23 Jan 2015

Calling All Citizen Scientists - Check out your Toilet!

By Helaine Becker

You've probably heard it - that water goes down a drain differently on the north and south sides of the equator. But is it true?

The Internet, which knows all, seems to be out on this pressing subject. While there is solid theoretical backing for the difference in spin  - thanks to the Coriolis Effect - there is no solid evidence to back it up. Pardon the puns.

It's time to fill the information void once and for all!

Here's how we play:

You take a video of your toilet flushing, and post it to the comments section here along with your latitude. Eventually, your humble sci-why contributors will watch the videos and tabulate the data. with a large enough (stool) sample, ;) we can determine the truth, once and for all.

So on your marks, get set, flush!

Here is my video contribution, from greater Toronto, Canada (N44):


16 Jan 2015

Winter Whites: How Snowshoe Hares and Ptarmigan Are Influenced by Climate Change & Evolution

by Jan Thornhill

Josée Bisaillon illustration snowshoe hare
Josée Bisaillon's illustration of Lily wearing her 
"winter whites" in Winter's Coming.
My most recent book, Winter’s Coming: A Story of Seasonal Change, follows Lily, a young snowshoe hare, as she learns about the ways in which other animals prepare for winter’s arrival. While the forest's leaves turn from green to yellow to brown and eventually fall to the ground, Lily is unaware that she, herself, is gradually changing colour from brown to white.

baby snowshoe hare
A young snowshoe hare has no idea that it will turn
completely white in the fall. 
(NPS/Tim Rains)

Snowshoe Hares

Snowshoe hares are one of seventeen northern animals that have adapted to their environments by undergoing a colour change twice a year. In the autumn these mammals and birds grow white fur or feathers so they’ll be hidden against the snow, and in the spring they trade their glorious whites for a variety of muted browns that provide summer camouflage.

white camouflage snowshoe hare
Snowshoe hares turn white for the winter (NPS/Jacob W. Frank)

Right now it’s January and winter’s well under way in the northern hemisphere, which means that throughout their range snowshoe hares are safely camouflaged in their “winter whites.” Unfortunately there’s a new glitch in this fabulous winter adaptation: climate change is causing snow cover to arrive later and disappear earlier than usual in many of the areas where snowshoe hares live. 

Snowshoe hare researchers have been keeping track of this shortening of winter for a few years now and, not surprisingly, it’s not a great situation for the hares: for each extra day their coats are mismatched with their surroundings, there is an increase in mortality from predation.

snowshoe hare transition colors
A snowshoe hare in transition. (D. Sikes/Wikipedia)

Unlike people, snowshoe hares can’t just slip on appropriate clothing at will. Their colour changes are triggered by something neither they nor we can control: the changing length of daylight hours. Because of this, as warming trends continue, the snowshoe hare population is going to take a hard hit. The species, however, will likely bounce back as they gradually adapt to climate change. It’s all about evolution: any hares that turn white later than the majority in the fall or that moult earlier than others into their summer browns will have a greater chance of surviving long enough to breed and pass on this advantageous trait to their offspring.

This might be the only chance the species has since, like my character Lily in Winter’s Coming, snowshoe hares don’t have a clue that they spend half the year white and the other half brown. Researchers have found that in the spring, pure white hares do not seek out and crouch in areas where snow remains, but instead choose open areas where they are easily seen. 


 illustration ptarmigan and wilson's warbler soyeon kim
Soyeon Kim's illustration of a moulting ptarmigan from Is This Panama?

