26 Dec 2014

A Little Holiday Gift

Occasional Sci/Why contributor Margriet Ruurs sends in a couple of amazing links for your holiday pleasure.

First, this clever shorebird could teach human fishers a few lessons in patience and technique!

And here's a series of photographs by London-based photographer Tim Flach that challenges the way we see animals and ourselves.

Enjoy the links and the holiday season!

19 Dec 2014

The Kiss Connection in Spacecraft

By Paula Johanson

If you've ever wondered what connection could there possibly be between chocolate and the space program, well, there is one. According to Colonel Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut, it's the shape of a Hershey's Kiss.

On December 12, Hadfield posted on Facebook a picture of four spaceships, comparing the shape of the re-entry modules. All four have a similar shape. It's actually Hadfield's son Evan who manages most of Hadfield's social media posting, and he does so with grace and efficiency.

The Hadfields wrote a caption for the image:
The natural shape of spaceships. Apollo vs NASA's current fleet under construction. The Hershey's Kiss shape makes the spaceships inherently stable, and the broad flat bottom helps spread the blistering heat of re-entry. By moving the centre of gravity we can alter how the ships fly, and thus roll and steer them to both reduce g-load and land precisely.

It was Evan Hadfield who went on to add the following note:
All four of the modules shown have the same basic curved bottom, for the heat shield that protects the module while it returns to the Earth's surface. It is the shifting of the centre of gravity that allows it to creates lift – they shift it in the shaping of the capsule. Those two concepts are just different descriptions of the same thing.

One of the readers of Chris Hadfield’s Facebook page, Scott Corliss, had this to say about the curved bottoms of the re-entry modules:
The basic shape and curveture radius for the heat shields were worked out in the early 1960s by Harvey Allen, Max Faget and Caldwell Johnson (as noted in a book, Smithsonian Air & Space Collectors Edition, Fall 2013). Slide rule and engineering paper solutions still work today!

There's an adult discussion about the shape of the re-entry modules on the Space page on Reddit; for those who like to get a bit technical, click here.

And for those of any age who prefer a more hands-on approach to learning about space, there’s a link to a page here with instructions on how to make a spaceship-shaped treat for a space-themed party, complete with a Hershey's Kiss on top for a re-entry module. Now I know what to make for my brother's next birthday party -- he's been a spaceship fan since before the Apollo launches!

12 Dec 2014

The Dalai Lama and Science

By Pippa Wysong

Much of October 2014 was suffused with a sense of unreality because of the unusual trip that was to happen near the end of the month. Hubby and I were to travel to Alabama where Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama was scheduled to appear. We would attend several events, meet the organizers and even get a chance to meet His Holiness in person.

During my career as a science writer, I’ve had the privilege to meet some extraordinary people. But there was something different about the chance to meet the Dalai Lama, even if it was for just a five-second grasping of hands with no real chance to talk one-on-one. This is someone who is truly a global figure, whose name and influence cross all cultures and sectors of society. A true thought-leader.

It all seemed bigger than life, and in fact the opportunity somehow felt surreal. I didn’t tell anyone that I was going or, until now, that I had gone. The invitation to these events came through a colleague of my husband’s who became personally acquainted with His Holiness while trying to start up a hospital in India.

Symposium poster. Photo by P. Wysong.

Knowing almost nothing about the history of the 14th Dalai Lama nor of his brand of Buddhism, the Gelug school, I felt unprepared and scrambled to read about him.

I learned several intriguing things. One is that the Dalai Lama is actually a science geek and has an insatiable thirst to learn about areas relating to cosmology, physics, neurology, genetics, and more. In fact, he regularly invites small groups of top scientists to visit his home in Dharamsala in northern India to discuss recent scientific findings and trends. Plus, he makes sure that the education monks get has strong science content.

He has said that if an explanation of the natural world in the Buddhist texts is proven to be incorrect through scientific evidence -- then those sections of the Buddhist texts should be updated to stay current and accurate. In one place, he phrases this as, “...in the Buddhist investigation of reality, at least in principle, empirical evidence should triumph over scriptural authority, no matter how deeply venerated a scripture may be.”

He is co-founder of the Mind and Life Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to exploring relationships between modern sciences, philosophy, the humanities and social sciences. A goal is to explore the effects of contemplative-based practices (such as meditation) on the brain and human biology and behaviour.

This brings us to Alabama, where the University of Alabama (UAB) hosted a public panel discussion, in honour of the Dalai Lama’s visit, on the theme of neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to adapt and change.

