Bob McDonald’s top conversations with the world’s smartest people

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By our rough estimate, Bob McDonald has conducted more than 7,000 interviews over the past 30 years as host of Quirks & Quarks. And while it’s a challenge for him to pick a favourite, here are a few standouts:

Bob’s first episode

Airing on Oct. 24, 1992, Bob seamlessly slid into the host chair for the first time with little fanfare. If he was nervous to have finally landed his dream job, he didn’t show it. 

He interviewed researchers such as David Lewis about whether dental equipment could spread AIDS, Edward J. Weiler about the Hubble space telescope’s troubles, and Richard Wassersug about a frog with some strange reproductive behaviours. 

Quirks and Quarks53:0430 years of Bob McDonald – 1st episode

Bob McDonald’s first episode, which aired on Oct. 24, 1992

The universe is half the size we thought it would be

In 1994, scientists were able to calculate a far more accurate distance measurement between Earth and a pair of galaxies in the distant universe. The problem is that these galaxies were closer than they had thought, and as astronomer Peter Stetson told Bob, it meant that the universe was significantly younger and smaller than expected. 

This was the insight that led scientists to the concept that something was causing the universe to expand — the dark energy.

Quirks and Quarks8:2630 years of Bob McDonald – Peter Stetson

A 1994 interview with astronomer Peter Stetson about an astrophysical conundrum.

Nobel Laureates take us through the looking glass

Bob has interviewed many Nobel Laureates in his 30 years, but this episode was a rare treat — in 1995 he hosted multiple Nobel Prize winners in the studio at the same time, all talking about the future of science. 

In this special edition of Quirks & Quarks, we hear from George Porter and Ilya Prigogine, celebrated for their work in chemistry, and Christian de Duve, who was awarded the Nobel for his work in medicine.

Quirks and Quarks52:2430 years of Bob McDonald – Nobel laureates

An episode featuring several Nobel laureates, talking about the future of science.

Jane Goodall reflects on her storied career

In 2002, the legendary primatologist stopped in to talk with Bob ahead of the Canadian launch of her IMAX film Jane Goodall’s Wild Chimpanzees. Bob and Jane spoke about how a girl growing up in urban England developed a love for animals, why scientists critical of her work were wrong, and how she was able to get close to the wild chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park.

“After months and months, when these amazing creatures would run away as though I was some terrifying strange ape, finally I got their trust… and those moments were the reward,” she told Bob.

Quirks and Quarks19:2030 years of Bob McDonald – Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall stepped into the Quirks & Quarks studio in 2002.

Jane Goodall, seen here in 2004, spoke with Bob about her natural curiosity and why she believes her lack of training made her a better biologist. (JENS SCHLUETER/DDP/AFP via Getty Images)

First planet outside of our solar system

In 1994, scientists, including Alexander Wolszczan who spoke with Bob, made the discovery of the first planet outside of our solar system. It was exciting news at the time but, since then, researchers in institutions around the world have discovered thousands of extra-solar planets. 

We now believe most stars likely have planets, which could mean hundreds of billions in our galaxy alone.

Quirks and Quarks8:0830 years of Bob McDonald – Alexander Wolszczan

Bob speaks with Alexander Wolszczan in 1994 about his discovery of the first pulsar planet.

25th anniversary of Earth Day

Earth Day was first celebrated in 1970, and for the 25th anniversary of this celebration of our planet, Bob spoke with Elizabeth May, then-director of the Sierra Club, about whether the day actually did anything to help environmental causes — or whether it was just full of hot air.

Quirks and Quarks9:1030 years of Bob McDonald – Elizabeth May

A 1995 look at the legacy of Earth Day with Elizabeth May, then-director of the Sierra Club.

Reaching all the planets of our solar system

Bob had a once-in-a-lifetime experience when he was allowed into the control room at Johns Hopkins University to watch as the probe New Horizons zoomed around Pluto in 2015. Afterwards, he spoke with the mission’s principal investigator, Alan Stern.

Quirks and Quarks12:1530 years of Bob McDonald – Alan Stern

Bob speaks with planetary scientist Alan Stern after the New Horizons spacecraft reached Pluto.

Alan Stern, principal investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission team, holds up a bumper sticker in 2015 after his spacecraft visited and imaged Pluto. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Carl Sagan on the search for life

Very few interview guests leave Bob starstruck, but that’s exactly what happened when cosmologist Carl Sagan came into the Quirks & Quarks studio to record several segments in early 1995. Here’s the first, which aired in March of that year.

Quirks and Quarks6:1230 years of Bob McDonald – Carl Sagan

Bob interviews cosmologist Carl Sagan in the first of a series of segments with the legendary cosmologist.

The onset of the Internet

Back in 1993, Bob spoke with new media expert Paul Hoffert of York University about an exciting new technology: a communication network that would transfer large amounts of information via fiber optics into people’s offices and private homes. At the time it was dubbed the electronic highway, but today we just call it the internet.

Quirks and Quarks9:5930 years of Bob McDonald – Paul Hoffert

Bob introduced us to the “electronic highway,” better known today as the internet, back in 1993.

Canada’s first female Nobel laureate

On Oct. 6, 2018, Canadian scientist Donna Strickland was awoken by a phone call she’ll never forget — even if, at first, she thought it was a prank and hung up on the Nobel committee.

Strickland, a professor in the department of physics and astronomy at the University of Waterloo, is one of the Nobel Prize recipients for her work on chirped pulse amplification.

Quirks and Quarks11:2630 years of Bob McDonald – Donna Strickland

Bob chats with Donna Strickland after her historic Nobel prize win.

Professor Donna Strickland shows off instruments in her lab after she won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2018, making her the first Canadian woman to win the prize. (Cole Burston/Getty Images)

25th anniversary show

Back in the year 2000, the show celebrated its 25th season by pretending Bob had been cloned and woken up in the year 2025. 

In this hypothetical world, Bob interviewed several series regulars who are experts in their fields to share what was happening in the world of science, 25 years in the future. The result is a wacky episode featuring a whole bunch of scientific predictions that haven’t come true — but many that did.

Quirks and Quarks52:5330 years of Bob McDonald – Quirks & Quarks 25th anniversary show

Recorded in the year 2000, this episode looks forward to science in the year 2025.

And as a bonus:

Here’s Bob’s first piece for CBC Radio. It’s a segment that aired on Ideas in January 1978 for a special series about the climate called Running Hot and Cold. Bob starts at the 20:40 mark but the whole episode is worth a listen.

Quirks and Quarks56:0730 years of Bob McDonald – Bob on CBC’s Ideas in 1978

Bob’s first ever appearance on CBC Radio, talking about the climate in 1978

A black and white photo showing Bob McDonald with long shaggy hair, a white lab coat, and his name on a nametag. He's speaking in an animated way with his arm in the air.
Bob McDonald got his start in science communication at the Ontario Science Centre. Seen here in 1975, his elaborate demonstrations included one about how weather and the atmosphere work. Eventually he was invited onto CBC’s Ideas to appear on a climate themed series called Running Hot and Cold. (Submitted by Bob McDonald)

Written by Amanda Buckiewicz.



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