Ptarmigans are another species that turn white in the winter to match their snowy northern surroundings. Although, like the snowshoe hare, the change in a ptarmigan's plumage is linked to changes in daylight hours, researchers have shown that these birds, unlike snowshoe hares, appear to have an awareness of their colour.  

snow ptarmigan camouflage
Ptarmigans are camouflaged by white plumage in the winter, and will
also burrow into snow for warmth.
While both male and female Ptarmigans turn almost pure white in the winter, the females' springtime return to cryptic, camouflaging browns happens considerably earlier than the males'. So, while a female in her mottled summer colours is almost impossible to see once the snow melts, the white feathers the male still sports glow like beacons against the greens and browns of their habitat. Which makes them a target for predators such as gyrfalcons. But, apparently, standing out is the whole point: their flashy whites impress the girls, and impressing the girls is more important than hiding from predators. The really interesting thing, though, is that once the females begin egg-laying and are no longer receptive to the males' attentions, the males go out of their way to muddy their white feathers, masking the glaring white with smears of brown dirt for a couple of weeks until their spring moult is complete.

camouflaged female ptarmigan
A female willow ptarmigan is well camouflaged in the spring after
she grows her cryptic breeding plumage. 
(Jan Thornhill)

male willow ptarmigan spring white
Male ptarmigans keep their conspicuous white feathers longer than
the females in the spring to attract the girls. 
(Jan Thornhill)

To prove that this feather-soiling activity wasn't just a coincidence, during a 17-year study, Bob Montgomerie of Queen's University and his team purposely dirtied the white feathers of males early in the mating season with markers when the females were still receptive. This sullying of the birds showy "winter whites" so disturbed the amorous males, that they went to work, primping and preening, making their handsome white feathers once again immaculate within 48 hours.  

illustration Soyeon Kim Is This Pananma?
Soyeon Kim's illustration of a moulting ptarmigan from Is This Panama?


Zimova M, LS Mills, PM Lukacs and MS Mitchell (2014). Snowshoe hares display limited phenotypic plasticity to mismatch in seasonal camouflageProceedings of the Royal Society B: 281(1782).
Mills LS, et al. (2013) Camouflage mismatch in seasonal coat color due to decreased snow duration Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 110(18):7360-7365.
Dirty ptarmigan: Behavioral modification of conspicuous male plumageBehavioral Ecology 12(4): 429-438

Kids' Resources:

Shameless plug for my two most recent books, Winter's Coming: A Story of Seasonal Change (illustrated by Soyeon Kim), and Is This Panama? A Migration Story (illustrated by Josée Bisaillon)
Winter Is Coming Jan Thornhill coverIs this panama? cover Jan Thornhill

11 Jan 2015

Reply to an editorial

Readers expect to read facts in a newspaper -- maybe not the whole story, but as much of it as is practical, and all facts. Only on the editorial pages do we readers find opinions being presented as opinions. It's a good idea for opinions to be backed up by facts and science, but that doesn't always happen.

It didn't happen anyway in an opinion piece that appeared in the Victoria Times-Colonist newspaper, where a student of geography at the local university wrote a column titled "No Need to Fear Genetically Modified Crops." Here's a link to her piece. It was clearly written but there's no books or research quoted to support her opinion.

The best thing about newspapers is how people can not only read them, but write for them. We can read opinion pieces and letters to the editor -- and we can write them ourselves as readers expressing our opinions. It's a good idea to support opinions by facts and science, in practical ways. You don't need to be a food scientist to have reasons for your opinions about food!

So I wrote a reply to the column, explaining why there is a need for more thorough testing of GMO crops. And it appeared in the editorial pages a few days later. You can click here to read my reply in the newspaper, or click here and scroll down to read it as a guest post on my partner's blog Farm Gate.

The fun part is that the book I quote from is at the public library. Most of the science I learn is from books written for everyone to understand -- real facts, written in plain words. I'm proud to find science books I've written in libraries, too. But reading my own opinion piece in the newspaper was like having a conversation on science with my neighbours.

3 Jan 2015

Neuroplasticity - Can We Upgrade Our Brains?

My husband came back from a work trip recently, excited about a documentary he'd watched on the airplane.* It's an Australian production called Redesign My Brain, and if you can find all three episodes, it is well worth a watch. The host of the show offers himself up as a human guinea pig - over the course of three months, he spends 1 hour per day doing exercises (everything from memory drills to juggling) to see if he can change the way his brain functions. The exercises are designed by neuroscientists and other experts, who also conduct a number of in-depth physiological tests (such as functional MRIs) to measure his brain activity before and after the training. And the results are amazing. With a relatively modest investment of time - about as much as an adult is supposed to spend physically exercising each day - the host manages to dramatically increase his focus, memory, creativity, and mind-body connection.

