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.