24 Feb 2012

The Tangliest of Food Webs

The idea of food chains and food webs is one of the first ecological concepts that children often learn. (I'm sure most of us have played a version of a food web game, where, in the end, everyone is connected to everyone else, if a few trophic levels away.) But at last weeks' AAAS conference I saw food webs in a new light. And learned just how very, very complex they can be.

Research by the Santa Fe Institute's Jennifer Dunne added human hunter-gathers to marine food webs. To do this, she synthesized 5000 years of biological, archaeology, ethnographic and other data from marine systems in the northeast Pacific. Her results showed that the Aleuts of Sanak Island, Alaska were "super-generalist" predators and they ate foods from a wide spectrum of sources. Dunne said that this flexibility "likely helped stabilize the entire ecosystem." In essence, when one food source became low, they moved to another giving species time to recover.

This flexible grazing (or, "prey switching") method is in stark contrast to the modern-day economics-driven pressures that can destabilize food webs. As Dunne explained in a briefing note, "[Switching prey when a population is low] is natural behaviour for predators. It's stabilizing for the system because it allows populations to recover." This is in stark contrast to modern economic systems. Again Dunne explains using blue-fin tuna as an example, "As the premium sushi tuna gets scarcer, its value goes up, and fishing becomes more profitable, leading to more, rather than less, pressure on tuna populations. This 'increased rarity-higher value-more harvesting,' cycle tends to drive species toward extinction and introduces dynamics that might destabilize the whole food web."

Remarkably, this is one of the first studies of food webs that includes humans. In the end, the very tangled food web had more than 6000 feeding links. Dunne's research found that the humans in her study fed on 50 of the 171 taxa available to them. And they lived on Sanak Island for thousands of years without other species going extinct.

19 Feb 2012

How to get a children's book published

On Feb 19, 2012, I sat on a panel with the amazing Jude Isabella, the entertaining Claire Eamer and the incomparable Jim Becker. Together we presented: Keep Out! Kids Only: How To Morph Your Science into a Whiz-Bang Book for Kids .

We had a respectable number of attendees (probably around 60), all of whom were interested in how to write for the children's market.

Jude explained the magazine side of the business, while Claire covered the information/research portion of the panel. Jim, the genius behind the Smart Lab brand of toys and the best-selling book/kits you often find at Costco, walked the scientists/journalists through what makes a successful product.  I spoke about the business end of publishing and things you need to know when trying to get a book to market.

Below is the text and some of the slides from my portion of the presentation.

My name is Shar Levine and I write hands-on science books for children.  My writing partner Leslie Johnstone and I have together written over 60 books, so it’s fair to say that we have some experience in creating books that publishers want to buy and that kids want to read.

If you are interested you can check out our web site: www.sciencelady.com for a listing of books.

It is extremely difficult to sell a book, especially these days.  Publishers are looking for something unique.

Here are some simple steps to follow if you want to write a science book for children.
1.  Who will buy this book?
It is really important to know who your book will appeal to. If the topic is focussed on something very esoteric, chances are the publisher won’t be interested in the book.
Ideas that sell- fills gap in curriculum  - anniversary of da vinci’s birthday
Ideas that won’t sell – sun spots

2.  What is the market for the book?
Is this book only for kids who live on the east coast of the United States or can the book be used by children in Canada, the US, Europe and Australia?
Idea what works- Snowy Science
Idea that won’t work- Science of Sand

3.  Who publishes this kind of book?
Approaching a publisher who specializes in Picture Books and not information books is a waste of everyone’s time.  Do your research and check out standard guides like Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market.

4.  What is the competition for this book?
Again, do your research. Go on Amazon and see what similar books have been published.  God forbid- go to a library.  Talk to a teacher and ask what science book needs to be written.  And if you want to write a book on a subject that has a ton of books i.e. Magnets, then you have to find a different spin.

