18 Aug 2017

NASA's Planetary Protection Officer

By Paula Johanson

There's been a new job posting at NASA, for a Planetary Protection Officer.

Sounds like something from the film Men In Black, doesn't it? But for NASA, planetary protection isn't so much about people resisting invasion by giant space bugs. It's about tiny germs.

NASA needs to avoid "organic-constituent and biological contamination in human and robotic space exploration." Policies for planetary protection apply to all space flight missions, whether they might carry Earth microbes or bring back microbes in samples from comets and asteroids. The posting lasts three to five years before someone else will be hired.

"It is not a new post," wrote reporter Andy Hayes for Sky News. Click here to read his article. He went on to add:
The current holder, Catharine Conley, was presented with a pair of sunglasses on her first day in the job back in 2006 - bringing to mind Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith in Men in Black.

Dr Conley told the New York Times in 2015 that she was keen to keep Mars from becoming contaminated by anything from Earth.

"If we're going to look for life on Mars, it would be really kind of lame to bring Earth life and find that instead," Dr Conley said.

"So far, Mars is still pretty clean."

While most of the people applying for the position already work at NASA in some capacity, one of the first applicants was a civilian. Nine-year-old Jack Davis sent his letter of application, and it was well-received. The director of NASA's planetary science division, Dr James L. Green, wrote him an encouraging reply and you can read both letters at this link.

11 Aug 2017

Jellyfish Aren’t Just for Saltwater

By Adrienne Montgomerie

“Mom, we saw jellyfish!”

“No way. We’re in a lake. Jellyfish are saltwater creatures.”

“No, really, honey," his dad said. "There were jellyfish.”

“Well that’s cool,” I said with total skepticism.

The next day, I said I wanted to see the jellyfish. Totally bracing for the “we’re just kidding” punchline, off we went.

Canoeing into a little bay of a medium sized lake in eastern Ontario, my son dipped a pail in the water, and pulled up several jellyfish about the size of a quarter. White, but mostly transparent. They looked almost like large contact lenses. Delicate, undulating in the green bucket.

The bay was full of them. A bloom of jellyfish. In fresh water.

They didn’t sting. Or if they did, they were so small that it was hard to tell. I didn't want to touch them because they are so delicate. I had to learn more about this.

It turns out that these jellyfish (C. sowerbii) are an invasive species, and they are quite widespread across North America. You can report sightings of them on the Freshwater Jellyfish website.

How Long Have Jellyfish Been in North America? 

This year there are thousands of news reports about the freshwater jellyfish, but there have been confirmed sightings in Canada and the USA as far back as 1934. There are even reports from the 1800s in London, England. Sightings are reported throughout Canada and the USA, but that 1934 sighting was in Horseshoe Lake near Ste. Agathe-des-Monts, Quebec.

How Can I Get a Closer Look?

If you want a closer look at these jellyfish, you can scoop some up in a clean bucket for a few minutes. Be sure to gently put them back where you found them. Check the sightings at FreshwaterJellyfish.org to find a likely lake.

They are big enough to see with just your eyes, but a magnifying glass will help you get a closer look.

The adult stage only lasts several days, so you may not find them when you go to look. It takes about a month for a jellyfish to grow. I saw them bloom on a very warm weekend one Thanksgiving but there are many reported sightings in mid-summer.

Where Did Freshwater Jellyfish Come From?

They probably came in the water inside a ship from South America, or on imported water plants from China.

They are found in crystal clear water, in slimy ponds, and in every kind of water in between.

How Can We Help Prevent Them from Spreading?

Clean boats and water toys in hot soapy water, just as you would to stop the spread of zebra mussels and gobies.

Don’t take plants from an infested place and put them in a new place.

Can you Keep at Jellyfish at Home?

Delicate and eerie, jellyfish have a mesmerizing appeal. Like any wild animal, they are healthiest when left in the wild. Like any invasive species, it’s best not to transport them to new areas, where they can infest more lakes.

Aquariums that keep jellyfish find it very difficult. None have been able to keep freshwater jellyfish on display. They usually only live a few days in captivity.

It takes special equipment to keep the pH correct and the water circulating continuously, and they need a constant supply of fresh plankton. Raising jellyfish takes a lot of attention. An aquarium is hazardous itself, as the delicate jellyfish can get sucked into filtration systems and pumps, and air bubbles can get trapped inside the jellyfish, holding them at the surface.

Are Jellyfish Harmful?

Freshwater jellyfish do sting, but their stinger is so small that it can’t seem to penetrate human skin. Some people do feel an irritation but it seems to be easily washed off.

It’s not yet known how these creatures will affect the ecosystem. They do eat plankton, which other species rely on, creating competition for the food. They are also eaten by gulls, crayfish, and turtles, providing new food that may help those species thrive (which in turn can affect other species that compete and rely on those animals). Few organisms have a zero sum impact on the environment they live in. We just haven’t seen the full effect yet.

