31 May 2011
30 May 2011
"...there are many things I've learned from being a science writer that transfer extremely well to teaching. Here are three of them: (1) a student is a complete person, and the class he or she is taking is but one part of his or her life; (2) if I am not excited about something, I can not hope to excite a student about something; and (3) no matter how exciting something is, it needs to be accessible."
27 May 2011
The thrum of dragonfly wings is the most welcome sign of summer for me. Dragonflies can fly as fast as a car drives on city streets. They can hover like helicopters in the air. They’re known as great fliers, and one of the advantages they have in the air comes from their sight.
24 May 2011
That's pretty easy for a science writer. Everywhere. Ideas are all around us. The trick is spinning these ideas into a viable project and always being open to to seeing the story in whatever you are up to. There are a lot of times I miss out on a good idea and there are many times I've seen a published book or article and said, while slapping forehead, "Ah, I wish I'd thought of that." Like the time I found the coolest coprolite in New Zealand. (I mean, honestly, don't you think fossilized poo is exciting? Well, I do and that's probably why I'm a science writer.) Much as I was fascinated, for some reason I didn't think of spinning it into an article or even a book. But Jacob Berkowitz did and he wrote the the coolest book about the stuff: Jurassic Poop: What Dinosaurs (and others) Left Behind. I'm not envious at all. Nope. Not me.
Writing about poop would be right up my alley. I tend to veer towards the living-things-people-love-to-hate school of writing. Bats, snakes, spiders, shipwrecks, and slugs have all been subjects, but I don't stop at living things. Mud, slime, even death fascinate me. General rule? The gooier, slimier, muckier and grosser the better.
Most of the time, writing about these topics is just plain fun. But sometimes it pays off too. When people ask me "What is your best selling book?" they are often surprised at the answer: Mealworms: Raise them, watch them, see them change.
Yup, when it first came out in 1998, this book flew off the shelves. (Well, as much as my books ever fly anywhere.) The trick to the success of this book was, to use a sciency term, finding its niche. And I found a fairly large one: teachers across North America use mealworms to teach students about metamorphosis. These creatures, the larva of the darkling beetle, metamorphose fairly quickly and don't fly as beetles. So they're perfect for the classroom, where the last thing teachers want are escaped science projects, especially ones as potentially pesty as mealworms.
So, all of this is to say hello and to make my official entry onto this blog. Thanks for stopping by! If you care to know more about me, you can find more than enough here.
22 May 2011
|A beautiful misty morning.|
|Eggs from the male are collected by using a syringe to suck up white, gooey material from the top of the creature.|
|Way cool microscope that takes time-lapse photography of fertilization of sea urchin eggs.|
For more info, check out this cool blog.
20 May 2011
Although I live on the west coast of British Columbia, I find myself writing this from the east coast of the United States. Fog horns echo into the night as a thick blanket settles on the waters surrounding Woods Hole. For the next 10 days I will be attending the Logan Science Journalism Fellowship offered by the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) located in Woods Hole, Mass. The MBL is the oldest private marine laboratory in North America. To quote the introductory video, "MBL is to marine biologists what Paris is to artists." More than 50 Nobel Laureates have studied, researched or have taught at this facility. There's more to MBL than the obvious interest in things in the water. The facility conducts research on ecosystems, and cell biology as it relates to humans. They also use sea creatures to conduct studies on biomedical, biological and ecological issues. If that weren't ambitious enough, they are the brains behind the Encyclopedia of Life project. The aim of this web site is to create a page for all 1.8 million species that live on our planet. Ooops make that 1,800,002 million as more species are discovered each day.
MBL has selected 15 journalists from around the world who will be working with scientists on two programs. One group has headed out into the marshlands on Cape Cod to study the effects of pollution on the ecology and the environment. I was delighted not to join them as they headed off into the wilderness, sleeping bags and packed dinners in hand. Instead I had a leisurely stroll down the campus to the lab where I was allowed to play with really cool microscopes. This week I will be studying sea urchins and seeing how the cells of these simple creatures related to humans.
