5 Oct 2018

A Science Trick to Try at Home

Instructions from Margriet Ruurs

You -- yes, you, right there -- can turn two solids into one liquid. It's not magic. It's science.

How can you turn a solid substance into a liquid without adding any liquid? Here’s a fun trick to try at home. All you need is a spoonful of sugar and some fresh yeast. You can buy fresh yeast at any bakery.

Fresh yeast. Image by Hellahulla, from
Wikimedia Commons
  • In a small bowl put a small slice of the fresh yeast.
  • Sprinkle a spoonful of sugar on top.
  • Just let it sit for a few minutes. You’ll notice the yeast turning darker.
  • After a while, take a teaspoon and stir the two solid materials. 

You’ll find that both solid ingredients have turned into a liquid all by themselves! This process is called osmosis.

White sugar is made up of solid crystals -- until the crystals
meet the moisture in the fresh yeast.
The sugar crystals dissolve because of the humidity (dampness) in the fresh yeast, forming a highly concentrated sugar solution. But the sugar concentration inside the yeast cells is low.

The liquid containing a large amount of sugar has a natural tendency to mix with the liquid that has less sugar and even out the sugar concentration. The yeast cell membranes separating the two solutions aren't strong enough to overcome that force, so the membranes break down. Then the water inside the cells bursts out. Pretty soon, all the sugar is completely dissolved in the released water.

And presto! -- Osmosis has turned your two solids into one liquid. It's a little magical, but it's science magic!

21 Sep 2018

A Frozen World Returns

By Claire Eamer

The wolf pup cleaned, preserved, and ready for display.
Yukon Government photo.
More than 50,000 years ago, when most of Canada was buried under kilometres-thick ice sheets, a wolf pup was born in one of the few places untouched by the ice -- a dry, grassy plain that extended across most of what is now the Yukon. No more than eight weeks later, the little wolf died, probably buried in a landslip and smothered while it slept in its den. The cold muck froze around it and stayed frozen, summer and winter, preserving the small body.

Just over two years ago, on July 13, 2016, gold miners on Last Chance Creek near Dawson City washed away some frozen sediment and found the little pup. It was frozen and dried but still remarkably well preserved. The miners immediately called in palaeontologist Grant Zazula and his colleagues in the Yukon government's Palaeontology Program. They were delighted with the find. To his knowledge, it's the only ice-age wolf ever found, Zazula says.

Only half of the caribou calf's body was found.
Yukon Government photo.
That was the second spectacular find of the 2016 summer. Six weeks earlier, miners on Paradise Hill -- another famous location in the historic Klondike Goldfields -- had discovered the frozen and mummified remains of a caribou calf. It wasn't as complete as the wolf pup, but nearly all of the front half of the body had survived, with skin, muscle, and hair intact.

Zazula and his colleagues knew they had something special, but they didn't realise quite how special until the results of radiocarbon dating came back. Both animals lived more than 50,000 years ago, the limit for radiocarbon dating. And the caribou calf had been found in association with a layer of volcanic ash that had settled to the ground about 80,000 years ago.

Yukon government palaeontologists Grant Zazula and Elizabeth Hall excavate
the caribou calf from the frozen muck of Paradise Hill near Dawson City, Yukon.
Yukon Government photo
Specimens that old are rare anywhere, and especially in the Yukon where the undulating landscape left few places for dead animals to lie and freeze undisturbed. There was no rush to preserve the bodies, Zazula says.

"We had them kicking around in our deep freeze for a couple of months. They were very well freeze-dried already."

The wolf pup's head before preservation, ice crystals visible.
Yukon Government photo
However, if anyone other than experts was going to see them, more work was required. Yukon Heritage applied for help from the experts at the Canadian Conservation Institute. And they got it. Today, both small bodies have been carefully thawed and preserved in a way that will make it possible to display them to the public. They are currently on display in Dawson at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, in whose traditional territory they were found. Later this fall, they will be moved to Whitehorse and a permanent display at the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre.

Meanwhile, scientific interest is building. Zazula is fielding calls from Pleistocene scholars around the world and brainstorming with them and his Yukon colleagues about what kind of questions the little corpses might answer. Is the wolf pup related to the wolves that live in the Yukon today, or did the Pleistocene wolf disappear to be replaced by a new population? Does the caribou calf have relatives living today? If so, which of the many caribou herds do they belong to? And that's just the beginning.

The thawing permafrost and melting ice of the world are revealing more and more clues to the past, both animal and human. That's the subject of my latest book, Out of the Ice: How Climate Change is Revealing the Past. The Yukon pup and calf are too recent to make it into the book, but it contains plenty of other fascinating evidence of lost or forgotten worlds.

