17 Oct 2014


By Shar Levine

As part of the research for my new book, I happened to virtually meet Dr. Nancy Turner, a world-renowned ethnobotanist who teaches at the University of Victoria. Dr. Turner literally wrote the book on the Ethnobotany of the Aboriginal Peoples of British Columbia.

If you were ever lost in the woods in B.C. or stuck on a deserted island in the Pacific Northwest, you would want Dr. Turner by your side. She would be able to find enough foraged foods to keep you fed until help arrived. Not only would she be able to identify non-poisonous mushrooms for a meal, but she could also prepare a unique dessert --- soapberry whip, known by some as Indian Ice Cream.

Despite its common name, the treat does not contain cream, and it is not frozen. The dish is made using soapberries, a plant in the oleaster family. The soapberry or soopalallie (Shepherdia canadensis) is not like your usual blueberry, strawberry or raspberry. According to Turner, “It has a distinctive bitter flavour due to the presence of low levels of saponins.” Saponins are natural detergents. As a result, when the juice of the berry is whipped, it will foam, so it looks like beaten egg whites or whipped cream with an orangey-pink tinge.

Soapberries can be difficult to pick or harvest, and the best way to gather the fruit is to “beat around the bush.” No, really, put a cloth below the plant and tap the branches sharply. The ripe berries will fall off the branches and onto the cloth.

Once you have gathered about ¼ cup of ripe berries, put them in a very clean bowl. If there is any grease in the bowl, the berries will not whip. Crush the berries and then add cold water, at little at a time, beating the liquid with an old-fashioned rotary whisk or electric mixer until it is stiff and forms peaks. You will probably need about a cup (250 mL) of water, added slowly, to make a bowl of soapberry whip. The dessert will be quite tart, and Dr. Turner recommends using apple juice instead of water, or adding in sugar or other sweeteners after the mixture starts to stiffen.

Turner says, “Don’t be confused by the name. There is another dish that some people call ‘Eskimo’ ice cream made by warming fat then whipping it by hand with snow and berries as it cools into a soft mixture.” 

If you would like to try to make this treat, look for a shrub that is about 1-2 metres (3-6 feet) tall, with a grayish bark and small, oval, green leaves. The berries are found in clusters and will be orange or reddish and translucent when ripe. The leaves and stems are covered with brown scales. Male and female flowers grow on different bushes, so only the female bushes will produce berries. The plant grows in many places across Canada, but does not flourish in really wet areas. Before picking this fruit, make sure it is a soapberry and not any other berry that might be harmful.

This versatile berry is high in vitamin C and has been used by indigenous people to treat high blood pressure, flu and tuberculosis. Smearing the berries on acne and other skin conditions, as well as using the fruit as a skin cleanser, are among the other uses for soapberries. The roots, stems and bark of the plant were also used for other medicinal purposes.

Berries can be preserved using traditional jam recipes, or made into a puree to be used in drinks. They can also be dried and made into cakes for use in recipes throughout the year. If you are interested, here is a paper by Dr. Turner and Carla M. Burton, called “Soapberry: Unique Northwestern Foaming Fruit.”

10 Oct 2014

Treacherous Glass: Bird Collisions with Windows

ruby-crowned-kinglet killed by window collision
Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Dania Madera-Lerman)

It’s October and fall bird migration is ongoing. Though most warblers have already crossed our southern neighbour’s border, many other songbirds, as well as shorebirds, ducks, and raptors, are still moving south.

Migration is fraught with danger and hardship for birds. Many fly thousands of kilometers, following flight paths established by their ancestors millennia ago. But things have changed. Suddenly (at least in millennial terms) there is a new hardship: cities filled with glass-windowed buildings have been built smack in the middle of some of these flight paths. And these glass-windows are lethal, even to the healthiest bird.

ruffed grouse killed when it hit a window
A Ruffed Grouse victim

Migration season isn't the only time that birds are killed by glass—it happens in all seasons, and it happens everywhere. In the United States alone, it’s estimated that from 100 million to one billion birds die each year from window collisions. Put another way, that’s 1-10 birds per building per year. These are shocking numbers.

