23 Dec 2016

Sci/Why's Book and Website Picks for 2016

By Duncan.co (CC)
Just in time for the holidays! Sci/Why is carrying on the tradition of presenting our best science book and website picks for your holiday reading pleasure.

Here's the latest news and notes from the authors here at Sci/Why:

Claire Eamer says: "Here’s my current fascination: An online interactive map, using data from NASA, that will show you the impact of sea level rise anywhere in the world. You can pick a level from 0 (current conditions) up to 9 metres in 1-metre increments, and then in larger increments up to +60 metres. It’s fascinating to see what even a 1-metre rise in sea level does to areas like the Netherlands or even Delta, BC – especially since that amount of sea level rise could happen within decades if climate change continues at the current pace. The site is at http://flood.firetree.net/."
Claire Eamer's latest science book is INSIDE YOUR INSIDES: A GUIDE TO THE MICROBES THAT CALL YOU HOME (Kids Can Press, 2016), and she has two more books coming out in a couple of months: WHAT A WASTE! WHERE DOES GARBAGE GO? (Annick Press) and a decidedly unscientific picture book, UNDERNEATH THE SIDEWALK (Scholastic Canada)

Helen Mason sent this: "My favourite web site is http://www.sciencemag.org/. Not only does the site have news, science papers, and podcasts, you can sign up for a regular newsletter that puts links to fascinating articles in your Inbox. My favourite book so far this year is The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk by Jan Thornhill. Thornhill's detailed artwork will attract many readers, as will the engrossing but unhappy tale. I particularly like the ghosts of the Great Auks on the final spread."
Helen Mason has authored 34 books, most of them for young readers. Crabtree will publish her A Refugee's Journey from Syria and A Refugee's Journey from Afghanistan in early 2017.

L. E. Carmichael says: "I highly recommend the adult-level science book Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier, by Jeffrey A. Lockwood. Part history, part ecological mystery, the book explains how an insect species that swarmed in the trillions went extinct in a few short decades. The events in the book happened over a century ago, but as we’re currently in the midst of a mass extinction event, the concepts are both contemporary and relevant. Plus, anyone who read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s On the Banks of Plum Creek as a kid will love learning more about the species that devastated her family’s farm."
L. E. Carmichael published 5 children’s science books in 2016: How Can We Reduce Agricultural Pollution?, The Science Behind Gymnastics, Discover Forensic Science, Innovations in Health, and Innovations in Entertainment. Her 21st book, Forensics in the Real World, releases in January. For more info, visit www.lecarmichael.ca.

Joan Marie Galat recently launched her newest astronomy book "literally" in a rocket at the Telus World of Science in Edmonton. Dot to Dot in the Sky, Stories of the Aurora reached 175 metres (nearly 600 feet)! She says, "If you want to launch a book in a rocket, you need to understand thrust, aerodynamics, and other forces. If you want to get your book back, you need to understand ejection and recovery systems! This NASA Model Rocket website is a good place to start."
As well as trying to get her book closer to space, Joan invited Canadian Astronaut, Dr. Dave Williams, to read Stories of the Aurora. He provided this back cover comment: "Having watched the aurora from space, I’ve known the unique thrill of seeing the lights swirl over the planet. Joan Marie Galat captures the science and remarkable folklore of the aurora in Stories of the Aurora, an inspirational collection of tales that makes the reader want to experience their beauty first hand." You can watch the rocket blast off and see book trailers on Joan's YouTube channel.

Try this from Jan Thornhill: "Here’s my website pick: the University of Florida’s Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature has digitalized 6,000 old children’s books! These include 495 natural history books. Fabulous site to suck hours out of the universe!"
Jan Thornhill has two new books out this year: The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk (Groundwood) and I Am Josephine - and I Am a Living Thing (Owlkids). She hopes to have her website www.janthornhill.com updated this spring. She also continues to write about the really weird and interesting fungi she finds on her blog: https://weirdandwonderfulwildmushrooms.blogspot.ca

Helaine Becker says she's hoping to announce a new science book soon! And she does have a few books coming out this year. A science/math one: Lines, Bars, and Circles: How William Playfair Invented Graphs (picture book, KCP) and You Can Read! (picture book, Orca), which is "a pretty darn funny thumbs up to literacy." We'd expect nothing less!

Adrienne Montgomerie is totally geeky about knowing how things work, whether they're animals or machines or Earth or the universe! What she likes to hear most is "Can I read that when you're done writing?!" <scieditor.ca>
Adrienne sent this recommendation: "My favourite science book is Packing for Mars, by Mary Roach, because it is funny as well as informative, and it talks about a lot of the routine things that make up the bulk of life but that don't get talked about much. It's not all rocket telemetry and innovative fuels — sometimes it's just about how to brush your teeth."

