Technology & Science·Blog

Quirks & Quarks at 40: Celebrating science, the discoveries to come

So much has changed in our scientific knowledge since Quirks & Quarks went on the air in 1975, but so has the way science journalists gather that science news. Despite the technological developments, enormous challenges remain for humanity, writes Bob McDonald.

Much has changed since 1975, but big scientific mysteries and huge challenges remain

Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald in 1975. (CBC)

This week's Quirks & Quarks celebrates 40 years on CBC Radio with a look back at the remarkable changes that have taken place in science since the show first went on the air. But there has also been a huge change in the way journalists bring that science to you.

Back in 1975 (before I was host of Quirks & Quarks), when my hair was longer and black, my primary tool as a science journalist was a giant Underwood typewriter that was about the size of a microwave oven, but a lot heavier. Personal computers did not exist then, let alone laptops. It was actually quite satisfying hearing the keys pounding against the page, the huge typewriter carriage shunting to the left with every letter, then the big Shshsh-king! as it slid all the way back to the right, ready for the next line.

Make a mistake?

Quirks & Quarks' first host, David Suzuki, addressing students in 1972 at University of Manitoba
No problem, just grab the bottle of liquid white-out, dab it over the offending letter, blow on it until it dries, then type again correctly. We don't want to waste paper, after all. Oh, and make sure there is lots of ribbon left in the cartridge, and the carbon papers are in place for the extra copies.

Recording interviews was done on cassettes, and the sound transferred to 12-inch tape reels, which were then edited using razor blades and splicing tape. Sounds crude, but there is a fine art to that.

Of course, no computers meant no internet, so research was done over the phone, from the teletype machine that carried news wires, and at the library. It's amazing how much can be accomplished with such limited resources.

Today, research, interviews, editing, script writing and broadcasting are all done with no moving parts. Electrons streaming through the computer networks within the building and, indeed, around the world, carry the message of science from the laboratories to your home or to the phone in your pocket.

Bob McDonald in his Wonderstruck days.
But even though the technology that brings you radio has changed, the message of Quirks & Quarks remains the same: science is an evolving subject, continuously probing the nature of the universe and our place in it.

Just within the four decades our program has been on the air, scientists have sent robots to every planet in the solar system, and discovered almost a thousand planets orbiting other stars. We have revealed the complex web of our own human heritage with new species of our ancient ancestors, and found that many of us carry Neanderthal genes in our DNA.

We can carry the knowledge of the world in our pocket thanks to the web, have our entire genome read within hours, and can peer out to the edge of the universe.

It's amazing what has been accomplished, but there is still so much more to know.

First of all, 95 per cent of the universe is made of dark matter and dark energy, which are totally mysterious at this point. 

A slightly younger Bob McDonald in the Quirks studio.
Closer to home, science is seeing patterns where human activity is having trickle-down effects on the climate, the oceans, the biosphere — effects that could lead to our own demise.

So, the challenge for science in the future is to point the way to a more sustainable relationship with our unique planet, where we control our own numbers, and tip the balance away from just taking resources from the Earth to making those resources renewable.

We have accomplished so much in just four decades, imagine what we can do from here. Whatever happens, hopefully Quirks & Quarks will be there to tell you about it.

(Tune in this Saturday for our 40th anniversary special on CBC Radio One).

About the Author

Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.