30 Dec 2011

Santa’s White Hair

Santa's hair and long beard are white as snow. But as a boy, his hair was probably a different color. Just like boys the world over, his head would have been topped with shades of brown, red, or yellow.

Hair color originates inside the skin on the head, where hairs are attached. Pull on a hair firmly and slowly until it comes out, and you'll notice a small white tube clinging to the end of it. This tube is a clump of cells that fit inside a narrow hole in your scalp, a hair follicle. Hair grows in hair follicles, and the cells that line hair follicles supply the growing hair with color.

A hair grows as cells are added to its bottom. These cells contain a strong protein called keratin, which gives hair its structure. Fingernails are made of keratin too. As more and more cells rich in keratin are added to the bottom of the hair, the older cells are pushed higher in the follicle tube, towards the surface of the scalp. By the time a hair cell has been pushed through the entire follicle tube to the surface of the head, it is dead. Hair is not alive, which is why it does not hurt to cut it! The more cells that are added, the longer the hair grows.

In case you are wondering…Hair grows about 1 cm every month.

Hair does not keep growing and growing forever. Every two to seven years the follicle stops adding keratin cells. The hair stays attached for a few months and then it falls out. Every day,

50 to 100 hairs fall out of a person’s head. New ones start to grow in their place.

Hair color of all shades are the result of the presence of one chemical, melanin, which is transferred to hair cells inside the follicle. Melanin is also found in skin. Dark skin has more melanin than pale skin. When people get a tan, their skin cells are producing extra melanin. Similarly, the darker the hair, the more melanin its cells contain. Black hair has the most melanin, red hair has less melanin, and blond hair has less still. Gray hair has even less melanin, and pure white hair, like Santa’s, has none.

As people get older, especially when they have lived for fifty years or more, the color cells start to disappear, and there is less melanin to transfer to the growing hairs. We are not sure why these cells disappear. For some people it happens slowly over many years. For other people it happens quickly. Hairs still keep growing, they just don’t have much color in them any more.

Santa's white hair tells us a lot about him. It is a sure sign that Santa is probably well over 50. (It is unusual, but occasionally a young person has no melanin in their hair.) As well as being white, Santa’s hair is thick and shiny. This tells us that Santa is healthy and eats plenty of good food. Also, when a person goes out in the sun a lot, their white hair gets stained yellow. Santa’s bright white hair tells us that he does not spend a lot of time on the beach. Christmas keeps him much too busy for that!

28 Dec 2011

A Spectacle of Swifts

With a park ranger husband I have spent most of my life living in natural places rather than cities. A few years ago we lived in Oregon where, twice a year, an amazing natural phenomenon takes place: the Vaux Swifts stop by during their migration north or south. These small birds are amazing aerial artists. Looking like large swallows, they fly quickly, soaring and diving through the sky while catching insects.

Vaux Swifts are migratory birds. In winter they live as far south as Central America and Venezuela in South America. But in the spring they come to the western United States and Canada to lay eggs and raise their babies. During their migration visits, these little birds are an amazing sight. Unfortunately, their presence in Canada has sharply declined in recent years due to loss of habitat. Old brick chimneys are disappearing and, with them, the place where these birds like to hang out.

Vaux Swifts like to spend the night in a chimney where they are safe from predators. In Eugene, Oregon, close to where I lived, is a tall, brick chimney. It is not in use and offers a safe, dark place to spend the night.
When I first get there, toward dusk, there isn’t a bird in sight. But after waiting for some twenty minutes I notice many swifts swarming in the sky overhead. Another ten minutes later, the entire sky is dotted with thousands of tiny birds, diving and dancing, grabbing one last bite to eat before bedtime.

Suddenly the birds start to soar over the chimney opening as if staking out how to get inside. Then they begin to fly in a circular formation. And suddenly, as if on some invisible clue, the first bird dives into the chimney. The others follow. It looks as if someone has turned on a gigantic vacuum cleaner inside the chimney, sucking up all of the birds. Thousands of birds disappear into the brick chimney. Within another ten minutes, not a bird is left in the sky, which the setting sun has now painted dark orange and purple.

Scientists say that the Vaux Swift’s feet are like velcro - they can stick to the brick surface inside the chimney without hanging upside down like bats. The birds also roost in hollow trees. Inside the safe, dark space the birds spend the night. The next morning they will all emerge from their resting place to continue their long trip north or south.

In eastern Canada there are several old brick chimneys left, at campuses, highschools and churches, where you can observe these birds. By mid August the birds will be on their way south, a 10,000 KM journey.
If you ever get the chance, watch the swifts enter or leave their chimney. It’s an amazing sight.

Margriet Ruurs is the author of
27 books for children, including Amazing Animals, In My Backyard and Wild Babies, Tundra.

20 Dec 2011

The Great Sci-Why Holiday Quiz

By Claire Eamer

Help us celebrate Sci-Why’s first Christmas (or mid-winter celebration of your choice) by playing along in – TA DA! – The Great Sci-Why Holiday Quiz. With prizes!!!

The questions are multiple-choice, and all of them are based on previous blog entries. There are nine questions, one for each month in the Sci-Why blog archive. (And if that’s not a giant hint, I’m a monkey’s uncle. Er …auntie.) Of course, if you choose to ignore the giant hint, you can use the index terms on the right side of the screen to search for answers.

Put your answer in the Comments section below, or send your answers straight to me, Quizmistress Claire, at claire@claireeamer.com. Just list the question number and the answer letter: for example, 10F.

And what about the important bit – the prizes? On New Year’s Day, I’ll get my minion (gotta have a minion!) to draw three names from the massive stacks of correct answers, and each winner will get a signed copy of one of my science books.

So – here we go.

1. What do scientists in Sudbury use to capture neutrinos?
A: The giant nickel. B: A huge underground dome of heavy water. C: A tiny, little catcher’s mitt.