Paula Johanson says, "This week, my favourite citizen science website is The Christmas Bird Count in Victoria: http://www.vicnhs.bc.ca/?page_id=1425. They even have a form that can be filled out by people at home watching the birds at a bird feeder. My plans for Boxing Day just got made. That's the day of the Christmas Bird Count for my town, Sooke.
In August, Paula's science book The Paleolithic Revolution from Rosen Publishing's series The First Humans and Early Civilizations was released. And also this fall release of two non-science books: The Spanish-American War, and Pierre Elliott Trudeau, a biography from Five Rivers Publishing's series on Canadian Prime Ministers. In January she has two more books coming out: Critical Perspectives on Vaccinations from Enslow Publishing, which is another science book (yay!), as well as Women Writers from the Enslow series Defying Convention: Women Who Changed The Rules.

And my turn: My book recommendation this year is Cattail Moonshine and Milkweed Medicine: The Curious Stories of 43 Amazing North American Native Plants by Tammi Hartung. Not only does this book give you the scientific names of these common plants, but she gives the details of their pre-contact and modern uses as medicine, food, and decor. And my favourite website comes from Claire Eamer's Sci/Why post "Over, Under, and On the Arctic Sea Ice." The Inuit Situ (Sea Ice) Atlas combines cutting-edge science with Inuit traditional knowledge on one of the most important environmental topics of our time.
And for my update: I'm just revamping my website at www.mariepowell.ca with the addition of 16 new books for young readers this fall. With another eight early- and middle-grade books coming out this fall, I should top 40 books in 2017.

What's your favourite science book or website this year? Enjoy these top picks from our Sci/Why authors bunker -- and please leave a comment!

Falalalala -- lala - la - LAAAA!

Posted by Marie Powell

19 Dec 2016

Indestructible Creatures: The Tardigrade

Imagine that you make a balloon animal: a bear. Then you take the spray nozzle from the kitchen sink and stick it where the mouth goes. Now give it 6 or 8 legs and long thin claws. Finally, shrink it down to just one millimetre long — about the thickness of a dime. Next, imagine that there are zillions of these balloon animals, found in every biome on Earth.

What will you call it? How do you feel about the name tardigrade? Because this tiny balloon animal looks a lot like one.

Moss Piglet and Water Bear are other names for the tardigrade. 
What name would you give this species if you discovered?

Finding Real Live Tardigrades 

Look inside the tiny water droplets on moss and you’re probably looking at a tardigrade’s home and hunting ground. The leaf litter on the forest floor is rife with them too. From the sediments on the deepest bottom of the ocean to the hot springs in the Himalayan mountains, tardigrades make themselves right at home.

There are 1150 species of tardigrades that we know so far. Some have mouths that look like beaks and some have teeth that look like a shark’s; then there’s the one with the kitchen faucet for a mouth. Some species of tardigrade have eyes, and most have bristles over their body (like the ones on a toothbrush). Those bristles help them sense their surroundings. All tardigrades have a mouth and intestines.

You might be able to see some of the largest species of tardigrade. They could reach across the edge of a dime. But the smallest tardigrades would have to form a chain with 20 relatives to reach across that one millimetre distance. You'll need a microscope to see the tiny ones.

Caring for Tardigrades 

These tiny creatures are so tough that scientists call them extremophiles. Notice that word has the word extreme in it. The ophile ending means “very strong liking for.” No one has asked the tardigrades if they enjoy extreme conditions, but they sure can survive them:

Freezing temperatures? No problem.
Boiling hot? Got that covered.
Toxins? Wait until they’re gone.
Pressure? Whatever.
Radiation? P-shaw.
Outer space? They don’t even need space suit!

There is no airway in a tardigrade. They don’t breathe the same way most animals do.

Plants and bacteria are what the tardigrade eats. They can find that food almost anywhere. After using their teeth to pierce the cells of their prey, they suck out the cell contents.

Their Key to a Long Life 

One tardigrade celebrated its 120th birthday. Moss must be a very healthy diet. About 10 years is how long most live.

They can survive 10 years without food or water. (You can only survive a couple days without water.) The trick is that they dry out and shut down when times are tough. Tardigrades force the water out of their body so that their cells don’t burst if they freeze. Usually a tardigrade is about 80% water. (A human is about 60% water.) But when a tardigrade shuts down, or goes dormant, its body can be as little as 3% water.

Those tiny dried bodies can stay in place until conditions improve, or blow around in the wind until they land in a better place. When they land in water — even a drop — they rehydrate and get active again in just a few minutes.