The series is absolutely riveting, and I spent most of it thinking how badly I wanted to try this myself. My grandfather died of Alzheimer's a few years ago, after all, and in the last ten years I've often felt that I'm not as quick or as focused as I was when I was a kid. My knowledge has increased, but I suspect my intelligence has actually declined. I know my attention span has (I'm looking at you, social media!).

So I did some digging, and managed to track down an online brain training system that, near as I can tell, mimics the one modelled in the show.** A year's subscription is only $8 per month, and in the spirit of scientific enquiry (and jump starting my own brain) I'm thinking very seriously of making this my New Year's Resolution. If I do, I'll keep you posted on how it goes.

What about you? Have you noticed a change in your focus and thinking as you've aged? Have you ever tried a brain training system? If so, how did it work for you?

* Yes, he's the kind of guy that watches the documentaries. Me, I go for movies. And also novels. I think it's because I spend so much time reading nonfiction for book research that I want my entertainment to be free of learning.

** BTW, producers of Redesign My Brain, this is info you really should have included in the show itself - or at the very least, on your website.

26 Dec 2014

A Little Holiday Gift

Occasional Sci/Why contributor Margriet Ruurs sends in a couple of amazing links for your holiday pleasure.

First, this clever shorebird could teach human fishers a few lessons in patience and technique!

And here's a series of photographs by London-based photographer Tim Flach that challenges the way we see animals and ourselves.

Enjoy the links and the holiday season!

19 Dec 2014

The Kiss Connection in Spacecraft

By Paula Johanson

If you've ever wondered what connection could there possibly be between chocolate and the space program, well, there is one. According to Colonel Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut, it's the shape of a Hershey's Kiss.

On December 12, Hadfield posted on Facebook a picture of four spaceships, comparing the shape of the re-entry modules. All four have a similar shape. It's actually Hadfield's son Evan who manages most of Hadfield's social media posting, and he does so with grace and efficiency.

The Hadfields wrote a caption for the image:
The natural shape of spaceships. Apollo vs NASA's current fleet under construction. The Hershey's Kiss shape makes the spaceships inherently stable, and the broad flat bottom helps spread the blistering heat of re-entry. By moving the centre of gravity we can alter how the ships fly, and thus roll and steer them to both reduce g-load and land precisely.

It was Evan Hadfield who went on to add the following note:
All four of the modules shown have the same basic curved bottom, for the heat shield that protects the module while it returns to the Earth's surface. It is the shifting of the centre of gravity that allows it to creates lift – they shift it in the shaping of the capsule. Those two concepts are just different descriptions of the same thing.

One of the readers of Chris Hadfield’s Facebook page, Scott Corliss, had this to say about the curved bottoms of the re-entry modules:
The basic shape and curveture radius for the heat shields were worked out in the early 1960s by Harvey Allen, Max Faget and Caldwell Johnson (as noted in a book, Smithsonian Air & Space Collectors Edition, Fall 2013). Slide rule and engineering paper solutions still work today!

There's an adult discussion about the shape of the re-entry modules on the Space page on Reddit; for those who like to get a bit technical, click here.

And for those of any age who prefer a more hands-on approach to learning about space, there’s a link to a page here with instructions on how to make a spaceship-shaped treat for a space-themed party, complete with a Hershey's Kiss on top for a re-entry module. Now I know what to make for my brother's next birthday party -- he's been a spaceship fan since before the Apollo launches!

12 Dec 2014

The Dalai Lama and Science

By Pippa Wysong

Much of October 2014 was suffused with a sense of unreality because of the unusual trip that was to happen near the end of the month. Hubby and I were to travel to Alabama where Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama was scheduled to appear. We would attend several events, meet the organizers and even get a chance to meet His Holiness in person.