2. How many lenses does a dragonfly’s compound eye have?
A: 30,000 B: 300 C: 1 -- you can’t fool me that easily!

3. What stops earthquakes from getting big enough to wipe out everyone on Earth?
A: A law passed by the United Nations. B: Rocks break before underground pressure reaches that point. C: The Royal Canadian Earthquake Police, also called Earthies.

4. Who is Scotty, star of the T. rex Discovery Centre in Eastend, Saskatchewan?
A: A science communicator who performs daily shows there. B: A small black terrier that was rescued by the staff and became the Centre’s mascot. C: A fossilized Tyrannosaurus rex.

5. How do fish biologists count salmon in Haida Gwaii?
A: They clamber up streams on foot. B: Aerial surveys. C: The salmon sign in on underwater slates at the mouth of each stream.

6. What’s the one-word name of the winner of the 2011 Lane Anderson Award for children’s science books?
A: Science B: Whoopee! C: Evolution.

7. Australian researchers found a link between watching six hours of television a day and what?
A: High scores in trivia contests. B: A shortened life span. C: A powerful urge to buy shiny new trucks.

8. What’s a sun spot?
A: A dark spot on the sun (of course!). B: Another word for a freckle. C: A solar-powered light used in outdoor theatre productions.

9. Where did the rocks that make up the Yukon’s St. Elias Range, Canada’s highest mountains, come from?
A: The moon. B: A giant meteorite. C: The ocean bed between Scandinavia and Russia.

From all the crew at Sci-Why, good wishes and have a happy holiday!

16 Dec 2011

Christmas counts - to the birds

By Marie Powell

As we start preparing the annual Christmas turkey (photo by tuchodi), tens of thousands of volunteers are out in search of other birds - on the annual Audobon Christmas Bird Count.

Before the Twentieth Century, many bird and animal species would need to fear the annual hunting parties in search of sport and/or food for the holidays. According to the Audobon website, this annual hunt turned into a bird-counting census on Christmas Day in 1900, when the idea was suggested by ornithologist Frank Chapman. In its first year, the bird count included sites from Ontario to California.

Today, Christmas bird counts are held across North and South America from December 14 to January 5. Bird counting usually takes place in groups within a defined area, and in all kinds of weather. The data collected helps scientists and researchers study the health of bird populations over time. That helps identify declining bird populations - and ultimately, declining populations tell us about the health of a given area or ecosystem.

It's a way of giving back - and when could that be more appropriate than at Christmastime?

For more about Christmas bird counts, or to find one near you, try these links:

Audobon: Christmas bird count: http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count#

Audobon: Get Involved: http://birds.audubon.org/get-involved-christmas-bird-count

Bird Studies Canada: http://www.bsc-eoc.org/volunteer/cbc/index.jsp?targetpg=cbcparticpate&lang=EN

Marie Powell is a freelance writer and author of Dragonflies are Amazing (Scholastic).

12 Dec 2011

Inspiring Books

What were your most inspiring science reads in 2011? Maria over at Brainpickings (a site to which I recommend you subscribe) has a wonderful list with lots of links and videos to pore over. On my wish list? Radioactive: A Story of Love and Fallout by Laura Redniss. A great story and, by the looks of things, a stellar design. (And, really, what a great title.)

6 Dec 2011

Observing the Night Sky- For All Ages

Looking up at the night sky is a pastime that can provide unlimited entertainment for all ages. Consider making the experience even richer by working storytelling into your night sky plans. Ancient Greeks, Romans, and people from other cultures around the world made up tales to explain many night sky phenomena. You can discover their mythology and lore in the Dot to Dot in the Sky series published by Whitecap Books. A blend of sky science and stories, these books introduce the characters associated with the constellations, planets, and Moon.
Stories in the Stars and Stories of the Zodiac show how to find constellations by leading readers dot-to-dot in the sky from one constellation to another. Begin with Orion, the Hunter. Note that he stays on the opposite side of the sky from Scorpius, the Scorpion, to protect himself from being stung. Look for the giant “W” in the sky and describe how beautiful Cassiopeia, the Queen, is falling off her throne as punishment for a foolish mistake. Maybe you will see Ophiuchus. He sings so endearingly, animals follow him, plants grow in his direction, and rocks roll his way.
Many of the stories explain how ancient characters—gods, goddesses, monsters, and heroes came to be placed in the sky as stars or represented by planets. (Note: these are not “connect-the-dots” drawing/coloring books.)
Young children can look for different colors of stars, make up their own constellations, or look for pictures on the surface of the Moon. Try to find a princess, two frogs sitting on rocks, or a turtle. In Canada, we talk about seeing the face of the man on the Moon or a rabbit (try tilting your head to the right). Dot to Dot in the Sky, Stories of the Moon explores the stories people from around the world have told when gazing up at the Moon.
Older children and adults will enjoy using binoculars to observe Moon craters. The details you can see are quite incredible and may just spark an interest in all things celestial. Remember to pick a night when the Moon is not full so the light  through the lens is not too bright.
You can identify constellations with the naked eye or use binoculars to view star clusters, galaxies, nebulas, the Moons of Jupiter, and the phases of Venus. It’s important to note that because the planets are so bright, you can see them almost as easily from cities as you can from rural areas. Dot to Dot in the Sky, Stories of the Planets reveals the Greek myths associated with each planet. When you look at Mars, remember the red planet is represented by Ares, the god of war. He loved a good argument but had few friends because of his violent nature.
You can also watch the night sky for movement. Look for satellites and meteors—commonly called shooting stars. These bright streaks of light are caused by bits or rock and dust in space, often as small as a grain of rice. A meteor the size of a pebble can make a streak of light brighter than the Full Moon. Light from a large meteor is called a fireball, while a rock from space that actually strikes the Earth is a meteorite.
Meteors are best spotted after midnight, facing east. Showers occur at the same time every year. From about December 4-16 and especially from December 13-14, watch for meteors originating from Gemini. Keep in mind that dates will vary slightly each year. There are many fascinating things to see when you look up. Have fun exploring the night sky!

