22 May 2020

Did you know....?

By Claire Eamer

Have you noticed that the world is way too serious these days? I mean -- there are reasons why it's serious. I know that. But we can't do serious all day, every day. So here's some non-serious sciency stuff.

When I'm researching a new book, my family gets used to my wandering through the living room or sitting down to a meal and starting the conversation with, "Did you know...?" It means I've found another awesome, mind-boggling, who-woulda-thunk-it fact in my research. Some of those facts make it into the final book. Some don't. But I love them all. So here are a few.

When I was researching Out of the Ice: How Climate Change is Revealing the Past, I read about Ötzi the Iceman, the man who died 5300 years ago in the Alps and whose body lay frozen and preserved all that time, along with his travel gear. Which included socks! Somehow, knowing that a guy who lived and died so long ago wore socks makes him so much more real in my mind. And they weren't ordinary socks. He wore leather shoes stuffed with grass to protect him from the cold, and string socks to keep the grass in place.
Okay, it doesn't look much like a modern sock. But if you look closely at this
replica of the Iceman's footwear, you can see a kind of twine mesh sock
holding the insulating grass in place. The outside shoe had a bearskin sole
and deerskin upper. This replica is in the Bata Shoe Museum in
Toronto, Ontario.
Speaking of socks, here's another sock-fact I learned -- this time while researching What a Waste! Where Does Garbage Go? Roman soldiers wore socks! Inside their sandals!!

Here's the handle of a Roman razor, made in the form of a foot wearing
a sandal and sock. The rolled top of the sock is part way up calf, and, if you
look closely, you can see a herringbone pattern in the sock. That shows it was
probably made of woven material, not knitted yarn.
Photo by The Portable Antiquities Scheme, Philippa Walton.
When you think about it, that makes sense. Not every place the Romans went was as sandal-friendly as central Italy. At the Roman fort of Vindolanda in notoriously cold and wet northern England, an ancient rubbish dump revealed the truth. Almost 2000 years ago, someone in a Roman soldier's family (his mother?) sent him a care package containing -- as recorded in a letter that is still legible -- two pairs of sandals, two sets of underwear -- and socks.

Here's why that Roman soldier wouild have been grateful for warm socks.
He almost certainly spent time on duty at Hadrian's Wall, just north of
Vindolanda. Even on a fine, warm day like this, it's a rough and exposed
place. But in winter, with the cold and the rain and the wind...? Socks
would be very welcome. Claire Eamer photo.
Both those sock facts made it into their respective books, but just in passing. Maybe I need to write a book about socks? Okay, maybe not. But maybe a book about Indian Runner Ducks? They are weird! They stand upright, like penguins, and instead of waddling like your average duck, they can run.

Here's a little family of Indian Runner Ducks. They're sometimes called
bowling pin ducks or penguin ducks, and you can see why.
Photo by Alan Rockefeller - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Runner ducks come from the East Indies, from some of the islands that now make up Indonesia. They're good egg-layers and good walkers -- which means they can be walked to market, rather than carried. They don't need water as much as most ducks, and their wings are too small for flying, so they are fairly easy to keep. But you've got to admit, they're a bit silly-looking!

And why my sudden interest in Indian Runner Ducks? I think it's related to the fact that there are currently seven Indian Runner Duck ducklings living in a basket in our laundry room. I'm looking forward to watching them race around the yard like speedy penguins in a few weeks.

Here -- have a duckling picture. If that doesn't cheer you up, I don't know what will.

Claire Eamer photo

15 May 2020

Science Books for Kids

 book reviews by Margriet Ruurs

What is science?
The dictionary defines it as:

sci·ence -
/ˈsīəns/ the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.

There are many different kinds of science: technology, biology, physics… And possibly the best way to learn more and to find out which type of science most appeals to you, is by reading books.

Science books are as varied as the branches of science themselves. Many of the contributors to this blog are writers of books or articles about science. Here is a list of recent, and not so recent, titles that I love:

Back Holes and Supernovas by Joan Marie Galat, Capstone Books, ISBN 978-1-4296-7225-2, is a fascinating read about the lives and deaths of stars and the black holes they leave behind. Full of interesting facts and photos.

50 Climate Questions, A Blizzard of Blistering Facts.
Written by Peter Christie and illustrated by Ross Kinnaird, published by Annick Press, ISBN 978-1-55451-374-1.
This book is divided into different topics. Each page starts with a question, all to do with climate change. Questions about volcanoes, ancient civilizations, electricity and much more. Besides answers, there are text boxes with additional information as well as a few activities. The illustrations almost turn this book into a fun graphic novel.

