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.

27 Nov 2015

Happy Book Birthday!

Post by Helaine Becker

It's a Big Bang Book Bash! I'm delighted to announce the publication of my newest book, Everything Space! (National Geographic Kids). Readers ages 8+ will get blasted into space, where we explore planets, stars, and beyond. This fun book will pull you in like gravity, if I do say so myself. It's full of jaw-dropping facts, first-hand reports from space explorers, detailed maps and fascinating infographics. It also has more than 100 stunning pictures.

25 Nov 2015

Books! Books! Books! - An Addendum

By Claire Eamer

Claire Eamer photo
The online publication, Hakai Magazine, has published an article listing, with short reviews, Eleven New Coastal-Themed Books for Kids. Several of the books are by friends of Sci/Why, whose earlier books are part of our own Science-Themed Books for Children. (And several of these coastal-themed books will doubtless appear in our list after the next revision!)

To quote the article's author, Sheryl McFarlane, who is a children's author herself, "Books reviewed here range in topic from a First Nation salmon ceremony to the voyage of the Mayflower, from a west coast nature alphabet to an east coast whale stranding." They're suitable for early or intermediate readers - and they're lovely!

20 Nov 2015

Books! Books! Books!

By Claire Eamer
Claire Eamer photo

A few months ago, we at Sci/Why put together a list of kids' science books by Canadian writers - ourselves and others. It's a work in progress, which we plan to update as often as we can manage, but it's already pretty lengthy.

The list is organized so that you can find books by topic and see immediately what grade level they're suitable for. That was for the convenience of teachers and librarians. But it's awfully convenient for people who might be looking for presents for their favourite kids at this time of year. Right?

So we thought we'd just mention again that we offer, for your consideration, our list of Science-Themed Books for Children. Just follow the link to a lot of science a lot of fun, and a lot of great ideas!

16 Nov 2015

And the Hits Keep Coming!

By Claire Eamer

It's been an award-laden autumn for Sci/Why bloggers. And here's another.

Our friend, world traveller, and occasional Sci/Why blogger Margriet Ruurs has won the 2015 Information Book Award from the Children's Literature Roundtables of Canada for her beautiful book on Yukon landscape painter Ted Harrison, A BRUSH FULL OF COLOUR: THE WORLD OF TED HARRISON. Margriet co-wrote the book with Katherine Gibson. It was published by Pajama Press.

The 2015 Honour Book is DREAMING IN INDIAN: CONTEMPORARY NATIVE AMERICAN VOICES, edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale, and published by Annick Press.

Congratulations to everyone!

12 Nov 2015

Non-fiction impacts students in real-world ways

by Joan Marie Galat

I love a good tale as much as the next person and write stories as well as nonfiction, yet factual texts hold a special place in my heart and on my shelves. I still have my first book on birds and fondly remember the How and Why Book of Astronomy that gave me those first insights into the night sky. All these years later, astronomy is the focus in one of my book series (Dot to Dot in the Sky), and birds get plenty of plugs in my tree book (Branching Out - How Trees are part of Our World). The nonfiction of my childhood steered me toward interests that have lasted through the years, and influenced my writing career.

It turns out fact-based titles offer even more than the "wow" factor. Nonfiction is crucial to preparing young minds for the future. It builds critical academic skills by building vocabulary. With content that is often technical or science-based, nonfiction exposes children to words that are less likely to appear within a fictional text. Facts also teach children about different environments and their place in the world. Nonfiction books often connect to curriculums, building on the content children need to grasp in order to better succeed at school. Nonfiction also encourages reading because children can choose books that relate to their specific interests.

Joan teaching kids to juggle after
reading a nonfiction book on
how to keep three beanbags in the air.
Non-fiction reading in the early years has another perk. It helps children gain an understanding of how information can be accessed. Knowing how to use an index and table of contents are life skills. It is important to become familiar with how headings highlight topics, charts summarize data, and sidebars provide more detail. The report writing called for in future jobs or post-secondary education will be easier to manage for those who have spent time in the world of non-fiction reading.