2 Dec 2011

Rocks on the Move

By Claire Eamer

Whitehorse, where I live, is in the middle of the southern Yukon. It lies in a broad valley cut through thousands of years’ worth of glacial till by the mighty Yukon River.

To the east, hundreds of kilometres of rocky outcrops, pothole lakes, rivers, and boreal forest stretch all the way to the Mackenzie Mountains.

To the west, a half-day’s drive through dry, patchy forest, across rivers and streams, and around the southern end of a huge lake will take you to the Kluane Range, steep mountains weighed down by massive icefields.

Still farther west are the peaks of the St. Elias Range, the highest mountains in Canada. Only beyond them might you finally reach the Pacific Ocean.

Things were very different 500 million years ago. A peaceful sea lapped against the shore of North America, on the eastern edge of today’s Yukon. The rock beneath my feet, here in Whitehorse, was probably part of an island arc somewhere off the coast of China. And the St. Elias Mountains, well…

The rocks that make up the St. Elias Mountains are weird, says JoAnne Nelson of the British Columbia Geological Survey. “It would be like coming around the corner and seeing a flock of penguins.”

The St. Elias Mountains are a dramatic example of plate tectonics, the combination of forces that sends Earth’s land masses drifting around the globe, combining and recombining in new patterns like a giant kaleidoscope. For a long time, the St. Elias rocks were a puzzle, Nelson says. Recently, however, clues from an ancient sea bottom hint at a journey almost beyond belief.

The clues are fossils, the remains of some odd sea-bottom creatures that once lived in only one small bit of ocean, nowhere near the modern Yukon. Based on that evidence, 430 million years ago the rocks of the St. Elias Range lay beneath the Atlantic Ocean (or its ancestor) between Scandinavia and Russia.

What brought them almost half a world away? The lithosphere, the outer layer of the planet we live on, is constantly moving. Bits of it slide over or under other bits or jam up against them, squeezing rocks together like an accordian or pushing bits of seabed into towering mountains. What we now call the Yukon was created and moulded by those processes.

“The entire lithosphere of the Yukon is being picked up and pushed on top of the Northwest Territories,” explains Nelson.

That’s the kind of pressure that drove a bit of ocean bottom across the top of the world, shoved it against an island arc from the China Sea, and jammed both against the Pacific shores of ancient northern North America with a force that flung up immense mountains.

But, dramatic as they are, the mountains won't last. “These landscapes are fleeting,” Nelson says. “It’s only that we, the living, are so much more fleeting than they.”

For information on plate tectonics, and some great animations, go to http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/geology/tectonics.html

29 Nov 2011

Ten Random (But Fascinating) Facts I Learned While Researching A Magazine Article

By L E Carmichael

1. Dogs were the first domestic animal species.  Unambiguous archaeological evidence for dogs is about 12,000 years old, but domestication may have started 20,000 years or more before that.

2. Ancient Egyptians had at least three dog breeds: a greyhound type, a mastiff type, and a small Spitz type.

Shetland sheepdogs - note the floppy ears!
3. The modern concept of breeds, and of deliberately breeding animals for specific traits, developed in Victorian England.  Which means that most of the 400-ish dog breeds recognized today are less than 200 years old.

4. Scientists aren't entirely sure whether house cats are actually domesticated.  It's possible they're nothing but "delightful profiteers," to borrow a phrase from Stephen O'Brien, well-known expert on the evolution of the cat family.

5. Dingos are a breed of domestic dog.  People took dingos with them to Australia several thousand years ago.

6. Floppy ears are found in almost every domestic species.  The only wild species with floppy ears is the elephant.

7. Chimpanzees are humans' closest relatives.  Dogs are better at interpreting human gestures, such as pointing.

8. Crop species are considered domesticates of wild plants.

9. Domestication is a type of evolution.  Natural, artificial, unconscious, and conscious forms of selection are all involved.

10. A group of Russian scientists once attempted to domesticate otters.  It did not go well.  Neither did attempts to domesticate zebras, despite their close relationship to horses.

And this is how one article pitch becomes two, and two become a book proposal...

27 Nov 2011

Science, My Father and Me

Posted by Vivien Bowers

As a child I spent summers in the BC Okanagan, where my physicist/astronomer father worked at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory while we kids swam in the lake. On weekends when nobody else was around he’d let us climb the ladder high up to the gigantic dish antenna, where we’d perch while Dad in the control room slowly turned the dish to listen to another part of the mysterious universe.

You’d think I might have developed an affinity for science from my father, but no. My
degree was in English literature, and science was a bit of a foreign land.

Yet these days I often write about science. I contribute to a school publication called “What in the World?” and often get handed the monthly science and technology story. Nuclear meltdown in Japan. Oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Internet bandwidth hogs. Space trash.

I find joy in nailing these science stories, though they are a stretch for me. I peer into pockets of scientific knowledge and challenge my brain to grasp the unfamiliar concepts. Then I write about them, and why they matter, in a way that I hope captures the attention of a Grade 8 audience.

Recently my topic was dendritic cells and their role in our body’s immune system. Canadian-born medical researcher Ralph Steinman won the Nobel prize for discovering these cells. And I learned about them too, one morning, and was almost as thrilled.

The hardest story? The Large Hadron Collider at the CERN Institute in Switzerland. My research took me into the heart of dark matter, anti-matter, string theory… my father’s familiar haunts. Fortunately CERN has a very helpful website. That story has become my benchmark – if I can write about particle physics, I can write about anything.

My father died more than a decade ago, but I feel closer to him as I tackle these stories. I’m no scientist but I’ve realized that I share his intellectual curiosity, rational mind and enthusiasm for new discoveries. I remember the day he told us about black holes – hands gesturing wildly and blue eyes shining. And how, after visiting a neurologist who told him he had an inoperable brain tumour, he demonstrated to us with real fascination how the changes in brain functioning were affecting his body’s movements.

