18 Sep 2020

CRISPR and Kids

 by Yolanda Ridge


When I say my new book is about CRISPR, most people look confused. Going on to explain that CRISPR is a biotechnology used to edit DNA doesn’t help much. Sometimes, people make reference to GMOS—which are not quite the same—but mostly it’s just:

The first two chapters of CRISPR: A Powerful Way to Change DNA  aim to clear up this confusion. The first chapter provides an overview on chromosomes, genes and DNA. This information’s targeted at 10th grade readers to tie in with the high school curriculum. Chapter two gets into detail about how gene editing with CRISPR/Cas9 actually works.

The rest of the book explores the potential applications of CRISPR technology. I ask a lot of questions and encourage readers of all ages to consider the pros and cons of gene editing on everything from mosquitoes to potatoes to humans. To give readers a preview of this, I wrote a set of articles on how CRISPR can be used to change:




Space Travel


Before writing CRISPR: A Powerful Way to Change DNA, I didn’t know much about gene editing despite my background in genetics. I hadn’t given much thought to how CRISPR could be used, how it should be used, or how it should be regulated either.

My opinions are still mixed on this. But one thing is clear to me: it’s important that we all understand just how much CRISPR has the power to change… everything.

Yolanda Ridge is a middle grade author and science writer from Rossland, BC. Visit her website at www.yolandaridge.com to find out more.

Photo credits:

Confused Smiley Clipart by Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay

12 Sep 2020

Geocaching - A Fun Way to Enjoy the Outdoors

by Margriet Ruurs

Geocaching - A Fun Way to Enjoy the Outdoors

What is geocaching?

Geocaching can be called a worldwide treasure hunt where you use a GPS to search for hidden objects. It’s a fun and exciting way to enjoy the great outdoors. Geocaching combines the sport of walking with the excitement of discovering treasure. ‘Geo’ means ‘earth’ and ‘cache’ means ‘hidden’ in French.

child in forest

Nico is 10 years old and an avid geocacher. “Geocaching has taught me all about navigating with maps, how to use GPS and coordinates,” he says, “I’ve become a better hiker and better at spotting things because of it.”

This sport will get you outdoors and actively walking, whether it is in a city or in a forest.

The easiest way to get started is to go to the website:


You can download the app on your phone or tablet. Using maps, it allows you to navigate geocaches anywhere by GPS. You pinpoint your current location and the app will show you where, near you, there are hidden treasures. After creating a (free) account, it takes you to your home location, from where you can navigate anywhere in the world to see caches.

Not only will you see the approximate location on your map, there is also a description and a hint of the location and container for which you will be searching. The coordinates are such that you will need to use your eyes, and your legs, to find the actual spot once you get close. The map brings you to within a few meters from the container and that’s when the real search begins. Searching is half the fun. Perhaps the container is inside a post, or under some branches. The coordinates might lead you to within 5 or 10 meters but then you have to start turning over rocks and peeking under logs, using the information you read in the description.

A traditional cache will be a small container, a tin or a plastic box. Inside you will likely find a tiny logbook in which you can record your name and the date you found it. There will also likely be some small ‘treasures’ - a coin, a toy, a pin…. You can pick one and leave a new gift for the next person so come prepared with some tiny gifts in your pocket to leave behind. You might also want to carry a pen or pencil in your pocket.

Besides traditional caches, there are many different caches, including trackables. This comes in the shape of a key chain which you can purchase. On it is a code. Once you enter it online, and then hide it in a cache, you can track its location. Online you can learn where the trackable came from. It is given a name and a description. This also tells you what the owner would like his or her trackable to accomplish. For instance, Nico has a trackable out there named Frogo the Froggie Travel Buddy. He hopes his frog hops around the world and that it will return home in 5 years. Meanwhile, he can follow its location online. A fun and unique way to learn about the world.

There are many more types of caches. And, once you know what you’re doing, you can start making and hiding your own.

Once the new location, description and hint were approved, Nico had to go hide his creation well and it became an official cache. One of thousands of caches around the world that you can now go out and find!

Nico’s geocache: https://coord.info/GC8PWVW

To learn more, visit: https://www.geocaching.com/play

28 Aug 2020

Movable Books


Movable books -- science at work and play

by Gillian O'Reilly

The term "movable books" (including lift-the-flap, pull the tab and pop-up books) evokes images of diverting children's books or grand paper constructions of Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter or Star Wars scenes. The roots of these books, however, lie in astronomy and medicine and their pedigree is centuries old.

We can look back nearly 900 years to the first known lift-the-flap manuscript, the Liber Floridus (1121), which shows the orbits of the planets.

old book with illustration folding out

Later books included anatomy texts where the lift-the-flap function was ideal for showing the exterior and then interior of organs such as the heart; click on the link to see this 1662 example from Descartes' De homine figures.

Gradually, the movable book format moved into the world of juvenile literature, appearing in the mid-18th century. Some were very simple lift-the-flap operations, but the format grew to include movable wheels, pull-string or pull-tab devices and eventually the pop-up book where the simple act of turning of the page engineers a 3D construction ranging from simple to magnificently complex.