Next time you're picking out a book for a child, or visiting the library or bookstore together, visit the nonfiction section. Factual books can lead to new interests, skills, and adventures. As you can see in the photo, a book on juggling led me to a new hobby. And there's been a bonus. I bring my star-shaped beanbags to schools during astronomy presentations and demonstrate falling stars!

The facts found in nonfiction books, as well as newspapers, magazines, atlases, and other reference texts, create the foundation young children and students of all ages need to ensure a lifetime of learning. Yes, I'm saying you should even read the dictionary. The Reading Rockets website offers more reasons to read nonfiction.

Joan's next book, Dot to Dot in the Sky, Stories of the Aurora is scheduled for release in 2016.

6 Nov 2015

Jan Thornhill Wins 2015 Vicky Metcalf Award

By Claire Eamer
Jan Thornhill
Sci/Why's own Jan Thornhill is this year's winner of the prestigious Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People - and the rest of us at Sci/Why couldn't be prouder! The award is given for a body of work over many years, and Jan certainly has that. She has fourteen books to her credit (so far) - and for many of them, she was both writer and illustrator.

Here's what the award jury had to say about Jan and her work:
With clarity and grace, Jan Thornhill’s books use both art and text to draw children into a closer and more understanding relationship with the natural world. Over a period of almost 30 years she has shown a rare ability to present serious topics to children from a scientific perspective in which gaining knowledge is pleasurable, never didactic or dry. From concept books like The Wildlife ABC, to stories and folk tales dealing with subjects like migration or wild animals in urban environments, to non-fiction books for older children on complex and challenging subjects such as conservation or death, Thornhill enriches the young reader’s awareness of the physical world and our place in it. A passionate and deeply-informed interest in nature is always conveyed with her characteristic combination of humour, empathy, and common sense.

Jan with Kirsten Hanson, chair of the board of the Metcalf Foundation and one of Vicky Metcalf's grandchildren. (Laurence Acland photo)
Jan has kindly shared with us her acceptance speech, delivered at the Writers' Trust Awards banquet on November 3. Here it is:

Thank you so much! I am humbled and thrilled to receive this award— my sincerest gratitude to the Writer’s Trust and the Metcalf Foundation.

Of course, I’ve known about the Vicky Metcalf Award for a long time, but I never thought I had a chance of getting it. Not only because there are so many amazing children’s writers in Canada, but also because I write mostly non-fiction. For a long time, non-fiction, especially for kids, has been the odd man out awards-wise. So I’m so glad that someone – well, a jury of three someones – has decided that what I write is both important and literature…. Literature, despite the fact that, in one of my books, there are fewer than 50 words in the main text. The Wildlife 123 begins with the very hard-to-write line: “One panda,” and ends with the equally difficult “One thousand tadpoles.”

So I guess I am also being recognized as an illustrator. This shows a growing understanding that picture books are, indeed, literature; and that when they work, they are a perfect marriage between words and art. This has been made even clearer to me when other artists have illustrated my words, most recently the fabulous Ashley Barron who did the gorgeous artwork for Kyle Goes Alone, published by Owlkids this fall.

I am not the only writer/illustrator who has received this award in the past 50 years, but I do seem to be the first author who writes primarily non-fiction, almost always about science, nature, and the environment. And YAY! to that, I say. As a science writer, it’s particularly gratifying to be recognized after 10 years of living under an unbelievably heavy-handed anti-science regime – a government that did not understand the importance of long-term scientific studies, research libraries, and, most critically, the free dissemination of information and ideas—which is part of what literature is also about. I hope the new government gets it right, with both the sciences and the arts.

On a more personal note, my family and friends, and a few industry associates know that more than 10 years ago I had to give up illustrating because of a painful condition in my arm that was eventually diagnosed as cancer. I’m happy to report that I’ve been cancer-free for seven years since my treatment. But I’m just as thrilled to say that, though my dexterity is not what it once was, I’ve recently figured out a way to work around my handicap and I’ve almost completed my first self-illustrated book in more than 10 years. (It comes out with Groundwood next fall.)

Along with offering my thanks again to the Writers’ Trust and the Metcalf Foundation for granting me this award, I would also like to express my gratitude for the substantial sum of money that comes with it. I don’t know if everyone here knows this, but trying to create children’s books that make a difference doesn’t often pay very well. I, and others like me, do it because we believe that children deserve excellence in the books they are given to read. Receiving this recognition confirms I actually did make the right career choice 25 years ago.

