26 Sept 2021

Alice E. Wilson: A Pioneer in Geology

By Claire Eamer

Several years ago, I wrote a book about pioneers in science and technology and how they were treated. It is called Before the World Was Ready: Stories of Daring Genius in Science (Annick Press, 2013). A couple of days ago, I had one of those awful authorly moments where you shout (internally, at least), "NO!!! I missed that!!!"

What I missed, or rather who I missed, was Alice E. Wilson, the first woman geologist in the Geological Survey of Canada. I'd never heard of her. And I should have. In fact, all Canadians should hear about her. And she should definitely have been in my book.

In Alice Wilson's case, the world at the beginning of the twentieth century -- most particularly, the Geological Survey of Canada -- was not ready for a woman to be a geologist. Wilson worked for the Geological Survey for 37 years, but only late in her career did she get the recognition (and pay) that would have come automatically to a man many years earlier.

Alice Evelyn Wilson was born in Cobourg, Ontario, in 1881, the daughter of a university professor. She and her two brothers spent much of their childhood hiking, camping, canoeing, and exploring the outdoors. They collected fossils and interesting minerals from the limestone formations around Cobourg, sparking in Alice a lifelong fascination with fossils.

When it came time to go to university, however, Alice chose to study modern languages. She explained later that at that time -- 1901 -- it was acceptable for a young woman to become a teacher, but not a scientist. Just a few classes short of her degree, however, Alice's health broke down, and she had to drop out of university for a long convalescence. 

Dr. Alice E. Wilson
When she recovered, she found a job at the Museum of Mineralogy in Toronto and rediscovered her childhood passion for rocks and fossils. In late 1909, she managed to get a temporary position with the palaeontology section of the Geological Survey of Canada, helping catalogue, organize and label the division's invertebrate fossil collection.

Alice's boss took a liking to her and helped her get a leave of absence to finish her degree. When she returned in 1911, it was as a permanent (if very junior) staff member. She stayed with the Survey until her compulsory retirement in 1946 at the age of 65. It reportedly took five employees to cover all the work she had been doing.

Even after retirement, she kept an office at the Geological Survey and continued her research until a few months before her death in 1964. She also taught palaeontology at Carleton University in Ottawa, led field trips, and wrote scientific papers and books, including an introduction to geology for children, The Earth Beneath Our Feet (Macmillan, 1947).

During all that long career, Alice Wilson faced an ongoing struggle against the limitations placed on her as a woman. And she constantly found ways around those limitations. 

She wasn't allowed to do remote fieldwork as that would mean travelling and living with men. (Scandalous!). So she conducted research in her own backyard, the St. Lawrence Valley, on foot and by bicycle, when the Survey wouldn't provide her with a car as they did for male geologists, and later in a car she bought herself. (A colleague said she was a terrifying driver, constantly talking and even turning around to address passengers in the back seat.)

Dr. Wilson waxing enthusiastic!

She applied for leave to pursue a doctoral degree -- a slam-dunk for a male employee -- but was turned down. Repeatedly. Still, every year she applied. Finally, in 1926, the Federation of University Women took up the struggle and embarrassed the Geological Survey into granting her leave. She received her doctorate in 1929.

The promotion that should have happened automatically when she earned her doctorate actually came seven years later when the Geological Survey discovered that their lowly female employee was receiving international recognition, including appointment as a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) and election as a Fellow of the Geological Society of America. Two years later came another first: Alice Wilson was the first woman elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

When asked in an interview how she coped with the resistance she met as a woman in science, she said: "If you meet a stone wall you don't pit yourself against it, you go around it and find a weakness." Dr. Alice Wilson found enough weaknesses in the various stone walls she encountered to achieve plenty of recognition in her own lifetime and after: an honorary doctorate from Carleton University; a photostory about her from the National Film Board; articles in major newspapers; and, in 1959, the Geological Survey held a reception to recognize her 50 years in geology, presenting her with bookends and a paper weight made from marble quarried in a marble deposit she had herself discovered.

Since her death, the honours continue. A meeting room at the Geological Survey's headquarters was named Alice Wilson Hall. In 2018, a plaque honouring her was installed in the Canadian Museum of Nature. And the Canadian Federation of University Women manages the annual Dr. Alice E. Wilson Awards, given to women pursuing graduate studies in the sciences.

And I really REALLY wish she were in my book!


Alice Evelyn Wilson (1881-1964), on the website of the Chair for Women in Science and Engineering

Ricard, Alicen. Women's History Month: Dr. Alice Wilson, on the website of Westcoast Women in Engineering,Science and Technology, October 1, 2018.

Sarjeant, William A. S. Alice Wilson, first woman geologist with the Geological Survey of Canada, in Earth Sciences History, v. 12, no. 2, 1993, p. 122-128.

