23 Jun 2017

Retro Shows on Science from the CBC, and more!

By Paula Johanson

Summer is here, and a lot of people are out of school for months. Though it's time to be outdoors doing fun things like gardening and kayaking, nobody wants to turn their brains off for an entire summer. There's plenty of science to learn -- but where?

One of the things that works for science learning in the summer is finding free videos and audio recordings and podcasts to play when needed. Quiet evenings after vigorous activity, or during long rides in buses or cars -- those are good times to play these recordings. I find it good exercise for my brain, which complements all the good exercise for my body I get in summertime! Here are some of the science resources that might be handy for students and families this summer:

Hosted at the University of Victoria's archives website is an amazing profile of a citizen scientist extraordinaire!
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Ian McTaggart Cowan was a true citizen scientist who was committed to sharing scientific knowledge with all Canadians. Click here for a link to the profile, with plenty of info on this man and the science he loved. He hosted three popular television series on the CBC: The Web of Life, The Living Sea, and Fur & Feather. All of his episodes  are available at this link -- and there's enough episodes to watch one every day till September or binge a series over a weekend! This profile could be a good resource for home learning projects or for students who just want to keep their science brains revving.

On CBC radio, the IDEAS program presents interesting ideas in just under an hour of thoughtful talk. Often these episodes are on science topics. On their website you can see links to recent broadcasts or scroll down to the link  "Browse Past Episodes" and find links to many episodes which you can play right away or download onto your phone, computer, or MP3 player. Some of these talks will inspire teenagers to discuss the topics with their parents and teachers or find books at the public library!

As well, IDEAS hosts the Massey Lectures every fall (five talks by a celebrated speaker), and the past lectures are available at this link. If you like listening to lectures and discussions and finding books on the same topics, you'll enjoy looking through the list of past lectures and picking out some to hear. In 2009, the Massey Lecturer was Wade Davis, speaking as a field anthropologist on "The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World."

Canada's National Film Board has made most of their videos available online for free! (They have materials in French as well as English, y'know.) Check out their Subjects page on the Sciences at this link and pick out some videos both classic and recent for your summer viewing. There's also some teaching aids and material for younger children.

16 Jun 2017

A Two-hour Marathon

Breaking the four minute mile.
Roger Bannister: 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds
In 1954 Roger Bannister electrified the world by breaking the the four-minute mile barrier. This video of the historic run is narrated by Bannister himself: Four minute mile

Many had believed that running a mile in under four minutes was beyond the capability of the human body. Once that psychological barrier had been broken, new records were set steadily. Bannister's record stood for  less than seven weeks, before being broken by Australian John Landy. And six weeks later both men ran under four minutes in the Vancouver Commonwealth Games, in a race known as the "Miracle Mile".

Roger Bannister and John Landy's "Miracle Mile" immortalized in bronze
outside the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver

The Two-hour Marathon Challenge

A far more difficult barrier will be broken soon when someone runs the marathon distance (26.2 miles) in under two hours. Bannister was an amateur athlete - a medical student at the time. He trained himself. He was helped in the race by a friend, Chris Brasher, who set the pace for the first two laps. The two-hour marathon attempt is a very different enterprise.

Both Nike and Adidas have already spent years (and undisclosed amounts of money) on projects to reach this goal. A third project was launched two years ago by Yannis Pitsiladis, a professor of sports and exercise science at the University of Brighton in Britain. He has reportedly been trying to raise $30 million to enable a runner to break two hours by 2019.

Running a marathon distance in two hours is an astonishing feat. It requires a pace of under 4 minutes 35 seconds per mile.  The current marathon world record, set by Kenyan Dennis Kimetto at the Berlin Marathon in September 2014, is 2:2:57 (2 hours 2 minutes 57 seconds). While 3 minutes doesn't sound like a long time over 2 hours, it is an improvement of 2.5%, which is quite significant.