As a human, I have to say I’m quite fond of windows. They allow me to look outside, which keeps me from feeling imprisoned while I’m stuck at my computer inside. Nice for me, but not good for birds.

bird impact imprint on glass made by powder down
Birds, such as doves, that have powder down feathers sometimes leave behind
ghostly reminders of their collisions with glass. (Beth Woodrum, Wikicommons)

Though birds have amazing visual capabilities—they see more colours than we do and can process what they see faster—hard, transparent glass is not something they recognize as a barrier. What they do recognize are trees, water, dark spaces. If they see a tree reflected in a window, they assume they can navigate through its branches. A group of potted shrubs in a glassed-in atrium looks like the perfect place to perch and have a rest. The reflection of a fountain is a drink of fresh water. A dark space indicates a safe “fly through” zone. Birds don’t slow down when they see these things, so when they hit windows, they hit them hard. About half will die immediately, usually from brain hemorrhages. Others can have broken wings or beaks, concussions, or other injuries that make them easy victims for predators.

gulls scavenge window collision vistims
In some cities, gulls have learned to patrol high incident areas
to scavenge recent kills and injured birds. (Wikicommons)  

So What Can Be Done? And What Is Being Done?

Reflections can be blocked with physical barriers, such as netting or shades. Glass can be etched or otherwise marked to create recognizable “no-fly” zones. New panes have been developed that have external patterns that birds can see from the outside, but that are invisible from the inside. Here is great document put together by the Bird Conservancy of America that has lots of pictures of amazing architectural solutions for bird-safe buildings.

Double-whammy corner windows show foliage reflected in one window
as well as a clear view of trees and sky through a second window. 

Largely due to grassroots organizations such as Toronto’s FLAP and the American Bird Conservancy, businesses and government are beginning to respond. Researchers, basing their work on avian vision and behavior, have been coming up with novel solutions for building “bird-safe” structures and for modifying existing problem areas. Governments, including those of Toronto and New York State, are gradually coming on board, by putting in place legislation requiring new buildings to be bird friendly.

What You Can Do at Home:

Single decals like this DON'T work. They're only effective
if you cover the window with them.

  • place bird-feeders and bird baths half a meter or less from windows
  • move houseplants out of the sight line of birds
  • hang string or ribbon vertically 4" apart in front of windows
  • decorate windows with patterned window film (i.e. FeatherFriendly's DIY tape
  • more solutions from FLAP

Children's Books About Bird Migration:

  • Is This Panama: A Migration Story (Owlkids): Jan Thornhill & illustrator Soyeon Kim—my 2013 book's main character, Sammy, meets office tower windows (and other migrating characters!) on his epic first journey from the Arctic to his wintering grounds in Panama

  • How Do Birds Find Their Way (Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science 2) Roma Gans & illustrator Paul Mirocha—facts about bird migration with well-labelled species and maps

Enchantium Gas is Real (Tell Me Something I Didn’t Know)

By guest blogger Robert Paul Weston

[This post originally appeared in May 2014 on Robert Paul Weston's blog. We liked it, and he kindly offered to share it. - The Sci/Why Gang.]

The Lagoon Nebula.
Photo credit: "ESO/VPHAS+ team" (http://www.eso.org/public/images/eso1403a/)

This morning I read an article about a “quiet revolution” in theoretical physics. According to Max Tegmark, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, consciousness may in fact be an undiscovered form of matter, as in a solid, liquid or gas. He even gave the new element a fancy name. “Perceptronium.”

Now, far be it from me to accuse a highly decorated theoretical physicist of scientific plagiarism, but I had to wonder…has this guy read my book?

Enchantium Gas, the square root of -1
on the periodic table of elements.
A discovery I made way back in 2008.
Photo credit: Robert Paul Weston/Penguin USA
In Zorgamazoo, I very clearly laid out the principles not only of human thought as an element (ahem, Enchantium Gas anyone?), but I also went one step further, postulating how an entire civilisation, power system and energy cycle could be derived from something as intangible as psychological boredom.

This was way back in 2008. This guy Tegmark—if that’s his real name—is waaay behind the times. Seriously, physicists, chemists, people of science: Do try to keep up.


Robert Paul Weston grew up in Ontario but now lives in England. He writes fiction that sometimes veers toward fact.

3 Oct 2014

The Dark Side of Drones

Post by Helaine Becker

So followers of this blog know I'm keen on robots. I love the brilliant application of design for practical purposes.

But now the dark side. Which is that a goodly percentage of robots/drones etc. have been, and continue to be designed for military and surveillance purposes.