Sinclair, G. W. Memorial to Alice E. Wilson (1881-1964), in Bulletin of the Geological Society of America 77 (1966), p. 215-218.

Soldati, Arianna, and Cassie Freund. Meet Alice Wilson, the Canadian geologist who did the work of five people, on the website Massive Science, Feb. 27, 2020. 

Note: Photos retrieved from NRCan and used under the Open Government Licence -- Canada: https://open.canada.ca/en/open-government-licence-canada


21 Sept 2021

C is for Climate: Three Ways to Celebrate Science Literacy Week!

by L. E. Carmichael

It's Science Literacy Week - woohoo!!!!

For those unfamiliar, Science Literacy Week is an annual event that celebrates the messy, astounding, wonder-filled thing that is the scientific method and all the knowledge it gives us. It's a time to learn about science, do some science, and - you guessed it - read science books to improve our understanding of what science is and how it works.

It's a science writer's favourite time of year.

The theme of Science Literacy Week 2021 is C is for Climate, which works out beautifully, because this year Science Literacy week overlaps with National Forest Week AND National Tree Day! All of which make this the PERFECT time to officially launch the Million Tree Project.

cover of The Boreal Forest by L. E. Carmichael

Here are three ways you can join me in celebrating Science Literacy Week while taking concrete action to fight the ongoing climate crisis.

Read The Boreal Forest

Especially if you are participating in the Red Cedar Awards this year, because The Boreal Forest is on your reading list! And it's chock full of both gorgeous art and amazing facts about the world's largest land biome and Canada's biggest forest - including the way this forest traps and stores carbon dioxide, slowing the pace of climate change.

Participate in the Million Tree Project

The Million Tree Project is a brand new, Canada Wide Experiment brought to you by Science Rendezvous. Its goal is to spark a million conversations about trees and ALL of the things they do for people and the planet. Spoiler alert: slowing climate change is only one of them!

I am super stoked about the Million Tree Project because I am the author of the official Resource Guide for the initiative. The guide is available in print and online. It's totally free, and it's jam-packed with both forest science AND practical tips for tree planting. But don't stop there: check out all the of the additional goodies on the Million Tree Project's official website, including tree-themed lesson plans written by teachers and aligned with Canadian curricula.

If you're really digging it (see what I did there?) you can even watch this recording of a virtual presentation I did during our soft launch in the spring. Watch out for sky-diving ducklings!

Explore Wáhta Teachings

Wáhta Teachings is also launching this week! This free, multimedia resource places Traditional Indigenous Knowledge and the science of the sugar maple side-by-side, and is also full of cross-curricular information and activities. Working on this collaborative project was an honour and a privilege - to learn more about it, check out this "how-to" video where I tell you all about it! And be sure to hop on over to the website to see if for yourself.

Want More?

Visit the websites for your local universities, libraries, and science centres to see what's going on. Or check out the Science Literacy Week website for more ideas on ways to celebrate and get involved, this week, and all year round.

17 Sept 2021

Bloom's Day

Bloom’s Day by Raymond Nakamura 

The last time Uncle Fester showed up (2018), we were out of town. This time, we had no excuse. 
Uncle Fester is a Titan arum, A.K.A. The Corpse Flower, a rare plant that produces the largest flower in the world, which can grow up to four or five metres and produces a fragrance resembling rotting meat. Who wouldn’t want to witness such a wonder of nature? 

But Corpse Flowers are fickle. You can’t tell when they’re going to bloom and when they do, they might only last a few days. And amidst the pandemic, the Bloedel Conservatory could only allow so many people at a time and you could only stay for twenty minutes. If we waited until it actually bloomed, we might not be able to get a spot. But how to decide when to go?

The corpse flower emerges from an underground core called the corm. The corm can remain dormant for periods of time. During the dormant stage, the Bloedel conservatory keeps Uncle Fester in a separate greenhouse. At some point, a single rolled up leaf may sprout. This can either turn into a single leaf with multiple leaflets or a flower. It does not seem to follow a set pattern. It can take up to ten years for a bloom to appear. When the Corpse Plant at the Bloedel bloomed in 2018, it was estimated to be about six years old. They were even more surprised when this second bloom appeared only two years after the first. 

The natural habitat for a corpse flower is in the hot and humid tropical rain forest of Sumatra, Indonesia. Logging and the conversion of native forest to oil palm plantations has reduced the numbers of corpse flowers to less than a thousand in the wild. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature added it to the Red List for endangered species in 2018. Breeding programs through botanical gardens are part of efforts to raise awareness about this remarkable plant. The Conservatory acquired their corpse plant from a nursery in North Carolina in 2016. 

To help us guess when it might bloom, we studied the time-lapse video on the Bloedel web site from the last time Uncle Fester bloomed in 2018. That’s when people in Vancouver came up with the name Uncle Fester. Memories of watching the Addams Family after school when I was a kid.

