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!

21 Apr 2017

Get Your Hands into Science in Your City

Science doesn’t just happen in big facilities far away. There is science happening right in your city. On May 13 the universities and the nature clubs, the industrial researchers and the backyard tinkerers invite you to come out and play with them at the free 10th annual Science Rendezvous.

What Happens

Every booth wants you to poke, pet, produce, prime, punch, or pedal to partake in the science they are excited about. There are things that explode, float, or twirl. There are technologies that make our modern world run, and technologies looking for new applications. There are ancient technologies like telescopes and modern ones like Frisbee-throwing robots.

Out of the lab and into the streets, more than 6000 groups entertain over 300,000 visitors on this free day of discovery. Get a peek at state-of-the-art laboratories and research facilities, and get a glimpse into the career of a scientist. Meet animals, bike to light up an infrared camera, try the CSI tools, or map your own DNA. Each location is different because it is made up from the local community.

The emphasis is on getting your hands into the action. Takeaways give you activities to do at home and ideas for ways to put more since in your life the rest of the year.

Not Just for Kids

While each festival location definitely has activities for the community’s smallest members, there are hands-on activities for people of all ages. Kids, it’s a great way to inspire your parents to try some cool experiments at home.


From Inuvik and Vancouver to Windsor and St. John’s, there are more than 34 sites holding free festivals on May 13. Find a location near you on the festival’s webpage.

14 Apr 2017


By Simon Shapiro

I had a "Eureka" moment last night. It was probably triggered by my recently reading a comment by Isaac Asimov that the most exciting phrase in science is not "Eureka" but "That's funny ...".

Unable to sleep, my mind turned to the apocryphal story of Archimedes getting into a bath and noticing that the water overflowed. Supposedly he realized that this effect would allow him to determine (without destroying it) whether the king's crown was made of pure gold or whether the maker had cheated the king by replacing some gold with silver. All Archimedes had to do was immerse the crown in a full container of water and measure the water that overflowed. That would give him the volume of the crown. Then, by doing the same with a lump of gold which was the same weight as the crown, he would know whether the gold crown had been adulterated with a less dense metal.

Archimedes runs naked into the streets of Syracuse
And, supposedly Archimedes was so excited by this insight that he ran home naked, shouting "Eureka" ("I have found it"). My Eureka moment? The sudden thought that it seemed unlikely that Greek technology of the day would have made it a slam dunk to measure the differences in overflow water between pure gold and adulterated gold.

Even less able to sleep, I got out of bed (not naked) and stumbled (not ran) to my computer. I looked up the densities of gold and silver and calculated what the difference in volume would be if a two pound crown were made of pure gold or 90% gold and 10% silver. It would be 2.25cc - less than half a teaspoon! Maybe not impossible for Archimedes to measure - but definitely not easy. Seems more like a "Maybe I can do this with a lot of careful work" than a "Eureka" moment.

Something else suspicious about the story. It's not such an amazing insight that when you dunk something into water, the water level rises by the volume of the dunked object. (Assuming the object doesn't absorb water - dunking a doughnut doesn't do it). In fact crows are smart enough to use that knowledge to raise the water level in a jar. That's the basis of one of Aesop's fables, which were told about three hundred years before Archimedes was born. Archimedes would have heard those fables, which were written down in his lifetime - the third century BCE.
The Crow and the Pitcher, illustrated by Milo Winter in 1919. The crow drops pebbles into the jar
until the water surface is high enough for him to drink from the jar.
I did some more research.

Archimedes wrote a lot about his discoveries but never mentioned the crown. The "Eureka" story was first written down two hundred years after his death by a Roman writer, Vitruvius.

Others have also been skeptical about Vitruvius' story. 430 years ago, at the age of 22, Galileo writes a short paper called "The Little Balance". He not only writes about his skepticism but he describes how Archimedes most likely would have solved the problem. Galileo describes a hydrostatic scale which could have used to determine the composition of a crown. It's based on Archimedes' insight (not, as far as we know, shared by crows or even chimpanzees) that the weight of water displaced by an object exerts an upward force on the object.