Being a scientist – someone passionate about the how and why of this mysterious universe – gave my father a sense of perspective on his impending death, and some comfort. As for me, I’m grateful to have inherited more than just his blue eyes.

22 Nov 2011

I Dig Dinosaurs

One of the reasons I became a children's writer is because I've never grown up. I never have grown out of my fascination for arm-farts, explosions, or dinosaurs.

That's why my recent trip to Alberta's famed Royal Tyrrell Museum was such a dream come true. The Tyrrell sits smack on the pre-eminent fossil-hunting grounds of Drumheller's badlands, and boasts one of the best dinosaur collections in the world. Most of the awe-inspiring fossils in the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum in New York actually come from Drumheller ("stolen" by fossil gold rushers, but that's another story); still, they can't hold a candle to the displays at the Tyrrell.

So without further ado, I'll share some of my photos and experiences with you.

T-Rex, Albertosaurus and Edmontosaurus all hail from Drumheller.

Say "Cheese!"

This feller, called Deinonychus, isn't actually a dinosaur - it's a reptile.
 In our family, we always called him "The Potato Chip Monster."

In addition to a huge range of skeletons, the Tyrrell also has fabulous dioramas, including one that shows what the waters of ancient times may have looked like. 
Awww... it's a baby....and her just hatched egg.

And living "fossils"  - some Madagascar cockroaches, complete with the hiss.

We were taken behind the scenes, into the workroom where the scientists prepared and studied the fossils.

I love the toy ankylosaurus on the workstation. That's what this researcher is
working on - an incredible find uncovered by accident by miners in the oil sands.

Here, he's showing us the distinctive shape of the scaly skin. Too cool.

Science Writer Claire Eamer contemplates
a rather impressive ammonite specimen.

Here, we're being shown what is so groundbreaking about this mesosaurus
fossil. But shhh - I can't tell you what it is until theTyrrell
researchers publish their findings.

A walk through the warehouse was perhaps the most amazing and mindblowing part of the whole adventure. It reminded me of a stroll through IKEA, but instead of Billy Bookshelves, these racks held row after row of Triceratops heads.

The tour concluded with a scouting trip out into the Badlands to find some fossils of our own.

Can you spot the dinosaur bones sticking up from the ground in this picture?

The visit to the Tyrrell is one I'd recommend to anyone, especially if you have kids in tow. Try camping out in the museum, or going on a dig of your own through one of their comprehensive education programs.

I learned so much on this trip, I've turned it into two nonfiction book proposals, a proposal for an enhanced e-book series, and have even decided to use the museum and badlands as the setting for my sequel to Trouble in the Hills, my young adult adventure novel.

Who knows how a visit to Drumheller will inspire you?

17 Nov 2011

Just in Time For Gift-Giving...

... is your chance to save big on award-winning science magazines for kids: KNOW (for ages 6 to 9) and YES Mag (for ages 10 to 15).

For the first time in 15 years of publishing, there is a sale! A big sale! Until Nov 23, you can save 40% on a subscription! Learn more at http://www.yesmag.ca/sale. But act fast, it could well be another 15 years before the sale comes around again!

15 Nov 2011

What Really Counts

Ever have that feeling of too many coincidences? As though life is trying to teach you a lesson, and the same question comes up over and over again until you learn it? This has happened to me this past month; time and time again, the question “what really counts?” keeps rearing its head.

It started with an incident in my teenager’s English class. He gave an oral presentation about a historical novel, which happened to be – with the teacher’s permission – a romance. Of the steamy variety, with plenty of heaving breasts and burning britches. The teacher said his presentation was “brilliant,” filled with hilarious metaphors laced with innuendo that communicated the book’s flavour, but he also gave it a low grade because the innuendo was “inappropriate.” It was the dichotomy in the teacher’s reaction – his high opinion of the presenter’s abilities coupled with a low grade – that made me ponder. What message does this leave the student about what really counts? Competent, or even innovative, use of words to communicate effectively? No. Social conformity? Perhaps.

A week later, what really counts in science class, as opposed to English class, came up in discussion with a group of high school science teachers in Alberta. When I asked them what really matters, what they wanted their students to graduate high school with, they said lofty things: an appreciation of nature; a desire to learn about their world; an understanding of how to analyze, reason, use deductive logic; an ability to assess evidence and conclusions presented in media; and, good citizenship. What are science students tested on, however? Largely facts. Science teachers and science students alike are left to figure out for themselves what really counts.

The question of how much school itself counts was raised for me a couple of years ago when I wrote Edison’s Concrete Piano. Many of the sixteen great inventors I studied did not have regular schooling. Edison and Einstein’s difficulties fitting the education mold are relatively well known. Buckminster Fuller was the same. But many other greats also had irregular schooling because they were ill (e.g., James Watt and Nikola Tesla) or because they were homeschooled (e.g., Danny Hillis). I always thought the lack of school aided success because they managed to avoid some negative influence, but a new friend suggested what really counted towards these inventors' success was what they were gaining, not avoiding, by staying at home – such as countless hours tinkering in the garage.

The question of what really counts got personal the other day when I inadvertently heard that a co-worker was being paid more than me for similar work. Now, the day before, I was perfectly content with my pay rate, so it wasn’t the money that mattered. It all turned out to be a mistake but not before I realized just how much it matters to me that I am respected by others. Maybe too much.

But the biggest question about what really counts came with the privilege of spending a few hours with a colleague recently diagnosed with stage four cancer. The world seen through her eyes, even just a peek of it, gives a clear, lasting view of what matters. And it isn’t grades or grading, how much money we make, or even how much we are respected. It is how we take care of ourselves, and how positive a force we are in the lives of others. And, perhaps most acutely, it is the wonder of our existence as we interact with our Earth. It is the glint of sun on a frosted windshield and the ardent pink of an Echinacea petal. It is the soft divot at the edge of a smile, the air rushing in and out of our nostrils, and the thousands of other exquisite experiences we take for granted each and every day.