Growing Tardigrades 

It takes only 14 days for a baby tardigrade to be born. They reproduce a lot like fish do: The female sheds eggs along with her outer layer (a natural part of growing called moulting), then the male spreads sperm over the eggs.

As tardigrades grow, their cells get bigger. They don’t get more cells like humans do when we grow. They shed their outer layer when they get too big for it, sort of in the way that humans buy bigger clothes. Shedding is called moulting. They can moult about 10 times in their life.

This tardigrade egg was photographed by two scientists named Michalczyk and Kaczmarek in 2006 using a scanning electron microscope.

What We Can Learn from Tardigrades

Naturally, we want to learn how the tardigrade can live in such extreme places, not just survive them. And by looking at the way they dry themselves out, scientists were able to develop vaccines that do not have to be refrigerated. That means they can be delivered to far-away places without being kept cold.

Other scientists are trying to see if the tardigrade's DNA can added to crops to make plants survive drought instead of dying of thirst.

What would you like to learn about these extreme creatures? What questions would you ask? Where do you think the answers could be used?

9 Dec 2016

Bernoulli Is Not Enough

By Simon Shapiro

Probably all of us science geeks think we know how aeroplanes fly. It’s thanks to the Bernoulli Principle, which says that faster flowing air exerts less pressure than slower air. Aeroplane wings are designed with flat bottoms and rounded tops. Air has to flow more quickly around the longer top surface than the shorter bottom surface. That gives us higher pressure below the wing and lower pressure above the wing.

This diagram is from my book, Faster, Higher, Smarter: Bright Ideas that Transformed Sports. (More information here; available from Amazon, Indigo, etc.)

So, the upward Bernoulli force overcomes the downward force of gravity, and the aeroplane can fly.

But there's a problem:

Think about a plane doing aerobatics. A pilot will happily flip her plane upside down and can fly that way indefinitely (at least until the plane runs out of fuel). But in the upside down configuration the Bernoulli force is directed downwards, just like gravity. So with both forces acting downward, how come the aeroplane doesn’t fall like a stone? Worse than that, like a stone with an extra downward force?

The answer is that there’s another factor, usually overlooked. And that’s the Angle of Attack. Aeroplanes don’t usually fly with the bottom of the wing parallel to the ground. They usually fly with the leading edge tilted up. That tilt angle is called the Angle of Attack.

In this configuration the wing pushes against the air and (thank you, Sir Isaac) experiences a normal (perpendicular to the surface) reaction  of wind resistance. That’s shown as the red arrow in the diagram above. The force shown by the red arrow is the same as two forces – a vertical one (shown by the green arrow) and a horizontal one (shown by the tiny blue arrow). That vertical “green arrow” force counteracts gravity, and is what keeps an upside-down aeroplane in the air.

In fact the Bernoulli effect alone isn’t strong enough to keep a heavy modern jet plane up. The Angle of Attack is critical even when the plane is flying rightside up.

2 Dec 2016

Repeal Fair Dealing for Education

by Helen Mason

Image courtesy of creativecommons.org
As the Canadian government considers cultural policies, I encourage it to reconsider the fair dealing clause in the revised copyright act. The copyright act is intended to protect what creators create. The fair dealing clause removes that protection, thus impinging on creators' ability to earn money from what they produce.

I currently work as a freelance writer who specializes in the children's market. For 30 years, I spent the bulk of my time editing and project managing the development of textbooks for Canadian educational publishers.

I was on the first board of CANCOPY (now Access Copyright). As one of the co-chairs, I assisted in negotiating the first Ontario educational licence. At that time, I had a copy of one of Dr. Zed's titles. The entire book had been made into spirit masters; copies had been handed out to students in my son's kindergarten class. My publisher co-chair at the time headed the company that published the most copied educational resource, a workbook for teaching French as a Second Language.
Image courtesy of creativecommons.org

Twenty years later, copying is even easier, thanks to bulk photocopiers and the prevalence of personal scanners. Copies can be shared online and using various phone apps via digital downloads. And yet the government has removed important protections from created works. If the government will not protect the works that authors and publishers have spent so long producing, then what is the point in Canadian authors and publishers trying to produce quality materials?

Colourful visuals attract these developing readers.
Since the change in the fair dealing clause, I have heard horror stories from authors telling me of schools who bought their books, photocopied sections, and then returned the books for a refund. Students again receive booklets of photocopied materials to help them learn to read. But without the colourful images in the originals, the books have lost much of their attraction. No wonder literacy levels are low.