Dennis Kimetto in Berlin

Nike's First Attempt

Kipchoge, Tadese and Desisa

Last month, on May 6th, Nike staged a serious attempt to break the barrier. Nike has been working with three chosen athletes: Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea, and Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia. The attempt was made at the Monza race car track, near Milan, Italy. The site was chosen for ideal marathon characteristics: flat terrain, calm winds, low temperature. The three star athletes were supported by a team of 30 elite marathon pacers, and a pace car. They were outfitted with Nike's best running shoes, the newly developed Vaporfly 4%.

The result? Eliud Kipchoge ran a time of 2:0:25 - close, though still significantly off the target. For a number of reasons this time isn't recognized as a world record. It wasn't meant as an attempt at a world record, but as a demonstration that it's possible to run a two hour marathon. Desisa dropped off the pace after 30 minutes, eventually finishing with a time of 2:14:10. Tadese started to fall behind at around mile 20, and he finally clocked 2:06:51. If you have an hour or two to spare, you can see a video of the attempt here: Two hour attempt

So Where's the Science?

1. Shoes



Nike has named its new shoes Vaporfly 4% because they claim that the shoes are 4% more efficient than its current best marathon shoes. What's different? The shoes use an extremely lightweight but resilient foam for the sole. And they have a carbon fibre plate inserted into the sole of the shoe. That plate functions a lot like the carbon fibre blade used by amputee "blade runners". The blade flexes with each step, converting kinetic energy into elastic energy, and then releasing it, returning the energy to the motion of the foot. There's ongoing debate about whether this type of technology confers an "unfair advantage" to its user. If it's deemed to do that, it will be illegal in official races.

The spoon-shaped plate is visible in this image of the shoe
Although Nike will soon begin marketing generic versions of the shoe, the three athletes were equipped with customized shoes, designed to match exactly their individual gait.

2. Pacing


It is optimal to run at exactly the same pace throughout the distance. This attempt used a pace car, which travelled at exactly the required speed for a two hour marathon. It used a laser beam to project a line onto the track to show the pacing athletes exactly where they needed to be.

3. Drafting

Wind resistance is a factor in how much energy is needed to run. Studies have shown that at the required speed of 6 meters/second 4% of your energy is needed to overcome wind resistance. Another study found that 'drafting' eliminates almost all of that wind resistance. (Drafting is where a runner runs behind another runner, who thus shelters them from the wind).

(The faster you're moving, the more important wind resistance becomes. It's extremely important for cyclists. At 40 km/hour over 90% of your energy is needed to overcome wind resistance! In my book Faster, Higher, Smarter you can read the story of cyclist Graeme Obree who was brilliant at finding different cycling positions to reduce drag).

For this attempt, the runners were able to draft behind a V-shaped formation of 6 elite runners at all times. There were ten teams of three who took it in turns to shield the runners. Nike used wind tunnel tests to determine the optimal configuration of the pacers.

So Why No 2-hour Marathon time?

It's a reasonable question. The project was looking for a 2.5% improvement over the existing world record time. Nike claims the shoes alone should have given a 4% improvement. The drafting should have given perhaps another 2% (not 4% because in a regular marathon each athlete will normally spend some time drafting behind competitors). Further advantages were available from the even pace; from drinks being delivered by moped instead of needing to be snatched from a table on the way; from the flat terrain.

Is the science wrong? It's certainly possible, perhaps likely, that laboratory tests don't translate accurately to the road. Perhaps the Vaporfly should be Vaporfly 2%, not Vaporfly 4%. But it's also unrealistic to assume that one of the three runners will deliver a world-record performance for the Nike experiment. Obviously the world record is the most extreme performance ever. It's the outlier of thousands of top level marathon attempts.

It's more realistic to re-frame the challenge as looking for an improvement from an average elite performance. Kipchoge's marathon times are the best of the three athletes. His average time has been 2 hours 5 minutes. So the challenge was to get a 4% improvement in his average performance. With that in mind, it's remarkable that Kipchoge was able to get an improvement of 3.5%. It seems certain that ongoing attempts using technology to assist runners will eventually result in the elusive two hour marathon.

9 Jun 2017

Superfun STEM trailer!

