Meeting Bob McDonald, the host of CBC Radio One's Quirks and Quarks, is like meeting an old friend who not only tells entertaining stories, but shares his infectious enthusiasm and passion for life.
Unsure about his early career path, Bob dropped out of university but soon realized his life had to be more than driving trucks and working construction. In 1973, his girlfriend introduced him to Toronto's Ontario Science Centre, where she held a summer job.
"It was a fabulous place,” he grins. “It combined all the things that I liked – science and entertainment."
Learning that Science World would be looking for full-time guides that September, Bob says, "I basically talked myself into that job and was hired on enthusiasm. They didn't check my background but they liked my enthusiasm!" And so began a long career in communicating science to the public, making it fun and informative.
It was the mid-’70s and NASA began sending robotics to Mars and other planets. Bob wanted to go to the Jet Propulsion Lab in California to report on the developments, but the Science Centre couldn’t afford to send him there.
“I took a few days off, bought myself a ticket, wrote a letter to NASA on Science Centre stationary introducing Bob McDonald as a reporter for Canada and just went there,” he recalls. “My letter got me a press badge to get in to watch history unfolding before our eyes. It was magical."
Filled with wonder, Bob returned to Canada armed with fascinating stories to tell.
"The media called up the Science Centre and asked if someone could talk about space exploration on television. I said, 'Sure, I can do that.' After it was done, they said, 'Wow, you were really good. Do you want to come back and be our science guy?' I said, ‘Sure!’ Word spread and someone else would say, 'Hey, I'm doing a documentary. Would you like to do that?' And I would say, ‘Okay.’ No one ever said to me, ‘have you done this before?’ Usually, they would say, 'I like your stuff. Would you like to try this?' I guess you say 'yes' first and then scare the pants off yourself wondering if you had bitten off more than you can chew, but it all worked out in the end."
Stripping away the scientific jargon and making science understandable to the general public comes naturally to Bob.
"It's the lost art of storytelling, which is why I enjoy working in radio because all we have are the words and sounds,” he says. “Our stories have to be clear because it's about understanding the essence of what the scientist is doing.”
“When you think about it, every week some of the smartest people on earth talk to me and tell me stories about things we didn't know before. It allows me to see the magic of science and feel their excitement, but I didn't have to do the work!"
Besides CBC Radio's Quirks and Quarks, Bob's television work includes being the "go-to-guy" for science commentaries on CBC's The National and an occasional documentary.
He also writes and produces his own documentaries, including last year's well-received Magical Mystery Cures, about the anti-aging industry.
"There were a lot of legitimate products at the huge Las Vegas Exhibition, but I was going after the scam artists,” he says. “One memorable case was this person who had a laptop computer, two USB ports with two wires attached to quartz crystals that I held in my hands. On the monitor was a constantly changing pattern screen, and I wore headphones to listen to soothing music while holding these crystals. I asked the young lady who was wearing the requisite lab coat, 'What's happening?' She replied, 'We're balancing your quantum codes.' I replied, 'I didn't know I had quantum codes.' And she answered, 'The whole universe is based on quantum mechanics. You have quantum codes that define you, and this program will help rebalance your codes and re-align it with the universe.'
Chuckling, Bob says, "Wow, here's this impressive gadget, mix in a grain of truth and give this extraordinary claim! I heard others making up their own scientific terms, confusing the public and saying they had a cure for a condition they had invented."
For Bob's future wish list, it's not surprising to find space travel at the top. "I would like to see Earth from afar, but I would also like to see some of the other worlds that we've only seen through robotic eyes." He adds enthusiastically, "I've already picked my vacation spots. There's a volcano on Mars that's twice as high as Mount Everest. If you stand on top, the sky above you would be black and the sky below you would be pink or gold. You would be able to see the curve of the planet. Imagine seeing a sun rise from there! There's a moon on Jupiter that's completely covered in ice. There's another moon on Jupiter that has black sulphur lakes, yellow snow and green volcanos. I'm not making this up; it's a real place."
Bob's earthly wish list includes seeing as much of the world as he can. "I've already circled the earth one and a half times,” he says. “There's still so much I'd like to see on my motorcycle or my sailboat. When you're on the water with your sails full of wind, it's the most exhilarating feeling. I'm also a long-time motorcyclist; my girlfriend and I plan to return to the Jet Propulsion Lab in California because they're lining up Mars again, and we plan to be there for the Rover landing in August."
With six honorary doctorates, numerous prestigious honours for his contribution to public awareness of science, including being named an Officer of the Order of Canada, Bob remains humble.
"There's so much happening in the science world,” he says. “I want to keep the public informed in a timely and entertaining way. I feel very privilege to do what I do."
Following his own advice, Bob says, "It's never too late to follow your dreams. Dreams are free but when you get older, the choices are more limited. Find what you really like to do and don't be afraid to grab the opportunities when they come along."
SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE MAY 2012