My Life in Books: Bob McDonald Live
The book that started it all
"I was 7 or 8 years old and my mother just came home from shopping one day and just said ‘Here’ and handed me this book, Planets: Other Worlds of Our Solar System. At the time, I didn’t know anything about planets. When I first started looking through it, it didn’t look very interesting to me. But then, as I got into it, they had drawings like this that showed us what it might be like if you went to these places. This was just after Sputnik, so the space program hadn’t yet started. We didn’t know what planets were like, they were just guessing. All of a sudden I realized that these planets are worlds, just like the Earth, and that the Earth was only one of many of them and they are all really different. I found that fascinating. The one that really, really got me was Jupiter. It said that from Almathea, its closest moon, Jupiter would cover one-fourth of your sky. I fell into this picture. Imagine a quarter of your sky! I was blown away. I thought ‘this is real, this is a real place. This is a place I could go, out there, and see that.’"
The series that expanded his imagination
"Tom Corbett Space Cadet was was about some kids who go to a space academy to become astronauts. This academy has kids from all the different planets and its about their adventures of going to school and learning things, like how to fly spaceships. In one story, they have a crash landing on Mars and they have to hike to a canal so they could find their way into a city. I just fell into it. It was great. It was my adventure yet to come. I knew it was fantasy and farther off than my future might take me, but it was fun to imagine. It made space real for me and I enjoyed that. I would lock the door to my room and sit down and read the whole thing in one sitting."
The book that turned fantasy into reality
“What was neat about Arthur Clarke is that he was an engineer. He didn’t write science fantasy where you have aliens and monsters. He wrote science fiction, where you take existing technology and put it into the future. All his stuff was supremely realistic. There was this book called Islands in the Sky. It was about a kid who wins a contest and the prize of the contest is a trip up to the space station, which is under construction. The kids describes what it’s like to be weightless to be floating around where there’s no up and down. It was a realistic trip to space. That was the moment where I knew this was going to happen. I’ll be an adult when it happens, but maybe I’ll take a holiday on that hotel when they build it.”
The book he thinks everyone should read
“Silent Spring by Rachel Carson was a game changer. It changed me in retrospect. It came out in 1962, just a few years before the famous Earthrise picture taken from the moon. That was the first time we saw the entire Earth in one view. Her book brought together our influence on the planet as a whole, and brought forth how we are influencing really large systems with what we think are little things like drainpipes or sewer pipes or discharges from chemical plants. Her book was a game charger for the entire world, which is why I think it’s an important read still today.”
The book that made him a better science communicator
“Carl Sagan was a role model for me when I began communicating science to the public. I started in the 1970s at the Ontario Science Centre. I wanted to make science fun and entertaining and he was the guy when it came to space. He could take you there. He wouldn’t just give you statistics on Mars. I really admired that. The Cosmic Connection was a wonderful basic astronomy book, but he took you out to the planets and to the universe and told you what it was like. That’s what his magic was. Carl inspired a whole generation of us science communicators by his gift of communication, to be able to make it fascinating, still factual, but fun.”
The recreational reading he recommends
“Robert J. Sawyer a science fiction writer, but he really knows his science. He does wonderful things in his books. He did a trilogy called The Neanderthal Parallax: Hominids, Humans and Hybrids. It was all set in Canada, with Canadian characters. He raises the possibility what if Neanderthals did not go extinct? What if homo sapiens went extinct instead? What would the world be like? He creates a wonderful parallel universe where that happened and then he makes a connection between the two and they meet. A scientist from our planet meets a scientist from the alternate universe, but he’s a Neanderthal. He thinks differently, he’s physically different, he’s strong, he’s big. That’s what the series is about. I thought it was really neat. I like Rob’s work. I have to read really serious stuff during the year and these books take me away.”
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