16 Jun 2018

The House That Termites Built

Eastgate Centre in Harrare, Zimbabwe 

Eastgate Centre
is a large shopping mall and office center. It stands in the heart of the business district in Harare, the most populous city in Zimbabwe, Africa.

It's a very big building, occupying half a city block. The interior is elegant and modern, with small boutiques on the ground floor and a large interior space with cool fountains, hanging catwalks and steel pillars straight out of a science fiction movie.

Interior atrium of Eastgate Harrare. 

The shopping center is made of two nine-story office towers, which are connected by a glass atrium that lets in the light and keeps out the rain. On the surface, it might look like any other modern mall in the world, but Eastgate has a secret. This is very special building.

Eastgate uses very little artificial air conditioning, compared to other structures in the tropics. The city of Harrare has a high elevation and a temperate climate, with daily temperatures out   

Would you believe it was designed by termites?

Mick Pearce, an architect from Zimbabwe.

Mick Pearce, an architect from Zimbabwe, was the designer of Eastgate Harrare. His style of architecture is based on a science called biomimicry. In science and engineering, biomimicry happens when humans copy the forms and the processes they find in nature: the word literally means "imitating life".
The great architects of the insect world, the mound-building termites

The natural forms that Pearce studied to build Eastgate Harrare were created by some of the greatest architects on our planet: the mound-building termites. 

Mound-building termites come in many different varieties and are found throughout Africa, southern Asia and Australia. They are named for the towering mounds they build out of hardened clay. These mounds can be over five meters tall (25 feet)  and twelve meters in diameter (40 feet), and incorporate many tons of earth. They can be very impressive on the outside...but on the inside, they are even more amazing.

An African termite mound

Termites are hardy insects with a social structure that allows them to cooperate to achieve great things. Their mounds are not just tall and massive but very elegantly built to provide a controlled environment inside, with very restricted temperatures and humidity.

The reason that termites need such a regulated environment is that their lives depend on farming. Underneath the mounds, they grow an elaborate fungus garden, which provides them with nourishment. Although the termites are fairly tough, the fungus garden can be delicate, and needs a regulated temperature and humidity--like the greenhouses that we use to grow fruits and vegetables.

Interior drawing of a termite mound - the fungus garden is in the middle!

In order to provide a stable environment for their farms, the termites have to build a home with a very well-regulated temperature and humidity. The temperature and moisture must never fall below or rises above the conditions that the fungus needs to thrive.

The termites have to achieve this stability in some of the hottest and driest climates on Earth. In Africa and Australia, daily temperatures can soar to 42 degrees Celsius (over 107 Fahrenheit) or drop to below freezing at night. And unlike humans, termites cannot rely on technology to provide them with air conditioning or artificial heat!

Nevertheless, the temperature and humidity inside a termite mound rarely varies more than a few degrees year round. Their fungus gardens continue to grow, and their colonies continue to thrive.

Know your air flow: termite mound versus office building

How Do They Do It?

Both Mike Pearce and the termites begin the building process by knowing their environment. The human architect makes a point of studying the "micro climate" of his future build site, the place where the structure will someday stand.

Pearce gathers information about the daily and nightly temperatures, the rainfall, the path of the sun and the flow of wind and air currents. Termites do the same! Their mounds are often placed to avoid the worst of the direct sun. They use the thickness of the walls to resist heat, and cleverly build channels and chimneys to direct the flow of air through their mounds.

This keeps the chambers where the termites live very comfy! The tropical heat stays in the parts of the mound where they don't spend as much time. The mound has so many clever chambers and channels that it serves as a giant lung, breathing in fresh cool air into the lower levels, and venting hot dry air out the chimneys.

Eastgate Air Flow - how the chimneys work

The walls and chimneys of Eastgate Harrare follow this model. The building uses passive cooling and keeps the indoor temperature stable year round. Eastgate uses almost no air conditioning. The building uses 35% less energy than other buildings in the city, and the lower energy bills makes the rents in its offices less expensive too. It also means that during power outages, the building can often remain open and useful while other buildings must shut their doors!

By not adding a full central air conditioning system, Mike Pearce also saved 10% of the cost of the building, 3.5 out of 35 million dollars.

Mister Pearce learned a lot while building the Eastgate Center. Some of his other projects have been even more successful. One of his buildings in Melbourne uses 70-80% less energy use than other buildings in the city!

A House That Termites Built is much less expensive, and saves millions of dollars in energy bills over time. But perhaps most importantly, it makes a more sustainable future for all of us.