11 Nov 2011

Just a spot of sun

By Marie Powell

With the onset of winter, I’ve been more interested in following the sun – on and off the web. NASA is a good source of up to date
information about science topics, in easy-to-understand formats with lots of colour videos. Just looking at this sunspot from July 2011, for instance, warms me up.

Did you know sunspots increase and decrease in an 11-year “sunspot cycle”? The exact length of the cycle can run as short as eight years and as long as fourteen, but the number and intensity of sunspots increases over time, and then decreases again.

According to NASA, the sun’s poles reverse every 11 years, causing the sunpot activity. Sunspots mark the place of powerful magnetic fields from the sun’s interior, causing solar flares – a phenomenon we’ve been observing since Richard Carrington discovered it in 1859.

Lately we’ve been seeing sunspots and flares more often lately because the cycle we’re in now will peak around 2013 or 2014. Then it will begin to diminish again until around 2020. For more information about sunspots try these links:

Marie Powell is a freelance writer and author of Dragonflies are Amazing (Scholastic).

The Red Cedar Shortlist - Full of Science Fun

Congratulations to all of the science writers on this year’s shortlist for the Red Cedar awards. There are several science books on the short-list, including The Insecto-Files by Helaine Becker, Animal Aha! by Diane Swanson, Hoaxed!: Fakes and Mistakes in the World of Science by Jude Isabella, Out of this World: The Amazing Search for an Alien Earth by Jacob Berkowitz, Kaboom!: Explosions of All Kinds By Gillian Richardson and You Are Weird: Your Body's Peculiar Parts and Funny Functions by Diane Swanson. (Diane! A double header. And aren’t you retired?)

Robots Instead of Rats?

Every day we come in contact with products that have the potential to harm human health. Food additives, adhesives, paints, fuel, pharmaceuticals and so on. Even the plastic toy that a baby might gnaw can be cause for concern. In North America, consumer products are tested for toxicity. This takes time, money, and, in many cases, the use of lab animals. But this is not a post about the ethics of using lab animals, which is a complicated issue that can quickly get heated, rather it is to talk about one alternative to toxicity testing that saves time and, yes, lab animals. (I’m not sure about money, but I suspect so.)

Last month, as part of an assignment with educational publisher, I was introduced to Tox21. This lab equivalent of Big Bird – an oversized bright yellow mechanical arm – is being used in the United States to test the toxicity of a wide variety of products, from food additives to pharmaceuticals to the chemicals used to disperse oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster. And it works quickly. In just one day, the robot can run a number of tests that would take a human lab technologist a year. Rather than using animals, the Tox21 system tests how chemicals react with lab preparations of living cells. Tests show how chemicals in the products react with chemicals already present in living things.

Here’s a video of Tox21 at work.

6 Nov 2011


By Margriet Ruurs

Since my column was scheduled to be posted on this blog on November 11, I decided to share information on the One Day on Earth Project with you, and post it a bit earlier so that you can participate!
On November 11th, 11.11.11, across the planet, documentary filmmakers, students, and other inspired citizens will record the human experience over a 24-hour period, thus contributing their voice to the second annual global day of media creation called One Day on Earth. Together, they aim to create a shared archive as well as a film shedding light on many aspects of life on earth including poverty, education, the environment and many other specific topics.

One Day on Earth's first media creation event occurred on 10.10.10. The collaboration was the first ever simultaneous filming event occurring in every country of the world. This allowed for the creation of a unique archive as well as an upcoming feature film showcasing the amazing diversity, conflict, tragedy, and triumph that occurs in one day around the world.

And you are invited to join this international community of hundreds of schools, and dozens of non-profits, and contribute to this unique global mosaic. One Day on Earth is a community that not only watches, but participates and is supported by such organizations as UNICEF and the World Wildlife Fund.

A recent One Day on Earth's press release states that The United Nations, 60+ NGOs, filmmakers and other inspired media creators from EVERY country in the world plan to share their unique perspective.
To help secure footage from developing nations, and to increase the overall diversity of coverage,ONE DAY ON EARTH has partnered with the United Nations and non-profit
organizations, including the International Red Cross and the World Wide Fund for Nature.
The event will bring together filmmakers, students, humanitarian aid workers, and other
inspired people to collaborate worldwide on a single day. Last year, media arrived from regions of the world that are often times difficult to access, including Uzbekistan and North Korea.
"The power of creating and sharing videos as part of a community is inspiring," said Kyle Ruddick, Founder and Director of ONE DAY ON EARTH. "Despite the 3000 hours of footage created by our 2010 collaboration, we know we just scratched the surface for how this type of project can educate and connect local and global conversations on important topics."

Through its website, which is also a social network, the project works closely with its non-profit partners to provide cause-based calls-to-action to film on a variety of topics, including poverty, gender equality, and human rights. The project includes groups of filmmakers collaborating around themes, such as child birth, sports, and music, and also technique, including time-lapse photography and underwater filming.
As a key aspect to the project, participants will share their footage for non-commercial use. If you contribute a minute or more of collaboration on the social network site, you will receive access to final film.

Educators can check out this special site:
Lesson plans and online classrooms are available to educators to connect their students to the rest of the world.

To learn more, visit: www.OneDayOnEarth.org

Margriet Ruurs is the author of 27 books for children, including My Librarian is a Came and My School in the Rainforest, Boyds Mills Press, a book that shows how children around the world attend school.

1 Nov 2011

science eBooks

Two years ago I wrote a piece for the Vancouver Sun about ebooks. The text of the piece follows below. The article motivated me to take my own advice and this week our first enhanced eBook- Bathtub Science- comes out with HarperCollins. This book represents a major change in the way that we, as authors, communicate science information. The parents and teachers who have seen the rough cuts love the idea. It makes science exciting and for those who feel intimidated by instructions (and yes, there are many out there who don't try hands-on science activities for this reason), the enhanced eBook is the perfect solution for science scaredy cats.
As science writers we ought to be leading the way in innovative and effective communication of information. How can we best spark a child's interest in science and how can we stay relevant? I have been told by teachers that there isn't a need to buy science books because everything is on the internet for free. Changing that attitude is something that we as science writers must actively address.

