20 Jan 2017

"Effect of Activities on Bones" -- an excerpt from The Paleolithic Revolution

Stories from the Stone Age fascinate many people. Who were the long-ago humans who made cave paintings and carved ivory? I've often wondered how they turned rocks like flint or obsidian into knives and tools. The things that scientists learn from a scrap of bone, or an old carving, are amazing!

This year I got to put to use all my favourite archaeology facts while writing a book for Rosen Publishing, called The Paleolithic Revolution. It's part of a series called The First Humans and Early Civilizations.

Here's an excerpt from the first chapter, with the heading "Effect of Activities on Bones."

Bones are a lasting record of our lives. During the Paleolithic Revolution, modern humans were strong people. Their bones had much larger muscle attachments than is common today, even for professional athletes.

Their bones were harder, too. Bones from people born today are on average 15 percent weaker than bones from people born during the Upper Paleolithic Era. This is due to two factors. People today are less physically active and use more kinds of tools. Physical strength is less important for survival. People then spent a lot of time walking, gathering food, and hunting. Leading active lives and using simple tools made their muscles and bones strong, just as it does for athletes and construction workers today.

Paleolithic humans used their bodies as tools, putting stress and strain on their bones and joints. As people aged, their joints and backs wore out and became damaged. Bones broke from falls or fights, causing injuries like a rodeo rider would have today. Some breaks healed well, showing signs of good care. People broke their toes because their shoes were simple wraps or soft like moccasins, not rigid-sole boots. Their feet and toes were shaped from wearing sandals or soft skin shoes, instead of splaying wide from going barefoot all the time.

Paleolithic people’s lives affected their teeth, too. From chewing tough food, their jaws grew a little bigger than people today who eat softer food. Bigger jaws meant fewer impacted wisdom teeth than today. Their teeth had fewer cavities than today, too, because they ate fewer grains and other food that sticks to the teeth. But they had other tooth problems instead. Since people used their teeth as pliers and clamps, their teeth got worn down, chipped, and even cracked. People also chewed leather to make it soft. Some old people had teeth worn down to nubs.

13 Jan 2017

Crochet Your Own Coral Reef - and Help Save the Planet

Post by Helaine Becker


All images courtesy Institute of Figuring

The coral reefs of our planet are in danger. That's one reason a group of crafters are getting together to create artificial reefs - out of wool! Not only are they making something of extreme beauty, but their creation is bringing awareness of the reef's troubles to museum visitors. It's also helping to teach people about topology - the science of shape.
Image courtesy Institute of Figuring

The Crochet the Reef project is a brainchild of two sisters,  Margaret and Christine Wertheim, of the Institute For Figuring.

They began the project in 2005 in their Los Angeles living room but gradually the project - and their gorgous woolly reef -  began to expand into other cities and countries. It  has now become a worldwide movement that engages communities across the globe from Chicago, New York and London, to Melbourne, Dublin and Capetown. The Crochet Reef is a unique fusion of art, science, mathematics, handicraft and community practice that may well be the largest community art project in the world. Eager crafters can create their own sub reefs! ( For information, on how, click here.  )

Image courtesy Institute of Figuring

The inspiration for making crochet reef forms begins with the technique of "hyperbolic crochet" discovered in 1997 by Cornell University mathematician Dr. Daina Taimina. The Wertheim sisters  elaborated upon it to develop a whole taxonomy of reef-life forms. 

The method for making these forms is a simple pattern or algorithm. On its own it it produces a mathematically pure shape. By varying this algorithm, however, the sisters discovered they could create endless variations and permutations of shape and form.

One fascinating aspect of this project is how it addresses the dangers of a disappearing habitat with that of a disappearing craft. Traditionally, crocheting has been a feminine pastime and one sniffed at by men as being a less important technology than, say, IT. However, crocheting can not only produce many useful and beautiful materials, it can also be an excellent tool for exploring mathematical problems. 

To see the crochet reef in person, you can visit the Museum of Art and Design in New York until January 22, 2017. Or check the Institute for Figuring website for other exhibit locations near you. 
Image courtesy Institute of Figuring




5 Jan 2017

Deep Space Network!

This week, my new favourite science website is once again a NASA site. Their Deep Space Network keeps track of communications from interplanetary spacecraft, on missions around the solar system and beyond. And when you click on the link for their live feed, you can see representations of the signals being received right at that very moment by NASA's three big radio telescopes.

