When science educator Bob McDonald climbs on stage for Penticton’s fourth TEDx conference, he’s bringing a special prop.
A nice big garbage can. And no, he’s not planning to talk about recycling, except maybe in a cosmic sense. The garbage can, he said, is to help him demonstrate how black holes and gravity bend and curve, affecting the universe and our perceptions.
“When you take a large object like the Earth or a star, it bends space so that something else that is close to that, like a moon, or a satellite or a person on the surface, we are following the bend of space,” said McDonald, host of CBC Radio’s long running science show, Quirks and Quarks. “Satellites going around the earth, or the international space station are actually going in a straight line, but they are following the curvature of space, which is how Einstein saw it.”
It seems appropriate one of Einstein’s theories was confirmed last year, just before the 2016 centennial of his General Theory of Relativity.
“If you have two really massive objects like black holes going around each other, they will curve space so much they will make waves in it, and that is what we detected last year,” said McDonald. “That is what my talk is about gravity, gravitational waves and why they are important.”
McDonald has a gift for conveying the excitement of scientific investigation and discovery. He’s had time to perfect his technique over 25 years of hosting Quirks, taking over from Jay Ingram, who followed the show’s original host, David Suzuki.
“Every week is different. Scientists from around the world tell me their stories and it is always new,” said McDonald. “It doesn’t matter whether it is out at the edge of the universe, or in a jungle in Borneo, or looking into the atom, it is all new and it is all great.
“I am really privileged to talk to some of the smartest people in the world, doing what they do to try to understand how the world works. It is very exciting from that point of view and I like telling people about it.”
Generating an interest in science is important, with issues like climate change, pollution, overpopulation and the availability of food and water facing the planet.
“Science can point to some sensible solutions to that, but in order to go to those solutions, we need a better understanding. That’s why scientific literacy is important.”
Over the 40 years of broadcast, Quirks has maintained consistent ratings, according to McDonald, with about half a million people tuning in every week.
— Quirks & Quarks (@CBCQuirks) October 10, 2016
He thinks it is because Quirks offers a change from the news diet of violence, politics and sports.
“Those stories, they don’t change all that much, the characters change but the story pretty well remains the same,” said McDonald. “I think there is that endless fascination with trying to figure out how the world works.”
And figuring out how the world works is part of celebrating the centennial of Einstein’s theory. Though many have tried to disprove Einstein’s predictions over the last century, time after time he has been proven right.
“It would be nice to prove him wrong in some things, like he said you can’t go faster than the speed of light,” said McDonald. “I hope we prove him wrong in that so we can really start going somewhere. But he did predict gravitational waves and it took until last year to find them.”
Even Einstein himself didn’t believe they would be detected. McDonald explained it took a remarkably accurate instrument to find them. But now that we have, McDonald said, it again shows the fundamental work Einstein did on physics and understanding the universe and how gravitation works was right.
“Beyond that, gravity waves can be a new window on the universe,” said McDonald. Humans first studied the skies using light; our eyes, then through telescopes. The came radio astronomy, like the work being done at the White Lake observatory.
“We started seeing different things that you don’t see with light. Some of the most interesting objects are radio. They are exploding stars, or pulsars or neutron stars, all kinds of weird stuff,” said McDonald.
“Gravity waves could be another window. We’re not there yet, but we could develop gravity wave telescopes that can let us look further into space and farther back in time than before and who knows what we will see there.”
McDonald said he’s looking forward to sharing the story of gravity at the Penticton TEDx later this month.
“I find the TEDx talks are really great because it’s an opportunity to hear people from a wide variety of subjects and kind of get updated about what’s going on,” said McDonald. “Whether you are in the audience or one of the other presenters, one of the fun parts of it is hearing what everybody else has to say.”
TEDx Penticton takes place on Nov. 25, from 7 to 10 p.m. in Cleland Theatre. Ticket information and a full list of presenters at tedxpenticton.ca. The Penticton Western News is proud to be a presenting sponsor of this event.