29 Aug 2016

Astronomy Before Bedtime

Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center showing a C3-class solar flare that erupted from sunspot 1105 on Sept. 8, 2010. Used under CCBY-2.0 license.

by Adrienne Montgomerie

“I really like astronomy, but I can’t stay up that late,” I said to the astronomer I met the other day.

“Lucky for me,” he said. “I do my astronomy during the daytime. Only optical astronomy really requires a night sky — and that's only for ground-based telescopes!” Then Drew the astronomy PhD student at Queen’s University went on to tell me about radio telescopy and telescopes out in space.

Light is part of the EM spectrum, and so are X-rays and radio waves. Astronomers can look for the X-rays and radio waves given off by stars and planets to learn what they are made of and how they behave. That method works even when daylight obscures the objects.

A couple years earlier, I met the team from RMC (the Royal Military College) who study stars in daylight. Their specialty is the Sun!
Beginning Daylight Astronomy

The easiest targets are our own Sun and Moon. You can watch the Moon with your bare eyes and observe how its shape changes from crescent to fully round and back to crescent. With a pair of binoculars, you can zoom in on the craters and other features that show the Moon’s history of being hit by space rocks. A telescope lets you see even more detail.

You can observe the how the Sun’s path across the sky changes with the seasons. But you can learn more about the Sun itself.

It can damage your eyes to look straight at the Sun, but there are filters that fit over a telescope to make observing the Sun safe. One really fun time to observe the Sun is during a solar eclipse, but even with most of the light blocked by the Moon, it’s still unsafe to look directly at the Sun. One easy trick is to have a telescope project the image of the Sun onto a piece of paper. With your back to the Sun, put paper below the telescope’s eye piece. You can then look at the Sun on the paper.
Events in the Daytime Sky

On August 21, 2017 there will be a total solar eclipse visible from coast to coast in the USA. It is only visible where the shadow meets Earth, so not everyone will see it.

An eclipse is a great time to get a better look at the Sun’s corona. Because the Moon blocks most of the Sun during an eclipse, it makes the remaining part easier to see. The outer edge (corona) is where you can see great tongues of fire exploding from the star (like in this picture). Those are called flares and they can be as powerful as 1 billion megatons of TNT! Solar flares are what send electromagnetic waves outward from the Sun. When they reach Earth, they cause Northern Lights (and Southern Lights, too). When there’s a big solar flare, you can watch for signs of it affecting Earth a few days later. It’s not just pretty lights that solar flares cause. Sometimes that radiation interferes with radio and power transmission here on Earth.

Lunar eclipses sometimes happen during the day, too. It’s not as dramatic as a nighttime eclipse, but you can see Earth’s shadow take a bite out of the Moon. You can see that without anything but your eyes.

To learn more about astronomy, check the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) and Sky News magazine. 

Adrienne Montgomerie is a science and education editor who helps publishers and businesses develop training resources. She believes we can make even the most complex ideas and procedures easy for learners to take in, maybe even to master.

19 Aug 2016

Mark Your Calendar: Science Literacy Week Sept. 19-25!

Science lovers, strap on your boots! You’ll need them for Science Literacy Week coming your way September 19-25, all across the country. This wonderful celebration of all things science will feature events for everyone, adults and kids alike, in venues ranging from libraries and schools to museum and local parks.

Jesse Hildebrand, founder of Science Literacy Week
Science Literacy Week is the brainchild of Jesse Hildebrand, a self-confessed science geek and energy whirlwind. I had the opportunity to interview him earlier this summer, to find out both where he gets his superhuman enerjuice and about the marvelousness that is Science Literacy Week. Here is what I found out:

1. Give us your brief potted bio. Who the heck are you and why do you love science so much?

I'm a lifelong tremendous nerd, born and raised in the same lovely house in Etobicoke.  I grew up with Steve Irwin posters on my wall and Carl Sagan books on my shelf.  If I was interested in anything, my parents dutifully marched me to a library to get books on it.  Thus, my initial love of science was fostered and nourished immensely. 

I went on to get an Evolutionary Biology Degree from U of T and a Science and Society Diploma from The Open University.

I also truly love baseball, nature, books, pina coladas and taking walks in the rain.  The dunes of the cape also sound awfully inviting.

2. What were some of the science books you read as a kid that sparked your imagination?

 I still have them so that's easy!  The Ultimate Book of Dinosaurs, Animals of the World, The Great Big Book of Knowledge, The Crazy World of What If? And my two very favourites, the awesome 'Wildlife Fact File" series and the Oxford First Encyclopedia.  My own kids will get all of them.  I was also encouraged by the librarians at my junior schools at Broadacres and John G Althouse and at Richview Public Library, where I'm still to be found roaming the halls more often than not.

3. What is Science Literacy Week? Why/how did you found it?

Science Literacy Week began simply as an effort to encourage University of Toronto libraries to bring their science collections out from the back for one week and prominently display them in the spot typically reserved for popular fiction.  I had always wanted to do something in science communication, and quite literally the day after I finished my last exam -  April 3rd, 2014 - I approached the libraries to make the ask. They took me seriously and it snowballed from there.