5 Aug 2017

An amazing science librarian's retirement party

By Paula Johanson

Among all the science news this summer of various kinds across Canada, here's a piece of good news about a person who spent a career working in a science field.

After 40 years as an engineering librarian, Randy Reichardt has retired. His colleagues and friends gathered on June 28 at the University of Alberta to celebrate his retirement -- dozens in person and dozens more watching an online live feed of his retirement party. Among the praise that was lavished on him were the facts that Randy was the first engineering librarian to include social media referencing and has been awarded the title engineering librarian of the year for North America. He's earned many honours over the years in the field of library science! Here's a link to the Engineering Guides available through the University of Alberta Libraries, where Randy worked until this July.
This is Randy's current profile picture on Facebook, which he's captioned: "Tuning up for the weekend gigs."

Another engineering librarian praised "the knowledge, humour and generosity of simply the best amongst us." One friend sent thanks "to the librarian who taught me everything I know about Leptinotarsa decemlineata, Click beetles, space elevators, and MathSciNet on CD-ROM." And a colleague who met Randy several times at conferences or library advisory board meetings noted: "Your innovative outreach methods and your Scitech Library Question blog that you started many years ago motivated me to explore, evaluate, and experiment with new engineering electronic resources and innovative instructional approaches." That blog, Scitech Library Question, was written by Randy from 2003 to 2009.

If you're thinking about a career in library science, or as an engineering librarian, there are hard-working people like Randy in this field, making a difference with every library user they help or colleague they advise.

28 Jul 2017

Arctic Publisher Shares Northern Voices, Traditional Knowledge

By Gillian O'Reilly

Looking for engaging, appealing and informative science-themed and technology-themed books that incorporate traditional knowledge? Look no further than Inhabit Media.

Inhabit Media, an Inuit-owned publishing house based in Iqaluit and Toronto, aims to “promote and preserve the stories, knowledge and talent of northern Canada.” The company publishes a wide range of books for adults and kids, plus two magazines: Kaakuluk: Nunavut’s Discovery Magazine for Kids and Pivut: The Magazine for Nunavut Youth.

With an author list that includes established and emerging Northern writers and elders, as well as knowledgeable Southerners, Inhabit offers readers a rich variety -- from board books on Inuit tools and clothes to informational picture books to YA novels, historical and contemporary. Publishing in English, French, Inuktitut and sometimes Inuinnaqtun, Inhabit works to ensure that its books are accessible to both Northern and Southern readers.

A recent success for the company has been the Animals Illustrated series for readers aged 4 to 6. Each book is a lively mix of animals facts and first-hand accounts from authors who live in the Arctic, accompanied by meticulous and appealing illustrations. There are now four books in the series, covering polar bears, narwhals, muskox and walruses. A fifth book, on bowhead whales, is coming this fall.

One of my personal favourites in Inhabit’s list is A Children’s Guide to Arctic Birds (2014), written by Mia Pelletier and illustrated by Danny Christopher (for ages 4 to 6). Informative, accurate and with gorgeous illustrations, the book looks at 12 birds that make the Arctic their permanent or seasonal home.

Another favourite is A Walk on the Tundra (2011) written by Anna Ziegler and Rebecca Hainnu and illustrated by Qin Leng (for ages 6 to 8). This is a picture book story that features a warm intergenerational relationship while incorporating a great deal of traditional knowledge.

Innuujaq reluctantly accompanies her grandmother on a walk to pick Arctic plants. Through it, she learns a few things about her grandmother and much about tasty, nourishing and medicinal plants. Included at the end are scientific descriptions of the plants, photographs and a glossary of Inuktitut words and phrases.

More recently, Ziegler, Hainnu and Leng collaborated on A Walk on the Shoreline (2015).

Discover your own favourites among Inhabit’s books at www.inhabitmedia.com!

21 Jul 2017

Canada's next Governor General - out of this world!

By Claire Eamer

Literally, she was out of this world. Twice! Julie Payette, who will take up the post of Governor General of Canada in the fall, is a scientist, an astronaut, and the first Canadian woman to board the International Space Station (ISS).

Julie Payette. Canadian Space Agency photo.
In fact, she helped build it. In 1999, she spent nine days as part of the second mission ever to the ISS. In a 2015 interview with Macleans Magazine, she said she thought of herself as a space construction worker. "We brought the first three tons of equipment, including some of the Imax camera stuff. We literally switched the light on to the station and walked in."

In 2009, Payette left Earth again, this time as flight engineer aboard the space shuttle. During that trip, she got to manipulate the giant, Canadian-designed robotic arms on the shuttle and the space station - Canadarm and Canadarm2. It was a tense assignment, she said in the Macleans interview: "When you're moving something on a a multi-billion-dollar structure, with people on board who count on that structure for safety and integrity, a mistake is not an option."

