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 10:00 a.m.
Bob McDonald

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.

nnorth@saanichnews.com

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Andrew Swanson was arrested Wednesday after he was wanted for an alleged choking assault and for obstructing police. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Victoria police arrest Andrew Swanson on warrants for alleged choking assault, obstruction

A member of the public spotted Swanson and called 911 before police came and made the arrest

(Black Press Media file photo)
Youth sustains minor injuries in stabbing at Saanich Plaza

Suspect under age of 16 taken into custody, no risk to the public, police say

Al Kowalko shows off the province’s first electric school bus, running kids to three elementary and two secondary schools on the West Shore. (Zoe Ducklow/News Staff)
West Shore proud owners of B.C.’s first electric school bus

No emissions, no fuel costs and less maintenance will offset the $750K upfront expense

A B.C. Centre for Disease Control map showing new COVID-19 cases by local health area for the week of April 25-May 1. (BCCDC image)
Vancouver Island’s COVID-19 case counts continue to trend down

Fewer than 200 active cases on the Island, down from highs of 500-plus earlier this spring

Sue Hodgson returns as publisher of the Peninsula News Review starting June 1. (Courtesy Sue Hodgson)
Peninsula News Review welcomes back Sue Hodgson as publisher

Dale Naftel takes helm of Oak Bay News as publisher

Protesters attempt to stop clear-cutting of old-growth trees in Fairy Creek near Port Renfrew. (Will O’Connell photo)
VIDEO: Workers, activists clash at site of Vancouver Island logging operation

Forest license holders asking for independent investigation into incident

Anyone with information on any of these individuals is asked to call 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or visit the website victoriacrimestoppers.ca for more information.
Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of May 4

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

(Black Press Media file photo)
POLL: Do you plan to travel on the Victoria Day long weekend?

It’s the unofficial start to the summer season. A time of barbecues,… Continue reading

Starting Tuesday, May 11, B.C. adults born in 1981 and earlier will be able to register for a vaccine dose. (Haley Ritchie/Black Press Media)
BC adults 40+ eligible to book COVID-19 vaccinations next week

Starting Tuesday, people born in 1981 and earlier will be able to schedule their inoculation against the virus

Parks Canada and Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks dig the washed up Princess M out from sand along the south shore of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. (Nora O’Malley photo)
Rescue attempt costs man his boat off Pacific Rim National Park Reserve

Coast Guard response questioned after volunteer responder’s speedboat capsizes in heavy swells

Road sign on Highway 1 west of Hope warns drivers of COVID-19 essential travel road checks on the highways into the B.C. Interior. (Jessica Peters/Chilliwack Progress)
B.C. residents want travel checks at Alberta border, MLA says

Police road checks in place at highways out of Vancouver area

People line up for COVID-19 vaccination at a drop-in clinic at Cloverdale Recreation Centre on Wednesday, April 27, 2021. Public health officials have focused efforts on the Fraser Health region. (Aaron Hinks/Peace Arch News)
B.C. reports 1st vaccine-induced blood clot; 684 new COVID cases Thursday

Two million vaccine doses reached, hospital cases down

More than 6,000 camping reservations in British Columbia were cancelled as a result of a provincial order limiting travel between health regions. (Unsplash)
1 in 4 camping reservations cancelled in B.C. amid COVID-19 travel restrictions

More than 6,500 BC Parks campsite reservations for between April 19 and May 25 have been revoked

Most Read