One of my favourite science books is The World in your Lunch Box, The Wacky History and Weird Science of Everyday Foods, written by Claire Eamer, illustrated by Sa Boothroyd and published by Annick Press, ISBN 978-1-55451-392-5.
What a cool idea to look at the history, mystery and facts of food by looking at what’s in most people’s lunch boxes. The history of pizza, what kind of eggs can you eat, why are hot dogs called hot dogs, how did we get spices? A great book for anyone who’s ever… well, eaten anything.

Philippe Cousteau is the grandson of the famous Captain Jacques Cousteau who brought us awareness of oceans, its wildlife and water pollution. Philippe and Cathryn Berger Kaye, an educator, wrote two books together:

Make A Splash! ISBN 978-1-57542-417-0 is a kid’s guide to protecting oceans, lakes, rivers and wetlands. Full of facts and photos, the book shares information on such topics as over-fishing, trash, keeping rivers clean, wildlife and much more. But most importantly, it gives many examples of how kids can make a difference. It offers solutions to many problems and helps kids to become environmental activists.

Similarly, Going Blue ISBN 978-1-57542-348-7 by the same two authors, is aimed at teens.
Tackling trash, water shortages, coral reefs - every aspect of water - this book also offers solutions and doesn’t just state problems. There are many examples of young activists from around the world who are making a difference.

And finally some fictional reads with a science twist. When are animals really extinct? The last one touches on sci-fi. Or does it?

Music for Tigers by Michelle Kadarusman, published by Pajama Press, ISBN 978-1-77278-054-3, is fiction does have to do with environmental protection and species going extinct. This is a realistic story about a girl who visits a relative in Tasmania. There she learns about the environment and about an elusive animal that is occasionally spotted. Could it be the Tasmanian Tiger, believed to be extinct? After I finished reading this novel, I searched the topic online and discovered that, indeed, many sightings are still being reported. So perhaps Tasmanian Tigers are still living in deep, dark corners of their habitat….

And finally a book that walks a fine line between fiction and science fiction: Elephant Secret, by Eric Walters, published by Penguin Random House, ISBN 978-0-7352-6281-2
In this story, Samantha and her dad run an elephant sanctuary. They face financial troubles and fear that they might not be able to protect the elephants any longer. Until a new elephant baby arrives that seems both adorable and strange. The baby arrives at the same time as a mysterious investor. In this riveting novel, Samantha learns about cloning and wonders if, perhaps, she is raising a wooly mammoth instead of an elephant.

8 May 2020

Scientists and Engineers: Partners in Problem Solving

Even rubber ducks are products of engineering.
by Joan Marie Galat
When it comes to problem solving, science and engineering represent a partnership. Scientists explore and observe the world and conduct experiments to improve their understanding. Engineers look at circumstances and try to make life easier using the principles of science and math. Across the centuries, engineers have used their knowledge to create tools, machines, and structures. They've also helped create everyday objects from water-squirting rubber ducks to the screen in front of you.

When I was writing Solve This! Wild and Wacky Challenges for the Genius Engineer in You (National Geographic Kids), I came across many kinds of science and engineering partnerships. Despite having plenty of pages to work with, I couldn’t fit them all in! Here’s a few "not in the book" examples of science and engineering that led to new products.
  • In 1943, an engineer was experimenting with ways to use springs to cushion the movement of instruments on ships. His prototype became the Slinky!

  • Play-Doh was meant to be a wallpaper cleaning product. Things changed when kids discovered how fun it was to shape. The company removed the cleaning chemical and added scent and color. Thanks to science and engineering, we have irresistible Play-Doh. 
  •  X-rays, which exist in the natural world, were discovered by a scientist experimenting with cathode rays. The detection of
    light particles passing through objects later allowed engineers to invent x-ray machines. 
You can find more examples through NBC News

Try partnering science and engineering yourself! Here’s a few activities to get you started.

Don't Steal My Candy!

Use Engineering to Make a Coin Sorter

Look for more connections to science and engineering in Solve This!

1 May 2020

Home Science Project: making circuits with play dough

by Paula Johanson

Today's post is a short one, but will be fun for anyone playing at home making electric circuits. If you are learning about how to make projects that light up, or buzz, or move, you probably already have what you need. Click here for a link to a website discussing popular kits for kids to use making electric circuits. There are many places you can find online where families can buy and have delivered by post a kit, full of electrical parts that are safe to use when following simple instructions.

But you might also have another useful material at home for making circuits for models or toys or science projects. Did you know you can make play dough that conducts electricity? And you can also make play dough that insulates, so no power is conducted? All you need to make either of these doughs are ordinary food ingredients for baking cookies.