RE: "It's far too soon to terminate books" Ceri Radford, Vancouver Sun, (Vancouver, BC, Canadas -Page -A17, June 11, 2009)

Ceri Radford's article, "It's far too soon to terminate books", was in the same self-righteous tone as those prognosticators in the early 1900's who said that cars would never replace horses, or those who claimed that if man was meant to fly, God would have given him wings.

Wake up. Already some of the major North American publishers at Book Expo America (BEA) seem to be abandoning books in print form. At the annual show last week in New York, I was given large format postcards at the Harper Collins booth. Each card had the image of a book cover, and on the back was the book identification number (ISBN), information about the book, the author, the publication date, and a free download of the book when I went to the publisher's web site and put in the 16 digit PIN number. The book was then downloaded into my computer, in my choice of formatting, and I had access to their new front list of books.

Next year at BEA the majority of publishers say they will be giving out their new releases in this manner.

Why is this good thing? Frankly, digital books are better for the environment. Let's start with how a book is made. Trees are cut down; they are then turned into paper pulp, which means chemicals are spilled into our waterways killing fish. The pulp is turned into paper, shipped
off on trucks, processed, printed and shipped off again to a warehouse, which then sends off the books. There is a very large carbon footprint in this process, while downloading a book into a computer requires no gas, little energy and no pollution. There is never extra stock to be warehoused, and there is no waste. Publishers who are worried about their profits love
digital books because, let's face it, they cost very little to produce, nothing to ship or store, and there are no returns.

The bottom line here really is the "bottom line". Digital books make more sense financially. Just as homes are not built the way they used to be because labour and material cost prohibit this kind of construction, so it will be with printed books. As for school books, I hate to agree with Governor Schwarzenegger, but he is right. California ought to move its science and math
textbooks to digital books. Yes, it is going to save the state an estimated 30 million dollars, but that's missing the bigger picture. In B.C., one Grade 9 science text is available on CD, while the Grade 10 text is available online.

Science changes every day but science texts are only updated maybe every 15 years. Having the latest information available to students will mean that children aren't learning outdated science.
So will digital readers supplant paper? Yes. For those of us who like to read in bed without waking the person next to us, a backlit Kindle is great. I don't have to wear my glasses because I can make the font bigger. It always remembers what page I'm on. It weighs less than the 10 books I take along on holidays.

And as an author of children's books, I think that digital books will be good for my work.

29 Oct 2011


Of course, penguins live in the Antarctic, not the Arctic, but still...

24 Oct 2011

Science Venture Event at UVic

There's a Science Venture Event this week happening at the University of Victoria, in Victoria BC. Innovation Exploration is a two-day event celebrating the winners of the BC / Yukon regional Science Fair.
The event is hosted by the BC Innovation Council. The program will include a morning at UVic for seventy middle and high school students from across the province who are regional winners of science fairs. The program involves a dinner, tour of VIATEC, the Proteomics Lab, and the morning of October 25 on campus. At UVic, the students will attend workshops from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. delivered by faculty and students. The programming for these workshops is arranged by Science Venture, under the guidance of Melisa Yestrau, director.
Most of the members of the Science Venture team at UVic are undergraduate students -- most of them are between 17 and 21 years old. They are learning to write about and present science for kids. The team works to stimulate an excitement for engineering, science and technology in today's youth by providing high-quality, hands-on happenings and science adventures for children from 5 to 18 years old.

The UVic presenters on Tuesday, Oct. 25 are: PhD candidate Veronika Irvine (Computer Science); senior lab instructor Duncan Johannessen (Earth & Ocean Sciences); Karl Makepeace (UVic Proteomics Centre); BSc student Stephanie Robertson (Engineering); PhD candidate Jenni Woodcock (Computer Science) as well as Drs. Stephanie Willerth (Biomedical Engineering) and Peter Wild of IESVic (Engineering).
There's more information about the Science Venture team at http://scienceventure.uvic.ca/ . The two images on this post are from the Science Venture website. Science Venture goes a long way to make science-related activities available to young people, particularly girls. Some of the activities of the clubs associated with Science Venture team can be seen online at http://www.greengarageblog.org/2010/02/24/breaking-down-barriers-uvic-ecocar-mentors-the-science-venture-girls-club/ or http://www.westcoastaquatic.ca/NCNsciencecamp.htm or http://uvicecosat.org/outreach.html -- check them out!

20 Oct 2011

Why constellations and astronomy are important

by Joan Marie Galat

Astronomy has intrigued me since I was a young girl staring out the window on long drives. At that time, I knew how to find the Big Dipper and Little Dipper but not much else. Curiosity led me to hop on my bike and pedal to the County of Strathcona Library. For reasons no longer remembered, I visited the adult shelves  and took out books far beyond my level of comprehension.

Comparing images in the books to objects in the heavens left me feeling there were too many dots on the page and too many stars in the sky. I imagined constellations all over the place but was never sure I was seeing the same group of stars as in the books. Finally as an adult, I learned to find my way around the night sky. At one point I remember thinking, “if only you could connect the dots in the sky, it would be easier to find the constellations.” And that’s how my Dot to Dot in the Sky series was born.

How to find Cygnus (The Swan)
from Cepheus (The King)
from Dot to Dot in the Sky,
Stories in the Stars
The first and fourth books in the Dot to Dot in the Sky series show how to jump from one star group to the next. Stories in the Stars focuses on 15 easy-to-find star groups. They are easy to locate because they either contain bright stars or are near constellations with bright stars. Stories of the Zodiac explores the 12 constellations that the Sun appears to travel through when viewed from Earth. These books also share the myths, legends, and folklore that ancient cultures told to explain the gods, goddesses, heroes, monsters, and other characters in the sky.