As they say:
When it comes to making a long-distance call, it's hard to top NASA's Deep Space Network. It’s the largest and most sensitive scientific telecommunications system in the world.


This is an image borrowed from the Deep Space Network website -- thank you, NASA!

Wandering through this website is fascinating. There are so many little details that will fascinate fans of space programs like me. Next to the image of Voyager was this caption:

Several times per week, the DSN antennas capture signals from the two Voyager spacecraft, which are exploring the edge of interstellar space. Their signal has a received power 20 billion times weaker than that of a digital wristwatch. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

My favourite science website isn't the same one, day in and day out. Lately, about every week there's another website that comes to my attention and is suddenly my NEW favourite. Many of these websites are based on astronomy or space exploration, with amazing photographs and videos. Other sites are focusing on citizen science, or geology, or nearly any science. I'm not fickle so much as distractable -- SQUIRREL! (That's my favourite quote from the film Despicable Me.)

23 Dec 2016

Sci/Why's Book and Website Picks for 2016


By Duncan.co (CC)
Just in time for the holidays! Sci/Why is carrying on the tradition of presenting our best science book and website picks for your holiday reading pleasure.

Here's the latest news and notes from the authors here at Sci/Why:

Claire Eamer says: "Here’s my current fascination: An online interactive map, using data from NASA, that will show you the impact of sea level rise anywhere in the world. You can pick a level from 0 (current conditions) up to 9 metres in 1-metre increments, and then in larger increments up to +60 metres. It’s fascinating to see what even a 1-metre rise in sea level does to areas like the Netherlands or even Delta, BC – especially since that amount of sea level rise could happen within decades if climate change continues at the current pace. The site is at http://flood.firetree.net/."
Claire Eamer's latest science book is INSIDE YOUR INSIDES: A GUIDE TO THE MICROBES THAT CALL YOU HOME (Kids Can Press, 2016), and she has two more books coming out in a couple of months: WHAT A WASTE! WHERE DOES GARBAGE GO? (Annick Press) and a decidedly unscientific picture book, UNDERNEATH THE SIDEWALK (Scholastic Canada)

Helen Mason sent this: "My favourite web site is http://www.sciencemag.org/. Not only does the site have news, science papers, and podcasts, you can sign up for a regular newsletter that puts links to fascinating articles in your Inbox. My favourite book so far this year is The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk by Jan Thornhill. Thornhill's detailed artwork will attract many readers, as will the engrossing but unhappy tale. I particularly like the ghosts of the Great Auks on the final spread."
Helen Mason has authored 34 books, most of them for young readers. Crabtree will publish her A Refugee's Journey from Syria and A Refugee's Journey from Afghanistan in early 2017.

L. E. Carmichael says: "I highly recommend the adult-level science book Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier, by Jeffrey A. Lockwood. Part history, part ecological mystery, the book explains how an insect species that swarmed in the trillions went extinct in a few short decades. The events in the book happened over a century ago, but as we’re currently in the midst of a mass extinction event, the concepts are both contemporary and relevant. Plus, anyone who read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s On the Banks of Plum Creek as a kid will love learning more about the species that devastated her family’s farm."
L. E. Carmichael published 5 children’s science books in 2016: How Can We Reduce Agricultural Pollution?, The Science Behind Gymnastics, Discover Forensic Science, Innovations in Health, and Innovations in Entertainment. Her 21st book, Forensics in the Real World, releases in January. For more info, visit www.lecarmichael.ca.

Joan Marie Galat recently launched her newest astronomy book "literally" in a rocket at the Telus World of Science in Edmonton. Dot to Dot in the Sky, Stories of the Aurora reached 175 metres (nearly 600 feet)! She says, "If you want to launch a book in a rocket, you need to understand thrust, aerodynamics, and other forces. If you want to get your book back, you need to understand ejection and recovery systems! This NASA Model Rocket website is a good place to start."
As well as trying to get her book closer to space, Joan invited Canadian Astronaut, Dr. Dave Williams, to read Stories of the Aurora. He provided this back cover comment: "Having watched the aurora from space, I’ve known the unique thrill of seeing the lights swirl over the planet. Joan Marie Galat captures the science and remarkable folklore of the aurora in Stories of the Aurora, an inspirational collection of tales that makes the reader want to experience their beauty first hand." You can watch the rocket blast off and see book trailers on Joan's YouTube channel.

