24 Dec 2015

Deck the Halls With Boughs of Ilex!

Winter can get really cold in Canada!
By Claire Eamer (and the Sci/Why crew)

‘Tis the season to be jolly…. And to take a little time to relax, and maybe dip into a favourite book or website. We thought - as a present from us to you - that we’d tell you about a few of our favourites. And since we’re all science geeks here at Sci/Why, there’s plenty of science involved.

(Speaking of science, did you know that there are about 600 species of the genus Ilex? That’s holly, for those of you who are still decking your halls.)

So, here we go!

From the excellent science book writer and this year's Lane Anderson Award winner, L. E. Carmichael:
Here's a link to my favourite science story of the year – about a cure for a kind of blindness.

I discovered this treatment to cure a form of congenital blindness while researching GENE THERAPY in 2012, and it became the first chapter of the book. At that time, it had only been tested on dogs and a small group of patients, including a young boy named Corey Haas. Now the therapy is about to be approved, offering hope to all the people who suffer from the condition.
(Claire speaking: Actually, Lindsey liked this story so much that she wrote a blog post about it.)

From Margriet Ruurs, who sends in Sci/Why posts from the far corners of the world:
I love YOU ARE STARDUST by Elin Kelsey because of the gentle voice in which this story is told (in the ebook). It is the story of evolution, of how we all came to be here on this planet. There are lots of activities on Elin's site linked to the book. 
(Claire speaking: I love this book too – and the illustrations are beautiful. It really does work for readers of any age, from toddler to senior.)

Sometimes, it's not so cold. This is Canadian shirt-sleeve weather.

From Helen Mason, a recent and welcome addition to the Sci/Why ranks:
Here's my current favourite – an interview with a rock-snot scientist who wasn’t allowed to talk about his work until recently. 
Not only am I happy about Canadian scientists being unleashed, I'm looking forward to learning more about rock snot. A scientist who understands how such a term would interest listeners must have some interesting things to say.
Jan Thornhill couldn’t stop at one favourite. She gave us two:
If Children lose contact with nature they won’t fight for it - an article in the Guardian by George Monbiot about "the collapse of children’s engagement with nature.”

And I loved the mesmerizing video of this amazing deep sea jellyfish.
Joan Marie Galat loves astronomy, so her favourite is not really a big surprise:
Here's my contribution. It was a thrill to see the world's first close-up views of Pluto this year, thanks to the New Horizons spacecraft. Its pictures provide sharp views of breath-taking mountains, icy plains, and impact craters.
Paula Johanson didn’t stop at two favourites. Or three. She has four!
While I've been writing an introduction to the Paleolithic Revolution, it's been fun to find archaeology stories in the news. There was the hiker who found a Viking sword by a path in Norway. And it was fun to go to the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre’s website.

But for interesting images of hominid bones, my favourite resource is Morpho Source. MorphoSource is a project-based data archive where researchers store and organize, share, and distribute their own 3-D images of hominid fossil bones. Anyone can register and download 3-D images to use in their own studies. The website is designed to be self-explanatory, but young students will need assistance browsing the archive

And last, but definitely not least, my favourite of the day is the fossil bird found on a beach about five miles from my new home in Sooke, British Columbia.
And sometimes (and some places), it's not cold at all, even at Christmas.

Claire here again. I'm back! And not to be outdone, I have four favourites to offer too.

For an ever-changing set of science stories from around the world – and some wonderful photos and photo collections, try the Science and Environment pages of the BBC.

And for another take on the day’s science stories (also with some great pictures), but with a Canadian perspective, go to CBC Technology & Science pages.

The host of CBC Radio’s great science magazine, Quirks and Quarks, Bob McDonald, writes a weekly blog about a science issue or story that caught his eye – and he’s great at explaining things in a way that all of us can understand.

Finally, if you’re as fascinated as I am by the unseen, unsuspected microscopic world around us, go to Nikon’s Small World and see the beauty, adventure, and high drama visible only through a light microscope.

Now grab a Christmas cookie and hot chocolate, relax, and have a science-y good time.

Falalala la lala la LAAAA!

All photos by Claire Eamer

18 Dec 2015

Solstice Sunrise at Newgrange

by Helen Mason

From December 18 until December 23, thousands of people will assemble at sunrise outside the entrance to Newgrange, an ancient Passage Tomb in Ireland's Boyne Valley. Fifty of these people, chosen by lottery from among 30,475 ballots in 2015, will get access to the inner chamber of the tomb.

The winners will enter the east-facing door of the Newgrange mound. They will make their way down a narrow 60-foot passage towards a domed inner chamber. This is where archaeologists believe that cremated bodies were interred. During the Winter Solstice, as part of what is believed to be a celebration of new life, the winter sunrise sun shines down the passage and into that inner chamber.

The sun's rays enter through a roof box located just above the main door to Newgrange. They move down the corridor and gradually illuminate the inner chamber, a process that takes about 17 minutes.

Since the chamber is small, it can accommodate a limited number of people — thus the reason for the lottery. Depending on weather, even these winners may not see the phenomenon.

For what lucky winners do see, go to http://www.newgrange.com/newgrange/winter-solstice.jpg.

Imagine the knowledge and skill needed to build and locate such a structure. Newgrange and the nearby passage tombs at Knowth and Dowth suggest that the farmers of 3000 to 2500 BCE were far from primitive. Ireland's Neolithic peoples had enough architectural knowledge to build Cathedral-sized mounds 500 years before the Great Pyramids and 1000 years before Stonehenge. 

These mounds have vaulted inner chambers with stone slabs and rocks placed so carefully that the upper layers push down on the lower ones, holding them in place. These chambers have remained intact despite 5000 years of neglect. Even more intriguing is the combination of fill, clay, and turf that cover the structures, keeping them water-tight.

The kerbstones that surround the mounds were brought from long distances. Archaeologists hypothesize that workers rafted the giant boulders along the coast and up the Boyne River, before moving them to their current site on rollers.

The stones were decorated with intricate geometric shapes. Archaeologists have been unable to interpret these designs. There are several theories, including that the designs represent the changing of the seasons, maps of the stars or the afterworld, or music.

Whatever the meaning of their artwork, the tombs continue to prove that supposedly primitive farmers were intimate with the changing location and slant of the sun. The structures they built make up Brú na Bóinne, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a prime venue for tourists, and a great place to be indoors during the Winter Solstice.