Check out the website at SquishyCircuits.com by clicking on this link. On their website there are tutorials and instructions. Though they sell packages of electrical parts and play dough, they also have play dough recipes for free download. As with any science project, it's important to be safe. Beginners and younger kids will need adult supervision.

24 Apr 2020

Nenes, Anoles and Dewlaps

Here's a guest post from our colleague Margriet Ruurs, written when she was visiting Hawaii in the winter. There she discovered that Hawaii is home to both Nene geese and anoles!

Ever heard of a Nene goose or an anole and his dewlap? I hadn’t until I traveled to Hawaii.

I love learning new things and animals never cease to amaze me. Each continent has amazing animals that are unique to that part of the world.

We’ve all heard of kangaroos and koalas in Australia. We know that North America has moose and bears and Canada geese.

Strange geese

But have you ever heard of Nene geese?

I hadn’t until I spotted this sign along the road on Moloka’i, a small, sparsely populated island. Turns out that the Nene goose is only found on the Hawaiian islands and is quite rare.

Stranger lizards

If you have been to tropical places, you may have spotted iguanas, geckos or other types of intriguing lizards.

I’m sitting in a garden in Hawaii and notice a little lizard running along the wall. I marvel at how their toe pads are equipped with tiny little hooks that allow them to run straight up the wall.

This little guy is about 12 cm long. It darts along a stone wall on little legs with a long tail and a flicking tongue. Then he stops so I can get a good look at him. But, what I think is just another little gecko, turns out to be quite something else.

Researching this cool little guy teaches me that this is a lizard, but not a gecko at all. It’s a brown, male anole.

A what?

I had never heard of anoles. While geckos and anoles are both lizards, they have evolved in different ways. Anoles didn’t appear on the scene until roughly 150 million years after the gecko. Both have adhesive toe pads that allow them to run straight up walls.

Geckos can live in dry, rocky areas while anoles prefer living among more trees. While they can live near each other, they are competitive. Anoles are active during the day, while geckos are more nocturnal.


But the coolest thing I notice about my little anole friend, is his dewlap.

His what?!

A dewlap is a flap of skin underneath the lizard’s chin, which he can extend and retract. It’s not an air sac, just a flag he waves when staking out his territory or when trying to attract a female. He also waves it to warn off an intruding gecko.

Watch him raise his warning flag in the sequence of photos below:

©Photos copyright: Margriet Ruurs

You can learn more about Nene geese here: http://www.ducks.org/hunting/waterfowl-id/hawaiian-nene-goose

For more details on anoles, click here: http://www.anoleannals.org/2018/03/26/anoles-versus-geckos-the-ultimate-showdown/

Margriet Ruurs is the author of Amazing Animals (Tundra Books). You can find out more about her work at her website, www.margrietruurs.com

17 Apr 2020

The Great Big Boreal Forest Resource List

by L. E. Carmichael

I hear it's a long weekend? I'm not sure how to tell, really, since we will all (hopefully) be doing exactly what we've been doing for the last couple of weeks: preventing the spread of potentially deadly viruses by eating too much while watching Netflix in our jammies.

Jammies are a long-standing Easter tradition in the Carmichael family, because the Grandparents Carmichael used to give my brother and me a new pair of PJs with our baskets of chocolate and kids' books every year. And it occurred to me that once you and your kids recover from your chocolate comas, and have finished reading your shiny new copies of The Boreal Forest, you might find yourselves in need of more fun and educational things you can do at home. And thus I present:

The Great Big Boreal Forest Resource List

First - it's a video of me reading from the book!

Thank you to my publisher, Kids Can Press, for permission to keep this video available online until the end of the school year. May it bring the outdoors inside to you.

The Official Boreal Forest Activity Guide

Click here to download a free activity guide for use with your copy of The Boreal Forest. It includes suggestions for science, social studies, and language arts, and will help support a variety of elementary school curriculum outcomes. Not to mention a little creativity and fun.

But why stop there?

General Information, Online Articles, and Websites

Borealforest.org – Canadian website produced by Lakehead University

Natural Resources Canada: Boreal Forest Pages

NASA Earth Observatory: The Carbon Cycle – A detailed overview of the global carbon cycle, in which the boreal forest plays a crucial role

NASA Precipitation Education: The Water Cycle – A kid-friendly resource that includes activities and lesson plans

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species – Find the conservation status of your favourite boreal plants and animals

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Birds of the World – This is a superb resource, but note that it does require a paid subscription

Keeping the Carbon in Alaska Forests

Coronavirus Toilet Paper Hoarding “Totally Unnecessary,” What You Need to Know

A photographer who discovered baby bears dancing in a forest thought he was imagining it

Bird that looks like it died yesterday turns out to be 46,000 years old

Time to vote for Canada’s national lichen – the “spectacular” organisms that carpet the country

How deforestation drives the emergence of novel coronaviruses

What do wild animals do in a wildfire?