Post by Helaine Becker


Kids Can Press has  released the trailer for my new picture book biography about William Playfair, the Victorian-era rogue who single-handedly invented the field of infographics. Check it out!

2 Jun 2017

Beneath an Arctic Sea - Volcanoes Spewing Mud

By Claire Eamer

Normally, you wouldn’t expect the Beaufort Sea to be a hotbed of volcanic action. It’s covered with ice for much of the year. And during the short spell when the ice is gone, it’s a vast expanse of cold, featureless ocean that washes up on the northern coasts of Alaska, the Yukon, and the western Northwest Territories.
An underwater mud volcano as seen by the research ship's
scanners. Credit: Natural Resources Canada

But beneath that bland surface, the Beaufort holds a surprise – as many as 2000 mud volcanoes, says Steve Blasco, a respected geophysicist formerly with the Geological Survey of Canada. Before he retired, he was part of a research group studying the volcanoes.

They are essentially like any other volcano, but with mud instead of lava, he says. Pressure forces the liquid mud up through the first available weak spot in the more solid layer above it. In the case of the Beaufort mud volcanoes, that solid layer is beneath the seafloor, several hundred metres below the ocean surface. And the solid layer isn't Earth's crust, but permafrost.

Just because they’re out of sight beneath the waves doesn’t mean mud volcanoes are small. Some are more than a kilometre across and rise 10 storeys above the surrounding seafloor. Most have a shallow moat around them. Blasco says that with the right kind of instrumentation, it’s possible to track the volcanic chimneys, through which the mud flows, well down into the thick layer of sediment that covers much of the Beaufort seabed.
The profile of the mud volcano scanned above. The shallower continental shelf
is on the left, and the seafloor drops away into deep water on the right.
Credit: Natural Resources Canada
The Beaufort’s mud volcanoes are a peculiarly northern phenomenon, he says. “It all has to do with the permafrost.”

Fluids – water and hydrocarbons mixed with fine sediments – pool beneath the permafrost that underlies the land and much of the sea around the margin of the Beaufort. The fluids spread through the sub-permafrost layers until they come to a weak point where the growing pressure pushes them up through the permafrost, piling up layer upon layer of thin mud into a spreading undersea mountain.

The mud volcanoes aren’t distributed randomly over the seafloor. The weak spot that allows the mud to break through is often at the edge of the continental shelf, where the relatively shallow sea bottom drops away into the deep ocean, exposing and weakening the permafrost. About a third of the mud volcanoes mapped so far are along the shelf edge, Blasco says. Others are on the shelf itself or along the edges of the Mackenzie Trough, an undersea extension of the Mackenzie Valley.

Most of the volcanoes are no longer active, but about 50 of them still appear to be venting mud, some quite actively. And on a few of those, the Blasco's Geological Survey research group found signs of life: mats of bacteria apparently living off the chemicals in the mud.

Bacterial mats cover deep-sea mud vents in the Beaufort Sea.
Credit: Natural Resources Canada
Another team of scientists discovered even more signs of life on the volcanoes. In December 2015, Charles Paull of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Scott Dallimore of the Geological Survey of Canada and other members of the team published a scientific article describing what they found in a close study of a few of the still-active mud volcanoes.

Some of the sediment the scientists hauled up from the mud volcanoes contained skinny brown tube worms only a few centimetres long at most. The worms are closely related to tube worms found at a mud volcano in the Norwegian Arctic. In both cases, the worms and the bacteria appear to be part of a chemosynthetic community – that is, a community of animals living off the carbon spewed out, usually in the form of methane, from volcanic vents.

Similar groups of animals have been found around undersea vents in many parts of the world, but this is the first time they’re been discovered in the harsh conditions of the western Arctic. And there may be more life down there.

Video from a remotely operated underwater vehicle used in the same study showed that patches of the active undersea volcanoes are thick with bacteria and tube worms, and that shrimp and small fish seem to be especially plentiful at those sites. In fact, it appears that the Beaufort Sea’s mud volcanoes might be hotspots for both geology and biology.