These early forms of interactive materials were designed to engage young readers in the text, whether for amusement or instruction -- or as Spring projecting figures, or, Dean's new model book: The farmer & his family (1865) notes, "by carefully raising the projecting parts of the pictures, the effect will be improved." Topics for juvenile movable books ranged widely from fairy tales, Bible stories, domestic life, and historical events.

Today, movable books again bring you science in wonderfully intricate pop-ups and lift-the-flap publication like Bugs by paper engineer George McGavin.

The world-renowned historical children's book collection at the Osborne Collection in the Lillian H. Smith Branch of the Toronto Public Library contains works by many noted paper engineers, including the six-foot, life-sized Dimensional Man -- as the catalogue summary says, "just lift the left pectoral muscle to see the thorax or turn the large intestine anti-clockwise to reveal the abdomen!"

Note: The Osborne Collection www.torontopubliclibrary.ca\osborne\ offers excellent opportunities to explore science books for children through the centuries. It is housed in the Lillian H. Smith Branch, along with the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy.

Gillian O'Reilly

21 Aug 2020

Salty Slug Love

Slippery, slimy, oozy slugs; what’s not to love? Slugs can be small and slugs can be as long as your arm! Slugs can be sausage shaped and brown, or they can have leaves, legs, and lots of rainbow colours! They can live anywhere wet, and lots live under the sea. 
nudibranch chromodoris looks like ribbon candy

Salty Samples 

Sea slugs are a family of boneless animals that contain a particularly fancy looking molluscs called nudibranchs. Usually they’re small enough to fit on your hand, but they can be as long as a sheet of binder paper. Their shapes and colours result in names like “dragon” and “orange peel,” or “sea bunny,” “dancer” and “clown.” Start an image search and you could browse pictures of fanciful nudibranchs all day. There are more than 3000 kinds! 
the "orange peel" nudibranch can be 50 cm long

Pantry Paint Packs 

Like flamingoes get their pink colour from their food, nudibranchs get their colour from their diet too. Check out this little creature that looks like a sheep that rolled in cut grass! It’s the leafy sheeps’ algae diet that makes them green. They store the chloroplasts from their food and that means photosynthesis happens inside their bodies like it does in plants. 

Nudibranch Brunch 

Nudibranchs are carnivorous! They eat algae, sponges, and even other sea slugs. Some also eat coral and even stinging jellyfish, and that makes them a bit toxic. Like the leafy sheep keeps some chloroplasts from its food, the jellyfish eating “blue dragon” keeps some of the stinging cells from its food. Like a lot of colourful things in nature, the bright hues warn us that they can hurt. Touching them can sting. 

Making Nudibranchs 

Any two nudibranchs can make babies together, because they all have both sex organs. They’re hermaphrodites, just like earthworms and most snails are. About 5 of every 100 animal species are hermaphroditic.
A gooey ribbon of fertilized eggs will hatch into nudibranchs that look just like their parents but smaller. Depending on the type, there can be 2 eggs or 25 million! Once they leave the nest, they’ll live just a few weeks to a year. 

Notice Nudibranchs 

To see a nudibranch in person, you’ll have to go out into the ocean because they don’t survive captivity for long. But you’ll find some of these saltwater slugs along every ocean coast — except in the Arctic and Antarctic circles. They love coral reefs. You will find nudibranchs in shallow water and way down in the deep. Look on the bottom, and remember they’re usually very small. Most photos of these creatures are taken with a close-up macro lens.
nembrotha nudibranch on the mouth of a glass drink bottle

16 Aug 2020

Panel discussion at When Words Collide

 Wow! We just finished a terrific panel discussion at a virtual convention. Several writers from Sci/Why were attending When Words Collide, a literary festival that has gone all-online for this year's event. We held a panel discussion on Sunday August 16 with the title Writing Science Books for Youth.

If you've come to our website to learn more about writing, put a comment after this post or another recent post and one of us will be able to get back to you.

Check out our pages of resources! We have a list of science books written by our authors, who are all Canadian. And on the sidebar at right is a box celebrating that we were short-listed for the People's Choice Award. Clicking on that box will take you to the blog for Science Borealis which can connect you to other science websites.

14 Aug 2020

Not Your Grandma's Scientist

By Claire Eamer

The default image of a scientist used to be a white man -- usually with more fly-away white hair than was strictly necessary. Maybe a bit like the dude on the right...

Of course, we all know now that the image was never really accurate. After all, Crick and Watson's discovery of the nature of the DNA molecule owed a great deal to the remarkable work of Rosalind Franklin.

Our current awareness of the dangers of pesticides and similar chemicals was founded on the work and the riveting prose of biologist Rachel Carson. And the great 19th century astronomer, William Herschel, had an equally talented little sister, Caroline, who did much of his math for him and discovered three nebulae and eight comets on her own.

