21 Jul 2017

Canada's next Governor General - out of this world!

By Claire Eamer

Literally, she was out of this world. Twice! Julie Payette, who will take up the post of Governor General of Canada in the fall, is a scientist, an astronaut, and the first Canadian woman to board the International Space Station (ISS).

Julie Payette. Canadian Space Agency photo.
In fact, she helped build it. In 1999, she spent nine days as part of the second mission ever to the ISS. In a 2015 interview with Macleans Magazine, she said she thought of herself as a space construction worker. "We brought the first three tons of equipment, including some of the Imax camera stuff. We literally switched the light on to the station and walked in."

In 2009, Payette left Earth again, this time as flight engineer aboard the space shuttle. During that trip, she got to manipulate the giant, Canadian-designed robotic arms on the shuttle and the space station - Canadarm and Canadarm2. It was a tense assignment, she said in the Macleans interview: "When you're moving something on a a multi-billion-dollar structure, with people on board who count on that structure for safety and integrity, a mistake is not an option."

Payette has degrees in electrical engineering and computer science. She holds a commercial pilot's licence and is also a qualified pilot of military jet aircraft. She speaks English and French fluently, and can also carry on a conversation in Russian, Italian, Spanish, and German. And if that's not enough, she plays piano and has sung with several major classical music groups.

The 53-year-old Payette retired from the Canadian Space Agency in 2013, and became chief operating officer of the Montreal Science Centre. She left that job recently and will be sworn in as Governor General probably in late September or early October.

As the representative of the Crown in Canada, the Governor General performs the Queen's duties as set out in the Canadian constitution. It is a largely ceremonial role, but offers the person performing it plenty of opportunity to interact with Canadians in all regions and at all levels. Most recent governors general have used the opportunity to bring attention to an aspect of Canadian life that they feel strongly about.

In an interview with the Globe and Mail, Payette said it's still too early to say what her priorities will be during her tenure, but that they will include science and a knowledge-based society. As both a scientist and a science communicator, she is admirably equipped to take on that task.


14 Jul 2017

How Mary Shelley's Frankenstein Saved Lives

by L. E. Carmichael

One of the coolest things about fiction (especially science fiction) is how it inspires scientific discovery in real life. Cell phones - inspired by Star Trek communicators - are a classic example. Edmond Locard is another. Locard was a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes novels, in which the great detective solves crimes using the tiniest of clues. The books were one of the reasons that Locard became a forensic scientist. He not only pioneered the field of trace evidence - microscopic clues - but defined Locard's Principle, "every contact leaves a trace." Meaning that during a crime, physical evidence transfers between the crime scene and the criminal, this Principle the cornerstone of modern forensics.

One of my favourite examples is a case where science inspired art which then turned around and inspired science.

It began during the Scientific Revolution - the era of scientists like Newton and Boyle (who, in addition to defining Boyle's Law, invented the lab report). During a frog dissection around 1780, Luigi Galvani's assistant touched a nerve cell with his scalpel, and the frog's leg jumped. Galvani believed nerve cells conducted electricity - could electricity be the spark of life? Electric shocks couldn't save drowning victims, but they did cause the corpse of a murderer at Newgate Prison to sit straight up.

Mary Shelley was well-educated and fascinated by science, so she probably knew about these experiments. So it's probably not surprising that, when a group of her friends challenged each other to write scary stories, she came up with Frankenstein.

Here's the cool part.

In the early 1930s - golden age of Hollywood monster movies - 9-year-old Earl Bakken saw Frankenstein for the first time. He loved it so much, he went back over and over again, fascinated by the way electricity brought dead tissue back to life. Bakken also loved to tinker with mechanical devices, and once he got his engineering degree, opened a medical technology company in his garage. He repaired equipment for the local hospital and made friends with a lot of the staff, including Dr. Wilton Lillehei.

Lillehei was a pioneer in the field of open heart surgery. After the procedures, about 10% of the patients, many children, needed pacemakers to keep their hearts beating until they healed enough to beat on their own. At the time, pacemakers were so big, they had to be pushed around on carts. They also had to be plugged into the wall. As a result, one of Lillehei's child patients died during a power outage in 1957.

Lillehei asked Bakken to come up with something better. Bakken designed a 4 inch square, wearable pacemaker powered by a 9 volt battery. Bakken tested it on a dog and the very next day, Lillehei connected the wires to a little girl's heart. She not only survived the surgery, her heart grew strong enough that she didn't need the device anymore. Today, Bakken's company, Medtronic, is the largest manufacturer of (implantable) pacemakers in the world.

For more cool stories about medical innovations, check out my children's book, Innovations in Health. And for more on Frankenstein, vampires, werewolves, and sea monsters, check out Monster Science, by Sci/Why blogger Helaine Becker.