4. Tell Sci/Why readers about how the program has expanded since you began it in 2014.

Once the U of T libraries got on board, I convinced the Toronto Public, Mississauga Public and York University libraries to join in, making it a total of four participating institutions.  I convinced a few of my former professors to give talks and also arranged a smattering of other activities. 

It went pretty well in Toronto!  I thought that it could be expanded to include the whole country, so in 2015, I emailed everybody - libraries, museums, science organizations - some 4,500 emails in all in an attempt to make Science Literacy Week bigger. 

There was a tremendous response! I was remarkably lucky to receive ten yesses for every no. All told, Science Literacy Week 2015 came to include 300 events in 40 cities coast-to-coast. 

This year, with 160+ partners and major support from Indigo and NSERC (The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada), Science Literacy Week 2016 looks to be even bigger. NSERC has now hired me run the week, which means that since I no longer have to do this as a volunteer, I can commit full time to bringing it to life.  As of August 8st, there are 142 events already scheduled to run in 8 provinces!

5. Can you highlight some of the most successful/innovative/fun programs that ran in previous years, and some that are coming up this year?  

St. John's, NF, was one of the 2015 Science Literacy Week’s hotspots.  A great group of participants including Memorial University, the public libraries, the Johnson Geo Centre and the Let'sTalk Science folks worked together to present 27 events in 7 days. These included taking over the main mall in the city for a 5 hour science demo, an impressive event covered by the local radio station.  That was Science Literacy Week at its best! 

Across Canada, there was also "the Great Egg Drop" where kids had to make a container to drop an egg in from 25 ft. without it breaking; science demos in libraries where you could play with Non-Newtonian fluids; dozens of Astronomy Nights and more. 

For this year, some early confirmed highlights include:
Ø  Dissect a Beaver  (Vancouver)
Ø  Bird-banding hike in Oak Hammock Marsh (Manitoba)
Ø  Science with Fire and Alcohol (Red Deer)
Ø  A showcase of iconic science books you can touch and flip the pages of at Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library (Toronto).

6. And let’s repeat for those who have forgotten: when is Science Literacy Week running this year?

September 19-25, 2016. 

For the current roster of confirmed events by province, go to http://scienceliteracy.ca/events/

7. How can people – librarians, educators, institutions, ordinary folk who want to HOST a program -  get involved?

Anyone who wants to host a program or be put in touch with other local groups who might be keen to partner can contact me directly  info@scienceliteracy.ca.

8. And for those who would like to attend or participate in a program, where can they find the information?

For the most up to date listings of confirmed events by province, go to 

You can learn about events near you on twitter @scilitweek, on Facebook at Facebook.com/scilitweek

You can participate by spreading the word and sharing your love of science with the hashtag #scilit16

 Thank you! See you in September!

12 Aug 2016

Life and Death in the Salish Sea

By Claire Eamer
An orca, or killer whale, in the Salish Sea near Nanaimo.
Alan Daley photo

My husband, Alan, and I live on a small island in the Salish Sea, the body of water that lies between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia. Our place is on a low cliff overlooking the sea, and we spend a lot of time watching what goes on out on the water. That's what Alan was doing one afternoon early in May this year when he spotted a pod of orcas (killer whales). Here's his description of what he saw.

Alan speaking now:

Whales mill about a sea lion, its flipper visible in the turmoil.
Alan Daley photo
I discovered orcas just below off the cliff. They were milling about, and I noticed there was a sea lion in their midst. It was just lying still in the water for the most part. 

The whales repeatedly passed close to it, sometimes passing under it and flinging it partly out of the water. 

A sea lion tries to grab a breath, as killer whales attack it.
Alan Daley photo
Occasionally, I saw the sea lion put its head up and take a breath of air, but when it showed any signs of life, the beating intensified. 

There were a total of six whales. Two large males mostly hung out upwind/seaward of the action, and slapped the water occasionally with their tails. The smaller whales did most of the work. 

They seemed to have a strategy of exhausting the sea lion through physical beating and preventing it from breathing by huge splashes that sent it underwater. 

The injured sea lion is tossed into the air again.
Alan Daley photo
After I had watched for more than an hour, they headed off north with the sea lion seemingly moving without making any swimming motions. A couple hours later, I saw the body drift back down past the cliff.

Alan contacted the Orca Network to report the sighting and  included a couple of his photographs.

Howard Garrett of the Orca Network showed the photos to an expert, Dave Ellifrit of the Center for Whale Research. He identified the two large males as T19B and T19C, members of a pod of Bigg's killer whales -- also called transient killer whales.

Bigg's killer whales live in small family groups led by a female. They prey mainly on sea mammals, hunting up and down the coast of northwestern North America.