The Eastgate Harrare building is a very interesting place for those who want to build Smart Spaces, human structures which are more energy efficient and environmentally friendly. To learn more about Eastgate Harrare and biomimicry, check these links.

MICK PEARCE - This is the personal website of the architect, Mick Pearce. It has great videos, Powerpoint presentations and essays for students about his work around the world, and about his fascination with termite mounds or "terminaries".

BIOMIMETIC ARCHITECTURE: Green Building in Zimbabwe Modeled after Termite Mounds -
This is an image gallery of the Eastgate Harrare building and the termite structures on which it was based.

Termites, their social organization and their knack for architecture are also really fascinating subjects. To find out more about them, check these links:

TERMITES ARE TEACHING ARCHITECTS TO DESIGN SUPER-EFFICIENT SKYSCRAPERS - This is a quick article in Wired Magazine, but it has quotes from both biologists and architects who study termite mounds and apply their architecture to human buildings to save energy.

WHY TERMITES BUILD SUCH ENORMOUS SKYSCRAPERS - This is an article from BBC Earth, and goes deeper into termite behavior and technology. You also get to read about real termite scientists at work, and how the termites fight back against their intrusions!

COLLECTIVE MIND IN THE MOUND - An article from National Geographic featuring great photos and science about mound-building termites.


Arinn Dembo is a professional science fiction writer and software developer working in Vancouver, BC. She has degrees in Anthropology and Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology, and volunteers as a science educator at Vancouver's The Learnary, where she teaches an ongoing series of workshops called Gothic Science.

9 Jun 2018

Snow?!? You've got to be kidding!

Over the past week, parts of Atlantic Canada have experienced one of the features ("It's not a bug, it's a feature!") of a Canadian spring -- June snow. In sympathy with the afflicted parts of the country, including those in the North where the winter's snow still lingers, we present this brief poem by Sci/Why contributor Margriet Ruurs - CE

Whether to Like the Weather or Not

Calm wind, clear sky, nice.
Shifting wind, scattered-cloud sky
Stratus clouds drifting by.
Cold front, sleet and ice.

Slightly drifting, shifting snow.
Freezing rain, snow and squall
I don’t like this at all.
Quick inside! Winter, go!

Photo by Margriet Ruurs

Cumulus clouds climbing high,
Cirrus clouds scatter
Back to sunny, warmer weather
And bright blue summer sky.

1 Jun 2018

Mushrooming in Chile: Canada South

by Jan Thornhill

I’ve just returned from a fabulous mushrooming trip to Chile. Before I left, I joked that I was going to “Canada south” – my simple way of explaining that I would be visiting a temperate country when it would be cold and wet – the best time to collect fungi. Of course I didn’t mean it literally; I didn’t expect Chile to actually be Canada south. But in a lot of ways, 
particularly outside of urban areas, it was. Which was not only disconcerting, but discombobulating.

I've been trying to find a word to describe the strange brain/mind phenomenon that kept happening to me. I'd be looking at a woods before we went in, (there were 26 of us fungi fans), and suddenly I'd be transported for a moment right back to Canada. It wasn't déjà vu, or even déjà vu's little sister déjà visite, the feeling while in a new place that you've not only been in that place before, you know the place. It wasn't that at all. 

The French have a word for another phenomenon, dépaysement, which is used to describe the feeling of not being in one’s own country when travelling, of being out of place, of being uncountrified. As far as I'm concerned, that feeling is the whole point of visiting foreign lands – glorying in the differences between the new and the familiar. But in non-urban parts of Chile, sheltered in the woods and countryside from the culture and language, I kept having the opposite experience – that, in a dreamlike way, 
I was actually in Canada, and not 10,000 kilometres away. Anti-dépaysement.

In those moments of being in Canada cerebrally while at the same time being almost as far away from home as possible, the fun was in the double-takes, when I was suddenly taken aback by one or more details that just weren't right, or that were radically different – and my sudden remembering that I wasn't home would instantly teleport me back into Chile again. It was one of the weirdest and most entertaining things I've ever experienced. I loved it.

Here are some photos I took that might give you an idea of why this kept happening to me.

Near Punta Arenas 

This picture could easily have been taken on a 
Mycological Society of Toronto fall foray...

...except the ground was covered in the TINY 
leaves of Nothofagus – the southern beech...

 ...and some of those trees sported really weird 
mushrooms, like these edible Cytaria.