The course is a boot camp in basic biomedical research. It would be an understatement to say that the material is heavy. We are looking at genomes and molecular genetics as they relate to humans and diseases. So why sea urchins? To quote from the course material, "a model organism is a species that has been widely studied usually because it is easy to maintain and breed in a laboratory setting and has particular experimental advantages." This means that the creature is cheap, simple to use, and no one feels too bad about poking sea urchins with needles. So bright and early tomorrow I am off to fertilize sea urchin eggs and watch them grow. At each stage we will be taking photomicrographs (pictures taken of the images seen in a microscope). I will be using special stains that show different parts of the cells, which is a thrill because normally I only get to use ink or food coloring. It's nice to play in an adult lab.
Will post photos as the day progresses.
16 May 2011
13 May 2011
“First” is in quotes because who knows who really was the first person to translate a jargon-laced scientific theory into lay language? And I’m likely only talking Western Science, so I’m biased. My vote, however, goes to the French writer Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle. He may not have written for kids, but with his wit, sense of fun, and vivid imagination, he could have.
Fontenelle’s book Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds (1686) was to the 17th century, what Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was to the 20th century — every one who could read had a copy. (Whether they read it — who has actually read A Brief History of Time cover-to-cover? — is another story.)
A slight 100 pages, Conversations takes place over six nights. A philosopher (meaning scientist) is staying at a chateau in the country, where he meets a Marquise. She is young, beautiful, and intelligent. Each night they meet to talk about the natural world. The philosopher opens the world to her eyes, and being curious and open-minded, she absorbs the most daring ideas of science to date. Every science journalist/writer/kids' science writer should read it. In his introduction, Fontenelle was upfront that the book was meant to entertain as well as educate. And he knew his audience. One of his main characters was a woman. Wait. An intelligent woman. Fontenelle understood that the key to his success as a writer was to engage his readers, and women were the ones who organized the salons and invited the intelligentsia, like him, to converse with the educated class about science. Fontenelle seized on that bit of market information — how many other writers were placing smart, beautiful women in mainstream roles?
Fontenelle (1657-1757) lived and wrote during the French enlightenment. Read “Conversations” and you’ll discover a writer far ahead of even that enlightened time period. When would humans build a flying machine to visit the Moon? Are there aliens? Exoplanets? Does Earth go around the Sun? Without his writings, the general reading public would not have had the exposure they did to progressive scientific ideas of the time, i.e. a heliocentric view of the solar system. Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica was published a year after Fontenelle’s book, and guaranteed (though it was seminal) hardly anyone could read and understand the book. It was Fontenelle who popularized the idea that other worlds could exist, inhabited by beings we could hardly imagine.
Today, Fontenelle would be clarifying the ideas about the multiverse, wormholes, the Higgs-Boson particle, and lamenting the demise of SETI. No, wait, he would be writing about more than physics — evolutionary biology and anthropology would definitely be on his radar.
At the time that Fontenelle wrote, educated Europeans had learned a lot about non-Europeans and comparative religion was becoming an active field of scholarship. Travellers, missionaries and colonial administrators were coming back to Europe to write about their adventures, the people, the cultures, and the religions they encountered. In 1661, for example, the Dutch scholar Gadetrius Carolinas, produced a 50-volume work on the many “heathen” religions. Fontenelle avidly read these accounts. In fact, at the same time as Fontenelle’s Of the Origin of Fables (another great read — short and to the point) was published in 1724 (although it was probably written in the 1690s), Francois Joseph Lafitau, a Jesuit Missionary, published The Customs of the American Savage Compared to the Custom of Earliest Times: The Canadian Iroquois and Myths of the Ancient Mediterranean Region.
