in B.C. too ‘lazy,’ ‘apathetic’ to prepare for disasters: poll

Less than half of those surveyed aren’t insured for earthquakes and wildfires

Chris Hemsworth goes surfing in Tofino

The Australian actor donned a full body wetsuit to catch some waves on Vancouver Island this weekend

B.C. hospitals receive boost for dental surgery

Disabled people needing general anesthetic wait too long, Adrian Dix says

BCHL Today: Wenatchee Wild on the ropes and Smoke Eaters reeling

BCHL Today is a (near) daily look at what’s going on around the league and the junior A world.

A frustrated Trump lashes out at special counsel Mueller

In a series of weekend tweets naming Mueller for the first time, Trump criticized the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election

B.C. teachers’ union to ask for higher salaries to help with shortages

B.C. starting teacher salaries are $10,000 to $15,000 lower than Ontario or Alberta says B.C. Teachers’ Federation president.

Few political staffers on Parliament Hill report sexual misconduct: survey

Sixty-five of the 266 survey respondents said they had personally experienced at least one incident of sexual harassment.

Experimental pot lab sprouting cannabis-infused drinks, new edibles

Nestled inside Canopy Growth Corp.’s sprawling marijuana facility outside Ottawa is a special laboratory

Most Read