29 Nov 2011

Ten Random (But Fascinating) Facts I Learned While Researching A Magazine Article

By L E Carmichael

1. Dogs were the first domestic animal species.  Unambiguous archaeological evidence for dogs is about 12,000 years old, but domestication may have started 20,000 years or more before that.

2. Ancient Egyptians had at least three dog breeds: a greyhound type, a mastiff type, and a small Spitz type.

Shetland sheepdogs - note the floppy ears!
3. The modern concept of breeds, and of deliberately breeding animals for specific traits, developed in Victorian England.  Which means that most of the 400-ish dog breeds recognized today are less than 200 years old.

4. Scientists aren't entirely sure whether house cats are actually domesticated.  It's possible they're nothing but "delightful profiteers," to borrow a phrase from Stephen O'Brien, well-known expert on the evolution of the cat family.

5. Dingos are a breed of domestic dog.  People took dingos with them to Australia several thousand years ago.

6. Floppy ears are found in almost every domestic species.  The only wild species with floppy ears is the elephant.

7. Chimpanzees are humans' closest relatives.  Dogs are better at interpreting human gestures, such as pointing.

8. Crop species are considered domesticates of wild plants.

9. Domestication is a type of evolution.  Natural, artificial, unconscious, and conscious forms of selection are all involved.

10. A group of Russian scientists once attempted to domesticate otters.  It did not go well.  Neither did attempts to domesticate zebras, despite their close relationship to horses.

And this is how one article pitch becomes two, and two become a book proposal...

27 Nov 2011

Science, My Father and Me

Posted by Vivien Bowers

As a child I spent summers in the BC Okanagan, where my physicist/astronomer father worked at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory while we kids swam in the lake. On weekends when nobody else was around he’d let us climb the ladder high up to the gigantic dish antenna, where we’d perch while Dad in the control room slowly turned the dish to listen to another part of the mysterious universe.

You’d think I might have developed an affinity for science from my father, but no. My
degree was in English literature, and science was a bit of a foreign land.

Yet these days I often write about science. I contribute to a school publication called “What in the World?” and often get handed the monthly science and technology story. Nuclear meltdown in Japan. Oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Internet bandwidth hogs. Space trash.

I find joy in nailing these science stories, though they are a stretch for me. I peer into pockets of scientific knowledge and challenge my brain to grasp the unfamiliar concepts. Then I write about them, and why they matter, in a way that I hope captures the attention of a Grade 8 audience.

Recently my topic was dendritic cells and their role in our body’s immune system. Canadian-born medical researcher Ralph Steinman won the Nobel prize for discovering these cells. And I learned about them too, one morning, and was almost as thrilled.

The hardest story? The Large Hadron Collider at the CERN Institute in Switzerland. My research took me into the heart of dark matter, anti-matter, string theory… my father’s familiar haunts. Fortunately CERN has a very helpful website. That story has become my benchmark – if I can write about particle physics, I can write about anything.

My father died more than a decade ago, but I feel closer to him as I tackle these stories. I’m no scientist but I’ve realized that I share his intellectual curiosity, rational mind and enthusiasm for new discoveries. I remember the day he told us about black holes – hands gesturing wildly and blue eyes shining. And how, after visiting a neurologist who told him he had an inoperable brain tumour, he demonstrated to us with real fascination how the changes in brain functioning were affecting his body’s movements.

Being a scientist – someone passionate about the how and why of this mysterious universe – gave my father a sense of perspective on his impending death, and some comfort. As for me, I’m grateful to have inherited more than just his blue eyes.

22 Nov 2011

I Dig Dinosaurs

One of the reasons I became a children's writer is because I've never grown up. I never have grown out of my fascination for arm-farts, explosions, or dinosaurs.

That's why my recent trip to Alberta's famed Royal Tyrrell Museum was such a dream come true. The Tyrrell sits smack on the pre-eminent fossil-hunting grounds of Drumheller's badlands, and boasts one of the best dinosaur collections in the world. Most of the awe-inspiring fossils in the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum in New York actually come from Drumheller ("stolen" by fossil gold rushers, but that's another story); still, they can't hold a candle to the displays at the Tyrrell.

So without further ado, I'll share some of my photos and experiences with you.

T-Rex, Albertosaurus and Edmontosaurus all hail from Drumheller.

Say "Cheese!"

This feller, called Deinonychus, isn't actually a dinosaur - it's a reptile.
 In our family, we always called him "The Potato Chip Monster."