Totally bizarre facts about the star-nosed mole

Lesson Plans, Activities, Projects

Borealforest.org – Educational Resources Section

Canadian Geographic: The Boreal Forest “In the News”

Canadian Wildlife Federation: Boost the Boreal Forest

Lesser Slave Lake Bird Observatory: Boreal Forest Lesson Plans for Elementary, Junior High, and Senior High

Boreal Songbird Initiative: Provincial and Territorial Forest Facts

Nature Canada: For Children Section – Articles and a Resource Section

Forests Ontario: Community Engagement Section

NASA Precipitation Education: The Water Cycle

Utah State University: Water Cycle Lesson Plans

Scholastic: The Water Cycle Teaching Guide

California Academy of Sciences: Carbon Cycle Role Play

University of Colorado Teach Engineering: Carbon Cycles

Indigenous Peoples of the Boreal Forest


Worldwide, hundreds of Indigenous peoples live in the boreal biome. I’ve included resources for those peoples featured in my book, but I encourage you to learn about the Nations nearest you!


Gwich’in Social & Cultural Institute – a repository of Traditional Knowledge, including audio recordings of Gwich’in words and information on Gwich’in medicine plants

The Whitefeather Forest Initiative of the Pikangikum First Nation – general info and links to research involving Traditional Knowledge


Reindeer Herding – information on reindeer (caribou) and the many Indigenous peoples of Europe and Asia who herd them

Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia, and the Far East of the Russian Federation – This site is in Russian, but Google translate will give you a starting point for further research


Tree Canada

Nature Canada

Forests Ontario

Ontario Nature – Boreal Forests Section

Boreal Songbird Initiative

The PEW Charitable Trusts: International Boreal Conservation Campaign

Science Books for Adults

For teenagers that want to learn more, or for adults who want more knowledge to help support their children's learning - here are some of the adult-level books I consulted while researching The Boreal Forest. Check your local library for ebook options, or see what you can find online!

Bannick, Paul (2008) The Owl and the Woodpecker: Encounters with North America’s Most Iconic Birds. Seattle, WA: The Mountaineers Books.

Bondrup-Nielsen, Soren (2009) A Sound Like Water Dripping: In Search of the Boreal Owl. Kentville, NS: Gaspereau Press.

Chang, Mingteh (2013) Forest Hydrology: An Introduction to Water and Forests. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Crawford, R.M.M. (2013) Tundra-Taiga Biology: Human, Plant, and Animal Survival in the Arctic. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gawthrop, Daniel (1999) Vanishing Halo: Saving the Boreal Forest. Vancouver, BC: Greystone Books.

Lynch, Wayne. (2001) The Great Northern Kingdom: Life in the Boreal Forest. Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside.

Do you know of additional boreal resources? Drop them in the comments for others to explore!

10 Apr 2020

How You Doing?

By Raymond Nakamura

I hope you are as well as can be expected under the circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed us into a new world. Dealing with the pandemic has spread beyond an issue of science communication to sharing an historic experience.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by the threat and the many impacts of self-isolating, other posts on this blog have already shared some helpful information. Increasingly, the importance of finding common ground with your audience is being recognized as an important part of science communication. This post is more about sharing my experiences with some little comics I have been posting online, as my way to stay connected with friends and perhaps offer some encouragement.
Many people seem to be working from home for the first time. As a freelancer, intermingling work work and house work is normal, other than having to avoid people who usually aren’t there while I’m walking my dog.
What has changed for me has been the act of buying groceries. Deliveries of groceries have skyrocketed, but to leave that service to those more desperately in need, I have gone in person, only to realize how things have changed.

Even before this situation, I did not get out much, but have been meeting with my writing group every Monday for the past twenty years. Recently, we did our first videoconference. It worked out quite smoothly, but of course we missed the snacks and hugs.
We are still learning about the effects of this novel coronavirus, but in my case, just the possibility of it seems to have affected my senses.
It does seem that the reduced traffic and general mayhem makes it easier to hear the birds when I go out to walk my dog.

If you can, get outside a little without your devices and maybe it will help your frame of mind. Take care.

For those of you interested, I drew these cartoons on an iPad with an Apple pencil, using an app called Tayasui Sketches.