28 Dec 2018

How Tall Is Your Tree?

Post by Helaine Becker

How tall is your Christmas tree? Or any tree for that matter?

Use this  fun and super easy STEM activity to find out any tree's height without a ladder. It relies on trigonometry!

1. Get on your knees and put the top of your head on the floor.
2. Look  through your legs at your tree. Can you see the tippy top?
3. If not, move away from the tree until you can.
4. Mark the spot where your head is touching the ground.It's the same distance from the tree as the tree is tall!

From the ground

21 Dec 2018

A Sleighful of Science About Reindeer

by L. E. Carmichael

No matter which winter holiday you celebrate, we here at Sci/Why wish you the very best of the season. For those raised in the Santa Claus tradition, here are some festive facts about reindeer!

By I, Perhols, CC BY 2.5, Link

1) Reindeer and caribou are the same species, Rangifer tarandus. Some people use the common name "reindeer" for the European subspecies, and "caribou" for the North American subspecies. Others prefer to use "reindeer" for domestic herds, saving "caribou" for wild herds. For our holiday purposes, I will stick with reindeer!

2) Yes, there ARE domestic herds! Reindeer herding has been practiced by Indigenous peoples across Europe and Asia for thousands of years, and now occurs in Alaska, too. Reindeerherding.org is a fantastic resource if you want to know more about these peoples and their cultures.

3) Recent research suggests that the Saami, one of the Indigenous herding peoples, have more words for snow and ice than the Inuit. This is because, in addition to the words referring to snow and ice themselves, they have an additional vocabulary that references how snow and ice will affect the safety and nutrition of the herds that are central to their culture and survival.

4) Reindeer are the only deer species in which both males and females have antlers. They drop and regrow them every year.

5) Reindeer can survive temperatures as low as -50C without shivering or increasing their metabolic rate to raise their body heat.

6) Reindeer have oleic acid in the marrow of their leg bones. This acid acts as an antifreeze, preventing frostbite.

7) In North America, reindeer live in two major habitat types - the barren grounds (tundra) and the boreal forest. Most populations of forest reindeer, commonly known as "woodland caribou" are threatened or endangered in Canada, due to habitat loss and increased predation.

8) Woodland reindeer depend on old growth forests, habitats that have existed long enough for lichens to grow. They prefer ground lichens ("reindeer moss"), but will also eat arboreal (tree-dwelling) species like horse hair and witch's hair lichens, when ice covers the ground.

9) Climate change has increased the chances of alternating snow/rain events, or freeze/thaw cycles, that cause ice to build up on the ground. These "lock outs" prevent reindeer from digging down to their food - in bad years, both domestic and wild herds suffer from starvation.

10) Lichens contain usinic acid, which protects them against UV radiation. It also makes them unpalatable and difficult for most herbivores to digest. However, recent research shows that reindeer have a special gut bacterium, Eubacterium rangiferina, that breaks down usinic acid, allowing them to digest this unusual food. In some cultures, partially-digested lichen from reindeer stomaches is considered a delicacy. Consider adding that to your holiday feast!

14 Dec 2018

Brown Like Me: The Need for Representation in Toys

By Kiron Mukherjee

Note from the Sci/Why team: Kiron Mukherjee is ROMKids Coordinator and Camp Director for the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and a science communicator, if not a regular poster on Sci/Why. He recently wrote this article for his own online use. However, representation is just as important in science and children's literature as it is in toys, so he has kindly given us permission to reproduce his column here. CE

Kiron says: "Toby and I, hung on my Mother’s fridge,
probably in the same place since it was put up in the early 90s."
Margaret Cameron photo

Only 80s kids will remember.

Many Christmas moons ago, Cabbage Patch Kids were all the rage -- depending on your generation, they were the original Hatchimals, Tamagotchi, or Tickle Me Elmo. Cabbage Patch Kids were roughly baby in size, with fabric bodies and clothes, plastic heads, and painted eyes that shone with cuteness. Every kid had to have one, and every parent wanted to make a holiday wish come true.

I got my Cabbage Patch doll when I was four. His name was Toby and Toby was brown like me. As a kindergartener, I didn’t understand race or differences in society, but I knew that Toby looked like me in a world of toys that never did.

Toby was patient, understanding, and kind. And as an only child, with my only mom, Toby was family for many of my young years.


Margaret Cameron, my mom, is white and the youngest of four children of farmers near Woodstock, Ontario. My father was brown and born in India, and ran away from our family shortly after I was born. I was the child of two widely different backgrounds, but with only one around to raise me.

My mom spent much of my childhood exposing me to diverse cultures and ideas, and, whenever I would let her, my Indian heritage. She was eager to share her side of our family, and I enthusiastically accepted it. But when she would engage me with my father’s side, I pushed back hard -- I was scared. I remember not wanting to be near Indian food or really anything concerning the man I had no memories of. But something I couldn’t run away from was the colour of my skin.

Like most toys, at least when I was young, Cabbage Patch Kids came in a variety of white. White girls and boys, where brown and black was saved for hair.

My mom wanted me to have a doll just like everyone else, but desired it to look like me: “I thought it was important that you saw yourself in the face of Toby, especially as everyone else in your 'blood family' circle was white.”

Beyond simply the colour of Toby’s skin, my mom had another reason for getting me my new friend: “It was still rare at the time to encourage boys to nurture and care for a baby doll. I wanted you to know that you had it in you, even though you only had me as a role model on what a parent was.”


Finding Toby wasn’t easy. Shelves weren’t exactly filled with diverse toy options -- most of the dolls were white. My mom was only able to get a brown boy Cabbage Patch Kid after meeting a distributor of the toys and getting it directly from him.

I played with other toys -- my mom likes to bring up the Ernie doll I was in love with as a toddler -- but it was essential to have a diverse cast of characters in my room, just like those in life.

“There were a lot of brown faces surrounding you all day with your caregivers, then you would come home to me. Toby helped populate our place and normalize the notion that there could be other people of colour in our home, even if they were only dolls. I wanted you to feel safe in your identity wherever you were.”

Kiron says: "Ernie and I, twinning."
Margaret Cameron photo
To this day, my mom doesn’t know where the name Toby comes from. I have only the faint sense that I took it from my favourite Thomas the Tank Engine character, Toby. Curiously, that Toby also has their train painted brown.


My mom spent so much of my childhood opening my eyes to all sorts of possibilities in the world, and the great diversity of people. But she also wanted me to value who I was as well.

“When kids are very little they look at Bert and Ernie and Elmo… and love them no matter how they look, no matter their differences. But in this case, I wanted you to have someone to look at as the same.”

In many ways, this is one of the first times I felt like I took ownership in my mixed-race identity. Though I would not truly understand the consequences of being brown in a predominantly white society until later in life, this was a small act of solidarity for who I was.

Toby was my friend, and Toby was brown like me.