In addition to a huge range of skeletons, the Tyrrell also has fabulous dioramas, including one that shows what the waters of ancient times may have looked like. 
Awww... it's a baby....and her just hatched egg.

And living "fossils"  - some Madagascar cockroaches, complete with the hiss.

We were taken behind the scenes, into the workroom where the scientists prepared and studied the fossils.

I love the toy ankylosaurus on the workstation. That's what this researcher is
working on - an incredible find uncovered by accident by miners in the oil sands.

Here, he's showing us the distinctive shape of the scaly skin. Too cool.

Science Writer Claire Eamer contemplates
a rather impressive ammonite specimen.

Here, we're being shown what is so groundbreaking about this mesosaurus
fossil. But shhh - I can't tell you what it is until theTyrrell
researchers publish their findings.

A walk through the warehouse was perhaps the most amazing and mindblowing part of the whole adventure. It reminded me of a stroll through IKEA, but instead of Billy Bookshelves, these racks held row after row of Triceratops heads.

The tour concluded with a scouting trip out into the Badlands to find some fossils of our own.

Can you spot the dinosaur bones sticking up from the ground in this picture?

The visit to the Tyrrell is one I'd recommend to anyone, especially if you have kids in tow. Try camping out in the museum, or going on a dig of your own through one of their comprehensive education programs.

I learned so much on this trip, I've turned it into two nonfiction book proposals, a proposal for an enhanced e-book series, and have even decided to use the museum and badlands as the setting for my sequel to Trouble in the Hills, my young adult adventure novel.

Who knows how a visit to Drumheller will inspire you?

17 Nov 2011

Just in Time For Gift-Giving...

... is your chance to save big on award-winning science magazines for kids: KNOW (for ages 6 to 9) and YES Mag (for ages 10 to 15).

For the first time in 15 years of publishing, there is a sale! A big sale! Until Nov 23, you can save 40% on a subscription! Learn more at http://www.yesmag.ca/sale. But act fast, it could well be another 15 years before the sale comes around again!

15 Nov 2011

What Really Counts

Ever have that feeling of too many coincidences? As though life is trying to teach you a lesson, and the same question comes up over and over again until you learn it? This has happened to me this past month; time and time again, the question “what really counts?” keeps rearing its head.

It started with an incident in my teenager’s English class. He gave an oral presentation about a historical novel, which happened to be – with the teacher’s permission – a romance. Of the steamy variety, with plenty of heaving breasts and burning britches. The teacher said his presentation was “brilliant,” filled with hilarious metaphors laced with innuendo that communicated the book’s flavour, but he also gave it a low grade because the innuendo was “inappropriate.” It was the dichotomy in the teacher’s reaction – his high opinion of the presenter’s abilities coupled with a low grade – that made me ponder. What message does this leave the student about what really counts? Competent, or even innovative, use of words to communicate effectively? No. Social conformity? Perhaps.

A week later, what really counts in science class, as opposed to English class, came up in discussion with a group of high school science teachers in Alberta. When I asked them what really matters, what they wanted their students to graduate high school with, they said lofty things: an appreciation of nature; a desire to learn about their world; an understanding of how to analyze, reason, use deductive logic; an ability to assess evidence and conclusions presented in media; and, good citizenship. What are science students tested on, however? Largely facts. Science teachers and science students alike are left to figure out for themselves what really counts.

The question of how much school itself counts was raised for me a couple of years ago when I wrote Edison’s Concrete Piano. Many of the sixteen great inventors I studied did not have regular schooling. Edison and Einstein’s difficulties fitting the education mold are relatively well known. Buckminster Fuller was the same. But many other greats also had irregular schooling because they were ill (e.g., James Watt and Nikola Tesla) or because they were homeschooled (e.g., Danny Hillis). I always thought the lack of school aided success because they managed to avoid some negative influence, but a new friend suggested what really counted towards these inventors' success was what they were gaining, not avoiding, by staying at home – such as countless hours tinkering in the garage.

The question of what really counts got personal the other day when I inadvertently heard that a co-worker was being paid more than me for similar work. Now, the day before, I was perfectly content with my pay rate, so it wasn’t the money that mattered. It all turned out to be a mistake but not before I realized just how much it matters to me that I am respected by others. Maybe too much.