The original purpose of the survey that mapped the volcanoes was to assess geohazards in the Beaufort Sea in preparation for oil and gas exploration. Mountains of mud rising from the ocean floor constitute potential hazards, but Blasco says they’re easy to avoid. Now that it’s known where they’re likely to occur and what they look like to underwater remote sensing instruments, exploration companies survey them and stay clear.

Of course, not everyone wants to stay clear. Oil and gas companies might want to avoid the mud volcanoes, but plenty of scientists would like to learn a lot more about them.

References:



26 May 2017

Three Men in a Canoe – A Fossil Legacy

By Larry Verstraete

Over the phone, Don Bell is matter-of-fact and modest, as if just about anyone could have accomplished what he, Henry Isaak, and David Lumgair did. But others didn't - at least not initially, nor to the same degree - and you don't have to look far to find proof of their legacy. It's a floor below the indoor hockey rink in Morden, Manitoba, in a sprawling space called the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre (CFDC).

During my research for ‘Dinosaurs’ of the Deep: Discover Prehistoric Marine Life (Turnstone Press), Don Bell's name came up often. "He knows more than almost anyone," someone at CFDC told me. "You should call him."

So I did. "Can you tell me how this all started?" I asked.

"We were on a canoe trip," Don said.
(L to R) David Lumgair, Henry Isaak, Don Bell taken on the day they heard about the fossil find
(Photo courtesy of Don Bell)
In quick steps, Don covered the story of a 1972 canoe trip involving a group of paddlers. Don, Henry and Dave were in one canoe, keeping leisurely pace with the others. At a stop for lunch, discussion ensued about a recent discovery of dinosaur bones in the Morden area.

"Hank and I were interested," Don said.

Bitten by curiosity, Don and Henry, both teachers, struck out at 6 a.m. on a later weekend to search for the fossil. A mile west of Morden's Stanley Park, they turned south and drove another 300 metres. Lying exposed in a field, they discovered a large fossil skull. Immediately, they realized that it was not a dinosaur, but a long-extinct – and very large – marine reptile.

"We knew it was important," Don added.

Ill-equipped to bring the skull home, Don and Henry drove back to town to regroup. By the time they returned, two young fellows were there, hammering the fossil to pieces.
The Manitoba Escarpment near Morden, Manitoba.

The Morden region lies at the edge of the Manitoba Escarpment. Eighty million years ago, at the time of the dinosaurs, the Western Interior Seaway sliced across North American dividing it in half. The escarpment is a by-product of Manitoba’s watery past and a rich source of marine fossils from that period.

At the time, the Pembina Mountain Clays Company had been mining the area for bentonite, a type of volcanic clay used in detergents and other products. Fossils turned up frequently, often crunched to bits by heavy equipment.

Realizing the scale of destruction, Don and Henry embarked on a mission to save as many as possible. The two got to know the miners and struck up a deal. When fossils surfaced, miners placed a call to the pair. In the evening, after the miners shut down for the day, Don and Henry salvaged what they could before operations resumed in the morning. Sometimes they worked through the night, excavating and jacketing fossils by the glow of headlights. They carted their prizes home and stored them in Henry's garage and Don's basement.

Knowing the demands of teaching, I couldn't imagine a life of all-nighters. "What kept you going?" I asked Don.

"To me it was exciting, discovering something that hadn't been discovered before," he said.
A plesiosaur on display,
one of many collected  by Don and Henry.
What started as a small-scale operation mushroomed. Interest spread. Volunteers joined the effort. Henry tapped into government grants and hired university students to help. The pair consulted paleontologists and made weekend field trips to Kansas City, Drumheller, and the University of Calgary, places with Late Cretaceous fossils and people with the necessary know-how.

Early on, David Lumgair – the third man in the canoe – got involved, too. He lived on a farm near Thornhill, a few kilometres from Morden. Fossils often surfaced on his land, and Dave had an open-door policy when it came to the growing brood of fossil hunters. He welcomed them and let them set up shop on his property.