While it's fun to search for constellations, it's also important to note that these star groups are more than pictures in the sky. They represent stories from many different cultures and are also important because they serve as a celestial map. Astronomers refer to zodiac constellations when describing the location of the planets in our solar system. Constellations are also useful for navigation. Just think of the North Star!

You may wonder why it’s important to study astronomy. Does it really matter what’s up there? Yes it does. Here are just a few reasons. Studying the Sun helps scientists understand the life cycles of other stars. This knowledge helps scientist learn how to predict celestial events that could impact Earth. 

Our Sun is the closest star to Earth at only 93 million miles away. It is responsible for life on Earth and provides our energy, our  atmosphere, and all our weather.

Solar flares impact radio transmissions. Activity from the Sun can interfere with Earth-orbiting satellites, power grids, and global positioning system (GPS) measurements. The Sun, as well as the Moon, causes Earth’s tides.

While I've learned a lot since those nights staring out the window on long drives, I still feel the same awe I did as a child—wondering about everything in space. But now the night sky is more familiar. I look up and see characters in the night sky. I know how to use the constellations to locate planets. And thanks to the important work of astronomers and other scientists, I know the Sun is responsible for much more than sunny days and the constellations are even more than a wonderfully entertaining way to enjoy the outdoors.

18 Oct 2011

Yes, As a Matter of Fact. Grammar IS Important in Science.

by L E Carmichael

When I was in grad school, I worked part time as a teaching assistant.  One semester, I gave my lab students a vocabulary quiz in the form of a crossword puzzle; they responded with unanimous outrage.  As one put it, "I didn't major in science because I wanted to worry about my spelling."

I couldn't quite convince them that spelling is as important to scientists as to people in any other field.  After all, mitosis and meiosis differ by only two letters; biologically, they differ by amoebas and humans.

Grammar can be another sticking point for students.  When I took marks off their papers, they'd often say, "Oh, but you knew what I meant."  Maybe.  But the job of a writer (and a scientist) is to make sure the reader doesn't have to guess.

Fortunately, there's now hope for the grammatically-confounded scientist.  Dr. Lorraine Lica has created a wonderful web page explaining why "that" and "which" are not the same, and why you should care.  And then she explains how to use them.  With the help of set theory.  And Venn diagrams.

I may just have died and gone to geek heaven.

14 Oct 2011

This Hour Takes 22 Minutes. Off Your Life.

By L E Carmichael

News.  Sit-Coms.  The Discovery Channel.  The latest "reality" drama.   No matter what you're tuning in to, you might want to turn it off.  According to a new study, television does more than rot your brain: it shortens your life.

A group of Australian scientists collected data from more than 11,000 people over the age of 25.  They compared the number of hours people spent watching TV every day to the number of years people lived.  The results were shocking.

A person who watches 6 hours of TV per day lives, on average, 4.8 years less than a person who watches no TV at all.  Every hour of TV watched after age 25 is associated with a decline in life expectancy of 22 minutes. 

The researchers compared TV viewing time with other risk factors for reduced lifespan.  This is a chart I made, based on data mentioned in the study:

That's right - watching 6 hours of TV per day appears to be as dangerous as lifelong smoking.  And if you're thinking that no one watches 6 hours of TV per day, you're wrong - the average adult in the USA watches about 5 hours a day.  That's 35.5 hours per week spent watching TV.  Or put another way, almost as many hours as a full-time job.

It might be a little soon to go throwing away your remote control.  This study demonstrates a negative correlation - in science-speak, interdependence between two variables.  In other words, as TV-viewing time increases, lifespan decreases.  That doesn't mean that television, in and of itself, is directly responsible for early death.  Correlations are not the same as causes.  Indeed, two correlated variables may in fact be responding to the same underlying-and-as-yet-unidentified cause.

In the case of this study, that cause is most likely sedentary behaviour, also known as too darn much sitting around.  And that sitting isn't just done in front of the tube.  It's at work, in the car, eating at restaurants and typing out emails.

Excuse me.  I have to put my laptop down now, go out, and take a walk.

4 Oct 2011

Yes, It IS Ethical Oil

Posted by Helaine Becker

Last month, Saudi Arabia made headlines in Canada when it tried to prevent the non-profit advocacy group, Ethical Oil, from running ads in support of Canada’s oil sands. Saudi Arabia apparently didn’t like how the TV spots highlighted the Saudis’ abysmal record re human rights. (Read more here.)
Less than a week later, the oil sands were in the news again, this time receiving plaudits from a surprising source: Patrick Moore, founder of Greenpeace. Moore said, “oilsands development is necessary and often leaves the production sites in better environmental shape than they were before oil was taken from the land.” (Read more here.)
I live a world away from Alberta, in posh, ivory-tower Toronto. It's hard to really know the truth about the oil sands/tar sands here (take your pick of the terminology; which you call it reveals your attitude, pro or con). I can tell you, though, that the Lululemons in my 'hood unanimously and vociferously decry them (but then drive off in their X5s).