But the biggest question about what really counts came with the privilege of spending a few hours with a colleague recently diagnosed with stage four cancer. The world seen through her eyes, even just a peek of it, gives a clear, lasting view of what matters. And it isn’t grades or grading, how much money we make, or even how much we are respected. It is how we take care of ourselves, and how positive a force we are in the lives of others. And, perhaps most acutely, it is the wonder of our existence as we interact with our Earth. It is the glint of sun on a frosted windshield and the ardent pink of an Echinacea petal. It is the soft divot at the edge of a smile, the air rushing in and out of our nostrils, and the thousands of other exquisite experiences we take for granted each and every day.

11 Nov 2011

Just a spot of sun

By Marie Powell

With the onset of winter, I’ve been more interested in following the sun – on and off the web. NASA is a good source of up to date
information about science topics, in easy-to-understand formats with lots of colour videos. Just looking at this sunspot from July 2011, for instance, warms me up.

Did you know sunspots increase and decrease in an 11-year “sunspot cycle”? The exact length of the cycle can run as short as eight years and as long as fourteen, but the number and intensity of sunspots increases over time, and then decreases again.

According to NASA, the sun’s poles reverse every 11 years, causing the sunpot activity. Sunspots mark the place of powerful magnetic fields from the sun’s interior, causing solar flares – a phenomenon we’ve been observing since Richard Carrington discovered it in 1859.

Lately we’ve been seeing sunspots and flares more often lately because the cycle we’re in now will peak around 2013 or 2014. Then it will begin to diminish again until around 2020. For more information about sunspots try these links:

Marie Powell is a freelance writer and author of Dragonflies are Amazing (Scholastic).

The Red Cedar Shortlist - Full of Science Fun

Congratulations to all of the science writers on this year’s shortlist for the Red Cedar awards. There are several science books on the short-list, including The Insecto-Files by Helaine Becker, Animal Aha! by Diane Swanson, Hoaxed!: Fakes and Mistakes in the World of Science by Jude Isabella, Out of this World: The Amazing Search for an Alien Earth by Jacob Berkowitz, Kaboom!: Explosions of All Kinds By Gillian Richardson and You Are Weird: Your Body's Peculiar Parts and Funny Functions by Diane Swanson. (Diane! A double header. And aren’t you retired?)

Robots Instead of Rats?

Every day we come in contact with products that have the potential to harm human health. Food additives, adhesives, paints, fuel, pharmaceuticals and so on. Even the plastic toy that a baby might gnaw can be cause for concern. In North America, consumer products are tested for toxicity. This takes time, money, and, in many cases, the use of lab animals. But this is not a post about the ethics of using lab animals, which is a complicated issue that can quickly get heated, rather it is to talk about one alternative to toxicity testing that saves time and, yes, lab animals. (I’m not sure about money, but I suspect so.)

Last month, as part of an assignment with educational publisher, I was introduced to Tox21. This lab equivalent of Big Bird – an oversized bright yellow mechanical arm – is being used in the United States to test the toxicity of a wide variety of products, from food additives to pharmaceuticals to the chemicals used to disperse oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster. And it works quickly. In just one day, the robot can run a number of tests that would take a human lab technologist a year. Rather than using animals, the Tox21 system tests how chemicals react with lab preparations of living cells. Tests show how chemicals in the products react with chemicals already present in living things.

Here’s a video of Tox21 at work.

6 Nov 2011


By Margriet Ruurs

Since my column was scheduled to be posted on this blog on November 11, I decided to share information on the One Day on Earth Project with you, and post it a bit earlier so that you can participate!
On November 11th, 11.11.11, across the planet, documentary filmmakers, students, and other inspired citizens will record the human experience over a 24-hour period, thus contributing their voice to the second annual global day of media creation called One Day on Earth. Together, they aim to create a shared archive as well as a film shedding light on many aspects of life on earth including poverty, education, the environment and many other specific topics.

One Day on Earth's first media creation event occurred on 10.10.10. The collaboration was the first ever simultaneous filming event occurring in every country of the world. This allowed for the creation of a unique archive as well as an upcoming feature film showcasing the amazing diversity, conflict, tragedy, and triumph that occurs in one day around the world.

And you are invited to join this international community of hundreds of schools, and dozens of non-profits, and contribute to this unique global mosaic. One Day on Earth is a community that not only watches, but participates and is supported by such organizations as UNICEF and the World Wildlife Fund.

