The Ring

Bob McDonald: The joy of (communicating) science

Mon, 2012-03-19 08:57

McDonald prepares for his lecture. Photo: Phil Saunders
McDonald prepares for his lecture. Photo: Phil Saunders

Bob McDonald, distinguished CBC science commentator and host of CBC Radio’s Quirks and Quarks, entertained a nearly full house at the Farquhar Auditorium on March 14 as the Axys Group Distinguished Speaker Series’ inaugural lecturer. Reflecting on the topic “Science as I’ve Seen It,” he described the advantages of being a science journalist and the freedom this has offered him in making knowledge more engaging and accessible to the public.

McDonald illustrated his skills as one of science’s foremost communicators by demonstrating how even the most abstract science can be made real and relatable for an audience, a skill he has clearly honed in his many years of teaching and communicating to kids and adults alike. As March 14th was also the anniversary of Albert Einstein’s death, McDonald showed how Einstein took an approach to science that illustrates an important lesson for relating difficult concepts to a wider audience.

Einstein would often use thought experiments to turn theoretical physics into more tangible problems, such as imagining what different strengths of gravity would actually feel like by visualizing an experience in a falling elevator. However, journalism has also advanced alongside the science it reports and, as host of CBC’s Heads Up!, McDonald was able to physically demonstrate Einstein’s thinking by filming a segment in the zero-gravity simulator G-Force One. And while McDonald joked with the audience that he has yet to find funding for a trip on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipOne, it is clear that in the future his brand of journalism will continue to seek out a first-hand experience of science in even the most remote places.

Throughout the talk McDonald took the audience through his adventures experiencing firsthand the cutting-edge in Canadian science, particularly in the fields of astronomy and particle physics. His travels ranged from SNOLAB, located near Sudbury, ON, where researchers in the world’s deepest underground laboratory are studying the physics of dark matter and neutrinos, to reporting on the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope at the top of Mauna Kea, Hawaii. He also touched on Canada’s contributions to space science, particularly the development of a Canadian instrument on NASA’s upcoming Mars rover “Curiosity.”

And by making science more personal, such as with his anecdote about interviewing Canadian astronaut and future International Space Station commander Chris Hadfield, McDonald emphasized the importance of showing how even advanced science has a human face.

As new resident of Victoria, having moved here from Toronto in July 2011, McDonald was also keen to emphasise the important contributions of his new hometown to the cutting edge of science, such as the University of Victoria’s advanced dark matter research and its Ocean Networks Canada Observatory (comprised of the VENUS coastal network and NEPTUNE Canada regional cabled ocean network).

McDonald also noted the university’s contributions to the ATLAS project’s search for the elusive Higgs boson at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland. As McDonald will continue to report for CBC from a studio in his new house, we can expect to hear much more local science news in the future.

But it was during the Q&A session, when McDonald was asked by an audience member about how to get involved in science journalism, that the point of the talk became clear. McDonald’s response was a perfect summary of his approach to science communication and how to make it come alive: Just go out and do it. There’s a lot to discover if you take something that you love and try share it with the rest of the world. Clearly good advice for a budding science journalist, but also for everyone else in the room.