Students consider how to choose visuals for a primary science book.
In my own freelance business, I noticed a drastic drop in the number of project start-ups after the fair dealing clause was changed to the current wording. Instead of hiring twelve or more editors to help me develop materials, and contracting authors and illustrators to produce materials specifically for this market, I found myself looking for work.

I found such work writing and editing materials developed for the American market. These materials were quickly produced without the care lavished on those developed in Canada. They also emphasized different skill sets. In my work on mathematics materials developed for both the Canadian and American markets, for example, I noticed that the many Canadian series I helped to develop emphasized understanding whereas the American ones focused on memorization of algorithms without much understanding of why they're being used.

Image courtesy of creativecommons.org
If the government does not move to better protect our educational publishers, our schools will be more likely to purchase these less-than-ideal materials. It's a matter of economics. For American publishers, making slight conversions for the Canadian market is a minor expense when they've already developed and sold a series to a large American market.

Canadian publishers who develop excellent materials for a smaller market need protection. In order to respond to Canadian educational outcomes, they include references to local historic, Aboriginal, and cultural activities that attract Canadian students to the topics. This type of information is missing in materials developed for the United States market. Similar American-centric information occurs in non-fiction trade books intended for a North American audience. Canadian content receives only a cursory attention compared to the mass of American data.

Helen shares reading activities with primary students.
Although educational publishers are not always considered to be part of the Canadian cultural landscape, they are an important tool for teaching Canadian culture. Many creators receive income from these publishers, both as royalties and as contract work for materials written specifically for the market. In addition, many editors work part-time in this field while they develop their writing skills and/or to supplement the low income typical of creators.

To encourage Canadian publishers to develop quality materials that can compete in international markets, I suggest that you

  1. Repeal the current fair dealing wording in consultation with Access Copyright and educational publishers and their knowledge of how that wording has led to flagrant misuse of copyright works.
  2. Confer with children's authors about how this clause has impinged on their ability to make a living from their work and do what is necessary to ameliorate this situation.
  3. Provide additional arts funding for author visits to schools. This is an important part of many creators' incomes, one that has eroded with the increase in interest in technology and the purchase of fewer books.
  4. Ear-mark some of the funding from #3 for sessions in which authors talk to educators about the importance of copyright to the protection of creator income.

Helen Mason's most recent books include What is Digital Entrepreneurship?, Be an Active Citizen in Your Community, and Be an Active Citizen at Your School, all Crabtree Publishing, 2017.

25 Nov 2016

Canada's Only Great Auk

by Jan Thornhill
museum illustration Jan Thornhill Tragic Tale of Great Auk
"Museum" page from The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk (Jan Thornhill)

While working on my new book about the extinction of the "northern penguin," The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk, I became aware that the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto was in possession of Canada's only stuffed one. Hoping to see it, I visited the ROM's brilliant Schad Gallery of Biodiversity, but was disappointed to find no Great Auk, though there was an equally extinct Labrador Duck on display. How sad, I thought, that the regal bird I sought was not on view, was instead tucked away in some dark cupboard, sealed, perhaps, inside a titanium box, safe, but invisible.

John James Audubon illustration Labrador Duck
The extinct Labrador Duck (John James Audubon)
But a couple of months later, when I arrived at the ROM to talk auks with Oliver Haddrath, the ornithology reasearch technician whose specialty is extinct flightless birds (like the poor Great Auk), I was thrilled to be led out into the same animal diversity gallery where this time—ta da!—behind two layers of glass, there it was, one of the last of the millions of Great Auks that once thrived in the North Atlantic. 

Jan Thornhill with stuffed Great Auk ROM
Me and Canada's only Great Auk (Frankie Thornhill)
There are only 78 stuffed Great Auks in the world, almost all held by museums. American museums own a decent chunk of them—eleven—though that number used to be twelve. The twelfth one was once owned by John James Audubon, the American bird painter famous for his Birds of North America book published as a double-elephant portfolio, "elephant" because it had to be big: Audubon presented all of his subjects life size. Though each page is a huge 39.5 inches tall and 28.5 inches wide, the largest birds—cranes, herons, flamingos—had to be doubled over in his compositions to fit. 

John James Audubon flamingo
Because Audubon painted birds life-size, he had to double
over the biggest ones to make them fit on the pages. 

Audubon included the Great Auk in the book, but he never saw one alive. He had to base his painting on a taxidermy model, a specimen killed in Iceland in 1830 that he bought in London in 1836. 