A recent One Day on Earth's press release states that The United Nations, 60+ NGOs, filmmakers and other inspired media creators from EVERY country in the world plan to share their unique perspective.
To help secure footage from developing nations, and to increase the overall diversity of coverage,ONE DAY ON EARTH has partnered with the United Nations and non-profit
organizations, including the International Red Cross and the World Wide Fund for Nature.
The event will bring together filmmakers, students, humanitarian aid workers, and other
inspired people to collaborate worldwide on a single day. Last year, media arrived from regions of the world that are often times difficult to access, including Uzbekistan and North Korea.
"The power of creating and sharing videos as part of a community is inspiring," said Kyle Ruddick, Founder and Director of ONE DAY ON EARTH. "Despite the 3000 hours of footage created by our 2010 collaboration, we know we just scratched the surface for how this type of project can educate and connect local and global conversations on important topics."

Through its website, which is also a social network, the project works closely with its non-profit partners to provide cause-based calls-to-action to film on a variety of topics, including poverty, gender equality, and human rights. The project includes groups of filmmakers collaborating around themes, such as child birth, sports, and music, and also technique, including time-lapse photography and underwater filming.
As a key aspect to the project, participants will share their footage for non-commercial use. If you contribute a minute or more of collaboration on the social network site, you will receive access to final film.

Educators can check out this special site:
Lesson plans and online classrooms are available to educators to connect their students to the rest of the world.

To learn more, visit: www.OneDayOnEarth.org

Margriet Ruurs is the author of 27 books for children, including My Librarian is a Came and My School in the Rainforest, Boyds Mills Press, a book that shows how children around the world attend school.

1 Nov 2011

science eBooks

Two years ago I wrote a piece for the Vancouver Sun about ebooks. The text of the piece follows below. The article motivated me to take my own advice and this week our first enhanced eBook- Bathtub Science- comes out with HarperCollins. This book represents a major change in the way that we, as authors, communicate science information. The parents and teachers who have seen the rough cuts love the idea. It makes science exciting and for those who feel intimidated by instructions (and yes, there are many out there who don't try hands-on science activities for this reason), the enhanced eBook is the perfect solution for science scaredy cats.
As science writers we ought to be leading the way in innovative and effective communication of information. How can we best spark a child's interest in science and how can we stay relevant? I have been told by teachers that there isn't a need to buy science books because everything is on the internet for free. Changing that attitude is something that we as science writers must actively address.

RE: "It's far too soon to terminate books" Ceri Radford, Vancouver Sun, (Vancouver, BC, Canadas -Page -A17, June 11, 2009)

Ceri Radford's article, "It's far too soon to terminate books", was in the same self-righteous tone as those prognosticators in the early 1900's who said that cars would never replace horses, or those who claimed that if man was meant to fly, God would have given him wings.

Wake up. Already some of the major North American publishers at Book Expo America (BEA) seem to be abandoning books in print form. At the annual show last week in New York, I was given large format postcards at the Harper Collins booth. Each card had the image of a book cover, and on the back was the book identification number (ISBN), information about the book, the author, the publication date, and a free download of the book when I went to the publisher's web site and put in the 16 digit PIN number. The book was then downloaded into my computer, in my choice of formatting, and I had access to their new front list of books.

Next year at BEA the majority of publishers say they will be giving out their new releases in this manner.

Why is this good thing? Frankly, digital books are better for the environment. Let's start with how a book is made. Trees are cut down; they are then turned into paper pulp, which means chemicals are spilled into our waterways killing fish. The pulp is turned into paper, shipped
off on trucks, processed, printed and shipped off again to a warehouse, which then sends off the books. There is a very large carbon footprint in this process, while downloading a book into a computer requires no gas, little energy and no pollution. There is never extra stock to be warehoused, and there is no waste. Publishers who are worried about their profits love
digital books because, let's face it, they cost very little to produce, nothing to ship or store, and there are no returns.

The bottom line here really is the "bottom line". Digital books make more sense financially. Just as homes are not built the way they used to be because labour and material cost prohibit this kind of construction, so it will be with printed books. As for school books, I hate to agree with Governor Schwarzenegger, but he is right. California ought to move its science and math
textbooks to digital books. Yes, it is going to save the state an estimated 30 million dollars, but that's missing the bigger picture. In B.C., one Grade 9 science text is available on CD, while the Grade 10 text is available online.

Science changes every day but science texts are only updated maybe every 15 years. Having the latest information available to students will mean that children aren't learning outdated science.
So will digital readers supplant paper? Yes. For those of us who like to read in bed without waking the person next to us, a backlit Kindle is great. I don't have to wear my glasses because I can make the font bigger. It always remembers what page I'm on. It weighs less than the 10 books I take along on holidays.

And as an author of children's books, I think that digital books will be good for my work.