But still, the public face of science has all too often been a white man. Well, the times are changing (and none too soon!).

Take, for example, Evan Johnson-Ransom, a young Black grad student at Oklahoma State University whose delightful Twitter feed I discovered recently.
It's full of dinosaurs, fossils, recreations of ancient beasties, and lots of fascinating palaeo content. Especially, T. rex and its relatives -- which Mr. Johnson-Ransom hopes to spend the next few years studying. As I told him online, he is living every 8-year-old's dream!

Or how about the four young women who just started an organization called Minorities in Shark Sciences (MISS)? They're all passionate about sharks and hope to recruit more enthusiasts to join them.
But why sharks? One of the founders of the group, Carlee Jackson, said in a recent interview that she has been fascinated by sharks since the age of six, even though she grew up in shark-free Detroit. She studied marine biology in Florida, where she finally saw her first live shark in the wild. She thought it was...er...cute. But sharks are not just cute, she said. They're a vital part of the ocean ecosystem.

Sharks not your thing? How about birds? Actually, how about Dr. Letícia Soares. Originally from Brazil, she's working at the Advanced Facility for Avian Research at Western University in London, Ontario, where she studies the transmission of avian malaria in birds.
I discovered Dr. Soares on Twitter, where she was talking with great enthusiasm about birds, research, online conferences, and a certain Turquoise-fronted Amazon parrot that sings in one of the indigenous languages of Brazil. Her enthusiasm about all these topics and more is infectious.

You might notice a theme here -- Twitter. For all that it can be a nasty, poisonous place, Twitter can also open up worlds. It's a great place to find and sometimes interact with scientists of all shapes, sizes, colours, and preferences. There are even some very cool white-guy-scientists there. If you're interested in diversity in science, take a look around.

I should add, however, that diversity in science can often be found even closer to home. And it's not just the young folk. Take, for example, the president of my local university, Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo: Dr. Deb Saucier, a neuroscientist of Métis heritage and a recent recipient of the Indigenous Women in Leadership Award.

And from a previous generation, we in Canada have The Honourable Dr. Lillian Eva Quan Dyck. Daughter of a Chinese immigrant father and a Cree mother, she is a member of the Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan. After a distinguished career in neuropsychiatry at the University of Saskatchewan, she was appointed to the Canadian Senate in 2005.

Finally, if you're curious about diversity in science, here are a few articles or websites to browse:
You can probably think of more examples and more sources. If so, just add them in the Comments below. I'd love to learn more!

8 Aug 2020

Herbal Medicine in Medieval Times


Herbal Medicine in Medieval Times:

Whoa, whoa, whoa – It’s Magic!

By Marie Powell

In the past few years, I’ve been writing a medieval fantasy novel series for young adults. Last of the Gifted: Spirit Sight is about as far from science as it can get: the Welsh brother-and-sister team that are my protagonists solve their problems with magic.

But during the writing, I had questions about how their medieval world worked. It’s not surprising that I was a little preoccupied with medicine and healing, especially during this time of pandemic and social isolation. I turned to alternative medicine and biology resources to find out what people might have used to treat infections, everyday ailments, and even wounds in medieval times.

Note that I said alternative resources. The websites I looked at all point out that we must consult a doctor before using any of these plants or herbs today, and special precautions must be taken before using anything that has medicinal properties.

That said, it’s fascinating to read about what medieval people thought about biology and medicine. We think of herbs for cooking today, but for the medieval Welsh, plants in the fields and and gardens were more often used as a source of medicine, rather than cooking (Freeman, 1996).

For example, the common flower Marigold or Calendula might be found in gardens today for beauty or to attract helpful insects and birds (Russo, n.d.). It blooms in the morning, and it certainly adds colour to any garden. Medieval herbalists also thought it could help with a variety of ailments, from menstrual cramps to inflammation (Russo, n.d.). In the 12th and 13th Centuries, people mixed marigold with other herbs like St. John’s Wort and aloe to treat wounds. (Quave, 2018)

That was interesting for me, since my story takes place during a major war between Wales and England, and there are lots of injuries to treat. Other plants were thought to be useful as well. Comfrey was used to help heal broken bones (Hedgerow Medicine, n.d.). Moss was used to dress wounds at least since 1014, and Agrimony or Agrimonia eupatoria was thought to help stop bleeding (Hedgerow Medicine, n.d.) (Woodbury, 2012).

Of course, I looked at Welsh texts in translation, like the “Medical Book of the Physicians of Myddvai.” This source lists 32 days in the year that were considered dangerous to your health (I leave you to look them up from the links below and see if you agree). It also suggests various remedies, including: “The mugwort, madder, meadow sweet, milfoil, hemp, red cabbage, and the tutsan, all these seven herbs enter into the composition of the medicine required. Whosoever obtains them all, will not languish long from a wounded lung, or need fear for his life” (ab Ithel, 1861). Writers often say that research is like going down a rabbit hole, and that website was one rabbit hole that kept me occupied for several days.