CM Archive
CM Archive feature Story line

My Introduction to Bob McDonald

By Elizabeth Morton
Assistant editor of CM.

Volume 17 Number 5
1989 September

Anyone familiar with "Wonderstruck" is undoubtedly aware that one of the strengths of McDonald as presentations is his use of everyday, household props. The first prop he used was in fact one of the children !i "Could I have a victim-volunteer come up on stage?"

Bob McDonald is unparalleled in popularizing Science and making it fun. When he bounded onto the stage of the National Museum of Natural Sciences to demonstrate the principle of flight as part of the activities for this year's Ottawa Valley Book Festival (April 17 to 22), he was greeted by hoots and cheers from two hundred children. He encouraged the children to participate by asking them to name their schools. The auditorium briefly turned into the kind of rally I hadn't seen since frosh week as an undergraduate. This was my first taste of Bob McDonald's talent to demonstrate surprisingly sophisticated scientific principles in an entertaining and easily-understood way.

He invited us to voyage with him through space to some of his favourite "vacation spots." "But first," interposed McDonald, "how are we going to travel to these 'other worlds'? By flying, and first we need to know something about how flight works." (What a hook, I thought to myself. How much more effective than "Good morning, boys and girls. Today we are going to learn about flight.") As Kipling's Bi-Coloured-Python--Rock-Snake says to the Elephant's Child, "'Vantage number one." By the way, after he had told us more about flight than I dreamed existed, McDonald did take the children on a fantastic voyage through space to places like Phobos, one of the moons of Mars; Io, one of the moons of Jupiter; and Saturn's rings.

But to get back to flight, McDonald started out by showing a) why humans can't fly, b) why birds, in comparison, can, and c) how humans, using the principles of flight demonstrated by avian anatomy, build airplanes that do.

Anyone familiar with "Wonderstruck" is undoubtedly aware that one of the strengths of McDonald's presentations is his use of everyday, household props. The first prop he used was in fact one of the children! "Could I have a victim--volunteer come up on stage?" Using the humorous effect of big, scientific words to advantage, McDonald asked the unsuspecting "victim," Natasha, to demonstrate the "locomotion of Homo sapiens." After a moment of confusion, Natasha walked across the stage. This caused even more laughter, for the children were expecting their classmate to be asked to do something more demanding than simply walk.

Next, McDonald asked her to flap her arms up and down like a bird and imagine she was going to be flying for the next three days to the tropics. While Natasha flapped her arms up and down on stage McDonald asked the children in the audience to tell him what it is about birds' anatomy that allows them to fly. They gave appropriate responses: birds have hollow bones, feathers, an aerodynamic shape. Natasha was still flapping but she appeared meanwhile, to be flagging; however, she was naturally unwilling to admit that she was tired when McDonald asked her how she was feeling. He therefore directed her to flap even harder so that she would clear the planes taking off from Ottawa International Airport.

McDonald pointed out that the muscles of mammals and birds have developed differently because we have different kinds of locomotion. Birds have large pectoral muscles (the white meat or breast of chicken) to flap their wings. Humans, on the other hand, use their legs to get around and our largest muscle is the gluteus maximum Birds also have spindly "chicken" legs in comparison to well-muscled Homo sapiens legs.

When McDonald again asked Natasha if she was tired, she finally admitted defeat. Having amply demonstrated that human musculature is not developed for flight, she returned to her seat. 'Vantage number two.

Using this comparison of human and avian anatomy as a basis, McDonald demonstrated the principles of flight and built a paper airplane step-by-step. But he didn't just build a paper airplane. Explaining that birds are heavier at the front than at the back (i.e., their centre of mass is in the chest), he used a plastic wind-up bird with elastics for stored energy to make an initial demonstration of flight. Next, he transferred this principle to his piece of 81/2" x 11" white paper and made several accordion folds in the top of the paper, effectively making it weigh more at the front.

Then using his own body and mimicking a car stopping abruptly and turning, McDonald asked if this is how birds turn in flight. Birds of course bank to turn, but what happens if the bird's wings are on a perfectly flat plane? The bird literally slides out of the air. Therefore, explained McDonald, the wings must be in the shape of a V, and bent his paper wings accordingly.

McDonald also used not one, not two, but three different sets of props to illustrate why the upper surface of a wing is curved rather than flat. After demonstrating this principle with a hair dryer and two ping pong balls and again using two plastic cups and an elastic, McDonald got out one of his most inspired props--a soft frisbee with a weighted outer rim (suitable for throwing indoors). By this point in the program (approximately half-way through an hour-long presentation), the audience had absorbed a lot of technical material, albeit almost without noticing it, and we were all due for a break.

Demonstrating a curved surface at work, McDonald tossed the frisbee out into the audience and asked the children to throw it back to him. Hilarity ensued. The children attempted to throw it back to the stage and missed and when finally it did reach McDonald he tossed it back again and so on. The feeling of release and fun was palpable. The audience had a breather and we momentarily relaxed. 'Vantage number three.

After he finally got the frisbee back, McDonald went over the principles of flight once again and flew his paper airplane.

McDonald sometimes appears to be as goofy as the children he entertains so well, but there is a very sharp mind at work behind the banter. The blend of spontaneity and astuteness is captured perfectly in the little paper airplane he created on stage. If it fails to fly properly, as happened in the first presentation of the morning, McDonald doesn't, like Mary Poppins, whip out a perfect airplane from his store of props. It is in the nature of scientific discovery that not all experiments or demonstrations always work out exactly as planned. Instead, McDonald simply explained to the children that the airplane wasn't made quite right, and I believe the children like him and respect him all the more because he allows himself to be human and fallible in their eyes. 'Vantage number four.

But McDonald doesn't stop there. He studied the faulty airplane without appearing to do so, and the plane he made for the second presentation incorporated slight changes in the design and flew almost perfectly. It is this ability to be "light on his feet" under the pressure of performing and his obvious love of what he does that make Bob McDonald so unusual. Entertaining children and teaching are both gifts: a talent for both is indeed rare. The advantage is ours!

Bob McDonald and Eric Grace. Wonderstruck , Toronto, CBC Enterprises, 1988.

line indexes


1971-1979 | 1980-1985 | 1986-1990 | 1991-1995


The materials in this archive are copyright © The Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission

francaisDigital Collections / Collections Numérisees francais