7 Jul 2017

It’s Chemical!

By Adrienne Montgomerie

In advertising and in popular writing, especially about health concerns, chemical is used to mean harmful. As science writers and science-literate people, we know that chemical isn’t a synonym for harmful. Not all chemicals are harmful, and besides, everything is a chemical. So how can we, as science communicators, help readers understand the message by using more accurate language?

What writers mean by chemical

When we read chemical, the writer often means
  • harmful
  • unnatural
  • artificial

The truth about artificial chemicals

Some chemicals are good and some are harmful. And some are good because they are harmful. Think of chlorine bleach, for example. It is deadly in large doses, and that’s what makes it useful for disinfecting drinking water. Chlorine bleach (sodium hypochlorite) is an artificial chemical.
There is a common perception that artificial or manufactured chemicals are more toxic than natural ones. You don’t have to look beyond the periodic table to find natural chemicals (or elements, in this case) that are highly toxic: lead, plutonium, and mercury, for example.

The truth about natural chemicals

Yes, natural substances are chemicals. Everything is a chemical! Water is dihydrogen oxide and salt is sodium chloride. The difference between an artificial chemical and a natural one is that the natural one can be found in nature, without anyone making it.

To those who tell me “It’s natural, so it can’t hurt you” (I swear, people really say this to me) I respond, “You mean like poison ivy and peanuts?”

Of course they know that these natural things are quite harmful to some people. But they’ve gotten caught up in some rhetoric and need a little nudge to remember the truth they know.

Even arsenic is a natural chemical. It’s made in Earth’s crust and often makes its way to the surface because of mining operations. Arsenic is a deadly natural chemical. So is the botulism toxin. In fact, botulism is more than a million times more toxic than arsenic.

Synthetic forms of natural chemicals

What! Enter the grey area: chemicals we find in nature but that are manufactured in larger quantities than it would be reasonable to get from the natural sources. Vitamin C comes to mind. So does alcohol. Most synthetics are chemically identical to the natural form.

Some synthetic forms are actually safer than the natural form because of the natural source is prone to being bound up with some less desirable “by-products.”

Better terms

When we are writing or editing, let’s steer toward using terms that promote a better understanding of science, and of the world around us. Avoid using chemical when synthetic or harmful are the intended meaning.

30 Jun 2017

Science in Middle Grade Fiction

By Yolanda Ridge

As a kid, most of what I learned about history came from reading historical fiction. Although non-fiction has come a long way since I was growing up, for me there is still something magical about learning a topic through a character that is experiencing it.

But unlike historical fiction, a genre that gives a realistic depiction of history, science fiction refers to titles set in the future dealing with imaginative concepts - things that are often based on scientific fact or possibility, but not necessarily true. If I had relied on A Wrinkle in Time to learn about space, I probably wouldn’t have graduated high school.

Fortunately, there is a subsection of fiction that has become increasingly popular in recent years, which Jacqueline Houtman has creatively labeled “sciency fiction”. She keeps a list of middle grade titles that fit into this category on her blog called Sciency Fiction.

Houtman’s novel, The Reinvention of Edison Thomas, is a perfect example of “sciency fiction”. It weaves accurate information about physics and mechanics into the story of Eddy, a middle grader who invents a traffic calming device using parts from discarded machines, while redefining success and navigating social challenges.

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm also uses references to famous scientists – Galileo, Newton, Salk, Oppenheimer – in telling the story of 11-year-old Ellie as she mourns the loss of her best friend and her goldfish while exploring immortality and the ethics of scientific discovery related to her grandfather’s research.

Combining my love of both historical fiction and “sciency fiction” is the 2010 Newbery Honor Winner, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, about 11-year-old Callie who is endlessly curious about the natural world. Each chapter begins with an epigraph from Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species. The book has been followed up with a sequel and two graphic novels that continue to showcase Jacqueline Kelly’s ability to combine information with engaging story telling.

On the Canadian front, Kenneth Oppel's Half Brother introduces readers to behavioural science through the fascinating relationship between 13-year-old Ben and Zan, a chimpanzee. Oppel’s latest title, Every Hidden Thing, explores archaeology with another engaging story aimed at young adult readers.

Also for a slightly more mature audience, Susan Nielsen’s We Are All Made of Molecules joins the long list of current books featuring super smart protagonists who love to share scientific facts with readers. In this case, we meet 13-year-old Stewart who defines relationships geologically, has a cat named Schrödinger, and remembers his mother by breathing in her molecules.

Gordon Korman’s Ungifted takes the opposite approach by throwing an “ordinary” student into a special program for gifted and talented students where a lot of learning happens for all the characters (and the reader). The Hypnotist and Masterminds series also weave scientific elements into action-packed stories that border on science fiction.