Using the previous video to figure out the timing was tricky because we didn’t know if it started at a comparable point and they can bloom at different sizes anyway. Even so, we thought it might reach bloom in about a week. We noticed two slots had been taken around that time. We thought maybe they were on to something, but this was probably just wishful thinking. 

So we booked tickets at the Bloedel Conservatory. Our teen wanted nothing to do with her nerdy parents. It was rare for this unusual plant to bloom and rare for us to leave the house for a non-essential purpose. 

(Drawing by Raymond Nakamura)
Unforutnately, when we went, it had not yet bloomed. Still, it was impressive, about six feet (1.8 m) tall. The tallest part is a tapered pointy column in the centre, called a spadix. This is probably where the scientific name comes from: Amorphophallus titanum meaning “giant misshapen penis.” The cabbage-like skirt is called the spathe. I looked up these terms after I made the original drawings. I took my iPad and Apple pencil with me and here is my sketch.

(Comic by Raymond Nakamura)
About a week after we visited, the news reported that Uncle Fester had finally bloomed. As soon as we heard, we checked back on the web site. They had expanded the visiting times and still had some openings. So we got spots for the next morning. The tickets weren’t that expensive and we were looking for an excuse to get out of the house. I had found carrying the iPad around a little awkward for drawing in public, so this time I just took a pen and pocket sketchbook. We waited in line, spaced out, until it was our turn.
We wore our masks, but it was no longer required at that time and some had not. Obviously, I could have just snapped a picture, but I wanted to savour the moment a little longer. I find that when I stop to draw something, it sticks in my memory more. 
(Drawing by Raymond Nakamura)

The spathe had now unfurled and was rotten flesh maroon on the inside. Apparently, this is all part of the “dead meat” theme. The smell which is generated near the base smelled a bit like rotten fish, like I remember near Lake Ontario as a kid. The smell wasn’t really that bad, compared to say, changing diapers or picking up dog poop. I suppose different people have different reactions as well. I had to take off my mask to smell it at all and the smell seemed to vary with location. We weren’t allowed to be too close, but later I read that the spadix in the middle heats up to about flesh temperature and this also helps with the emission of the smell.
(Photo: Lenora Ho)

I’ll bet the shape of both the cone shaped spathe and the projectile spadix affect the fluid dynamics of dissipating the scent.

Something that annoyed me a little was that they had a giant ruler that was only marked in Imperial units. This is supposed to be Canada. 
 (Photo: Lenora Ho)

Measurements for the height of the flower were posted on the web site and I graphed them in Excel. You can see how it grows the most quickly and then tapers off.

While we were there, a person with a video camera was interviewing people for their reactions. Later, a friend spotted us on the CBC Evening News. We weren’t interviewed ourselves, but my spouse and I were in the background of some others.
Although we are inundated with information and video about the world, experiencing things first hand is a much deeper experience, to better appreciate the scale, the colour, and of course, the smell. As they say, you had to be there.

For more information
Vancouver Parks Board notes on the Corpse Flower.


6 Sept 2021

Virtual Tour of Snake Dens!

by Paula Johanson

 The Covid-19 pandemic is still affecting everyone during the fall of 2021, even nature centres in outdoor parks. Many nature centres have been closed to the public for most of the past eighteen months. Some centres open or close according to provincial health guidelines. One of those nature centres is Narcisse Snake Dens in Manitoba near the town of Gimli.

This park showcases a fascinating phenomenon! Every autumn, thousands of garter snakes find their way to hide together in underground dens. There they hibernate together, sleeping during the long, cold winters in Manitoba. When spring comes, the snakes emerge and go their separate ways. Take a moment to click on this link, and follow a virtual tour around the trail that shows you several snake dens. Right now in the fall of 2021, garter snakes are gathering at their dens getting ready to hibernate.

Now, maybe snakes aren't your thing, or you're actually scared of snakes. It's okay to be cautious around rattlesnakes and other venomous snakes! But in Manitoba, snakes are not dangerous to humans. Most are garter snakes, and other types listed here at this link

What can you do if you're afraid of snakes? It's a good idea to learn more about nature where you live, whether you're on the Prairies in Canada, or anywhere in the world. That will help you to know how much caution around snakes is smart for your area. All snakes have important roles in the natural world. Garter snakes in a Canadian garden or yard are a good sign that this place is healthy for nature.

You can read more about Narcisse Snake Dens and about nature in Manitoba at the online magazine Nature North when you click on this link. They have a lot of information about wild animals and cottage country, and a YouTube channel of videos as well. There's also a link to the Manitoba Herps Atlas of reptiles and amphibians in Manitoba, a terrific resource that maps where people have seen snakes, frogs and toads, salamanders, and turtles. (Herps is the nickname used for amphibians and reptiles, by scientists called herpetologists.)