5.   Why are you the person to write this book?
Just because you are a notable scientist or a well known journalist, doesn’t mean you know how to write a kid’s book.  Remember you will be using little words for big concepts and you may only have 100 of those words /page to get this information across to the reader.  The trick is to tell the child just enough facts that won’t confuse them or conflict with the science they will learn in high school.

Which is easier for a child to understand?

In order to maintain the shape of a flexible membrane within a rigid plastic container you must first increase air pressure within the membrane while simultaneously allowing air to leave the rigid container. When the rigid container is sealed this produces a partial vacuum inside the plastic container. The shape of the membrane is retained due to the higher external air pressure relative to the vacuum inside the plastic container as long as there is a sufficient difference between the pressure within the membrane and that within the container

Or this?
How can you blow up a balloon, leave the mouth of the balloon open, and not have the balloo deflate? Try this!

6.  What do you have that other writers don’t have?
Publishers don’t like to spend money. The more you can offer by way of images the more appealing your proposal might be to them. For example: we’ve done 10 books on microscopy and 3-d electron microscopy because we have access to microscopes.

7.  Do you know the rules for hands-on children’s science books?

Let’s start with something simple: which of the following cannot be used in an experiment for children:
1. Rubbing Alcohol
2. Eggs
3. Matches
4.  Microwave oven

The answer: all of the above.

Writing for children is completely different than writing for an adult market. There are rules here that you need to follow, no matter how absurd you may think they are.  It doesn’t matter that your child gets eggs from the fridge, can use a knife to cut a piece of bread or can nuke popcorn.  In writing a science book for young children- 6-12 you have to be extra cautious with all materials and instructions. You need to be aware of things you can and cannot do and if your list of “do’s and don’ts” looks like something created by a litigation lawyer, you know you have a problem.

NOTE: Just because something is really cool in a lab setting does not mean you can do this at home.

The case in point: The Electric Pickle.  This activity is amazing in a controlled lab setting and when it is performed by someone who knows what to do. At home you might kill yourself if you do this incorrectly.

8.  What are the concepts, vocabulary and materials appropriate for the grade level?
Let’s take acid rain as an example. I had a terrible time with a group of grade 4 students when they were examining acid rain. They asked what would happen if they got caught in an acid rain storm. I told them they would get wet. They presumed all “acid” would burn your flesh off.  Too many sci fi movies.  So I had to explain “acid” which then led to pH and the science of acid and bases, which was way above their grade level.

9.  What other things do you need to consider when pitching or writing a book?
Generally you have to use things that are universally available around the world, but you cannot call them by their trade name.  So Saran Wrap, is plastic wrap, Kleenex is facial tissue, Joy is dishwashing liquid.  If you are photographing these for an activity you must block off all identifiable logos and markings.

You will need to write short sentences, with exact word counts.  If you publisher says you have 200 words / chapter with a DYK or sidebar of 20 words, that’s what you need to submit.

Try not to date the book. A great example of this is one chapter in Science Around the World, where we said that someday flat screen tvs would be everywhere.  If you are sending photos for a book, no T-shirts with logos or writing.  No slang.

Always have an equal number of girls to boys and make sure the girls are active and not passive in photographs or illustrations.  Also include children of different ethnic backgrounds and if possible a child with a visible handicap.

When adding sidebars, try to find as many examples of women scientists as possible.  Also cite research from universities for leading edge sidebars. A great source of information is New Scientist or ScienceDaily.

10. Swallow your pride or stand your ground?

One publisher we worked for created books for Sam’s Club and Walmart.  In the Southern US, they didn’t like “evolution”.  So the agreed to term was, “over time”.  Sometimes you suck it up and cash the check.

11.  How do you woo a publisher?
In the case of pitching to someone like Jim, find an add-on that can come with the book.  We did that with the Ice cream maker, the microscope, and the 3-D books becker. For Wild Planet we created all the science activities to be used with the Mega Dome. And the Summerville House, I designed WormWorld and the Papermaker.

