John Acorn wins the Royal Society of Canada award for promoting science

    Despite being known mostly for his television series, award attributed primarily for his work penning books

    By Michel Proulx on September 13, 2012

    And the winner is... John Acorn! Again!

    John Acorn won the 2012 Royal Society of Canada’s McNeil Medal, awarded for outstanding ability to promote and communicate science to students and the public within Canada.

    It’s the latest acknowledgement of Acorn’s work to promote science and share his passion for nature, and insects in particular, to a general audience. In 2008, he won NSERC's Michael Smith Award for Science Promotion and in 1998, he was the recipient of the ASTech Award for Excellence in Science and Technology Journalism.

    Despite the previous awards, Acorn said he was "tremendously" surprised when told he won this one.

    “It’s very humbling. It is a great honour. I mean, it’s the Royal Society!” said the Faculty of ALES Faculty Service Officer in the Department of Renewable Resources.

    Acorn is best known as the host and creative force of Acorn, the Nature Nut, an award winning television series that was produced in Edmonton and ran for seven seasons on a variety of networks including CTV, PBS, Discovery Canada and Animal Planet, among others. The episodes contain skits and songs, performed by Acorn, and convey information about nature and insects in a fun, creative way.

    But what pleased Acorn most about this award was that the nomination, which he only saw after being told he won, focused more on his work as an author, especially those books published by the University of Alberta Press.

    Acorn has written 16 books so far, including a wide variety of field guides such as Tiger Beetles of Alberta, Compact Guide to Alberta Birds and Bugs of Northern California, and children’s book about dinosaurs. He is currently working on another field guide, expected to come out in 2013, about butterflies in eastern Canada.

    “When someone says, ‘I got your book and I just want to get out there and chase ladybugs or tiger beetles or whatever,’ that’s the thing that really makes me happy,” he said.

    He added that the key to his success, whether in television or in books or even radio (he produced a radio series about dinosaurs at one point), is his ability to communicate his enthusiasm for insects and nature.

    “Enthusiasm is contagious,” he said. “It’s at least as important as the subject matter.”

    And yet, when Acorn was an undergraduate student, there was no indication he’d take the career path on which he ended up.

    “I was a hardcore biology nerd,” he said. But then he got a summer job as an interpreter at Sir Winston Churchill Provincial Park near Lac la Biche and in an instant, the showman in him, the one that compelled him to make movies and record songs with his friends as a teenager, had found the perfect outlet.

    “I was leading walks and giving talks. There was no one there to supervise what I did. I just made it up as I went,” he said.

    “The other thing that was really important was some of the books that I read when I was as young.”

    He read Edwin Way Teale, a Pulitzer-prize winning nature writer, who wrote in the literary tradition of Jean-Henri Fabre. Considered the father of entomology, Fabre wrote about the lives of insects using the biographical form rather than the more traditional, clinically detached style.

    “I just loved the tone, they were inspiring to me,” said Acorn. “I wanted to develop something like that. The effect on me was to really romanticize the whole process of studying nature and in particular studying insects. That was the stuff that inspired me when I was young.”

    So through the years, Acorn kept notes on his field trips, lots of notes, in which he would practice an inspiring style.

    Looks like it worked out pretty well.