14 Sep 2018

Brand New School Year, Brand New Books!

by L. E. Carmichael

Forget January, for me, September is the start of the new year - the year of learning new things! September is also Read a New Book Month, and we at Sci/Why are here to help you with that task. Discover a new favourite with our freshly-updated-for-2018 Science Book List. Here are some hot-off-the-presses choices for you and your favourite junior scientist. Captions link direct to Amazon.

Bus to the Badlands



Do Frogs Drink Hot Chocolate?


Hungry for Science

Counting on Katherine

Out of the Ice

Solve This!

The Triumphant Tale of the House Sparrow

Stories in the Clouds

Wild Buildings and Bridges

31 Aug 2018

Flesh-Eating Swarms

By Adrienne Montgomerie

The buzzing starts faintly, then grows. Around and around your head, there is buzzing. Then two buzzing things, then you are surrounded by dozens of flying yellow bodies that… go on their way. Because the meat they’re looking to feed on is not you.

You might think of a sting when you think of bees, and you most definitely think of honey. But I bet you picture their fuzzy little legs heavy with yellow pollen from flowers, not a toothy grin, ripping into flesh.

A Wide World of Bees

There are almost 20 000 types of bees, and there only five types that eat meat. Common names for these flesh-eating bees include vulture bees and carrion bees. The scientific name is for this family of bees is Tragona.

They aren’t known to go out and hunt down prey. These aren’t the killer bees of folklore. These bees don’t even have a stinger!

Vulture bees typically gnaw on carrion, like vultures do. Carrion is an animal that is already dead. The only reason these bees seem to bother with living things is to keep them away from their food.

Sharing the Meat

Vulture bees usually take the bits of meat they gnaw off a dead thing back to the hive. There they spit it up (regurgitate it) as food for baby bees (larvae). This is their only source of protein. They don’t feed on flowers or collect pollen the way that other types of bees do. Their hive still produces honey though, and it is a lot like the honey we put on toast and in tea.

Some other types of bees bring meat back to the nest, but they’re using it as a building material. Those bees don’t eat the meat.

Tracking Vulture Bees

To find a vulture bee, you could try Mexico, but you’re better off going farther south to South America.

Photo of Tragona by José Reynaldo da Fonseca - Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=969999

24 Aug 2018

Suspense in the Kitchen

By Simon Shapiro

With an emulsifier attached to the droplets of II, this is a stable emulsion.
Molecular model of soy lecithin

21 Aug 2018

Insect Mimicry; Caterpillar Predators; Baby Snapping Turtles & Bird Eggs: Jan Thornhill Blog Post Updates

by Jan Thornhill 

This week's blog post was going to be about mimicry. I'd come across an insect in Chile that  was a fabulous example of automimicry – the kind where part of an animal's body looks like a more vulnerable part. 

Here's the first view I had of this insect:

"What a character!" I thought.  Kinda cute, and kinda homely at the same time, like an old shoe. 

Then I changed my camera angle...

...and saw that what I'd thought was a face was actually the insect's rear end. 

How fabulous – it's abdomen was pretty much a replica of its head, complete with bulging red eyeballs! 

If anyone knows anything about this beetle(?), I'd love to hear from you!!

And that was it. Kind of short for a blog post. But then I realized I'd already written a post about mimicry (Spider Art and Bioluminescent “Bombs”: Extreme Animal Mimicry) – and that I should just add this guy to that post as an update. And then I remembered more updates I needed to do.

Update # 2:

It seems like a no brainer to add this find to a post about cabbage moth caterpillars I wrote a couple of years ago, Wild Helpers in the Brussels Sprouts Patch

I found a tiny clay urn glued to our outdoor table yesterday. I knew it was some kind of wasp nest. I also knew that the tiny pot was going to be destroyed one way or another, so instead of leaving it to be crushed by a coffee cup or plate of sliced tomatoes, I sliced it off the table with a knife so I could see what was going on inside.


The urn was built by a Potter Wasp nest – someone in the genus Eumenes

Potter Wasp, Eumenes sp. (Wikipedia)

Potter Wasps normally won't bother you. What they will do is construct tiny, marble-sized urns out of drops of mud.

Potter wasps sometimes include an urn "neck."
They fill these little pots with paralyzed caterpillars, then lay an egg on the inside clay surface. If all goes well, the egg will hatch and the wasp larva will feed on the caterpillars until it's mature enough to chew its way out of the pot and start its adult life.  

I don't think the egg in the one I found one "took." Or maybe something happened to the builder before she could lay an egg. Too bad, since there were five different desiccated caterpillars inside, one of which, judging by its pale green colour, was surely a cabbage caterpillar. 