Try this from Jan Thornhill: "Here’s my website pick: the University of Florida’s Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature has digitalized 6,000 old children’s books! These include 495 natural history books. Fabulous site to suck hours out of the universe!"
Jan Thornhill has two new books out this year: The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk (Groundwood) and I Am Josephine - and I Am a Living Thing (Owlkids). She hopes to have her website www.janthornhill.com updated this spring. She also continues to write about the really weird and interesting fungi she finds on her blog: https://weirdandwonderfulwildmushrooms.blogspot.ca

Helaine Becker says she's hoping to announce a new science book soon! And she does have a few books coming out this year. A science/math one: Lines, Bars, and Circles: How William Playfair Invented Graphs (picture book, KCP) and You Can Read! (picture book, Orca), which is "a pretty darn funny thumbs up to literacy." We'd expect nothing less!

Adrienne Montgomerie is totally geeky about knowing how things work, whether they're animals or machines or Earth or the universe! What she likes to hear most is "Can I read that when you're done writing?!" <scieditor.ca>
Adrienne sent this recommendation: "My favourite science book is Packing for Mars, by Mary Roach, because it is funny as well as informative, and it talks about a lot of the routine things that make up the bulk of life but that don't get talked about much. It's not all rocket telemetry and innovative fuels — sometimes it's just about how to brush your teeth."

Paula Johanson says, "This week, my favourite citizen science website is The Christmas Bird Count in Victoria: http://www.vicnhs.bc.ca/?page_id=1425. They even have a form that can be filled out by people at home watching the birds at a bird feeder. My plans for Boxing Day just got made. That's the day of the Christmas Bird Count for my town, Sooke.
In August, Paula's science book The Paleolithic Revolution from Rosen Publishing's series The First Humans and Early Civilizations was released. And also this fall release of two non-science books: The Spanish-American War, and Pierre Elliott Trudeau, a biography from Five Rivers Publishing's series on Canadian Prime Ministers. In January she has two more books coming out: Critical Perspectives on Vaccinations from Enslow Publishing, which is another science book (yay!), as well as Women Writers from the Enslow series Defying Convention: Women Who Changed The Rules.


And my turn: My book recommendation this year is Cattail Moonshine and Milkweed Medicine: The Curious Stories of 43 Amazing North American Native Plants by Tammi Hartung. Not only does this book give you the scientific names of these common plants, but she gives the details of their pre-contact and modern uses as medicine, food, and decor. And my favourite website comes from Claire Eamer's Sci/Why post "Over, Under, and On the Arctic Sea Ice." The Inuit Situ (Sea Ice) Atlas combines cutting-edge science with Inuit traditional knowledge on one of the most important environmental topics of our time.
And for my update: I'm just revamping my website at www.mariepowell.ca with the addition of 16 new books for young readers this fall. With another eight early- and middle-grade books coming out this fall, I should top 40 books in 2017.

What's your favourite science book or website this year? Enjoy these top picks from our Sci/Why authors bunker -- and please leave a comment!

Falalalala -- lala - la - LAAAA!

Posted by Marie Powell

19 Dec 2016

Indestructible Creatures: The Tardigrade

Imagine that you make a balloon animal: a bear. Then you take the spray nozzle from the kitchen sink and stick it where the mouth goes. Now give it 6 or 8 legs and long thin claws. Finally, shrink it down to just one millimetre long — about the thickness of a dime. Next, imagine that there are zillions of these balloon animals, found in every biome on Earth.

What will you call it? How do you feel about the name tardigrade? Because this tiny balloon animal looks a lot like one.


Moss Piglet and Water Bear are other names for the tardigrade. 
What name would you give this species if you discovered?

Finding Real Live Tardigrades 

Look inside the tiny water droplets on moss and you’re probably looking at a tardigrade’s home and hunting ground. The leaf litter on the forest floor is rife with them too. From the sediments on the deepest bottom of the ocean to the hot springs in the Himalayan mountains, tardigrades make themselves right at home.

There are 1150 species of tardigrades that we know so far. Some have mouths that look like beaks and some have teeth that look like a shark’s; then there’s the one with the kitchen faucet for a mouth. Some species of tardigrade have eyes, and most have bristles over their body (like the ones on a toothbrush). Those bristles help them sense their surroundings. All tardigrades have a mouth and intestines.