12.  What is the best advice?
Be ahead of the curve.  Don’t pitch a book that is a spin-off of a highly successful one, do something new.  You can also partner with an established author. This is something we’ve done several times and it has been a fabulous experience for everyone.

We just finished our first enhanced Ebook that included video and audio and we have two more in development.  Again, come complete with a very comprehensive outline, a sample chapter, a pithy pitch and a compelling reason why you should write this book.

Good luck!


17 Feb 2012

Thoughts on WiFi, Science and Science Reporting

Posted by Gillian O’Reilly

Recently, the Ontario English Catholic Teacher's Association called for an end to new WiFi setups in the province's 1,400-plus Catholic schools, saying computers in new schools should be hardwired instead. The union – which represents 45,000 teachers – cites research by the World Health Organization and said the “safety of this technology has not thoroughly been researched and therefore the precautionary principle and prudent avoidance of exposure should be practised.”

Here are two stories on it:

I must admit that I have a little trouble with the WiFi topic because I know someone whose family seems to have been affected by WiFi (grown child with seizures, a grandparent with other issues) and who is very concerned by it.

I am basically agnostic/skeptic on this issue. The only detailed media I have heard about it was a CBC Sunday Edition program that was not very scientifically presented – lots of personal anecdotes from thoughtful and sincere people who have had dramatic encounters with WiFi, one scientist who has talked a lot about this issue and, it seemed, a lack of probing into the scientific details (more the fault of the journalists than the fault of the people concerned about the issue).

On the opposite side, all I have heard are health bodies who say there is no problem. Any one with a memory knows that there have been lots of times that we've been told something was no problem when in fact it was -- but that's history, not science. Again, no real science reporting on how they arrived at that conclusion.

As someone who comes to science from an arts background, my general approach to science is that "there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy." There are all sorts of new and interesting things being discovered all the time (like a sea sponge that makes a structure of glass! cool, eh?) and scientific thinking changes all the time. The point is to try to be intelligent about it, whether or not one has a science background oneself.

For instance, and to take a dramatic example, it wouldn’t have taken a scientist to ask a few questions to the now-disgraced anti-vaccine campaigner Andrew Wakefield; it would only take a logical, intelligent thinker. How big was your sample, Dr. Wakefield? (Twelve.) Is that a useful sample? (No.) Do you have any conflicts of interest in this matter? (Yes.) You wouldn’t even have to ask, Is it possible you falsified the data? (Yes.) It’s a pity the editors of The Lancet, a peer-reviewed medical journal, didn’t ask these questions before they published his report.

So I'm quite prepared to believe that WiFi is a problem and I'm quite prepared to believe that it isn't – as long as I'm told something about the science behind it. I don't want to be told (like my friend) that if I'm concerned, I should go out and get a tinfoil hat. I don't want to be mollified by an official "there is no problem." And I don’t want people feeding me quotes that they haven’t sourced properly.

I simply want science reporters and institutions like OECTA to do what they are supposed to do – ask the tough, logical, scientifically literate questions these issues demand and present the answers to those questions to me clearly. That way I, and the folks making policy decisions on these topics, can do some intelligent informed thinking, whether we are scientists or not.

12 Feb 2012

Nature and Children’s Books Study Is For the Birds

Posted by the Writers of Sci-Why
The Huffington Post recently ran a story entitled, “Children's Books Lack Nature References, Study Suggests.” The study it referred to, which was published in the journal Sociological Inquiry, concluded that “today’s generation of children are [sic] not being socialized, at least through this source, toward an understanding and appreciation of the natural world and the place of humans within it.” (You can read the complete study here)
Here at Sci-Why, where we are both children’s writers/illustrators AND scientist/environmentalist types, we were naturally intrigued by this study. So we took a closer look at it.
As suspected, the study did not pass the scientific sniff test.
The study looked at 296 children’s books, published between 1938 and 2008, and which won the prestigious Caldecott Medal. The medal is awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, “to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.” From an examination of these books, the study authors drew conclusions about children’s books overall, and their effect on children.