Payette has degrees in electrical engineering and computer science. She holds a commercial pilot's licence and is also a qualified pilot of military jet aircraft. She speaks English and French fluently, and can also carry on a conversation in Russian, Italian, Spanish, and German. And if that's not enough, she plays piano and has sung with several major classical music groups.

The 53-year-old Payette retired from the Canadian Space Agency in 2013, and became chief operating officer of the Montreal Science Centre. She left that job recently and will be sworn in as Governor General probably in late September or early October.

As the representative of the Crown in Canada, the Governor General performs the Queen's duties as set out in the Canadian constitution. It is a largely ceremonial role, but offers the person performing it plenty of opportunity to interact with Canadians in all regions and at all levels. Most recent governors general have used the opportunity to bring attention to an aspect of Canadian life that they feel strongly about.

In an interview with the Globe and Mail, Payette said it's still too early to say what her priorities will be during her tenure, but that they will include science and a knowledge-based society. As both a scientist and a science communicator, she is admirably equipped to take on that task.


14 Jul 2017

How Mary Shelley's Frankenstein Saved Lives

by L. E. Carmichael

One of the coolest things about fiction (especially science fiction) is how it inspires scientific discovery in real life. Cell phones - inspired by Star Trek communicators - are a classic example. Edmond Locard is another. Locard was a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes novels, in which the great detective solves crimes using the tiniest of clues. The books were one of the reasons that Locard became a forensic scientist. He not only pioneered the field of trace evidence - microscopic clues - but defined Locard's Principle, "every contact leaves a trace." Meaning that during a crime, physical evidence transfers between the crime scene and the criminal, this Principle the cornerstone of modern forensics.

One of my favourite examples is a case where science inspired art which then turned around and inspired science.

It began during the Scientific Revolution - the era of scientists like Newton and Boyle (who, in addition to defining Boyle's Law, invented the lab report). During a frog dissection around 1780, Luigi Galvani's assistant touched a nerve cell with his scalpel, and the frog's leg jumped. Galvani believed nerve cells conducted electricity - could electricity be the spark of life? Electric shocks couldn't save drowning victims, but they did cause the corpse of a murderer at Newgate Prison to sit straight up.

Mary Shelley was well-educated and fascinated by science, so she probably knew about these experiments. So it's probably not surprising that, when a group of her friends challenged each other to write scary stories, she came up with Frankenstein.

Here's the cool part.

In the early 1930s - golden age of Hollywood monster movies - 9-year-old Earl Bakken saw Frankenstein for the first time. He loved it so much, he went back over and over again, fascinated by the way electricity brought dead tissue back to life. Bakken also loved to tinker with mechanical devices, and once he got his engineering degree, opened a medical technology company in his garage. He repaired equipment for the local hospital and made friends with a lot of the staff, including Dr. Wilton Lillehei.

Lillehei was a pioneer in the field of open heart surgery. After the procedures, about 10% of the patients, many children, needed pacemakers to keep their hearts beating until they healed enough to beat on their own. At the time, pacemakers were so big, they had to be pushed around on carts. They also had to be plugged into the wall. As a result, one of Lillehei's child patients died during a power outage in 1957.

Lillehei asked Bakken to come up with something better. Bakken designed a 4 inch square, wearable pacemaker powered by a 9 volt battery. Bakken tested it on a dog and the very next day, Lillehei connected the wires to a little girl's heart. She not only survived the surgery, her heart grew strong enough that she didn't need the device anymore. Today, Bakken's company, Medtronic, is the largest manufacturer of (implantable) pacemakers in the world.

For more cool stories about medical innovations, check out my children's book, Innovations in Health. And for more on Frankenstein, vampires, werewolves, and sea monsters, check out Monster Science, by Sci/Why blogger Helaine Becker.

7 Jul 2017

It’s Chemical!

By Adrienne Montgomerie

In advertising and in popular writing, especially about health concerns, chemical is used to mean harmful. As science writers and science-literate people, we know that chemical isn’t a synonym for harmful. Not all chemicals are harmful, and besides, everything is a chemical. So how can we, as science communicators, help readers understand the message by using more accurate language?

What writers mean by chemical

When we read chemical, the writer often means
  • harmful
  • unnatural
  • artificial

The truth about artificial chemicals

Some chemicals are good and some are harmful. And some are good because they are harmful. Think of chlorine bleach, for example. It is deadly in large doses, and that’s what makes it useful for disinfecting drinking water. Chlorine bleach (sodium hypochlorite) is an artificial chemical.
There is a common perception that artificial or manufactured chemicals are more toxic than natural ones. You don’t have to look beyond the periodic table to find natural chemicals (or elements, in this case) that are highly toxic: lead, plutonium, and mercury, for example.

The truth about natural chemicals

Yes, natural substances are chemicals. Everything is a chemical! