26 Apr 2011
Digging Up Those Juicy Bones
A few years ago a publisher suggested that for my next book, I should ask kids what they wanted to know. Thus began Crazy About Canada!: Amazing Things Kids Want to Know (Maple Tree Press, 2006), a book that answers questions posed by real-live, squirmy kids from across the country. Some of their queries, like “What is slug slime made of?” or “Why are there no penguins at the North Pole?” just required some deft Internet trolling on my part - although I did have to chase down a penguin sighted off the coast of British Columbia, but it was an escapee from a nearby zoo.
Others questions - the really fun ones - were a lot tougher.
Ever seen a dog sniffing out some really smelly treat? That was me, tracking Scientific Truths. I would dig up the name of some expert on mosquitoes, glaciers or food chemistry (“Why are Saskatoon berries blue?”), track them down and enlist their help.
People loved the idea of the book and were happy to help - whether it was polar bear expert Ian Stirling (“Do polar bears ever freeze?”) or Newfoundland iceberg expert Stephen Bruneau, who told me about lassoing icebergs to divert them from oil rigs, or the various entomologists who confirmed that yes, Canada does have the world’s biggest mosquitoes.
“What is the hairy thing underneath a moose’s chin for?” took me to the Moose Foundation, where I was informed that a moose’s dewlap or bell served no scientific purpose. “Nonsense!” retorted Canada’s moose guru Vince Crichton, professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba. He proceeded to give me an X-rated explanation about how, during the rut, bull moose make a hollow, pee in it, and then splash the urine onto their antlers and dewlap, the hairs of which stand out so that the stuff can really get in there. The urine then gives off an ‘eau de moose’ smell that drives cow moose crazy. The good professor also sent me his very own CD of bellowing and grunting “Moose Music” which doesn’t bear repeated listenings.
“What are the most important archaeological discoveries in Canada?” Good question - but I couldn’t find any kind of ranked list. I contacted the head of the Archaeological Survey of Canada in the Museum of Civilization. He kindly canvassed his colleagues over coffee break and came up with their list of top picks, which included L’Anse Aux Meadows, Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump and the Bluefish Caves in the Yukon.
"Why is water wet?” This one turned my eyebrows into knots. Where to even start? I used the question as a conversation opener with everyone I met: “Hi! How are you? Why is water wet?” A friend thought maybe it had something to do with chemical bonds, which led me to consult another friend who is a chemist (writers would be nowhere without their friends), who soon had me tangling with dipole-dipole interactions. I discovered that water makes your hands wet because the water molecules cling to them. But water molecules don’t cling to, say, a freshly waxed car or waterproof fabrics. Ingenious. There’s even a liquid that doesn’t make things wet. If you immersed a book in a bucket of this stuff, and pulled it out again, the book would be dry. That’s why it’s used to douse fires that break out in libraries full of valuable books and documents that shouldn’t get wet.
“How do scientists capture neutrinos at the Sudbury Neutrino observatory?” Neutrinos? Unlike many of the bloggers on this site, I have little background in science (the science writing gig sort of happened by accident). Who knew that billions of these neutrinos - tiny solar particles - pass through our bodies each second? Or that two kilometers down in a Sudbury mine there’s an immense geodesic dome filled with heavy water surrounded by almost 10,000 light sensors where scientists from several countries do indeed “capture” neutrinos.
Isn’t life grand?
Author of Wow Canada!, Crazy About Canada!, Crime Scene and other non-fiction books for kids. Hey, Canada! will be published by Tundra Books in Spring 2012.