The kind of behaviour Alan watched might have been hunting lessons for young members of the pod or simply hunting practice. Steller sea lions are roughly the size of a bear and have formidable teeth and claws, so buffetting them with waves and tail-swipes keeps the whales safely away from the sharp bits.
Whales circle the sea lion, now seriously injured or dead. Alan Daley photo
The Salish Sea is also home to resident pods of killer whales. The resident whales live very different lives -- eating fish, mainly salmon, rather than sea mammals. They have different behaviour patterns, different dialects, and different cultures, and the two killer whale cultures seem to have very little contact with each other.

There's a wealth of information about both resident and Bigg's killer whales on the Orca Network website. And if you happen to be near the Salish Sea and spot some killer whales, let the network know. Every bit of information helps us understand and protect these amazing animals.

5 Aug 2016

Who Knew What Grew on Poo?

pilobolus lentiger growing on dung
A large colony of Pilobolus, also called the
Hat Thrower or Dung Cannon 

I don’t want to offend anyone’s delicate sensibilities (or maybe I do!), but this post is about poo. More specifically, it’s about a secret world that grows on poo, a secret world than can be fascinating and sometimes—of all things!—strikingly beautiful.
cheilymenia stercorea growing on deer dung
This Eyelash Cup (Cheilymenia stercorea) grew on deer droppings.

I'm talking about coprophilous, or dung-loving, fungi. These fungi are our friends, as are all decomposers. They help dispose of what we don't want to see, breaking it down until it's nutritious compost—for the forest floor, the field, the garden. 

Some coprophiles are big. A few, like portobello and button mushrooms are good edibles (you did know that they're grown on a pasteurized substrate that contains manure, didn't you?). But most are so tiny you need a magnifying glass to see them. These are the guys I'm interested in.

ascomycetes growing on deer pellets
This deer pellet has three species growing on it. The tiny white
ones  grew into the smallest gilled mushrooms I've ever seen.

Right now, in fact, I'm trying to grow some of these mini characters on what used to be our dining-room table. 

About a week ago I was given a few samples of dried animal dung that are older than I am. At one time, these bits of dung had been studied, and then dried and stored, because interesting little fungi had been growing on them. The question is, are the spores that this dung holds still viable? Will fresh fungi appear? I have a bit of cow, goat, deer and rabbit dung, each now rehydrated and sitting in a moist chamber. Not much is happening yet, but I have high hopes.
Podospora fungus growing on rabbit pellet
The wee black cones at the top of this rabbit pellet are a kind of Podospora.

These samples I'm nursing originally grew either nondescript lumps called Sporormiella (a Latin genus that when spoken aloud makes you sound drunk) or cuter ones from the genus Podostroma. I found some Podostroma a couple of years ago on a rabbit pellet. Though it's not the prettiest fungus, it has very nifty black spores that sport see-through tails.

podospora spore
Podospora spore—with see-through tails at both ends!

The Royal Ontario Museum's fungarium has an immense collection of fungi, over half a million, a large proportion of which are dung-lovers, because one of the early directors of the collection, Roy F. Cain, was a world-renowned dung-loving fungi lover. But what's to love about about these lowly characters? 

Phycomyces hairy fungus growing on raccoon dropping
I found this amazing furry Phycomyces fungus on raccoon scat.
Well, besides some being pretty, many have adapted to their chosen dung homes in downright astonishing ways.

My favourite is Pilobolus, also known as the hat-thrower or cannon fungus. These sparkling jewels don't look very fungal. Each has a skinny stem that rises only a few millimetres above the cow patty or horse puck it grows on. At the top of the stem there's a bulbous, transparent, fluid-filled "head," a head that wears a black "hat." Clustered beneath the hat are its spores.

Pilobolus lentiger hat thrower fungus dung cannon
Close up of the Hat Thrower or Dung Cannon
So how do the spores of these fungi get into the dung in the first place? They're ingested by the animal. And no, horses and cows don't eat poo. In fact, they shun it just like you do. Pilobolus's brilliant solution to this problem is to blast their spores away from the poo they grow on—up to two metres away. Recent research has determined that their spore-carrying "hats" can reach a speed of 25 metres a second. But the most amazing part is the acceleration, which is the greatest of any living thing! Pretty impressive for something that's less than a millimetre in diameter.

Pilobolus spore capsule
Pilobolus head & spore capsule "hat" under the microscope
Pilobolus lentiger spores
When I squashed it under a slide cover, the spores were released.
Not only do these little guys shoot their spore capsules a distance away, they're capable of aiming with the help of a light sensor inside their stems. On top of that, they also have a sticky coating on the exterior of their black "hats" that makes them stick to nearby plants, where they cling at the perfect height to be eaten by a passing quarter horse or Holstein. 

Pilobolus lentiger on manure
The black dots are Pilobolus spore capsules or "hats" that stuck to
the wall of the plastic container I put the horse dung in. 

How can you not love dung-loving fungi when there are characters like this around?

If you'd like to read more about Pilobolus and other fascinating fungi, (including a couple of other dung-lovers—Eyelash Cups on Moose and Deer Droppings and A Poop and Scoop Cup Fungus), check out my fungi blog, Weird & Wonderful Wild Mushrooms.