I’d also like to thank the publishers and editors I’ve worked with over the years: Sheba Meland and Anne Shone, Jennifer Canham, Karen Boersma, Karen Li, and Sheila Barry, to name just a few. I’d also like to thank my pal, Laurence, who has been my computer and science mentor for years, and my mum, who’s sitting right there, my biggest fan from the first time she stuck a crayon in my hand when I was two, and who, along with my dad, surrounded me with books.

And of course, my wonderful husband, Fred, who, for more than thirty years, has put up with the squalor that surrounds me when I work. And who has stood beside me on volcanoes and in hospitals, and has made me laugh in both places.

Finally, I want to thank the astonishing biodiversity of this planet of ours that never fails to entertain me and provide me with inspiration."

If you'd like more Jan Thornhill (who wouldn't?), check out her fungus blog, Weird and Wonderful Wild Mushrooms, or just enter her name in the Sci/Why search engine (right) to find links to her many fine Sci/Why posts.

30 Oct 2015

Haunting the Queen Mary

Innocent and out of focus -
I packed light and didn't bring a tripod.

by L. E. Carmichael

It's 9 PM and I'm standing in the lobby of the Westin in Long Beach, site of the 2015 American Folklore Society meeting. I'm hanging out with a group of grad students from Western University (including a lady who hails from Cape Breton!), waiting for a cab to take us to the Queen Mary for a pre-conference ghost tour.

It's dark and we're experiencing a heady mix of excitement and jet lag (I've been awake for 23 hours). After a short ride to the dock, we pile out of the taxi and stare up at the ship, which is enormous, well-lit, and completely innocent looking.

Not for long, though.

We meet our guide, Matt Schultz of ParaXplorer Project, and head for the engine room, where we are promptly turned away because the cast of Castle is filming in there. I want to yell "Nathan Fillion, I'm from Edmonton, too!" but refrain, suspecting that if I do, I'll be booted off the ship before I hear a single ghost story. I snap a couple quick pictures of the crew and equipment, though, as this is the closest I'm ever likely to be to Captain Malcolm Reynolds.

The boiler room
Our tour reroutes, climbing down into the bowls of the ship, 50 feet below waterline. We're in an old boiler room now, a chamber off-limits to ordinary tourists. It's dim and cavernous and rusty. The heat is oppressive and somewhere, water drips. A body hangs from the rafters - part of the prep for a Halloween fright-fest. In spite of this bit of theatrical cheese, I can't help thinking that if anyplace on the boat is haunted, this is probably it.

Matt produces a passel of ghost hunting gadgets from the depths of his knapsack, explaining how each is thought to work. A compass and an EMF detector, for mysterious electromagnetic fields. Dousing rods, for asking spirits questions. Static electricity sensors - in air that's probably 85% liquid, a blip from these seems especially unlikely. Someone asks if a positive response on one of the gizmos is proof of the paranormal. To Matt's credit, he says "I have absolutely no idea." His policy is to eliminate all possible natural explanations for a result first, but the farthest he'll go on ghosts is "maybe."

As a scientist, I appreciate this. Just because science hasn't yet discovered an ordinary explanation doesn't mean there isn't one. On the other hand, the one thing science can never do is definitively prove that ghosts (or bigfoot, or aliens) don't exist - there's always a possibility that new data will come to light. For my part, I'm an open-minded skeptic. After all, Einstein proved that matter can turn into energy. Whether that energy retains a consciousness and a personality is a different question.

A lot of staff and visitors to the Queen Mary have reported ghost sightings. In addition to visual sightings, people claim to have been bumped, pushed, or otherwise manhandled when no hands were in sight. And the ship is also famous for disembodied voices, not to mention EVPs.

Door 13, where John Pedder died.
The flowers are a prompt for soliciting EVPs.

EVP stands for electronic voice phenomenon. It refers to voices that appear on audio recordings - voices that no one heard at the time the recording was made. Matt has a recorder that plays back on a 15 second delay, meant to support real-time conversations with potential spirits. Now we're crowded into a tiny drywalled area in the back of the boiler room, wearing headphones and straining to hear incorporeal voices responding to Matt's questions. The space was a greenroom, from the days when Disney ran the Queen Mary. Attempting to contact spirits from the Disney greenroom is an exercise in irony as much as science.