You might be able to see some of the largest species of tardigrade. They could reach across the edge of a dime. But the smallest tardigrades would have to form a chain with 20 relatives to reach across that one millimetre distance. You'll need a microscope to see the tiny ones.

Caring for Tardigrades 

These tiny creatures are so tough that scientists call them extremophiles. Notice that word has the word extreme in it. The ophile ending means “very strong liking for.” No one has asked the tardigrades if they enjoy extreme conditions, but they sure can survive them:

Freezing temperatures? No problem.
Boiling hot? Got that covered.
Toxins? Wait until they’re gone.
Pressure? Whatever.
Radiation? P-shaw.
Outer space? They don’t even need space suit!

There is no airway in a tardigrade. They don’t breathe the same way most animals do.

Plants and bacteria are what the tardigrade eats. They can find that food almost anywhere. After using their teeth to pierce the cells of their prey, they suck out the cell contents.

Their Key to a Long Life 

One tardigrade celebrated its 120th birthday. Moss must be a very healthy diet. About 10 years is how long most live.

They can survive 10 years without food or water. (You can only survive a couple days without water.) The trick is that they dry out and shut down when times are tough. Tardigrades force the water out of their body so that their cells don’t burst if they freeze. Usually a tardigrade is about 80% water. (A human is about 60% water.) But when a tardigrade shuts down, or goes dormant, its body can be as little as 3% water.

Those tiny dried bodies can stay in place until conditions improve, or blow around in the wind until they land in a better place. When they land in water — even a drop — they rehydrate and get active again in just a few minutes.

Growing Tardigrades 

It takes only 14 days for a baby tardigrade to be born. They reproduce a lot like fish do: The female sheds eggs along with her outer layer (a natural part of growing called moulting), then the male spreads sperm over the eggs.

As tardigrades grow, their cells get bigger. They don’t get more cells like humans do when we grow. They shed their outer layer when they get too big for it, sort of in the way that humans buy bigger clothes. Shedding is called moulting. They can moult about 10 times in their life.

This tardigrade egg was photographed by two scientists named Michalczyk and Kaczmarek in 2006 using a scanning electron microscope.

What We Can Learn from Tardigrades

Naturally, we want to learn how the tardigrade can live in such extreme places, not just survive them. And by looking at the way they dry themselves out, scientists were able to develop vaccines that do not have to be refrigerated. That means they can be delivered to far-away places without being kept cold.

Other scientists are trying to see if the tardigrade's DNA can added to crops to make plants survive drought instead of dying of thirst.

What would you like to learn about these extreme creatures? What questions would you ask? Where do you think the answers could be used?

9 Dec 2016

Bernoulli Is Not Enough

By Simon Shapiro

Probably all of us science geeks think we know how aeroplanes fly. It’s thanks to the Bernoulli Principle, which says that faster flowing air exerts less pressure than slower air. Aeroplane wings are designed with flat bottoms and rounded tops. Air has to flow more quickly around the longer top surface than the shorter bottom surface. That gives us higher pressure below the wing and lower pressure above the wing.

This diagram is from my book, Faster, Higher, Smarter: Bright Ideas that Transformed Sports. (More information here; available from Amazon, Indigo, etc.)




So, the upward Bernoulli force overcomes the downward force of gravity, and the aeroplane can fly.

But there's a problem:

Think about a plane doing aerobatics. A pilot will happily flip her plane upside down and can fly that way indefinitely (at least until the plane runs out of fuel). But in the upside down configuration the Bernoulli force is directed downwards, just like gravity. So with both forces acting downward, how come the aeroplane doesn’t fall like a stone? Worse than that, like a stone with an extra downward force?

The answer is that there’s another factor, usually overlooked. And that’s the Angle of Attack. Aeroplanes don’t usually fly with the bottom of the wing parallel to the ground. They usually fly with the leading edge tilted up. That tilt angle is called the Angle of Attack.

In this configuration the wing pushes against the air and (thank you, Sir Isaac) experiences a normal (perpendicular to the surface) reaction  of wind resistance. That’s shown as the red arrow in the diagram above. The force shown by the red arrow is the same as two forces – a vertical one (shown by the green arrow) and a horizontal one (shown by the tiny blue arrow). That vertical “green arrow” force counteracts gravity, and is what keeps an upside-down aeroplane in the air.