To Fontenelle, humans may be a diverse lot, in varying stages of civilization, and their physicality partly based on environmental pressures, but the mentality of early humans was not fundamentally or qualitatively different from modern humans: “Clothes may change, but that does not mean that the shape of bodies does. Manners or the lack of them, science or ignorance, more or less of a certain naiveté, these are only man’s externals, and they all change, but the heart never changes, and all of man is contained in the heart.” — Jude Isabella, science writer, Fontenelle Fan
11 May 2011
10 May 2011
6 May 2011
Hi, everyone! I'm Claire, and it’s great to be here.
I’m the blogger in the upper left-hand corner. I live in the Yukon, the most northwestern bit of Canada, and – in a way – it’s living in the Yukon that got me into writing about science for kids.
I’ve been writing about science for a long time. It’s part of my semi-nefarious plot to get people to pay me for doing what I want to do anyway. Basically, I’m curious. I was the kid whose nose was always buried in a book. If books didn’t have all the answers, I asked questions – of my parents, my teachers, my aunts and uncles and cousins, even the world-famous physicist who lived next door.
When I lived in Saskatoon, I convinced CBC Radio that its morning show urgently needed a weekly science feature. The producer believed me, and the series lasted for two and a half years, or about 125 glorious weeks of getting paid to ask questions about everything from bugs to relativity.
Then, in 1984, I moved to the Yukon and found a whole new set of questions. You see, the Yukon is a peculiar place. Twenty thousand years ago, when most of Canada was buried under kilometres of ice, much of the Yukon was ice-free and full of life. There were woolly mammoths, camels, muskoxen and caribou, dire wolves, giant short-faced bears, scimitar cats, and weird giant ground sloths.
There’s a ground sloth skeleton in a museum just up the hill, and it fascinates me. (Check out the photo. That's my cool running shoe next to the giant sloth claw!)
I wanted to know more. How could something so huge be related to the tree sloths from modern-day rainforests? What was it doing so far north? So I started reading and asking questions. And I found more animals that fascinated me: dragonflies as big as hawks, huge crocs from what’s now a desert, bear-sized beaver, and rabbit-sized camels.
Join me on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CEamer
3 May 2011
I'm the third kind.
I was reading at age two and started making up my own stories shortly after (the one about how the dog unwrapped and ate my brother's chocolate bar was true, I swear). I wrote and illustrated my first picture book when I was six. At ten, I started a novel, and spent most of my middle school years carrying a notebook from class to class, scribbling every chance I got. I knew, the way some people know their age or eye colour, that I was meant to write.
Which was all very well until twelfth grade, when people (and by people I mean my eminently practical father) started asking me how I was planning on actually making a living. His exact words, I believe: "Dreams are great, kid, but you'd better have a backup plan."
I didn't have the first idea where to get one of those! After all, I'd only ever wanted to be a writer. Panic ensued until, not surprisingly, I found the answer in a book - Joseph Wambaugh's The Blooding, the true story of the first murders solved by DNA fingerprinting. I was completely fascinated, by the science of genetics in general and this forensic application in particular. Which is how I found myself, four years later, with a BSc in Honors Genetics.
This is the part where it starts to go sideways.
There are jobs available to BSc's, after all, and plenty of the type that qualify as backup plans. I even applied for one - heading up Alberta's newly created Fish and Wildlife Forensic Lab. When I came in second to a guy with a PhD, graduate school seemed like a perfectly reasonable option.
I knew within six months that I'd seriously miscalculated. Some people love research, thriving on the problems and challenges and frustrations (oh vast universe of cursing, crying, hair-pulling frustrations). For me it was a interminable, Sisyphean task of unrelenting misery - the kind of misery, I realize now, due to the denial of self resulting from a stubborn refusal to realize I was stumbling around in the wrong forest, never mind on the wrong path. I made it through on sheer willpower, and the day I received my degree (or passport to freedom, as the case may be) was one of the happiest of my life.
|American Museum of Natural History|
lindsey (at) foxtalk (dot) ca