Castle has cleared out of the engine room, so we troop over and attempt to contact the spirit of seaman John Pedder. Although ghosts of all ages and sexes have been reported on the ship, John is an especially good candidate for a lingering presence - he was found crushed in hydraulic door 13. Matt's team has recorded EVPs that could be John responding to questions, but he's not talking tonight. Someone asks Matt if he's ever "enhanced" the evidence he plays for his tour guests. Never. "In this business," Matt says, "integrity is everything."

Our next stop is the first class pool, another space not on the regular tour. It's thought to be inhabited by two spirits - a ghost cat that our security escort saw once and believed was a living animal, and Jackie, a little girl who, according to the EVPs, loves to join visitors in a rousing rendition of Ring Around the Roses. Since the song is about the bubonic plague, this musical choice also strikes me as highly ironic. One of my photos captures a mysterious orb, superimposed on the balcony door. A spirit orb? There doesn't appear to be dust on the lens, as none of my other snaps show a spot at that point. Lens flare is a distinct and unromantic possibility. I took a couple shots from the same angle, though, and only this one shows anything unusual. A ghost? In Matt's words, "Who knows?"
Look closely -
the orb is near the top right of the door.

It's 1:30 in the morning now, and I've reached that stage of fatigue where my entire brain feels slightly out of focus. Maybe this will make my skeptical mind more sensitive to visitations from the beyond? Matt leads us into the women's change room, a short, narrow, hall lined with cubicles. "Step into any cubby you feel comfortable in," he tells us. Comfortable is not likely. The cubicles are cramped and distinctly coffin-like, it's pitch black and tropically humid in here, and we're about to call for Jackie. Matt sets out a teddy bear, a digital recorder, and four static electricity detectors. We sing in the dark, leaving out the last word of each line in case Jackie chimes in with an EVP.

And then it happens. The static detector farthest from us flares - a burst of green light so short-lived, I'd suspect my exhaustion-steeped eyes imagined it... except for the fact that everyone on the tour exclaims at the same moment. The humidity is condensing on my skin, so I'm having a rough time thinking of a scientific explanation for the presence of static electricity in the room. I find myself wishing that I'd brought my own voice recorder, and wondering whether the two that were running have picked up anything other than us...

In the clear light of the following, caffeine-soaked morning, I settle in for my first panel of the conference. The second paper on the program? "There's an App for That: Legend Tripping With Smartphones." I suspect Matt would have the same opinion of the radar-blipping, random-word generating tech that I do...

Then again, if ghosts exhibit electromagnetic fields, an ability to muddle electronics isn't that far fetched...

Interested in EVPs? Check out some of the recordings Matt's tour groups have made on the Queen Mary.

Want to test a ghost-hunting app at your favourite spooky spot? Click here for reviews.

For a lively and entertaining discussion of history and science in the search for the human spirit, read Spook by Mary Roach.

26 Oct 2015

23 Oct 2015

Citizen Science: A Way To Become Involved

By Margriet Ruurs

Definition - noun cit·i·zen \ˈsi-tə-zən also -sən\   \ˈsī-ən(t)s\
Citizen science (also known as crowd science, civic science or volunteer monitoring) is scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur or nonprofessional scientists.

Are you a citizen interested in science? Have you always had a secret wish to be a scientist, but instead you ended up being a bookkeeper, a manager, a writer? There is still hope! You can participate in, and contribute to, science projects around the globe. Making use of the internet, scientists have come to realize the enormous wealth of manpower available to science by using volunteers. You can be an amateur bird watcher and contribute to the knowledge of the American Ornithologist Union. Or you can help track anything from bees to killer whales. You can count moths or collect microbes in your own home - all as a “citizen scientist.”

When you check the list of possibilities, it is hard not to get excited about the contribution you can make to science by doing what you already enjoy doing, simply by signing up as a volunteer and making your actions count. Thanks to mobile phones, for instance, you can help to improve accuracy of magnetic navigation systems. Sounds impressive, right? All you need to do is download the app and send in your magnetic data.