In short, the conclusions the authors reach are not supportable by the facts, and the study’s design is flawed.

To begin with, the study examined books that are award-winners for artistic merit. These books, by definition, are not reflective of books overall.

Nor, as the authors claim, are Caldecott winners necessarily “the books that young children are most likely to encounter.”  Quoting a 15-year-old study, the authors say the Caldecott winners “are important both because the award leads to strong sales and they are featured in schools and libraries and influence tastes for children’s literature more generally.” While it may be true that Caldecott winners influence tastes in children’s literature, those tastes would be in artistic style, not in subject matter.
Furthermore, Caldecott winners are not necessarily the books children tend to encounter most. A better designed study would have looked at best-selling books, and books actually on school and library shelves. Caldecott winners are a tiny minority of these, and not reflective of them over all.
The choice of the sample, therefore, is seriously flawed. But an even greater flaw is the severely restricted size of the sample. The study examined just 296 books. Contrast this to the number of children’s books published in 2009, as reported by The Library and Book Trade Almanac (“Book Title Output and Average Prices:  2006-2009):” 21,878.
According to the American Library Association, that staggering figure is actually part of a downward trend in the number of published children’s books that began in 2008.
While we do not have access to the data describing the number of books published for children overall since 1938, considering the 2009 figure alone demonstrates the problem with this study. 296 books are simply too small a sample to reflect the nature of children’s books over all; in 2009, the Caldecott winner was just one title out of more than 20,000 books published for children in the U.S. One of of twenty-thousand yields a statistical correlation of exactly zero.
Furthermore, the authors' statistical analysis of trends over time is noted in three graphs. The data, the authors says, show statistical significance with a p-value of about .05. This is not a strong p-value. Something where p=.01 or less are stronger data.
Scientifically, then, the study fails to convince.  A non-scientific, common-sense approach to the study reveals even further flaws.
A quick eyeballing of the most popular picture books from the first “golden age of publishing” – a period loosely covering the 1950s and 1960s, features bestsellers such as Babar, Curious George, and books by Dr. Seuss and Richard Scarry. The Little Engine that Could. Madeline. Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. Goodnight Moon. Where the Wild Things Are. 
Looking back even further, to the first illustrated children’s books in the 19th century, every single book features built environments, tamed nature and artificially civilized animals – think of Beatrix Potter’s  Peter in his little blue coat.
None of these books is “natural” in focus or illustration, yet they remain, perhaps, the most influential children’s books of all time.
In contrast, look at some notable books for 2012 from the Association for Library Service to Children (http://www.ala.org/alsc/awardsgrants/notalists/ncb). Nine out of 32 picture books on the list have natural themes and settings.
Interestingly, students of literature know that in the fairly short history of children’s literature, nature has rarely been presented as benevolent or even benign, making the current crop of books with pro-nature themes an anomaly. In traditional children’s stories, both oral and written, the wilderness is universally presented as a place of evil and danger. Consider Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel as prime examples of the classic form.
There are still other issues with the study overall. For example, the authors use dated material, and also cite references that do not, in fact, support their claims. For example, consider this sentence: “the final decades of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first saw a conservative backlash (Kline 2000; K. Gottfried, personal communication).” Unless the authors engaged in time travel, it would be impossible to draw conclusions about “the early years of the twenty-first century” from a document dated 2000.
Similarly, the authors of the study use data from 1996 to draw conclusions about the content of children’s science textbooks and continuing trends today. This data, 16 years out of date, does not reflect either the content of children’s texts today, nor the changing nature and usage of textbooks overall. To draw conclusions about books and their impact without consideration for the revolution in publishing we have been undergoing in the last decade is simply nonsensical.
The authors, we believe, suffer from a common problem among scientists and researchers of all stripes: confirmation bias. The researchers set out to confirm a hypothesis in which they already believed. Consider this quotation from one of the sources used in the study: ‘‘I believe one of the greatest causes of the ecological crisis is the state of personal alienation from nature in which many people live.’’  This is not a scientific observation; it is an unsubstantiated opinion.
As writers and illustrators involved in science and nature, we, of course, have our own biases. We know, however, exactly how much our own work, and the work of our peers, is inspired by and infused by the natural world. We see firsthand the work that is most influential, the work that is most often read by children and promoted by teachers and librarians.
Is it less “natural” than previous generations? We think not.
The Huffington Post should be more careful about the studies on which they choose to report. And for information about science or nature in children’s books, they should perhaps look to those who know something about the field: authors or librarians, not environmentalist-sociologists.

