19 Jan 2018

Getting the Science Right

By Joan Marie Galat

How far will an author go to get her facts straight? In my case, it was a nearly-4000-kilometre round trip from my home in Alberta to Laramie, Wyoming. The program, called Launch Pad Astronomy, is a week-long workshop designed specifically for science-writing authors. It was established to make sure writers present science accurately when creating stories or writing nonfiction.

Whether you are reading a book or watching a movie, television show, or other media, it is not hard to get caught up in the story and assume it reflects genuine scientific principles. Launch Pad helps writers avoid presenting or creating misconceptions. Here are a few examples of how science can crop up in creative writing, followed by an explanation of why the scientific reference just won’t work. You will see how easy it is for even a well-intentioned writer to misstep.
  • It was 6 am, too early for the courier to arrive with the first copies of Joan’s new middle-grade (and up) book: Dark Matters-Nature’s Reaction to Light Pollution. She took one last glance at the rising Full Moon and turned inside.
    SCIENCE FAIL: The Full Moon only rises at sunset.

  • It had been dark for several hours. The courier was lost. His GPS battery was dead and his charger not working since it fell into a milkshake. Pulling over, he looked for the brightest star in the sky, certain the North Star would guide him home.
    SCIENCE FAIL: The North Star is not the brightest star in the sky.

  • The courier remembered he needed to call his mother for her birthday. His cell phone was dead and the charger — well, you don’t want to know. Not wanting to admit his shortcomings, he decided upon an excuse. He would say he burned his hand when picking up a meteorite that had landed when he was searching for the North Star.
    Meteorite
    Photo credit: NASA/SETI/P. Jenniskens

    SCIENCE FAIL: It’s not common to find meteorites within seconds of them landing on the ground. Little is known about the immediate temperature of new meteorites, however scientists generally believe small rocks from space will be cool or only slightly warm upon striking the Earth.
Other common misconceptions abound about why seasons occur, the strength of gravity on the Moon, the direction a comet's tail will face, and other topics. The Smithsonian’s “Science Done Wrong” offers additional compelling examples.

Next time you read a book or watch a movie, consider whether the science is accurate and conduct a bit of research of your own to find out what is fact and what is fiction. If you’re a fellow author, consider applying to attend Launch Pad Astronomy. It is an experience you won’t want to miss.


Joan Marie Galat is the author of more than a dozen books, including the Dot to Dot in the Sky astronomy and mythology series. Science talks have taken her from the Arctic Circle to South Korea. Check out her book trailers and speaker demo.

13 Jan 2018

Family Tree for All Living Things

By Paula Johanson

When I want to relax this winter, I've been going to a science website called OneZoom. If you like biology, you might like it too! They've made an interactive image called the Open Tree of Life, that shows on your computer screen a family tree for all living things on Earth. You can zoom in to look at a branch of the family tree. The shape of the family tree is curved like a spiral, and the branches of the tree are curved too. As you zoom in, the shape of a branch is like a smaller version of the entire tree. This kind of design is called a fractal.

I zoomed in today and a circle on the tree grew large enough for me to read: "650 million years ago, during the Cryogenian Period, lived the most recent common ancestor to today's Animals."

OneZoom is a registered charity in the UK. They want to provide easy access to scientific knowledge about biodiversity and evolution. “This NSF-funded project will produce the first online, comprehensive first-draft tree of all named species, accessible to both scientists and the public,” reads their profile on Twitter for Open Tree of Life.

Are you looking for information, and maybe images, to use in your own project such as a school assignment? OneZoom says on their page of Frequently Asked Questions:
Please feel free to use our fractal visualizations as you wish for non-commercial purposes, as long as you credit us. The images themselves have been gathered from a large number of sources (Wikipedia, Flickr, etc.), mostly via the Encyclopedia of Life, and each will have their own licence (either public domain, or cc-by, or cc-by-sa). You can look this up by zooming into the small copyright symbol at the bottom left of every image on the tree: the symbol also serves as a link that will take you to the image page on the Encyclopedia of Life, from where you can find the original source. For more details please see our terms of use. Note that if you wish to use a screenshot without having to provide a list of sources, then we recommend that you use our public domain only visualization (Menu→Settings→Image Sources→Public Domain). We can also produce higher resolution SVG images on request.