You can turn your daily stroll along the shore into scientific research by listening for orcas and submitting your findings to The Whale Museum on Washington’s San Juan Island.

Being a volunteer scientist is not restricted to your regular daily life at home either. Tens of thousands of people in The Netherlands, for instance, contribute to the preservation of wildlife or natural areas by tagging butterflies, by constructing bee-houses or by planting trees. One website offers to pay all transportation and accommodation if you want to spend four days planting sea grass in the muddy tidal flats of northern Holland or Germany. You can also spend two weeks living in a lighthouse, in complete isolation and surrounded by the sea at high tide, counting seals and taking an inventory of sea birds. You just sign up as a volunteer caretaker for the Dutch National Nature Conservancy (Staatsbosbeheer).

If you’d rather go on night patrol on a Costa Rican beach, you can do so by joining a GoAbroad.com project to protect sea turtles. The Earthwatch Institute has also realized the enormous potential of using keen citizens to contribute to scientific research. They invite you to explore Nicaragua’s geology. You’ll be setting up high-tech scientific instruments in and around the Masaya’s crater. You’ll hike through the forest to record information on pollinating insects and to collect plant, water, and soil samples. You’ll be part of a field research team which may make this a more memorable holiday then simply lying on a beach. Of course, in a case like this, you’ll pay your own travel and accommodation.

Whether you use your daily stroll or dedicate your entire holiday to science, doing something meaningful for the environment will, no doubt, be a rewarding experience if you become a citizen scientist.

For previous Sci/Why columns on citizen science projects, just type "citizen science" into the Search box on the right side of this page.

All photos by Margriet Ruurs.

16 Oct 2015

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner!! (Well, several winners, actually.)

By Claire Eamer

Every now and then, we have to boast about the amazing awesomeness of the Sci/Why crew. After all, somebody's gotta do it. Why not one of us?

So - without further ado - let me announce that my colleague, L.E. Carmichael has won this year's Lane Anderson Award for the best Canadian youth science book published in 2014. Ta da! She earned the award with her book Fuzzy Forensics: DNA Fingerprinting Gets Wild.

Part mystery and part scientific guidebook, Fuzzy Forensics tells the story of cutting-edge science put to work to solve a wildlife crime, how the science works, and why wildlife crime is important. It's both fascinating and fun.


Pretty impressive, eh? But that's not the end of our amazing accomplishments.

In September, Sci/Why blogger and Science Lady, Shar Levine, was presented with a 2015 Alumni Honour Award by her alma mater, the University of Alberta, for her work in advocating for children's science literacy.

Shar's writing partner, Leslie Johnstone, is no slouch either. While Shar was being honoured at the University of Alberta, Leslie was named one of the 100 leaders in education in British Columbia by the University of British Columbia. Besides writing dozens of entertaining science books for kids, in partnership with Shar, Leslie has taught science at Point Grey Secondary School in Vancouver since 1988 and is currently acting vice principal and head of the science department there.

Congratulations to all of our winners!

9 Oct 2015

Meet the North

Post by Helaine Becker

Paddling North
I recently had the good fortune to meet author Jennifer Kingsley at the Lakefield Literary Festival. I was completely taken with her, and with her story of her current project: circumnavigating the Arctic via word of mouth. She'd talk to someone, who would tell her about someone else in the north she should meet, go see that person, talk to them and get another recommendation, and so on. How fabulous, I thought! How brilliant a demo of the science of communication, in action!

Jennifer Kingsley
I asked Jennifer if she'd talk to Sci-Why, and she very graciously agreed. She sent me her answers to my questions from Greenland, where she is now deep in her project.

Here is the interview:

1. Tell us a little bit about who you are, what you do and how you get started on the Meet the North Project.

I'm a Canadian who loves the outdoors, and I express that in two different ways. One: I'm a guide and naturalist, and I work on sailboats and ships in different parts of the world, primarily the Arctic. Two: I'm a writer and radio producer always looking for ways to bring stories and sounds out of remote regions and into the imaginations of my audience.
My first book is called Paddlenorth: Adventure, Resilience, and Renewal in the Arctic Wild, and it's about a 54-day canoe expedition across the Canadian Arctic.