This is a good thing, if the devices are being used to defend and protect YOU. But it is also, yes, fraught with peril. When a government goes bad... or when you find yourself on the wrong side of any government. Heck, we've all seen the Terminator movies.

So now for your squirmy, gut-clenchy viewing pleasure, the 5 top military robots now under development.

5. Robot Mules  

Photo: Boston Dynamics

The U.S. Military naturally wants to limit the number of boots on the ground. And wheels too. These robotic workhorses were designed to assist in that endeavor.

While they are not armed, they still strike terror in my heart. Partly because I wrote metallic robotic horses into my dystopian futuristic novel Gottika  - before I'd even seen these.  Eeep!

4. Speedah Cheetah

DARPA, the US research agency that develops robotics, says this one could aid in bomb disposal. I'm thinking about how I would very much not like to have a fleet of these incredibly fast metalloid creatures chasing me because I stole a loaf of bread.
DARPA Boston Dynamics, DARPA Boston Dynamics robot, DARPA Boston Dynamics cheetah, DARPA Boston Dynamics cheetah robot, DARPA Boston Dynamics speed record, cheetah robot speed record, cheetah robot, DARPA Boston Dynamics break speed record, DARPA Boston Dynamics robotics, robot cheetah speed record, DARPA Boston Dynamics azzi, DARPA Boston Dynamics petman
Photo: Boston Dynamics

3. SWAT Team?
Talk about eye in the sky. This miniature drone can be buzzing past your ear and videoing your every move. 
A completed 'Mobee' on a US quarter, created using PC-MEMS.

2. Uncle Sam

You won't be safe from surveillance indoors either. Uncle Sam, the snakebot developed at Carnegie Mellon University, can slither up drainpipes to snap photos of you via your plumbing.

Robot snake automatically wraps around an object when thrown (w/ Video)
Photo: Carnegie Mellon

1. Creepiest of all. 

Robot cockroaches. That can influence other cockroaches to do their bidding. Think this one through - if you can persuade cockroaches to follow a robot....could you persuade people? Me thinks yes. 


26 Sep 2014

Wolves Do Not Eat Mice. Seriously.

Wolves do not eat mice. Seriously.
"But Lindsey," you protest, "I've seen Never Cry Wolf six times and those wolves ate mice."
Yeah. Never Cry Wolf? Not a documentary.
Adult wolves usually weigh between 55-130 pounds - at the top end of the range, small-adult-human-sized. So picture yourself taking a nap in a less dodgy part of New York's Central Park. You wake up to discover a single potato chip in front of your nose. Assuming it's hermetically sealed and therefore sanitary, you'll eat it, right? Who wouldn't?
But the kind person who left the chip there didn't leave the rest of the bag. So you go for a walk, hunting for more chips. Then you spot one up a tree, because in this extremely strained metaphor, the chips can climb trees. You, however, not that good at it. So you sweat and struggle and pant your way up the branches until you capture the second chip. Except eating it doesn't even dent your raging hunger, because you just burned more calories climbing than are actually contained in the chip.
Now imagine that you had to share that second chip with seven of your closest friends and relatives. How long will it be before you realize that a much better strategy is to knock over a hot dog cart and be done with it?
And that is why the preferred prey of wolves is ungulates - large, hoofed mammals like elk or caribou. Because if the pack actually manages to catch one, all of its members will not only get to eat, they'll be full for a couple of days.
Scientists call this optimal foraging theory. Simply put, it's the idea that animals will focus on food items that give them the most nutrition for the least amount of effort required to catch (or graze) that particular food. And it's why wolves - unless they are old, sick, or one runs right past their noses - don't eat mice.
Thus endeth the rant of the former wolf geneticist, who read a short story this week that mentioned the whole wolf/mice thing and spontaneously combusted due to rage (again). :)
What about you? Are there any bits of persistent misinformation that make you want to set your head on fire? Have you ever seen real live wolves hunting? Are you able to eat just one potato chip? Inquiring minds want to know!

24 Sep 2014

We're all winners! - The Lane Anderson Award for Science Writing

By Claire Eamer

On September 15, I attended a very nice dinner in a very, very nice heritage house in Toronto - and got a very, very, very nice surprise. My book, Before the World Was Ready, Stories of Daring Genius in Science, published by Annick Press, won the 2013 Lane Anderson Award for science writing for young readers.