As a science writer, I know the world is not a chic but simplistic black-and-white. I know, for example, that as feel-good as it is to tsk tsk fossil fuels, I wouldn’t  - couldn’t - live in Canada without oil. I’m fond of my furnace come October. So until that magic day when we can switch over entirely to non-carbon fuel sources, I’m going to have to accept that oil and I are partners in the Canadian experiment.
But that’s not to say I’m not uneasy about it. It’s also why I jumped at the chance to see the oil sands for myself last June. As part of the Canadian Science Writers Association’s annual meeting, a trip to Fort MacMurray was offered. I signed up pronto.
What I wanted to know was, “What is the real impact of the mining operations on the environment? Is it really “dirty oil,” as opponents claim? What are companies doing to minimize the environmental impact? And what, really, are our alternatives?”
The day was warm as we boarded the private plane provided by Connacher Oil and Gas, one of the gazillion oil companies based in Fort MacMurray. Connacher is at the forefront of in situ mining, a method of oil recovery that only became viable in the last decade. Traditionally, oil sands were obtained through open pit mining – huge quantities of the bitumen-rich soils were scraped off the surface of the land for later extraction. This process certainly left large areas of the landscape in bad shape, and potentially exposed populations downstream to toxic wastes.
Only a fraction of the oil sands – those that lay on the surface –could be mined this way. But much greater quantities of oil – unbelievably huge reservoirs that make the Middle East's reserves look like duck puddles – remained inaccessible. Technology to access them simply did not exist until the 1980s, when a technique called SagD (Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage) was developed and proven. With SagD, hot water is pumped into underground reservoirs that contain the thick, tarry oil sands. The steam loosens the tar, enabling it to be pumped up to the surface, where it can then be refined.

The Connacher team at the well pad
SagD seems to have a much more limited impact on the environment than traditional open pit mining. The footprint of the wellpad is tiny; to my eye, about the size of an average high school gym. The official bumpf says the pads cover 85-90% less surface area than old style mines. The Connacher plant also recycles over 90% of the  water used to make the steam, using only non-potable water; it doesn’t draw water from the nearby surface water or rivers. The company also  generates its own energy, making it largely independent of the power grid.
I have to say I was impressed by the facilities we toured and the caliber of the Connacher staff we met. Like most Canadians, the engineers at Connacher were concerned with the environment, and proudly detailed for us the programs they had in place to ensure as little disruption as possible to the wildlife of the area, and the environment overall.
Our guides were not given an easy ride by our group of science professionals and journalists, which included Jay Ingram, longtime host of Daily Planet, Susan Eaton, geologist, geophysicist and committed conservationist, and award-winning science journalist Peter McMahon. They were given tough questions to answer, and were not allowed to avoid them or slide away with easy generalities. Is SagD perfect? Of course not. It still is releasing carbon into our atmosphere, which we all know is damaging. And there are still local environmental concerns that need to be addressed with stricter regulations and monitoring.
After the visit to Ft. MacMurray, the issues around the oil sands were clearer in my mind. Like Patrick Moore, I now believe that Canada, as a nation, cannot, and should not, put a stop to oil sands extraction in Alberta. We simply have no alternatives to oil yet.  Until we do, we have to get our oil from somewhere. Like the folks at Ethical Oil say, where would you rather get your oil, from Canadians who are regulated and who make the effort to obtain the oil in the cleanest possible way (no matter if we don’t always reach nirvanic perfection, at least we are trying – can you say the same about Venezuela?)? Or would you rather buy your fuel from a country where women aren’t allowed to drive, or vote, or get stoned to death if they look at a man that isn’t their relative?
Not me. I’m going to continue to use as little fossil fuel as I can, because reducing its use is good for everybody. But until I can honestly live without fossil fuels, I’m going to support the firms and countries that are more in line with my values of environmental conservation and human rights. That means Canadian oil.

Eyebrows: An example of how little we know about ourselves

I’ve been reading and writing about eyebrows this week. I’m learning a lot. It has made me think, with amazement, how human beings (like me) are so oblivious to our own biology in so many ways. I mean, eyebrows are just two strips of hair; they’re kind of boring, perhaps even a little gross. Even though I look at eyebrows dozens or even hundreds of times a day, I’ve never paid them much attention before. All this time, I had no idea how important they are to everyday life.

For one, they are crucial for communicating emotion– more so than words. Our eyebrows tell others when we are angry, sad, afraid and happy. We also use them in conversation, like visual punctuation, as well as to convey empathy. And we send specific messages with them; raising our eyebrows quickly, known as the eyebrow flash,is something that cultures around the world do automatically to send signals. The message can be “hello,” or “yes,” or “I’m flirting with you.”

Detail, portrait of a man with raised eyebrows, Giovanni Battista Moroni

Eyebrows talk, and we are very good at understanding what they are saying, without thinking. But there is more. Eyebrows are crucial for us to recognize faces and determine the identity of its owner. That is one reason why we first look at the eyebrows and eyes when we see a face. People’s eyebrows give us even more information – whether they are male or female, and to some extent how old they are.


We also seem to read information from eyebrows about people’s personalities, though there is no evidence (and it is unlikely) that eyebrow shape and personality are actually related. We judge a face with thin eyebrows to be happier, weaker, and more intelligent. Thick eyebrows are judged as stubborn, strong, even mean. This makes me wonder if there is a biological reason for people in so many cultures, especially women, altering their brows to make them thinner. Could it be that we are unconsciously changing what our faces communicate to the world?

Female eyebrow, thinned and tattooed

So here I am, looking at my own eyebrows in the mirror several times a day, using them to detect the emotions and identity of the faces of everyone I meet, and moving them up and down and in and out to send signals to people without being aware of it. My mind pays attention to eyebrows when I’m speaking to people and when I’m watching actors on a screen, and registers and understands the signals they convey without my knowledge.

My conscious mind can try to fake emotions using my eyebrows, but this uses a different part of my brain, and like most of us I am not very good at faking it. The movements we make when deliberately “making a face” are faster, bigger, and last longer. Most people have little difficulty telling the difference between when we are faking a frown and when we really mean it.

Studying the science of eyebrows has made it very clear that my brain is causing me to behave in ways that I do not know about. This makes me wonder what else I’m doing that I have no control over. It makes me uncomfortable to think that I’m an animal, a product of evolution, and that I respond to my environment – including other people – in such complex ways without my knowledge.

It is also marvellous to realize how little we understand about our own biology. Eyebrows are right under our noses (well, actually above our noses), are utterly unique to our species, and yet are not fully understood. From a purely selfish perspective, this means there is plenty of intrigue and mystery left to explore, and plenty still to write about.