A feast gone to waste.

Update # 3

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about a bird egg collection I donated to the Royal Ontario Museum, I Might Be a Criminal. I sent a link of the blog to the ROM's Mark Peck, who, in response, told me about a Canadian citizen scientist nest monitoring program that anyone can join: Project NestWatch

It looks like a fun summer project. A little late now, but there's always next year! Go to their website to see how It works:

Step 1:  Register for Project NestWatch 
Step 2:  Learn how to find and monitor nests using the resources provided on this site
Step 3:  Search for nests around your home, school, cottage, or elsewhere
Step 4:  Monitor your nest(s) throughout the breeding season
Step 5:  Submit your data online and contribute to Canada's national nest records database!

Update # 4:

I wrote a post a few years ago about helping snapping turtles on our road, A Baby Snapping Turtle Success Story. Snappers have been nesting on and near that same bridge for years. Then the county decided to replace the bridge. But what about the eggs that had already been laid? Solution: my neighbour Tracy and her daughter gathered the eggs and took them to the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre (previously the Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre) where they were incubated. Tracy picked them up when they hatched and sent me pictures of their release. 

Photos by Tracy Dafoe

Another friend brought 50 snapper eggs to the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre a few weeks ago. At that point, the centre was already incubating 3,000 eggs! Please consider helping them in this important work!  

10 Aug 2018

The Art of Presenting Science = Literally!

Post by Helaine Becker

I had the great pleasure of working with illustrator Dow Phumiruk on Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13, which "launched" earlier this summer.

Dow's artwork, in my opinion, is stunning, and really brought the book to the next level. I was curious as to how she blended her knowledge of math and science with her artwork to create such effective illustrations. So I asked her.

Here is the result of that interview:

H: Your artwork in Counting on Katherine is so beautiful. But it's more than that - I can tell that it's historically accurate too. Can you describe your process - how did you research the illustrations in Counting on Katherine?

D: So much research!!

I started with online sources from NASA. I also watched online interviews with Katherine Johnson herself, which I found to be the most helpful to learn about her personality. I read about the start of NASA, about the solar system. I filled a folder on my computer with screenshots of images I thought might be useful for reference. I read the Hidden Figures narrative nonfiction book by Margot Shetterly (the movie did not come out until after my final art was turned in). I made trips to the library to look through books about space. I also looked at maps and images of what West Virginia looked like in the 1930s, including the Greenbrier Inn in her hometown, and what her classrooms might have looked like back then. I looked at online clothing ads and patterns as well as old photographs to see what styles of clothing best represented the fashion of each phase of her life. And of course, I found as many photographs of Katherine herself at different ages.

H: What were the biggest challenges? Biggest surprises?

D: The biggest challenge was the above-described quest for accuracy, from the math to the scenery from her childhood. It was really difficult to find enough photo reference from that long ago. Little details were hard to discern, like if her family might have owned a car upon moving to Institute, West Virginia. In addition, her achievements spanned decades, and this meant learning as much as I could about the evolution of our space program over this long period of time.

I was surprised about Katherine in general. I didn't know who she was upon receiving the pitch for this project. I couldn't believe I had not heard of her before. The more I learned about her life, the more I grew inspired!

H: The endpapers are stunning. They show a blackboard covered with mathematical equations and math problems. How did you, a)think to do this for the book, and b) come up with the material to put on the board?  

D:  I wanted to represent Katherine's genius with math-filled chalkboards. Picturing her as a young girl in front of these chalkboards made sense to emphasize the extent of her abilities since early childhood.

Coming up with the information to fill the chalkboards was not easy! I may have been proficient at math in my youth, but now advanced math is a challenge. Basic algebra and word problems, like the picnic pies and the rocket ship questions, are not a problem for me to make up. I was able to easily google search equations for circumference, radius, volumes of different shapes for example, to make up the ice cream cone question (in which I do not clarify is the volume of the parts of a one scoop cone, by the way!). Sometimes, as for the rocket ship trajectory question, I’d leave off needed information to answer the question (so that I wouldn't need to have an answer!).
I used multiple sources for the rest and especially for the higher level math and physics seen in the book. I got lots of help from my family, sampling bits from my girls' homework (their work spanned algebra to calculus) and basic physics equations from my husband’s old physics book (he is a former engineer). I also found some information online, altering the source by replacing letters and figures so it would not be just copied. In compiling this together to fill the board, I would sometimes intentionally obscure parts.

In the end, I would remind myself that this is a book about a mathematician and her brilliance and not a math textbook to keep myself from hyperventilating.

What projects are you working on now???

I have a couple books in the works, but they have not been announced yet. I will say that I am very excited to be both author and illustrator for these upcoming projects!