The Lane Anderson Award is a relatively new award honouring the very best science writing in Canada, both in the adult and young reader categories. It was created and is supported by the Fitzhenry Family Foundation. The official website says, "Each award will be determined on the relevance of its content to the importance of science in today’s world, and the author’s ability to connect the topic to the interests of the general trade reader."

It's an honour - a huge honour. And there's money attached, which is unusual and extremely welcome in the world of book writing.

Now, I knew my book was on the three-book short list - that's why I was at the dinner - but my bets were on another of the shortlisted books. However, I was the only one of the three who could attend the ceremony. We all know or know of each other - that's the nature of kids' science writing in Canada - so we decided to put together a short, joint statement of appreciation, with a bit from each of us.

And here it is - from nominees Jude Isabella, Daniel Loxton, and me, Claire Eamer:

Science writers – and especially children’s science writers – carry collegiality to an extreme. All three of the finalists for the children’s book award would jointly like to thank you for this opportunity and for your recognition of the importance of good, accessible science information that fosters science literacy in both adults and children.

From Jude, who wanted to emphasize the contribution of her long-time Kids Can Press editor, Val Wyatt: “She’s been at it for over 30 years and to me this nomination is a testament to Val’s huge impact on science writing for kids in Canada. There’s just so many writers today that are writing and winning awards and everything that wouldn’t be where they are without Val. She’s just legendary.”

From Daniel: “I'm tremendously grateful not only to the Fitzhenry Family Foundation and the judges for this nomination, but to Kids Can Press and my editor Valerie Wyatt for making this book possible in the first place. To Val especially. It's simply not possible to overstate the importance of a good editor in the life of a writer, and Val is the best.”

From Claire: “In addition to the praise of editors, including my editors at Annick Press, I’d like to add my appreciation for the illustrators of these books – including the astonishing Sa Boothroyd, who illustrated Before the World Was Ready. They grab the attention of kids and keep them reading through what is often pretty complex information.”

And here are the three short-listed books:

Before the World Was Ready, Stories of Daring Genius in Science (Annick Press), by Claire Eamer

Chitchat: Celebrating the World's Languages (Kids Can Press), by Jude Isabella

Pterosaur Trouble (Kids Can Press), by Daniel Loxton

21 Sep 2014

Jack the Ripper in the News: The nature of proof, science, and credible sources

By Judy Wearing

Was Aaron Kosminski Jack the Ripper? 

Short answer: not quite sure

Long answer: This is a great case to think about how the source of information affects its believability, and how readers like us can make sense of a world where information is King but we can’t tell if the King is Truthful or not. It’s a question of the criteria we use to make judgments about who, and what, to believe.

The case: Russell Edwards has in his possession a shawl reported to be that of Jack the Ripper victim, Catherine Eddowes, who was killed just after 1 am in a public square near Whitechapel. Her throat was slit, her face mutilated, and parts of her bowels ripped out of her body. Nasty stuff. The stuff of legend, fiction, movies, books, and others’ fame and fortune. Owning a scarf purported to be from the scene of this crime is one thing, but Russell Edwards, a businessman and author, had it tested for mitochondrial DNA in a bid to find forensic evidence to lead to the murderer’s identity. Mitochondrial DNA is DNA found within the mitochondria, a component of  our body’s cells. Mitochondria are the site of energy production – like a power generating station. How this cell organelle came to contain DNA in the first place is intriguing in itself – it is thought that the organelle was once an independent living bacteria that was ingested by a larger unicellular organism that was the ancestor of all animals. But that’s an aside. The main point is that mDNA is useful in determining relatedness; it is only passed down from mother to daughter and it is relatively stable from generation to generation. Also, it can be sequenced from very small quantities of organic matter.

Human mDNA
(Mitochondrial DNA en by derivative work Shanel (talk)
Mitochondrial_DNA_de.svg translation by Knopfkind;
layout by jhc - Mitochondrial_DNA_de.svg, wiki commons)
Russell Edwards enlisted the help of a molecular biologist, Jari Louhelainen, who found mDNA on the shawl that was a perfect match to an ancestor of Aaron Kosminski. Aaron Kosminski, a poor Polish immigrant who ended up in a psychiatric hospital two years after the Ripper murders, was one of several main suspects in the case. The conclusion is that someone with Aaron Kosminski’s mDNA left cells on that shawl. Edwards broke the news that he had the first proof that Kosminski was the Ripper.