Many other great titles combine science fiction and “sciency fiction”. The anthology Polaris: A Celebration of Polar Science employed science content reviewers to ensure the science fiction collection could be used to enrich and supplement science teaching. Fantasy can also deliver “sciency fiction” as it does in Paula Johnson’s Tower in the Crooked Wood, where Jenia uses her knowledge of trees to learn by trial and error about the magic used to kidnap her.

In celebrating the release of my recent Inside Hudson Pickle, I prepared a list of children’s fiction books depicting medical conditions caused by a single gene or chromosomal change for the Nerdy Book Club. Among the titles I researched, there was a wide variation in how much scientific detail was provided. In my book, where 13-year-old Hudson’s uncle is diagnosed with a genetic condition called Alpha-1, I drew on my experience as a genetic counsellor to explain autosomal recessive inheritance within the context of the narrativke.
middle grade novel,

Like many authors, I’ve tried to write the book I would’ve liked to read when I was that age – so I could learn about genetics without staring at one of Mendel’s pea diagrams. Today, there are many great choices for young people who want non-fiction, “sciency fiction” or a combination of both.

This week's guest blogger, Yolanda Ridge, is a Vancouver-based writer with an interest in both fiction and science.

23 Jun 2017

Retro Shows on Science from the CBC, and more!

By Paula Johanson

Summer is here, and a lot of people are out of school for months. Though it's time to be outdoors doing fun things like gardening and kayaking, nobody wants to turn their brains off for an entire summer. There's plenty of science to learn -- but where?

One of the things that works for science learning in the summer is finding free videos and audio recordings and podcasts to play when needed. Quiet evenings after vigorous activity, or during long rides in buses or cars -- those are good times to play these recordings. I find it good exercise for my brain, which complements all the good exercise for my body I get in summertime! Here are some of the science resources that might be handy for students and families this summer:

Hosted at the University of Victoria's archives website is an amazing profile of a citizen scientist extraordinaire!
Ian McTaggart Cowan was a true citizen scientist who was committed to sharing scientific knowledge with all Canadians. Click here for a link to the profile, with plenty of info on this man and the science he loved. He hosted three popular television series on the CBC: The Web of Life, The Living Sea, and Fur & Feather. All of his episodes  are available at this link -- and there's enough episodes to watch one every day till September or binge a series over a weekend! This profile could be a good resource for home learning projects or for students who just want to keep their science brains revving.

On CBC radio, the IDEAS program presents interesting ideas in just under an hour of thoughtful talk. Often these episodes are on science topics. On their website you can see links to recent broadcasts or scroll down to the link  "Browse Past Episodes" and find links to many episodes which you can play right away or download onto your phone, computer, or MP3 player. Some of these talks will inspire teenagers to discuss the topics with their parents and teachers or find books at the public library!

As well, IDEAS hosts the Massey Lectures every fall (five talks by a celebrated speaker), and the past lectures are available at this link. If you like listening to lectures and discussions and finding books on the same topics, you'll enjoy looking through the list of past lectures and picking out some to hear. In 2009, the Massey Lecturer was Wade Davis, speaking as a field anthropologist on "The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World." The traditional knowledge he discusses include practical science studies such as navigation and sustainable agriculture.

Canada's National Film Board has made most of their videos available online for free! (They have materials in French as well as English, y'know.) Check out their Subjects page on the Sciences at this link and pick out some videos both classic and recent for your summer viewing. There's also some teaching aids and material for younger children.

16 Jun 2017

A Two-hour Marathon

Breaking the four minute mile.
Roger Bannister: 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds
In 1954 Roger Bannister electrified the world by breaking the the four-minute mile barrier. This video of the historic run is narrated by Bannister himself: Four minute mile

Many had believed that running a mile in under four minutes was beyond the capability of the human body. Once that psychological barrier had been broken, new records were set steadily. Bannister's record stood for  less than seven weeks, before being broken by Australian John Landy. And six weeks later both men ran under four minutes in the Vancouver Commonwealth Games, in a race known as the "Miracle Mile".

Roger Bannister and John Landy's "Miracle Mile" immortalized in bronze
outside the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver

The Two-hour Marathon Challenge

A far more difficult barrier will be broken soon when someone runs the marathon distance (26.2 miles) in under two hours. Bannister was an amateur athlete - a medical student at the time. He trained himself. He was helped in the race by a friend, Chris Brasher, who set the pace for the first two laps. The two-hour marathon attempt is a very different enterprise.

Both Nike and Adidas have already spent years (and undisclosed amounts of money) on projects to reach this goal. A third project was launched two years ago by Yannis Pitsiladis, a professor of sports and exercise science at the University of Brighton in Britain. He has reportedly been trying to raise $30 million to enable a runner to break two hours by 2019.