Galileo floats a guess at Archimedes' hydrostatic scale.

The object being measured is on the right. It's balanced initially by the weight, d, on the left. When the object is immersed in water, it "becomes lighter" and the weight d must be moved to position g to balance it. The weight difference (which is the weight of the displaced water) can be read directly off wire coils wrapped from e to f.

And finally I could fall asleep.

7 Apr 2017

Lego Launches Women into Space Play!

Post by Helaine Becker

Count down to equal opportunity, on this planet and beyond. Lego has introduced a new set of figures that celebrate female space pioneers.

They include Katherine Johnson (the subject of the Hollywood blockbuster, Hidden Figures, and my own upcoming picture book, Counting on Katherine), Mae Jemison, Sally Ride, Nancy Grace Roman and Margaret Hamilton.

It's five small steps for womankind, and a giant leap for all!

Katherine Johnson calculated trajectories to the
moon and back for the Apollo program

Margaret Hamilton wrote the in flight software for Apollo,
and was a pioneer in computer science.

3 Apr 2017

BREAKING NEWS: Sci/Why Bloggers Shortlisted for Major Award

Three of Sci/Why's regular bloggers have books shortlisted for the Canadian Science Writers' Association's 2017 Youth Books Award. The books and authors are:

The other nominees are To Burp or Not to Burp: A Guide to Your Body in Space by Dr. Dave Williams and Loredana Cunti (Annick Press) and Dinosaurs of the Deep by Larry Verstraete (Turnstone Press).

31 Mar 2017

I Blame Dr. Suzuki, or, Why I Write about Science

By Gillian O'Reilly

How did a history and art history graduate end up writing about science? I blame it on Dr. David Suzuki. Specifically, I blame it on a 30-year-old episode of the radio program Quirks and Quarks, which Suzuki hosted, and on a talk he gave to a group of booksellers some 25 years ago. In both cases, the stories he told lodged themselves in a corner of my mind and slowly, slowly pushed science to the forefront of my interests.

The Quirks and Quarks episode was a presentation of ordinary citizens grappling with a new aspect of science in an extraordinarily thoughtful way. It showed a community somewhere in New England faced with a proposal for a laboratory examining recombinant DNA. Back then, for the ordinary layperson, recombinant DNA was the stuff of science fiction or nightmares or both. As I recall, Quirks and Quarks broadcast parts of the public hearings over at least two episodes, devoting hours to the topic with very little editorial comment. We simply heard ordinary people informing themselves, working through questions and coming up with their conclusions. The lab was allowed.

When David Suzuki spoke to the booksellers a few years later, he began by discussing the all-too-common idea that science doesn’t have anything to do with one’s day-to-day life. Intellectually, I agreed with Suzuki that this idea was wrong, but, frankly, science didn’t seem to have much to do with my day-to-day life either.

Suzuki pointed out that, when he was a child, he wasn’t allowed to go to the movies or the swimming pool because of polio scares. As someone who had measles before there was a vaccine and who had seen the results of childhood polio in 1980s Africa, his statement hit home for me. He detailed other ways that science had changed his and everyone’s lives, but what I remember was the vaccines – the very ordinary way that children’s lives have been changed in ways today’s kids can scarcely imagine.

Over the years, I have recalled and reflected on the stories Suzuki told, as I gradually became more interested in writing about STEM topics. These two episodes showed both the ways in which ordinary people’s lives can be affected by science and the way ordinary laypeople can grasp and make intelligent decisions about science.

So I write about STEM subjects, not just for the budding scientist, but for the kids who will grow up to be historians or artists or school principals or lawmakers – all of whom will need to understand and make intelligent decisions about the wonderful science around us.

Gillian O’Reilly is the co-author with Cora Lee of The Great Number Rumble, Revised and Updated: A Story of Math in Surprising Places (Annick Press, 2016), illustrated by Lil Crump.