Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

We Ain't Seen Nothing Yet: An Earthling's Guide to Outer Space


An audience of intrepid armchair explorers gathered to hear Bob McDonald talk about all things space, as drawn from his new book, An Earthling's Guide to Outer Space. It’s safe to say that his debut at the Ottawa Writers Festival was a roaring success, as his talk generated laughter, gasps, and lengthy applause.


McDonald has been explaining scientific findings to enraptured audiences since 1972. Most people know him from CBC’s Quirks and Quarks, which he has been hosting since 1992. McDonald’s latest book is written as a series of answers to questions that young people often ask, and each chapter finishes with activities to really get their minds connected with the subject at hand. McDonald’s own childlike enthusiasm was both touching and palpable; he barely contained his smile throughout the talk. At one point he brandished a beach ball that looks like Earth, giddy at the idea of just how far our knowledge has come in the past several centuries.


As a young boy, McDonald’s imagination was sparked by a planetary science book given to him by his mother. McDonald’s latest work is  inspired by the generations that come after him, and there were tears in his eyes when he claimed “if even one kid is inspired, it’ll make a difference.” Alas there were only one or two possible candidates for the Guide’s target audience of 7-14 year olds present, but as host Laurence Wall told the audience: “everyone is a young person tonight!” 


If you’ve ever wondered what we’ve gotten wrong about space in the past, the answer is apparently:  almost everything! Our five senses are not sufficient to really see or appreciate much of the vastness of the cosmos . As a result, many people were led to believe that the universe actually revolves around us. (I know some people who still believe this to be true in their own lives). One reason for this conclusion was because the movement of the Earth can’t be felt. Presently, we can only really see about 5% of the contents of the universe. Trivia fans were not disappointed when McDonald revealed, amongst many other things, that it would take us 100,000 years to reach the centre of our galaxy – and that’s if we were able to travel at the speed of light. 


Interest in outer space couldn’t be more timely, given all the current fears about climate catastrophe on Earth. Talk turned to what civilization might do now we’re potentially facing the beginning of the end. Is there anywhere out there we can escape to? Is a mass exodus to Mars viable? Or perhaps another planet will be discovered as a new land to colonise?  McDonald’s predictions for space travel in the next hundred years include the development of space tourism, hotels in space, as well as tourists and colonies on the moon and on Mars. More poignantly, he told us that instead of looking to a plan B, we need to focus on saving our planet. As he told his audience: “We live in the crown jewel of the universe. We need to move from protest to proactive… My exploration of space has made me love this planet.”


With no migration of humanity on the cards, perhaps An Earthling's Guide to Outer Space will help both children and adults alike see how good we have it here, by showing them what else is out there.