In fact the Bernoulli effect alone isn’t strong enough to keep a heavy modern jet plane up. The Angle of Attack is critical even when the plane is flying rightside up.

2 Dec 2016

Repeal Fair Dealing for Education



by Helen Mason

Image courtesy of creativecommons.org
As the Canadian government considers cultural policies, I encourage it to reconsider the fair dealing clause in the revised copyright act. The copyright act is intended to protect what creators create. The fair dealing clause removes that protection, thus impinging on creators' ability to earn money from what they produce.

I currently work as a freelance writer who specializes in the children's market. For 30 years, I spent the bulk of my time editing and project managing the development of textbooks for Canadian educational publishers.

I was on the first board of CANCOPY (now Access Copyright). As one of the co-chairs, I assisted in negotiating the first Ontario educational licence. At that time, I had a copy of one of Dr. Zed's titles. The entire book had been made into spirit masters; copies had been handed out to students in my son's kindergarten class. My publisher co-chair at the time headed the company that published the most copied educational resource, a workbook for teaching French as a Second Language.
Image courtesy of creativecommons.org

Twenty years later, copying is even easier, thanks to bulk photocopiers and the prevalence of personal scanners. Copies can be shared online and using various phone apps via digital downloads. And yet the government has removed important protections from created works. If the government will not protect the works that authors and publishers have spent so long producing, then what is the point in Canadian authors and publishers trying to produce quality materials?

Colourful visuals attract these developing readers.
Since the change in the fair dealing clause, I have heard horror stories from authors telling me of schools who bought their books, photocopied sections, and then returned the books for a refund. Students again receive booklets of photocopied materials to help them learn to read. But without the colourful images in the originals, the books have lost much of their attraction. No wonder literacy levels are low.

Students consider how to choose visuals for a primary science book.
In my own freelance business, I noticed a drastic drop in the number of project start-ups after the fair dealing clause was changed to the current wording. Instead of hiring twelve or more editors to help me develop materials, and contracting authors and illustrators to produce materials specifically for this market, I found myself looking for work.

I found such work writing and editing materials developed for the American market. These materials were quickly produced without the care lavished on those developed in Canada. They also emphasized different skill sets. In my work on mathematics materials developed for both the Canadian and American markets, for example, I noticed that the many Canadian series I helped to develop emphasized understanding whereas the American ones focused on memorization of algorithms without much understanding of why they're being used.

Image courtesy of creativecommons.org
If the government does not move to better protect our educational publishers, our schools will be more likely to purchase these less-than-ideal materials. It's a matter of economics. For American publishers, making slight conversions for the Canadian market is a minor expense when they've already developed and sold a series to a large American market.

Canadian publishers who develop excellent materials for a smaller market need protection. In order to respond to Canadian educational outcomes, they include references to local historic, Aboriginal, and cultural activities that attract Canadian students to the topics. This type of information is missing in materials developed for the United States market. Similar American-centric information occurs in non-fiction trade books intended for a North American audience. Canadian content receives only a cursory attention compared to the mass of American data.

Helen shares reading activities with primary students.
Although educational publishers are not always considered to be part of the Canadian cultural landscape, they are an important tool for teaching Canadian culture. Many creators receive income from these publishers, both as royalties and as contract work for materials written specifically for the market. In addition, many editors work part-time in this field while they develop their writing skills and/or to supplement the low income typical of creators.

To encourage Canadian publishers to develop quality materials that can compete in international markets, I suggest that you

  1. Repeal the current fair dealing wording in consultation with Access Copyright and educational publishers and their knowledge of how that wording has led to flagrant misuse of copyright works.
  2. Confer with children's authors about how this clause has impinged on their ability to make a living from their work and do what is necessary to ameliorate this situation.
  3. Provide additional arts funding for author visits to schools. This is an important part of many creators' incomes, one that has eroded with the increase in interest in technology and the purchase of fewer books.
  4. Ear-mark some of the funding from #3 for sessions in which authors talk to educators about the importance of copyright to the protection of creator income.


Helen Mason's most recent books include What is Digital Entrepreneurship?, Be an Active Citizen in Your Community, and Be an Active Citizen at Your School, all Crabtree Publishing, 2017.