2. Paddlenorth  is terrific. I was so intrigued by your presentation at the Lakefield Festival, I got the book right away! It's full of adventure, of course. But also heart. And there's some serious drama and mystery too. Heart-thumping, page-turning mystery.

Now, you've embarked on a new adventure! Can you describe the Meet the North project for Sci/Why readers?

Meet the North is my personal journey from WHAT is the Arctic to WHO is the Arctic. It's a project I created, and it's sponsored by Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic.
Here's the skinny about Meet the North from the project web site www.meetthenorth.org:

#meetthenorth is a project about the lives of northerners from
Svalbard to Greenland, Iceland, the Canadian Arctic, and beyond.
These are among the most remarkable places on Earth, and the
best way to understand them is to ask those who know them best.
This project gets its direction from the people of the north.
Their ideas set our path; we listen, and we follow their lead.
By meeting one person at a time, and by asking that person to
introduce us to someone new, we are getting to know the
Arctic community, and we are sharing our journey with you.

Join the adventure on Instagram at #meetthenorth 

and by following @meetthenorth. Follow the
stories on this website too.

3. Sooooo coool! To my mind, your project is science in action, in that through your project, you are demonstrating and investigating human communication. Do you agree? Can you elaborate?

Meet the North is absolutely about human communication. It's about having a strong vision . . . but not much of a plan. I let the people that I meet set my path, so it's not until they introduce me to someone new that I know where I am going next. I think you could call it social science; it's similar to Snowball Sampling, which is used by some anthropologists.
I think what makes this project valuable and different is that it values the contribution of each individual. It's not about mapping the entire fabric; it's about finding one true thread.

4. It seems to me your project will provide valuable scientific data for use in other fields. Can you elaborate on that?

I believe that this project, and it's method, will help to uncover ideas and topics that would not be discovered otherwise. If I really want to know what is important to someone, I have to be very open. It doesn't serve me to come in with preconceived ideas, nor can I open with directive questions.
In this way, I think Meet the North could help fill out the picture painted by other work in other fields. It gives a human face to the data others are collecting.

5. Can you describe one encounter you have already had, and what it revealed/meant to you?

I just got home from Iceland, and at the beginning of my time there, I had one meeting set up. That one meeting led me, through a series of introductions, to the far east corner of the country which has been, perhaps, the least impacted by the recent tourism boom. By making personal connections to a very out of the way place, I discovered a project I would never have heard about otherwise.

Way out there, in a municipality of 500 people, there is a movement afoot to turn a fjord into a container port. This will only make sense more than a decade from now, if sea ice melts in a certain way and if global politics take a certain turn. It's an attempt to involve Iceland in the evolving Arctic economy, when many Icelanders are opening guest houses and selling souvenirs. It was a whiff of the change in the air - still faint but indicative of big changes ahead. So we interviewed the man spearheading this initiative, out in the middle of the heath. Who knows what will be there 10 years from now.

 Thanks, Jennifer! Good luck with your project, and please keep us posted!

6 Oct 2015

Volunteer to Help Bird Banders

by Helen Mason

You don't have to be an ornithologist to help with bird banding. Last fall, I volunteered at Prince Edward Point Bird Observatory. This is a volunteer-run research station located on the eastern tip of Prince Edward County where it extends south into Lake Ontario. It's the first landfall for migrating birds coming across from the south in the spring and the last for those heading to warmer climes each fall.

As well as people who recognize the difference between a hermit thrush and a Swainson's thrush, the observatory needs willing hands to put up the nets at dawn, take them down six hours later, hold the collecting bags, and record information provided by the experts. It's easy to do the recording for inexperienced banders who take five minutes to process a bird, but some people know the species so well they can identify, sex, age, and weigh a bird in less than a minute. New scribes need to focus when volunteers such as this man from the United Kingdom examine a gray-cheeked thrush.

Experienced volunteers identify, sex, age, and weigh each bird before banding it.
While volunteers are watching, they learn a lot about familiar species. Note the orangey red on this golden-crowned kinglet, for example. This colouring differentiates it from the ruby-crowned kinglet, which has red without any yellow.