Dialogue on Neuroplasticity and Health took place at the Jemison Concert Hall. The participants were top neuroscientists Edward Taub, PhD; Michael Merzenich, PhD; and Toronto-based psychiatrist Dr. Norman Doidge.

The Dalai Lama, centre, with scientists. Photo by P. Wysong.
Dr. Taub is a behavioural neuroscientist at UAB, known for making vital breakthroughs in the understanding of the brain and neuroplasticity. He developed CI Therapy, now used on stroke survivors. Dr. Merzenich taught neuroscience at the University of California San Francisco and developed various therapies that affect behaviour, memory, and learning ability. Dr. Doidge authored the bestseller The Brain That Changes Itself. His Holiness periodically interjected with questions and comments.

Public dialogues with leading scientists is not an uncommon thing for the Dalai Lama to do, and through these efforts he is contributing to science literacy – and showing that spirituality and science can be complementary.

Why does a spiritual leader lean so heavily towards the sciences? Because science helps explain how the world around us works, who we are, what we are, and what our relationship is to the world. It also provides tools we can use to help make ourselves and the world a better place.

The Dalai Lama’s key message is about compassion. How can we learn to treat each other better? How can we push aside traits that make us angry, distrustful, or violent? How can we create a society that is peaceful, with people respecting and appreciating the differences in others, and avoid conflict?

One tool that could be added to efforts in these directions is neuroplasticity. Studies show that by doing certain types of brain training, people who suffer debilitating, periodic depression can become less depressed – and even reduce their need for medication. Through meditation, or other techniques that train the brain and alter neuro-wiring, people who were once quick to anger can learn to handle difficult situations more calmly and rationally. Numerous examples of using neuroplasticity are described in Doidge’s book.

As a spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama is keen on areas of science that can help people become happier. And there is no contradiction with the Gelug school going in this direction. The Gelug school is more philosophical than theistic – a specific god isn’t worshipped. Followers learn to find inner peace and enlightenment largely using meditation and teachings of ethics, mixed with its version of spirituality.

Regardless of religion, spirituality, or a lack of either, what everyone has in common is that we want to live peacefully with those around us, ideally in a compassionate society. And the Dalai Lama has embraced science to help in this quest.

5 Dec 2014

Are Canadians interested in science? You tell us!

By Claire Eamer

A couple of weeks ago, Rick Mercer delivered one of his trademark rants in support of science - pure science, whether or not it confers immediate economic benefit. He criticized the federal government for its lack of respect and support for science and said that Canadians are “as passionate and curious as anyone else” when it comes to science.

Now, as a science communicator - both to kids and to adults - that is my experience too. I've talked to kids, teachers, librarians, parents, and passing adults from Vancouver Island to Nunavut in the past few years. Almost all were enthusiastic about science, curious about how things work, fascinated by the natural world, and delighted to learn new things. (The exceptions were two kids from a religious fundamentalist family and one grown-up radio interviewer - but you can't please everyone, I guess.)

But this, it appears, is not everyone's experience.

Canadian geneticist David Kent, currently at the University of Cambridge in the UK, wrote a blog post politely and articulately disagreeing with Rick Mercer. That triggered an online storm of the best possible kind - some people agreeing with Kent and others disagreeing.

Besides the stream of comments attached to Kent's post - all polite and passionate (including, I hope, my own) - the discussion has continued on other blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds.

One of the commenters, science communicator Kevin Mogk, felt strongly enough about the discussion to repost his own comments, inviting more discussion. Another referred to his own earlier post with concerns similar to Kent's

A number of people referenced the Council of Canadian Academies' report, issued in August 2014, on the state of science culture in Canada. Among its findings: "Canadians have positive attitudes towards science and technology and low levels of reservations about science compared with citizens of other countries."

The Canadian science blog and blog aggregator, Science Borealis, recently published a careful and detailed set of counter-arguments to Kent's post.

Theresa Liao, science communicator at the University of British Columbia and a friend of David Kent, posted her own response on her blog, Science, I Choose You!

Among the evidence cited for Canadians' interest in and enthusiasm for science are the excellent books, blogs and articles being produced by Canadian science writers for a Canadian and international audience, including:
So, who is right? Or are we all right, to some degree? What do we - all of us - need to do to make sure that Canadians have access to scientific information in a form that makes it useful to them? And how can we ensure that kids who are passionate about science (and that's most of them, in my experience) don't lose that passion as they get older, whether or not they become scientists themselves?

If you read this far, you care - and you have an opinion. Please share!