22 Apr 2014

Mythbuster Kary Byron Answers Science Questions

One of the great things about being a science writer is that it's part of my work to check out interesting articles on the Internet. No, I'm not just surfing randomly. I'm finding out the answers to interesting questions such as "What's it like to be a Mythbuster on the popular TV show Mythbusters? Or a female Mythbuster? And when Mythbuster Kari Byron was expecting her baby, how did she ensure there would be no bad effects from the various explosions that happen during the filming of the show?"

Yes, there have been more than one explosion filmed during Mythbusters episodes... over 750 explosions and counting since the show began airing on the Discovery Channel in 2003. For all those explosions, safety is a major concern. When doing home science, leave any explosions to the Mythbuster crew!

Mother Jones Magazine has published online an energetic interview with Kari Byron about her work on Mythbusters. "...it just happens to be that the best way to explore myth is the scientific method," says Byron at one point. The article goes on to say that "Byron's presence as a high-profile female role model promoting critical thinking and making science accessible is vitally important." Click on this link to read the article, see three short videos from the show, and download the podcast of a 43-minute interview with Byron.

That's enough about science-related shows on television for me right now. I've got to finish taking notes about eighteenth-century naturalist Archibald Menzies so I can return to the public library this fascinating book: The Interwoven Lives of George Vancouver, Archibald Menzies, Joseph Whidbey and Peter Puget: The Vancouver Voyage of 1791-1795, by John M. Nash. I'm learning how to brew spruce beer to avoid scurvy on long sea voyages!

15 Apr 2014

Busy as a Beaver - and that's very busy!

A busy Yukon beaver. John Meikle photo.
Here's a short note and a link from Sci/Why blogger Margriet Ruurs, who has abandoned us all - temporarily - for the joys of travel.

Margriet says:

"Quick! Which animal is on the Canadian nickel? Now look at this amazing video for an intimate look at some busy beavers in Calgary."

You can catch up with Margriet and her travels (if you move quickly enough!) on her Globetrotting Grandparents blog.

12 Apr 2014

Writing Workshop for MISSA

Science writing is work that expands my mind. For me writing goes well with kayaking. Best way to clear the cobwebs out of my head after writing about Biofuels or Energy is to head out on the water in my kayak! And often while I'm on the water, there are interesting animals or stones or weather that make me resolve to write as soon as I get back to shore.
Most of my books are for Young Adult readers -- books on science or health or literature, for school libraries from educational publishers. Now I've got a writing workshop to teach in June that will take me to Pedder Bay. Writing and kayaking on the same weekend -- yay!


Jo-Ann Richards' photo shows the dock at Pearson College - borrowed from Facebook
This summer, I will teach a two-day writing workshop for Metchosin International Summer School of the Arts at Pearson College of the Pacific! MISSA is hosting my class Writing Non-Fiction for Young Readers, on June 28-29 2014. This workshop immerses writers in the process of writing non-fiction, starting with generating ideas and query letters and then preparing outlines and book proposals. Young readers need non-fiction books and stories of many kinds, suited to their ages and interests.

Looking forward to bunking at the college and paddling Pedder Bay before my class...
MISSA is a terrific program for arts -- consider making your summer learning my class, maybe followed by a week-long workshop by another instructor! Look at these photos of the fabulous location for MISSA, which takes place at Pearson College of the Pacific right on the shore of Pedder Bay.

4 Apr 2014

William Wallace Gibson and the first Canadian-built airplane

By Claire Eamer

On February 23, 1909, John McCurdy made the first powered flight in Canada, flying the Silver Dart at Alexander Graham Bell's home in Baddeck, Nova Scotia. The Silver Dart was designed by McCurdy and built in the United States, where Bell and his associates had been working on powered flight. So - while it was the first powered flight in Canada - the Silver Dart wasn't the first Canadian-built powered airplane.

A full-scale replica of the Gibson Twin-plane at the BC Aviation Museum.
That honour belongs to a peculiar-looking, kite-like airplane designed, built, and flown by Victoria flight enthusiast William Wallace Gibson just a year and a half after the Silver Dart's flight. Gibson, a former farmer and businessman from the Regina area, had been quietly experimenting with kites and elastic-powered airplanes for several years. He had also designed an air-cooled engine especially for his experimental plane and had it built in Victoria.

On September 8, 1910, Gibson powered up what he called the Gibson Twin-plane, rolled across a pasture near Victoria (now a school sports field), and lifted off the ground for less than eight metres. He had been nervous about whether the plane would work and afraid of being mocked, so he didn't tell anyone about the experiment. But it flew!

Gibson's engine drove two propellers, one at each end.
So Gibson invited witnesses and planned a second, formal flight. On September 24, 1910, he took off again. This time the plane flew 200 feet (just over 60 metres). The flight was a clear success, but it came to a bad end. A cross-wind pushed the plane towards an oak tree, and Gibson had to make a hasty landing. With no brakes and limited control, he rolled helplessly across the rough ground and straight into the tree. Gibson was thrown clear, but the plane was a wreck.

That didn't stop Gibson. He designed a new plane with multiple narrow wings and called it the Gibson Multi-plane. It was powered by the same engine he had designed for the Twin-plane. Then he went off in search of wide open spaces to test the new plane. He found his space in Calgary, and on August 12, 1911, he was ready.

The Multi-plane was piloted by his assistant, Alex Japp. It took off safely, reached an altitude of 100 feet (over 30 metres), and cruised for over a mile (about 1.7 kilometres) - just one of several successful flights it made that day. Unfortunately, the Gibson Multi-plane came to grief on landing, just as its predecessor had. A last hard landing on rough terrain was too much for it, and the plane broke up.
The pilot perched in the tiny seat below the arrow.