Golden-crowned kinglet
Banders constantly check their bird books as even something as minor as white around the eye can differentiate between this Nashville warbler and a similar species. Fortunately, the head bander is always around to double-check identifications.

Nashville warbler
 Interestingly, it isn't just humans who look out for migrating birds. This sharp-shinned hawk got caught in a net while chasing a smaller bird.

Sharp-shinned hawk
 This barred owl was sitting on a tree in the net lanes where they trap saw-whet owls in the evening. To protect the saw-whets, banders trapped this female, banded her, and then relocated her. Take a look at that beak. No wonder people were so cautious handling the two-year-old.

Barred owl
Are you still wondering how to tell a Swainson's thrush from a hermit thrush? The Swainson's has a brown tail. The hermit's tail is red. They both have speckled breasts, as do all members of the thrush family, including the robin. Learn more by volunteering at or visiting your local banding station.

Hermit thrush

Swainson's thrush
Like all members of the thrush family, this Swainson's thrush has a speckled breast.

2 Oct 2015

Visiting Hoodoos and Royal Tyrrell Museum

Say hello to my little friend! This is Morgan and her auntie, among the hoodoos near Drumheller where she was having fun with science. Seventy million years ago, this area was a shoreline plain and shallow sea where lots of plants and animals lived. Now it's dry and not much grows except scrubby grass and bushes near the streams.

It's al lot easier to learn about geology and paleontology when you run around the hoodoos like Morgan has done, and you're able to see all the layers in the ground that have built up day by day over millions of years. In the Alberta Badlands, there are plenty of places where there's no recent accumulation of soil and plants to hide the layers in the ground. A hoodoo forms when there's a tougher layer that resists eroding. The tough layer makes a cap, and as the softer layers wear away on the sides a pillar can get quite high. Some of the hoodoos are interestingly shaped!

You can see the clay and bits of stone all around Morgan. As the ground is weathering away here, new bits of stone start to show from where they have been buried for millions of years in the layers of sediments. Some of these bits of stone are the bones of dinosaurs and other long-ago animals that have been in the ground so long, they have turned to stone. I've always liked that these bones are called fossils, from an old word for something dug out of the ground. It isn't an everyday thing to find fossils (unless you live near Drumheller!) so it's nice to have a non-ordinary word to name them.

At the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, many of these fossil bones have been prepared for display. Some of the displays use carefully-made replicas of the bones, which are lighter and easier to arrange in the shape of the animal when it was alive. There's an active website for this museum which is as fun to explore as the building. The museum even hosts short courses for distance learning, and it hosts a course for homeschools on paleontology! It's one of my favourite museums.

While some fossil bones are from small animals, people are particularly interested in the animals larger than ourselves. I like to look at this picture, and see how Morgan's little hands and feet have bones like the ones in this dinosaur's foot!

It's easy to tell that Morgan enjoyed her day at the museum, learning about science and the animals of the past! I'll have to find her some books now she's growing old enough to read them and ask questions.

25 Sept 2015

Cracking the Code: Computers and Cryptography

As anyone who's seen The Imitation Game will know, the first modern computer was designed with a single purpose - to crack an unbreakable code. Alan Turing's invention outwitted the Enigma machine, allowing the Allies to read the Nazis' encoded messages and turning the tide of World War II.
It was an incredible achievement of global significance, made possible by Turing's ability both as an engineer and a programmer - he not only built the computer, but told it what to do. Turing understood how codes worked, and was able to explain those rules to his machine, giving it the instructions that allowed it to complete the complex task. Today, we call those instructions programs and apps (and coincidentally, they are written in code).
Turing wasn't the first computer programmer. In 1804, Joseph-Marie Jacquard wrote programs on punch cards that controlled automated looms. To change the pattern on the fabric, he swapped out the card (this method of programming was popular for early modern computers as well). And in 1843, a woman named Ada Lovelace wrote the first program that would have allowed a machine to solve basic mathematical problems - if the machine had ever been built!
Turing was influenced by Lovelace's work, but it's no surprise that his computer was the first to be realized. Unlike the Analytical Engine Lovelace wrote for, a machine of intellectual but no immediate practical purpose, Turing's code-breaker was vitally important, and as a consequence, very well-funded.
Here's a cool video on the science of cryptography. And for the junior computer programmer in your life, check out my newest science book, What Are Programs and Apps?, now available from Amazon and Lerner Publishing.