Torres del Paine National Park north of Punta Arenas

Is that the Rockies? Are those 
animals in the distance deer?

Nope. That's the southern Andes, and the animals 
are guanacos, a type of llama. 

We also saw the very un-Canadian 
Nandu, or Darwin's Rhea.

Banff? The Yukon? 

White foam collecting on the shore?

 Nope. An Andean salt lake. Big salt.

 And flamingos!

Near Puerto Montt

A lovely Canadian fall scene...except 
the trees aren't quite right...

...and some of the nearby flowers are just plain weird...

...and exotic fungi (Aleurodiscus vitellinus
grow in the trees...

...and the tree trunks are submerged 
in knee-deep lava ash...

 ...lava ash so deep it had to be plowed off the highway.

Near Curarrehue in Central Chile

 A typical Canadian fall scene...

...but turn to the left and that's a volcano...

...and turn a bit more and you're back in 
Canada again, except that's a flock 
of parrots landing in a tree.

El Parque Nacional Conguillío in central Chile

Northern Ontario? Quebec?

Not when you pull out and see the lava plain...

...and when you turn the other way you see 
the astonishing amount of lava and lava ash from 
a 2009 eruption of Mount Llaima...

...and only a couple of kilometres down the road you enter 
the other-worldly Araucaria or Monkey Puzzle Tree Forest...

...ancient conifers that are truly weird, and completely 
un-Canadian, though some grow in Vancouver. 

 And, of course, when the clouds finally
move out of the way, there's a giant volcano... 

..and in the scant soil, an orange truffle that no one
in our group had ever seen before...

...that might be an undescribed species.

And of course there was the southern night sky, 
crowded with stars that looked different than 
what I'm used to in the northern hemisphere,  
but the bigness is the same wherever you go. 

25 May 2018

Celebrate with the Sci/Why Crew!

With such a diverse - and productive - crew of writers here at Sci/Why, it's no surprise we have a lot to celebrate! Here's what our members have been up to:

Joan Marie Galat

Dark Matters, Nature's Reaction to Light Pollution is one of three shortlisted titles for the Canadian Authors Association (Alberta Branch) Exporting Alberta Award

Joan's new book is Solve This! Wild and Wacky Challenges for the Genius Engineer in You (National Geographic Kids). It was the number one new title on the Amazon.ca list: Children's How Things Work Books.

Claire Eamer

What a Waste! Where Does Garbage Go? Has been racking up award nods:
  • Science Writers and Communicators of Canada Youth Book Award, shortlist
  • Green Book Festival Award, second place 
  • Canadian Children’s Literature Roundtables Information Book Awards, finalist 
  • Silver Birch Award nomination, Ontario Library Association 
  • American Association for the Advancement of Science SB&F Prize nomination 
So has Inside Your Insides:
  • 2018 - AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prizes for Excellence in Science Books - Middle Grade Category, shortlisted. More than 4000 copies of a special edition will be distributed to American schools by Subaru!
  • 2018 - Prairie Pasque Children’s Book Award, shortlist
  • 2016 - Youth Book Award, Canadian Science Writers' Association, shortlist
  • 2016 - Lane Anderson Award, Fitzhenry Family Foundation, shortlist 
Claire's non-science picture book, Underneath the Sidewalk, has also been shortlisted for the 2018 Shining Willow Award (Saskatchewan Young Readers' Choice).

Paula Johanson

Paula is celebrating two new releases from Crabtree Publishing: Supercharged Sports and Tech Industry. Catch her at the When Worlds Collide festival in Calgary this August for all the details!

She's also edited three collections of articles for Greenhaven Publishing: Online Filter Bubbles, Student Loans and the Cost of College, and The Armenian Genocide, and completed a practicum at the University of Victoria's Electronic Textual Cultures Lab.

Margriet Ruurs

Margriet will be visiting an international school in Egypt and is looking forward to visiting mummies and pyramids. We hope she blogs all about it!

Helaine Becker

Helaine's Monster Science was a finalist for the Silver Birch Nonfiction award. She's also looking forward to launching Counting on Katherine on June 23 at the Ontario Science Centre.

Lindsey is thrilled to be working on her first science book for Kids Can Press! She's also recently returned from Hawaii, where she had a great time swimming with endangered sea turtles, learning about Hawaiian ethnobotany (traditional uses of food and medicine plants), and avoiding angry volcanoes.

