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.

10 Sept 2015

Science North

by Joan Marie Galat

As a science author, I want to know the who-what-when-where-why-how of almost everything and traveling always triggers a myriad of fresh questions. That’s why, when my presentation schedule took me to Sudbury, I knew I had to make time to visit Science North. A visit to this first-class science center delivered the answers I wanted, but even better, it brought new topics to my attention. Here’s a selection of some of the irresistible facts I enjoyed discovering.

What formed the massive impact crater on the outskirts of Sudbury, Ontario?
Formed about 1.8 billion years ago, the Sudbury Basin is the second largest impact crater in the world. Most sources indicate it was created by a meteorite, however recent evidence suggests it may have been caused by a comet. The crater covers an area of about 30 x 60 kilometres (18 x 37 miles). It’s the source of nickel, copper, and 15 other minerals that have made Sudbury one of Canada's largest mining centers. So far, more than 125 craters have been found on Earth. NASA provides a nice teacher's guide with activities on impact craters.

What does it feel like to sleep on a bed of nails?
The sign said it wouldn’t hurt “much” and I suppose that’s an apt description, since I didn’t scream “very” loud when I tried it. The reason? If you drape yourself on one nail, your weight will push down on a single sharp point. If you stretch out on a bed of nails, your weight will be distributed over a large area. Still, I couldn’t sleep.

How long is your small intestine?
Pull a rope out of a human cut-out to get the full visual—your small intestine is more than 5.5 metres (6 yards) long. You might also like to know a 70 kg (154 pound) person’s body contains about 10 nails-worth of iron. You’ll also find enough salt to fill three shakers and water to fill 18 one-liter bottles (almost 5 US gallons). All that salt and water is protected by your skin. If you’re an average sized adult, your skin weighs 3-5 kilograms (7-11 pounds) and covers two square meters (2.4 square yards). It’s thickest on the soles of your feet and thinnest on your eyelids.

What is it like to be a newsreader on television?
Discover the science of television! Face the camera, hit record, read the teleprompter, and try to tell the world the latest science news without stumbling. If it’s not as easy as you thought, try to improve your delivery by reading more. Literacy matters.

How is animation created?
Arrange figurines on a tiny set, take a photo, rearrange again, and repeat the entire process a half dozen times. Follow the computer instructions and watch your creation come to life on a computer screen. Knowing how animation works makes watching We are Aliens in the science centre’s 360-degree digital planetarium even more fun. The show explores whether it’s possible to find life beyond Earth and what that might look like.

Three dimensional animation also brings woolly mammoths, sabre toothed tigers, and dire wolves to life in the centre’s Titans of the Ice Age. An accompanying exhibit explores Earth’s frozen landscapes in the time period encompassing 10 thousand years before modern civilization. 

You will discover how how creatures like this macrauchenia adapted to the cold environment and how prehistoric humans hunted this mega fauna. Ice eventually made it possible for North and South American animals to mix, causing some species to become extinct, and others to thrive.

Another plus at Science North is the chance to enjoy up close looks at live wildlife including frogs, skunks, turtles, a porcupine named Quillan, and Drifter, a beaver who can’t be released because part of his tail was lost to frostbite. Outside the science centre, a walk along Ramsey Lake provides the opportunity to discover flora and fauna in a natural setting.

Look for aquatic insects, chipmunks, Canada geese, and sandhill cranes. I especially enjoyed spotting the monarch waystation designed to provide nectar and shelter to migrating butterflies. Interpretive signage outlines a few human-caused problems. You can find out what happens if you release non-native plants or animals into the wild and how washing a car on a driveway allows detergents, grease, and other chemicals to enter waterways.

Next time your travels take you near a science center, take advantage of the opportunity to have your who-what-where-why-how questions answered too. You might find yourself thinking in new ways about how science applies to your own environment.

Read more: Joan Marie Galat explores the social and ecological importance of trees in Branching Out, How Trees are part of Our World - ​2015 winner of the Santa Monica Public Library Green Prize for Sustainable Literature. 

4 Sept 2015

Robert Ballard, science explorer

By Paula Johanson

It's good to have heroes. There are science heroes for us all to admire and aspire to imitate. One of the greats is Robert Ballard.

There's plenty to read about Robert Ballard in September 2015's issue of Popular Mechanics. Or on the CBC's website where he was profiled in August. I heard him on CBC Radio One's show All Points West, talking about his youth and his entry into ocean science. When he was a child, he wrote to Scripps Institute saying he wanted to be an oceanographer. They gave him a scholarship when he was old enough to study there. It took years, but he became part of that world of wonders.

The name Robert Ballard might not be recognised right away. You've heard of the black smoker vents at the bottom of the ocean? Ballard discovered them in 1977. But you might know of him as the person who found the Titanic. Remember him now?

This photo is borrowed from Popular Mechanic's Sept 2015 issue.
Now his exploration vessel Nautilus (of course. it's named the Nautilus for the amazing vessel in Jules Verne's book Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea!) is run by the Ocean Exploration Trust, of which Ballard is president. Most of his corps of scientists are university students and graduate students in oceanography, geology, biology, archaeology, engineering, or film-making. And like most students, more than half of them are women. When Ballard is not on board the Nautilus, he is connected to its amazing technology by phone and the internet. So are dozens of experts all over the world, consulted at any hour of the day or night by the intrepid crew of the Nautilus during its explorations.

The scientists make use of two submersibles that are essentially robot submarines with cameras and tools that can be controlled from on board the ship. At the end of August 2015, the ship was off Vancouver Island, assisting with the NEPTUNE and VENUS programs, which you can read about at this link. Or check out the interesting photos of sea life swimming by NEPTUNE's monitors on the sea floor, thousands of metres underwater, at this article about the robot submersibles.

The educational element alone of the Ocean Exploration Trust is amazing. Over 500 educational videos are created a year by this team, sharing their day-to-day work and discoveries. If you're interested in ocean science and citizen science, these are people to know. It's easy to see Ballard as a superhero for science learning for youth. You can follow the adventures of the Nautilus and its explorers at nautilus.org or oceannetworks.ca.