Great Auk John James Audubon
Audubon's Great Auks

Eventually, Audubon gave has stuffed auk to a birder friend, Jacob Post Giraud Jr., who, in turn, gifted it (along with the rest of his large collection of stuffed birds) to Vassar College in 1867. There, "Audubon's Auk" gathered dust—quite literally—for more than 50 years, until it was found under a lab sink by Dr. L.C. Sanford who had connections to the American Museum of Natural History. Though the college continued to own the bird, Sanford convinced them in 1921 to allow him to send the auk off for renovation and remounting. When it was all spiffy again, it wasn't sent back to Vassar, but was housed instead at the Museum of Natural History in New York, hidden away in a double crate for the next 43 years. 

great auk profile ROM
The friendly face of the Royal Ontario Museum's Great Auk
Though Canada had once been home to the largest Great Auk colony in the world—on Funk Island off the northeast coast of Newfoundland, (there had been no colonies on American soil at all)—by the early Sixties we still had no stuffed Great Auk of our own. The ROM was desperate to find one. Finally, they convinced Vassar to sell them Audubon's auk. In 1965 they paid $12,500 for it (the equivalent of about $100,000 today), and got a stuffed Labrador Duck thrown in for good measure—the same Labrador Duck I had seen on my earlier visit to the museum.

signs royal ontario museum ornithology
Signs on a door in the ROM's ornithology department (Frankie Thornhill)
Oliver explained that, because bird feathers deteriorate more quickly when subjected to light, the museum only shows off its Great Auk for six months of the year. For the other six months, the Labrador Duck is the star. 

illustration Geirguglasker tragic tale great auk jan thornhill
The ROM's Great Auk came from Eldey Island in Iceland,
 the last place these birds nested after 
a volcanic eruption caused safer Geirfuglasker to sink beneath the waves. (Jan Thornhill)
As thrilling as it was to finally see an actual Great Auk, I couldn't exactly get close to it, displayed, as it was, at a height and behind double panes of glass. But then Oliver led me and my sister, (who had the camera—yay!), into the secret storerooms of the bird department. First he showed us the egg room. The ROM has a lot of bird eggs. In fact, it has roughly 12,000 sets, a "set" being the number of eggs normally laid in a nest. There is a bird skin room, too, where thousands of boneless birds from around the world are laid out in drawers. 

egg collection royal ontario museum
A tiny sample of the ROM's 11,715 bird egg collection (Frankie Thornhill)
These collections are kind of shocking to see, since each skin and each egg represents a life cut short, but almost all were collected long before any of us was born, in an era when there were a) way more birds of all kinds, and b) different attitudes towards killing wildlife. 

For a while there was a question about whether or not museums should waste precious space storing so many skins and eggs, especially when some species are represented by multiple specimens. The ROM's collection wasn't culled, which is fortunate because it has become clear that these lovingly stored remains hold a treasure trove of information that no one a hundred years ago could have imagined: DNA. When the DNA from skins of birds of the same species that were collected in different places, or ones collected from similar locations but years apart, is compared, we can learn a lot about how our world has changed, and how it continues to change. 

bird study skins royal ontario museum
Nine of the ROM's 136,350 study skins (Frankie Thornhill)
Similarly, each egg in the collection has documentation of exactly when and where it was collected. These dates, sometimes from more than a hundred years ago, can be compared to the nesting dates of contemporary birds to help us learn how various species are adapting—or not adapting—to climate change. 

extinct bird great auk bones
Great Auk bones collected on Funk Island (Frankie Thornhill)
Though the eggs and study skins were fascinating and often gorgeous, the pièce de résistance of the tour was yet to come. Without saying anything, Oliver opened a drawer and pulled out a small, nondescript cardboard box. He opened it. It was filled with bones. Great Auk bones. Auk bones that included a skull and upper beak. Which Oliver handed to me. 

jan thornhill holding great auk skull and beak
Me giddily holding an extinct Great Auk's skull and beak (Frankie Thornhill)
Maybe that doesn't sound like a big deal. But it was. I'd just spent the better part of a year living with the Great Auk, reading about its amazing and tragic history, its connections to prehistoric and First Nations peoples on both sides of the Atlantic, learning about its anatomy, writing about it, drawing it, painting it, dreaming it. I was so familiar with it it had become my totem animal. And I was holding in my hands the head of one that more than two hundred years ago had swum the North Atlantic. Though you can't tell from the photograph, I was so excited my hands were shaking. 

There's only one thing that could have been better. To see an actual, living Great Auk. But, of course, that would be impossible, since the Great Auk has been extinct since 1844. But,wait! Maybe in the future it won't be impossible. Stay tuned for my next post about efforts to resurrect the Great Auk!

I made Great Auk cookies for my book launch!
great auk egg cookies
great auk cookies

Tragic Tale of Great Auk cover

published by Groundwood Books