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.

25 Sep 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 Sep 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 Sep 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 Sep 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.

28 Aug 2015

Firing the Confetti Cannons!

by L. E. Carmichael

Several members of the Sci-Why blogging team are celebrating big news, so we thought we'd bring the celebration to you. Join us as we pour umbrella drinks and dance in a rain of glitter!

L. E. Carmichael's book FUZZY FORENSICS: DNA FINGERPRINTING GETS WILD has been shortlisted for the 2014 Lane Anderson Award, along with Daniel Loxton's PLESIOSAUR PERIL and Maria Birmingham's TASTES LIKE MUSIC; 17 QUIRKS OF THE BRAIN AND BODY. The winner will be announced later in September.

Joan Marie Galat's book BRANCHING OUT: HOW TREES ARE PART OF OUR WORLD just won the 2015 Santa Monica Public Library Green Prize for Sustainable Literature Award. Check out the trailer for the book here. Joan's next book, DARK MATTERS; NATURE'S REACTION TO LIGHT POLLUTION is coming out next year, but she's already talking it up on CBC.

Paula Johanson put her research skills to work writing KING KWONG, a biography of Canadian hockey player Larry Kwong. She found hockey statistics available online for every professional league in North America! King Kwong was reviewed on page 3 of the Vancouver Sun by Stephen Hume. As he says in his August 5 columnB.C. writer and self-described lifelong hockey fan Paula Johanson reminds us of the ephemeral nature of sports history in King Kwong, her marvellous little biography of the whirlwind on skates who blew out of the dusty interior 75 years ago.

Shar Levine will receive an Alumni Honour Award from the University of Alberta Alumni Association for her contributions to children's literature and science education. There will be a free ceremony with reception to follow at 7 pm, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015 Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium (11455 87 Ave), Edmonton Alberta. For info and tickets, click here.

Five Rivers launched Marie Powell's young adult historical fantasy HAWK at When Words Collide in August. The first review is 5-star, calling it "a spell-binding, riveting YA historical fiction alive with character, conflict and action. Definitely a blow-your-mind debut novel."

Jan Thornhill's latest book KYLE GOES ALONE has just been released! Kyle has to go. There’s just one problem: as a young three-toed sloth, he lives high in the rainforest canopy with his mom, and it’s a LONG way down to the forest floor. Like other sloths, Kyle only goes down to the ground once a week when he has to do his “business.” And he’s never made the journey by himself before.
Kyle’s mom says he’s old enough to go alone, but Kyle isn’t sure he’s ready. It’s so far! And won’t it be lonely? Unfortunately, he doesn’t have much time to decide. Check it out!