22 May 2018

Monitoring Earthquakes

By Paula Johanson

There are many sites around the world monitoring seismic tremors from earthquakes and volcanic activity. Scientists are using seismometers to measure when and how much the ground is shaking. The answers are "often" and moderately" on the island where I live in British Columbia!

But data from any one place is not really enough on its own. What makes this information much more useful is when seismic stations share their data in networks. When scientists study and compare measurements from many sites in one region, or even around the world, they learn important things about what's happening under our feet in what looks like solid rock.

Since I live in an earthquake zone, it's really interesting to learn about the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, which has a website friendly to citizen science fans. This network is run by the University of Washington and the University of Oregon. While most of the other scientific groups contributing to this network are American, there is participation also by Canadian seismic stations. Earth tremors are truly an international issue. Check out their website at this link.

This website's maps of seismic tremors are constantly updating all the time! They use information from seismic sites in Washington State, Oregon, northern California, and the coast of British Columbia. I like to look at their interactive map, which has settings that can be changed to show more information from more sites, or fewer. Also interesting is their Hourly Tremors map, which is simpler -- it can show tremors during the last three hours or up to the last two days.

Whenever I want to know more about current volcanic activity along the nearby Pacific coast, I look on this website. If a local tremor is reported, I can check to see if it's part of a series of tremors moving north or south near the island where I live. And whenever someone tells me they don't have any emergency preparations in case of a big earthquake, this is where I send them to learn more about how many little tremors are often happening around here. Being prepared for an earthquake emergency makes sense, and maps like these help me understand I'm making sensible preparations. They also help me not get too fussy.

6 May 2018

Nano-history (and Happy Birthday, Richard Feynman)

Richard Feynman was born 100 years ago, on May 11, 1918. He was one of the best physicists of the 20th century. He was famous for winning a Nobel prize for quantum physics; for helping develop the atomic bomb as a member of the Manhattan project; for being a brilliant physics teacher, and for playing the bongo drums. Maybe a little less well-known is that he's regarded as being the 'godfather' of nanotechnology.

He taught physics at Caltech (California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, which is famous not only for being where The Big Bang Theory guys work). The godfathering happened there, with a talk that Feynman gave in 1959, called There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom. In it, he mused about "the problem of manipulating and controlling things on a small scale" and its potential.
 He talked about the state of the art of miniaturization. How there were electric motors the size of a small fingernail and how the Lord's Prayer could be written on the head of a pin. He dismissed these as primitive.

Graham Short spent 300 hours engraving this.
Feynman's challenge was to write the entire 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica on the head of a pin, and produce an electric motor that would fit inside a cube 1/64th inch wide. Being Feynman, of course, he'd worked out all the math and showed that was certainly feasible. Then he went further and showed that if you didn't limit yourself to writing the information on the surface of an object, that all of the published books in the world could be written in a cube of material one two-hundredth of an inch wide! His point was, that as you get to the atomic scale, there's not just room, but plenty of room down there.

Feynman identified that a major barrier to miniaturization was that the then state-of-the-art electron microscopes weren't good enough. He called for an improvement in magnification of 100 times. In 1981 the Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM) was developed which was able to 'see' individual atoms. The STM works because of the quantum tunnel effect. The tip of a scanner goes back and forth very close to the surface of the sample. Electrons jump the gap from the sample being scanned to the scanner tip, even though they "shouldn't" have enough energy to do that. But the Heisenberg uncertainty principle shows that there is a small probability that they will, so a small number of electrons do just that. And the resulting electrical current is measured, revealing where the atoms are.

As the scanning tip gets closer to an atom, the current increases.
 Feynman went on to muse about how miniaturizing would be necessary to build computers powerful enough to do interesting and complex tasks. He gave face recognition as an example, and stated that with existing technology, a computer powerful enough for that would have to be the size of the Pentagon. He would have been thrilled to see the new iPhone X - small enough to fit in your pocket and using face recognition to allow access to only the owner.

He discussed how we might use tiny machines, and talked about the possibility of medical surgery by nano scale robots. That hasn't happened yet, but it's an enormously popular research field, and some applications are close.

Feynman talked about two possible ways of building things at the atomic scale. The goal of nano-physicists would be to assemble materials by building them directly using atoms as building blocks. He suggested that chemists might be able to do it more quickly by synthesizing the material out of related substances using chemical processes. He would have been fascinated by the technology of DNA Origami. (You have to love the evocative name.) Scientists take long strands of DNA, and then add shorter strands, called staples, which bind to the long strands in specific places, folding them into predetermined shapes.