3 Feb 2012

Raising Baby Chimpanzees

Before I became a writer, I worked in a Primate Center raising baby chimpanzees. It was one of the most interesting things I have ever done. Ultimately, I left because the chimps were used for medical research purposes and because I believe that no animal should be kept in captivity. But, while I cared for them, I was able to help them live relatively happy lives. With a degree as veterinarian assistant, and a little bit of experience caring for monkeys in the U.S., I was hired in The Netherlands to coordinate a newly established infant center. The Primate Center had quite a large number of adult chimps but no experience in how to handle their offspring if rejected by the mother. I learned that motherhood is not necessarily an instinct, but largely learned behaviour, taught by example during a normal, natural life in a peer community. But when a chimpanzee had been raised in complete isolation, she did not always know what to do with the small thing to which she just gave birth. In order to save their lives, babies whose mothers did not hold and feed them, where taken away. These infants had to be cared for by someone. That someone became myself and two other young women. We embarked on a steep learning curve. I corresponded with well known chimp expert Jane Goodall who helped to establish the proper feeding mixtures and schedules. The bottle fed infants, lacking the natural protection offered through mother’s milk, were susceptible to human diseases, especially respiratory tract illnesses. Hence, the caretakers wore a mouth mask when handling newborns.
Like human babies, the chimps slept in incubators and wore newborn size diapers. Human contact was very important so we carried the babies all day, encouraging them to cling to our clothing rather than supporting them as you would a human baby. As they grew, the chimp toddlers were a handful. Like their human counter parts, the 2 year olds were full of mischief. One of their favourite games was playing hide and seek. Without having to be taught, they would hide under piles of clothing, peek out at us and giggle as we frantically looked for them. Did you know that chimps have sounds similar to those of humans when they laugh and giggle? Once you get to know individual chimps, they don’t look alike at all and have many different facial expressions. Chimpanzees, like human, are apes. Apes also include bonobos, gorillas and orangutans. Characteristics of apes include nails (rather than claws), opposable thumbs, colour vision and no tail. It is interesting to note that chimps still have a ‘belly button’ on their tail bone. Humans have lost that particular feature on their next step up the ladder of evolution. But we do remain closer related to chimps then to any other animal. We took sick chimp infants to the children’s hospital because the specialists there knew better how to treat them than the veterinarian did. Their blood, their lungs and other organs are more comparable to humans than to other animals. I loved summers, when the chimps were able to romp outside in the grass. We gave them tubs of water and hoses and they splashed and played just like human children. They loved painting, making a mess of their food and a hug and a kiss when they needed to be comforted. One young chimp was emotionally unstable and I obtained permission for him to come home with me at night so that he would have company 24 hours a day. At home, my dog took one look at the chimp. It was love at first sight. Those two became inseparable, playing, hugging, sitting and sleeping together. It offered the chimp just the kind of security he had been craving, and my dog a new, albeit unusual playmate.
Medical research is important. Thanks to the animals, doctors were able to perfect skin grafting and other treatments that have, undoubtedly, benefitted many humans. But to me it did not feel right that these amazing animals were used to our benefit. Chimps need to live in their natural habitat in Africa, in healthy mixed age groups. Yet I treasured my time spent with these amazing creatures, our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. Margriet Ruurs Author of 27 books for children. Her very first book, published in The Netherlands, was titled Baby Chimps.