In just two years, the ambitious team unearthed 30 mosasaurs, 20 plesiosaurs, and hundreds of other fossils from the region around Morden. In 1974, David’s farm yielded a spectacular prize – an immense mosasaur. Nicknamed Bruce, it took several seasons to unearth and jacket the entire creature.
Bruce, the world's largest mosasaur, on exhibit at the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre.

Eventually, the collection of fossils outgrew Don’s basement and Henry’s garage. It was moved to the Morden and District Museum, and then in 1976 to its present quarters in the lower level of Morden's Community Centre.

Today, the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre is a world-class institution. It houses Canada's largest collection of Late Cretaceous marine vertebrate fossils. The undisputed star of the Centre is Bruce. The sprawling 13-metre-long mosasaur is the world’s largest exhibited mosasaur and a Guinness record-holder.
Two university students with Victoria Markstrom (R), Field Collection Manager
for the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre at a dig site along the escarpment.
The Morden area continues to yield fossil treasures, and new finds are constantly being added to CFDC’s holdings. The place is a buzzing hive of research and educational programs, and a fitting reminder of what three people hooked by passion and persistence can achieve.

Links:
Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre   http://discoverfossils.com/
Turnstone Press  http://turnstonepress.com/
Larry Verstraete  https://www.larryverstraete.com/

Unless otherwise noted, all photos by Larry Verstraete.

19 May 2017

Whose Remains are These?



by Helen Mason
Battle of Vimy Ridge
This year, Canadians celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canada's birth as a nation. In April, many also celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. During that battle, four Canadian fighting divisions surged up the steep slope to attack German forces at the top. Only one of those divisions failed to meet all its objectives that first day. By April 12, Canadian soldiers and their allies held the heights.

George William Clerihew
Many soldiers died in that battle. One of them was my great uncle, George William Clerihew. He was originally reported as missing in action. After his body was found, it was buried in a military cemetery in France. Family members still visit his grave.

All families are not as lucky. According to the Department of National Defence, 19,000 of the 62,000 Canadian fatalities in World War I remain missing. One of these is Francis (Frank) Bassell Winter, who was part of the 26th (New Brunswick) Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Originally from British Guyana, by the start of World War I, Frank lived in St. John with his parents and two sisters: Amy and May. He was the youngest. He joined the armed forces after graduating with a degree in electrical engineering from McGill University.

Francis (Frank) Bassell Winter
Like many Canadian soldiers, this New Brunswick soldier distinguished himself on the battlefield. In July 1916, he was awarded a Medal of Honour for his conspicuous gallantry during a raid on the German trenches. A lieutenant at the time, he was the first person into the German trench and the last person out, even taking time to help bring back the dead and wounded.

He'd been promoted to Captain by the time of the Battle of Hill 70, which was in August. Although the Battle of Hill 70 is little known, it was the beginning of an attack on the French city of Lens. This fight was meant to relieve pressure on the forces fighting near Passchendaele in Flanders. According to historians, the battle marks a turning point in Canadian military history. It was the first time that Canadian forces were led by a Canadian rather than a British general.

Souvenir sent to mother from Amiens.
Rather than attack Lens directly, Sir Arthur Currie, the Canadian general, attacked the hill to the north of Lens, one which dominates access to the area. Canadians charged up the hill on August 15, 1917–and subsequently captured it. The Canadians lost more than 9,000 soldiers in that battle. Of these sixty-nine were never found. One of these was Frank Bassell Winter.

Since he was unmarried and had no children, there were no direct descendants. His parents and sisters mourned his death. Without a body, his family had his name engraved on his mother's tombstone. The family heard nothing more about him until just before Easter of this year when my sister-in-law, Pat Mason, received a phone call from the Department of National Defence. Did she recognize the name Francis Bassell Winter?

What led to this query was the recovery of three human remains near Lens in late August 2016. Such bodies turn up during building or road construction or work in a farmer's field. After almost 100 years underground, much of the identifying material has decomposed. However, certain artefacts may remain, including identifying disks that carry the soldier's name, rank, and unit, cap badges, unit uniforms, rings, and bracelets. Identifying disks can't be used as the only means of identification because a soldier may be carrying the disk of a dead comrade.