Danish scientists at the Aarhus University Center for DNA Nanotechnology created a three dimensional box made out of DNA that features a lid that can be opened when a specific DNA strand is introduced as a key. The technology may allow for targeted drug delivery, with the lid opening when sensing the presence of a particular pathogen.

 At the end of his talk Feynman issued two challenges, and promised a prize of $1,000 to the first person who could make a 1/64 inch electric motor, and a similar amount to the first person to reduce a page of type by a factor of 25,000 (the scale you need to get Britannica on the head of a pin).

To Feynman's surprise, less than a year later, a Caltech engineer by the name of Bill McLellan walked into his office carrying a big box. Feynman thought this was yet another crank who hadn't understood the challenge. McLellan opened up his box to show a microscope and Feynman said "Uh-oh, nobody else brought a microscope." Feynman paid out the $1,000 but was disappointed that McLellan had built the motor using existing technology. Feynman had wanted his challenge to stimulate innovative technology.

The other prize was more satisfying. It was 26 years before a Stanford University graduate student, Thomas Newman, reproduced the first page of Charles Dickens' novel, A Tale of Two Cities, on a page only 1/160 millimeter long (20 times smaller than the human eye can see), using electron beam lithography. Feynman was happy to pay that prize since it had stimulated new technology.

Feynman's legacy continues: the non-profit Foresight Institute awards an annual "Feynman Prize" for the most significant recent advance in nanotechnology. It also offers a $250,000 "Feynman Grand Prize" for the first group which builds
  1. a robotic arm that fits into a cube of 100 nanometers, and
  2. a computer no bigger than a cube of 50 nanometers that can add two 8-bit numbers, and output the answer as raised nanometer-scale bumps on a level surface. 
Feynman would have loved it!

27 Apr 2018

Looking for a Good Science Book? But Where to Start....

By Claire Eamer

If you're curious about Canadian kids' science books, but you don't know quite where to start, consider taking advantage of the expertise of others. A lot of that expertise goes into choosing shortlists and winners for a number of annual book awards that honour science and non-fiction writing for children. Here's where you'll find some of the best titles in Canadian science writing for children -- including some books by Sci/Why bloggers.
L.E. Carmichaeil's Fuzzy Forensics won the
2014 Lane Anderson Award for Youth Books.

Canadian Science Writing Awards

Science in Society Youth Book Award is given annually by the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada. For recent and current shortlisted and winning books, follow the links on the organization’s website at http://sciencewriters.ca/  Award winners for 2014 and earlier are listed on the Canadian Children’s Book Centre website at http://bookcentre.ca/awards/science-society-book-award-0/

The Lane Anderson Awards recognize Canadian science writing in both adult and youth categories. The current year’s shortlist will appear on the main website at http://laneandersonaward.ca/  Past winners and shortlisted books are at http://laneandersonaward.ca/past-winners-and-finalists/

Canadian Information Book Awards

The Children’s Literature Roundtables of Canada’s Information Book Award names a winner and an Honour Book each year. Many of the shortlisted and winning books are science books. For current and previous winners, go to the Vancouver Children’s Literature Roundtable’s website at http://vclr.ca/information-book-award/

The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk by Sci/Why's own
Jan Thornhill won the 2017 Information Book Award
given by the Canadian Children's Literature Roundtables.

The Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children’s Non-Fiction was established by the Fleck Family Foundation and the Canadian Children’s Book Centre. For a complete list of winners and shortlisted titles, many of them about science, go to http://bookcentre.ca/programs/awards/norma-fleck-award-for-canadian-childrens-non-fiction/previous-winners-and-finalists/ 

International Awards

The American Institute of Physics presents an annual award for science communication for children, and Canadian writers have won on occasion, most recently in 2017. The list of previous winners is at https://www.aip.org/aip/awards/science-communication/children

Claire Eamer's Inside Your Insides: A Guide to the
Microbes That Call You Home
was on the shortlist
for the 2018 AAAS/Subaru SB&F award.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science gives out the AAAS/Subaru Science Book & Film awards, and Canadian books have appeared on the award shortlists frequently. Find winners and shortlisted books at https://www.aaas.org/program/aaassubaru-sbf-prize

Our Booklist

If the awards lists have whetted your appetite for Canadian science writing for kids, why not delve deeper? Take a look at Sci/Why's own annotated listing of Canadian kids' science books. It's a free download on the Sci/Why site at https://sci-why.blogspot.ca/p/science-book-list.html