Running a marathon distance in two hours is an astonishing feat. It requires a pace of under 4 minutes 35 seconds per mile.  The current marathon world record, set by Kenyan Dennis Kimetto at the Berlin Marathon in September 2014, is 2:2:57 (2 hours 2 minutes 57 seconds). While 3 minutes doesn't sound like a long time over 2 hours, it is an improvement of 2.5%, which is quite significant.

Dennis Kimetto in Berlin

Nike's First Attempt

Kipchoge, Tadese and Desisa

Last month, on May 6th, Nike staged a serious attempt to break the barrier. Nike has been working with three chosen athletes: Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea, and Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia. The attempt was made at the Monza race car track, near Milan, Italy. The site was chosen for ideal marathon characteristics: flat terrain, calm winds, low temperature. The three star athletes were supported by a team of 30 elite marathon pacers, and a pace car. They were outfitted with Nike's best running shoes, the newly developed Vaporfly 4%.

The result? Eliud Kipchoge ran a time of 2:0:25 - close, though still significantly off the target. For a number of reasons this time isn't recognized as a world record. It wasn't meant as an attempt at a world record, but as a demonstration that it's possible to run a two hour marathon. Desisa dropped off the pace after 30 minutes, eventually finishing with a time of 2:14:10. Tadese started to fall behind at around mile 20, and he finally clocked 2:06:51. If you have an hour or two to spare, you can see a video of the attempt here: Two hour attempt

So Where's the Science?

1. Shoes

Nike has named its new shoes Vaporfly 4% because they claim that the shoes are 4% more efficient than its current best marathon shoes. What's different? The shoes use an extremely lightweight but resilient foam for the sole. And they have a carbon fibre plate inserted into the sole of the shoe. That plate functions a lot like the carbon fibre blade used by amputee "blade runners". The blade flexes with each step, converting kinetic energy into elastic energy, and then releasing it, returning the energy to the motion of the foot. There's ongoing debate about whether this type of technology confers an "unfair advantage" to its user. If it's deemed to do that, it will be illegal in official races.

The spoon-shaped plate is visible in this image of the shoe
Although Nike will soon begin marketing generic versions of the shoe, the three athletes were equipped with customized shoes, designed to match exactly their individual gait.

2. Pacing

It is optimal to run at exactly the same pace throughout the distance. This attempt used a pace car, which travelled at exactly the required speed for a two hour marathon. It used a laser beam to project a line onto the track to show the pacing athletes exactly where they needed to be.

3. Drafting

Wind resistance is a factor in how much energy is needed to run. Studies have shown that at the required speed of 6 meters/second 4% of your energy is needed to overcome wind resistance. Another study found that 'drafting' eliminates almost all of that wind resistance. (Drafting is where a runner runs behind another runner, who thus shelters them from the wind).

(The faster you're moving, the more important wind resistance becomes. It's extremely important for cyclists. At 40 km/hour over 90% of your energy is needed to overcome wind resistance! In my book Faster, Higher, Smarter you can read the story of cyclist Graeme Obree who was brilliant at finding different cycling positions to reduce drag).

For this attempt, the runners were able to draft behind a V-shaped formation of 6 elite runners at all times. There were ten teams of three who took it in turns to shield the runners. Nike used wind tunnel tests to determine the optimal configuration of the pacers.

So Why No 2-hour Marathon time?

It's a reasonable question. The project was looking for a 2.5% improvement over the existing world record time. Nike claims the shoes alone should have given a 4% improvement. The drafting should have given perhaps another 2% (not 4% because in a regular marathon each athlete will normally spend some time drafting behind competitors). Further advantages were available from the even pace; from drinks being delivered by moped instead of needing to be snatched from a table on the way; from the flat terrain.

Is the science wrong? It's certainly possible, perhaps likely, that laboratory tests don't translate accurately to the road. Perhaps the Vaporfly should be Vaporfly 2%, not Vaporfly 4%. But it's also unrealistic to assume that one of the three runners will deliver a world-record performance for the Nike experiment. Obviously the world record is the most extreme performance ever. It's the outlier of thousands of top level marathon attempts.

It's more realistic to re-frame the challenge as looking for an improvement from an average elite performance. Kipchoge's marathon times are the best of the three athletes. His average time has been 2 hours 5 minutes. So the challenge was to get a 4% improvement in his average performance. With that in mind, it's remarkable that Kipchoge was able to get an improvement of 3.5%. It seems certain that ongoing attempts using technology to assist runners will eventually result in the elusive two hour marathon.

9 Jun 2017

Superfun STEM trailer!

Post by Helaine Becker

Kids Can Press has  released the trailer for my new picture book biography about William Playfair, the Victorian-era rogue who single-handedly invented the field of infographics. Check it out!