Check out OneZoom on their website. Their home page explains a little about this website. To see the family tree, you can either click on their link for the tree of life explorer, or type this link http://www.onezoom.org/life into your browser. You can read tweets posted by OneZoom on Twitter at https://twitter.com/OneZoomTree

5 Jan 2018

Crayola’s New Blue and Other Hidden Opportunities

By Larry Verstraete

Months ago, Crayola, the crayon giant announced the removal of Dandelion from its palette of yellows and oranges. In March, the company issued a news release saying that Dandelion’s replacement would be in the blue family. Not long after, it added another tidbit of information. The replacement would be a newly invented, never seen before, hue of blue with a backstory as unique as its name, “YInMn Blue”.

In 2009, Mas Subramanian, an Oregon State University (OSU) chemist, discovered the colour with his grad student, Andrew Smith. The two were heating batches of manganese to 1200 °C (~2000 °F), hoping to produce a high-efficiency electronic material. After one attempt, Smith pulled a striking, brilliant-blue compound out of the furnace. Subramanian knew right off it was a research breakthrough. Unwittingly, they had created a shade of blue unlike any other from a combination of yttrium, indium, manganese, and oxygen.

Recognizing opportunity, Subramanian and his team shifted gears. They expanded their research. To date, they have created a range of new pigments, everything from bright oranges to vibrant hues of purple, turquoise, and green.

Discoveries of this sort are not uncommon in science. X-rays, penicillin, and Kevlar are a few items that owe their existence to usual circumstances where scientists were looking for one thing and happily found something else. The nicotine patch is another.

In 1986, as Frank Etscorn, a behavioural psychologist, walked across the floor of his basement laboratory in the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology carrying an open vial, he stumbled. He had been studying sugar dependency in rats and the vial contained a nausea-inducing substance found in tobacco that he thought might reduce the rats’ cravings for sweets. When he stumbled, the brown liquid sloshed on to his arm. “I wiped it off and didn’t pay attention,” he told a reporter for People Magazine later. “But after about 15 minutes I felt nauseated.”

The experience sidetracked Etscorn, steering him into a new area of research. “Almost immediately, I realized this could be a way for people to stop smoking.”

It took years to produce a workable nicotine patch, but the accident was the start of the process. Just as in Subramanian’s case, Etscorn saw something others might have missed.

What does it take to recognize hidden opportunities when they arise? Brain research provides some clues. The corpus callosum, a thick band of more than 200 million nerve fibres, connects the left and right hemisphere. Think of it as a busy freeway where impulses fire back and forth, facilitating communication between the two sides of the brain.

In brain studies, neuroscientists discovered that the corpus callosum of creative individuals was thicker than normal. In such brains, there appears to be more communication between the two hemispheres and greater potential of connecting seeming disconnected ideas.

Not every brain hardwired with a thick callosum connects the dots and capitalizes on unexpected circumstances, however. And it doesn’t mean that a brain with a thin callosum cannot be a member of the discovery club either. There’s more at play in taking advantage of serendipitous events than simple brain mechanics.

Over a century ago, Louis Pasteur made a major discovery after his lab assistants neglected a batch of petri dishes. Wondering how this would affect his results, Pasteur opted to carry on the experiment.  His decision led to a breakthrough in the development of vaccines.

Luck played a role in the discovery. The lab assistants messed up, providing Pasteur with opportunity. But Pasteur recognized that more than luck was involved, too. Knowledge and experience combined with curiosity seem to be another part of the formula. Or, to quote Pasteur’s famous line, ‘Chance favours the prepared mind’.

There you go, crayon lovers. Colour on with Crayola’s new blue knowing that you are holding a bit of chance between your fingers.

Images from Pixabay