During my career as a science writer, I’ve had the privilege to meet some extraordinary people. But there was something different about the chance to meet the Dalai Lama, even if it was for just a five-second grasping of hands with no real chance to talk one-on-one. This is someone who is truly a global figure, whose name and influence cross all cultures and sectors of society. A true thought-leader.

It all seemed bigger than life, and in fact the opportunity somehow felt surreal. I didn’t tell anyone that I was going or, until now, that I had gone. The invitation to these events came through a colleague of my husband’s who became personally acquainted with His Holiness while trying to start up a hospital in India.

Symposium poster. Photo by P. Wysong.

Knowing almost nothing about the history of the 14th Dalai Lama nor of his brand of Buddhism, the Gelug school, I felt unprepared and scrambled to read about him.

I learned several intriguing things. One is that the Dalai Lama is actually a science geek and has an insatiable thirst to learn about areas relating to cosmology, physics, neurology, genetics, and more. In fact, he regularly invites small groups of top scientists to visit his home in Dharamsala in northern India to discuss recent scientific findings and trends. Plus, he makes sure that the education monks get has strong science content.

He has said that if an explanation of the natural world in the Buddhist texts is proven to be incorrect through scientific evidence -- then those sections of the Buddhist texts should be updated to stay current and accurate. In one place, he phrases this as, “...in the Buddhist investigation of reality, at least in principle, empirical evidence should triumph over scriptural authority, no matter how deeply venerated a scripture may be.”

He is co-founder of the Mind and Life Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to exploring relationships between modern sciences, philosophy, the humanities and social sciences. A goal is to explore the effects of contemplative-based practices (such as meditation) on the brain and human biology and behaviour.

This brings us to Alabama, where the University of Alabama (UAB) hosted a public panel discussion, in honour of the Dalai Lama’s visit, on the theme of neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to adapt and change.

Dialogue on Neuroplasticity and Health took place at the Jemison Concert Hall. The participants were top neuroscientists Edward Taub, PhD; Michael Merzenich, PhD; and Toronto-based psychiatrist Dr. Norman Doidge.

The Dalai Lama, centre, with scientists. Photo by P. Wysong.
Dr. Taub is a behavioural neuroscientist at UAB, known for making vital breakthroughs in the understanding of the brain and neuroplasticity. He developed CI Therapy, now used on stroke survivors. Dr. Merzenich taught neuroscience at the University of California San Francisco and developed various therapies that affect behaviour, memory, and learning ability. Dr. Doidge authored the bestseller The Brain That Changes Itself. His Holiness periodically interjected with questions and comments.

Public dialogues with leading scientists is not an uncommon thing for the Dalai Lama to do, and through these efforts he is contributing to science literacy – and showing that spirituality and science can be complementary.

Why does a spiritual leader lean so heavily towards the sciences? Because science helps explain how the world around us works, who we are, what we are, and what our relationship is to the world. It also provides tools we can use to help make ourselves and the world a better place.

The Dalai Lama’s key message is about compassion. How can we learn to treat each other better? How can we push aside traits that make us angry, distrustful, or violent? How can we create a society that is peaceful, with people respecting and appreciating the differences in others, and avoid conflict?

One tool that could be added to efforts in these directions is neuroplasticity. Studies show that by doing certain types of brain training, people who suffer debilitating, periodic depression can become less depressed – and even reduce their need for medication. Through meditation, or other techniques that train the brain and alter neuro-wiring, people who were once quick to anger can learn to handle difficult situations more calmly and rationally. Numerous examples of using neuroplasticity are described in Doidge’s book.

As a spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama is keen on areas of science that can help people become happier. And there is no contradiction with the Gelug school going in this direction. The Gelug school is more philosophical than theistic – a specific god isn’t worshipped. Followers learn to find inner peace and enlightenment largely using meditation and teachings of ethics, mixed with its version of spirituality.

Regardless of religion, spirituality, or a lack of either, what everyone has in common is that we want to live peacefully with those around us, ideally in a compassionate society. And the Dalai Lama has embraced science to help in this quest.