18 Sept 2015

Dispatches from the Peanut Gallery

By Claire Eamer

I wrote the original version of this post a year or so ago for the Canadian Science Writers' Association's blog, currently offline. I thought it might interest readers of this blog as well. - CE

Respectable science writer and audience. Rick Massie photo

Do you remember the first science book you read? It probably wasn’t a heavy tome about a vital scientific issue of the day, or even a romp through the dusty corners and characters of archaeology. I’ll bet it was a book about dinosaurs, or insects, or stinky anatomical functions.

And I bet you didn’t think of it as a science book. You just thought, “Dinosaurs!” Or, “Bugs!” Or, happily, “Ew, gross!” (When you’re a kid, the exclamation points are part of the experience.)

Kids aren’t drawn to abstract terms like biodiversity or evolution or even chemistry or physics. Their taste is specific and concrete. It’s the joy of reading about giant monsters that actually lived – and knowing more about them than their parents do. Or the squirmy delight of tiny, six-legged alien life forms that live among us. And stinky, messy, disgusting anatomical functions – well, what kid doesn’t love those?

Some of us respectable grown-up science writers spend a lot of time thinking about the same things. We write about science for kids – from toddlers to teenagers.

And we don’t get no respect.

No Respect?

Okay, I’ll grant you that might be a bit of an overstatement. However, it’s true that science writing for kids can be a hard sell, whether it’s to teachers and librarians, parents, or to other science writers. School reading lists tend to be dominated by fiction – as do book reviews, literary awards, granting-agency qualifications, and kidlit festivals. Science-writing conferences and the like are dominated by books, magazines, and blogs for adults.

The easiest audience is the kids themselves. They are generally fascinated by how things work, what they’re made of, and why they’re the way they are – all the questions that scientists ask every day. At the age I usually write for (8 to 12 years), they aren’t slotting knowledge into categories and dismissing the categories they don’t think they should be interested in. They just want to KNOW STUFF – everything from poop (very popular in the middle grade set) to astronauts (almost as popular).

And it’s important to offer them stuff to learn about and to know. If you want knowledgeable adults, willing to learn new things and consider new ideas, you’ve got to start ‘em young. Which is why what kids’ science writers do is important.


Enough with the whining!

Yeah yeah – I hear you. If we’re so hard-done-by, why do we do it? Well, actually we like it – a lot. And that keeps us coming back.

Kids’ science writers get to embrace their inner child. Mine is about 10 years old, a bit grubby, likes old jeans, grasshoppers, dragonflies, tidepool critters, and wading in sloughs right to the tops of her rubber boots. The reasonably respectable grey-haired lady is just a clever disguise.

When I write my kids’ books, I’m usually writing for that inner child who still has all the enthusiasm I brought to reading and knowledge decades ago. Writing for that kid has some constraints, but they’re constraints that it doesn’t hurt to think about when you’re writing for grown-ups too.

For example, always remember who you’re talking to. Simple, colourful language is good – for kids and adults. Leave the scientific language to the scientists whenever possible. What adds precision to a scientific paper often obscures the information for the non-scientist or, especially, the kid.

Keep things concrete. I’ll bet every kids’ science writer has had the experience of wandering distractedly around the house, tape measure in hand, looking for a common object that is exactly the same length as a Galapagos tortoise, a hummingbird, or Galileo’s first telescope.

And what about big things? Even adults don’t always grasp how big is Big. For example, Bullockornis planei, the giant flightless goose of ancient Australia, was about 2.5 metres tall. Are you more impressed if I tell you it was tall enough to stand beside a single-storey house and pluck shingles off the roof?

(That, of course, leaves aside the issue of whether you have ever heard of Bullockornis planei. I hadn’t, until I started researching Spiked Scorpions & Walking Whales and discovered the Demon Duck of Doom. Look it up. Trust me!)

Oh, yeah. Another good rule for kids’ science writing is keep it short. And this post is already too long. So I’ll stop.