Gibson lived until 1965, long enough to see airplanes and air travel become a major industry, but that flight in Calgary was the end of his experiments with flight. However, it wasn't the end of his planes.

A full-scale replica of the Gibson Twin-plane dangles from the ceiling of the British Columbia Aviation Museum near Victoria. The original engine Gibson used in both planes is in the collection of the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa. And there's a model of the Twin-plane in the National Air Museum in Washington, D.C.

Here are a few links with more of Gibson's story:

http://victoriahistory.ca/blog/2010/08/the-gibson-twin-plane/

http://www.canadianflight.org/content/history-flight-bc-0

http://www.bcaviation.com/gibson.htm

All photos by Claire Eamer.

28 Mar 2014

Robot Animals? GadZOOks!!!!

Post by Helaine Becker

I'm delighted to announce my newest STEM-related book, Zoobots, has just been released by Kids Can Press. It's a pretty exciting (if I do say so myself) survey of the latest developments in robotic research. Glorious, hyper-realistic illustrations by Australian Alex Ries are totally wow-worthy whether you're a transformer-transfixed kid or a formerly jaded grown-up.



I'm just as happy to announce that the book has already been picked up by the Junior Library Guild, and nominated by Capitol Choices for its Noteworthy Books for Children and Teens list.

If robotic animals fascinate you - and really, how can they not?  -  check out my Pinterest board, Cool Robots, where I've posted lots of links to articles about all kinds of amazing mechatronics.

And don't forget to watch out for cockroach-bot overlords. They're on their way to a kitchen counter near you.

21 Mar 2014

Science News of the Old and Oldest

By Claire Eamer

It's been a busy week or so in the world of science - a lot to keep track of. Here's a quick guide for those who, like me, are feeling a bit overwhelmed.

First, there's the Old: A couple of new dinosaurs have been identified.

One of them is a miniature cousin of the best-known predatory dinosaur, T. rex. This little guy (well relatively little, but still way bigger than any of us) has been named Nanuqsaurus hoglundi - meaning, roughly, polar bear lizard - and he roamed the Arctic 70 million years ago. You can read more about him, and find some pictures, here and here.

The other was found a few thousand kilometres south and east, in the states of North and South Dakota. It's a strange, half-birdlike creature that scientists have nicknamed "the chicken from Hell" - not because it's so scary, although its claws are impressive, but because it was found in a geological formation called Hell Creek. A little more formally, the chicken from Hell is Anzu wyliei, and you can learn more about it here.

And then there's the Oldest: What physicists think is a kind of cosmic fingerprint from the beginning of the universe - evidence of rapid expansion from the first split second after the Big Bang. It has caused a lot of excitement, and a lot of confusion. If you want to get unconfused, here are a few links:
And that, fellow science fans, is the momentous week that was!

14 Mar 2014

“Potbelly Hill” gives birth to new theories of civilization

            Tall, flat stones arranged in circles stand straight, their limestone edges sharply sculpted. Some are six metres in height, and decorated with a menagerie of carvings: lions, gazelles, foxes, donkeys, bulls, reptiles, insects, and birds. The pillars are enclosed inside circular walls. There are four such enclosures, back to back, each surrounding up to eight pillars each. Sixteen more enclosures remain out of sight, under the earth. These 'rooms,' with their rings of standing stones, were buried at Gobekli Tepe (potbelly hill), a man-made mound 15 metres high, located in Southern Turkey. These awesome monuments were made without metal. They were sculpted with stone tools, and transported hundreds of feet from a quarry without beasts of burden or wheels. At the time they were built, writing had not yet been invented. Neither had pottery. Their discovery has changed the way archaeologists think about human civilization.


Gobekli Tepe rivals Stonehenge in its complexity, but predates it by some six thousand years, hailing to 9600 - 8800 BC. It is older than the pyramids and the ancient cities of Ur and CatalhÓ§yuk. It is the oldest known building project on Earth. But it is not its age per se, its engineering, or even its artistry that make Gobekli Tepe so special. It is that the people who created and used it were nomadic hunter-gatherers living before the invention of agriculture. There is no local source of water, no traces of housing, cemeteries, domesticated animals or plants. The people who built this 'temple' did not live here, nor anywhere else permanently.


            The existence of Gobekli Tepe turns the common understanding of the development of human civilization on its head. The old way of thinking has humans in Mesopotamia discovering that wild grains can be saved and planted, and wild animals captured and contained. This ‘Neolithic revolution’ encouraged people to settle in one place, growing and keeping food instead of hunting and gathering it. Then, as a consequence of the new stability, came increased food supply, growth of community, cooperation, division of labour, extra time to devote to art and architecture, religion, organized cemeteries, public buildings, etc. Gobekli Tepe, however, was built by a number of people over a significant amount of time, organized, cooperating, and practicing a common  religion -- all without the existence of stable, permanent settlements.

Besides demonstrating that long-held beliefs can be wrong, and that early human societies were more complex than previously thought, Gobekli Tepe is a spectacular site in its own right. What people were doing here is still a mystery, and the lack of writing means there is no voice from the past to tell us what these structures meant to their culture. There are some intriguing clues, however. For one, some of the T-shaped stones have belts and arms carved on them, suggesting they are stylized representations of people. For another, what look like benches are built into the walls – for visitors to rest awhile, dead or alive, in the company of the stone statues.

Some believe that Gobekli Tepe’s stone circles were sanctuaries to link the world of the living with the world of the dead. Today, they still function as a link to the world of the dead, the only connection we have to the culture that lived and died in that part of Turkey more than 11,000 years ago. The stones still tell stories of their builders, whispering secrets of our distant relatives frozen in their carvings.