Frank was known to have been in the area. In addition, he matched the age and height of the unknown soldiers. To clearly identify the remains, however, the Department of National Defence checks DNA. Much of this is unusable after a century underground. For old remains, identification experts used mitochondrial DNA. This form of DNA is passed from mother to child and from daughter to grandchild. Since Frank had no children, the Department of National Defence worked to trace the descendants of his two sisters.

Tracing female descendants has its difficulties. Sisters marry, change their names, and frequently move. If they don't have female descendants, their line of mitochondrial DNA isn't passed on.

Frank's great niece and great great niece
In Frank's case, his younger sister had gone out West. Fortunately, she had daughters who also had a daughter. Using marriage records and obituaries of family members, research personnel finally traced Frank's great niece to a suburb outside Ottawa.

My sister-in-law was asked to provide a saliva swab so that her mitochondrial DNA could be checked against that in the unknown remains. At Easter, she and her extended family celebrated this possible recovery of a long-dead relative.

Unfortunately, the DNA samples did not match. Frank is not among the three bodies found near Lens. Someday, someone digging in the area may come across his remains. Meanwhile, Casualty Identification staff at the Department of National Defence work to trace the ancestors of other possible matches. Pat's DNA profile will be kept on file for checking against bodies found in the area at some time in the future.

The neighbours of one of my friends had better luck. DND staff identified one set of remains as belonging to an uncle killed during World War I. Family members flew overseas to attend the ceremony when he was interred in the closest British military cemetery that had space.


Helen Mason's most recent books include A Refugee's Journey from Syria and A Refugee's Journey from Afghanistan, both Crabtree Publishing, 2017.

12 May 2017

New Books, New Awards, New Ways to Get Pumped About Science

by L. E. Carmichael

It's spring and the Sci/Why writers are celebrating. Check out these latest and award-winning books by our team of bloggers!


Simon Shapiro

Simon's book, Faster Higher Smarter (Annick Press) just won the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada Youth Book Award! It takes a lot of talent, skill, and hard work to become a world-class athlete. But it takes even more to make a sport better: it takes smarts! And whether innovators are aware of it or not, it takes an understanding of physics, mechanics, and aerodynamics to come up with better techniques and equipment. From swimming, soccer, and basketball to skateboarding and wheelchair sports, Faster Higher Smarter looks at the hard science behind many inventions and improvements in sports.

Claire Eamer

Claire's book Inside Your Insides (Kids Can Press) was shortlisted for the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada Youth Book Award!

Her latest, What a Waste! Where Does Garbage Go? (Annick Press) came out in March. It's the history, sociology, science, past, present, and future of human garbage (and even some pre-human garbage). 

Helaine Becker

Helaine's Monster Science (Kids Can Press) was also shortlisted for the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada Youth Book Award! She's also got two new books out: You Can Read (Orca) and Lines, Bars and Circles: How William Playfair Invented Graphs (Kids Can Press).


Paula's latest is Critical Perspectives on Vaccinations, a book for high school students from Enslow Publishers. It's a collection of published articles from doctors and experts, as well as court documents and personal viewpoints of ordinary citizens. Stay tuned for Critical Perspectives on the Opioid Epidemic, as well as two kids books on technology in sports and in industry!

Our newest blogger is also a newly published author! In January 2017, Red Deer Press published Anita's Big Blue Forever. This is a photo-based information book, inspired by the true story of how a blue whale skeleton, buried for over twenty years in PEI, was shipped cross country and reassembled for permanent display at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum in Vancouver, BC. This story is complemented with intriguing facts about blue whales and their environment, and the fascinating process that museums go through to uncover, prepare, and reassemble skeletons for display and study. Big Blue Forever can be purchased through your local independent!


L. E. Carmichael

Lindsey has two new forensic science books for middle readers. Discover Forensic Science (Lerner) starts with crime-fighting cadaver dogs and ends with cutting edge technology in forensics - like a camera that ages blood stains based on their colour. Forensics in the Real World (ABDO) explores careers in forensics, inspiring future Locards... and Sherlocks!