The problems: Not everyone has jumped on Edwards’ bandwagon. Naysayers have had plenty of comment. They point out that the shawl was not mentioned at the time of the murder, and its connection to Catherine Eddowes is not definitive. They also point out that ancestors of Kosminski have handled the shawl, so the mDNA found might not belong to Aaron himself, but one of his descendants. Or, it might indicate that Aaron had contact with Eddowes, like any number of people living in that area at that time might have. And, they point out that Aaron was not institutionalized until nearly two years after the last Ripper murder, and his mental illness does not seem to match the m.o. of a slasher and dasher. 

However, one of the most interesting issue relating Edwards’ findings, in my mind, is how he announced it: the evidence was not submitted to a scientific journal for peer review. Normally, scholarly work is reviewed by two people in the field who look for holes in the work, alternative explanations to explain the result, for faults in methods or statistics, or anything else that might make it suspect.  The system is not perfect, by any means. For one, sometimes two people in a field resist a new idea that threatens current understanding. Sometimes they miss something. Sometimes, the scientist(s) writing the paper have outright lied. The evidence of Kosminski and the shawl, however, was announced to The Daily Mail, a British newspaper whose pages are heavily filled with murder, divorce, and celebrity gossip. 

Personally, I love the paradoxes inherent in this controversy. When the news first broke, media reports spoke of the DNA evidence as relatively convincing. I went to Wikipedia for more information, and there found a much more balanced view of the story, with plenty of background information and more than enough reason to put doubt in my mind of the definitive proof of this new evidence.

Wikipedia is not generally considered a reputable source, and some teachers frown on its use in a bibliography. And yet, in my own work as a popular science author, in reading thousands upon thousands of scientific journal articles and reputable books published by reputable publishers, sometimes tracking down minute pieces of information few seemingly care about, I’ve learned that the credibility of sources are often fuzzy.   

I use Wikipedia, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. It often has excellent quality information written in an understandable way, in a breadth that is hard to match. However, I always check with secondary sources for agreement – the more important the info, the more sources I check. And I tend to look up, read, and cite the references used in Wikipedia in my work. There is some hypocrisy in our society’s view of Wikipedia as an unacceptable source of information, when books – compilations of information from elsewhere is deemed acceptable. It has amazed me to find a single piece of information, say an anecdote about the first hairdresser in history, Monsieur Champagne of 18th century Paris, repeated in numerous books all referencing each without any reference to empirical evidence. So I treat information I read in books the same as I do information I read on Wikipedia. I use other clues to help with my judgement of its accuracy.

There is also the amateur status of Russell Edwards, which is front and centre in the media that influence judgement of this evidence. Amateurs tend to be dismissed as sources of information, and yet there are some amateur enthusiasts who have great breadth of knowledge in a particular area. I recall one particularly ‘obsessed’ amateur scholar of a group of tiny ocean creatures, foraminifera, who was the go-to person for identification. Amateurs may not carry the same biases that people entrenched in a field might. In a sense, Henry Ford was an amateur, so was Alexander Bell. Training does not always make someone smarter or better. What is interesting about this case is that Edwards’ release of his new evidence coincides with the release of his book, . Edwards is not just enhancing our understanding of history, he’s not just an amateur sleuth, he’s a businessman, and he’s profiting. His motives make his information suspect. The motives behind any source of information can be highly influential and should at all times be considered in any case where the truth is important. This is the basis of propaganda.

I’ve also read enough peer-reviewed scientific papers to know that it sometimes reviewers and authors and experiments and statistics paint an inaccurate picture. This is not criticism – it a valid, even important part of the science. It is disturbing, however, to notice that it is easy to believe information of any kind if it is presented as having a scientific basis. Science alone is not truth. Science is an endeavour of human beings. It is, however, generally founded on dedication to finding and understanding reality as closely as possible. It is the best we’ve got when it comes to understanding the natural world, including Traditional Knowledge – which is based on empirical observations passed down from generation to generation.

All of which does naught to help clear up whether Edwards’ new mDNA evidence is enough to proclaim the Ripper identified. The waters of this murder case are still muddy with doubt, with good reason. Which brings up another aspect of science in the news: just because something is not proven does not mean that it is false. The statement, “there is no conclusive evidence that Aaron Kominski was Jack the Ripper” is not the same as “Aaron Kosminski was not Jack the Ripper.” He might have been, we just don’t know enough to say so yet. I should say, I don’t know enough to believe so yet.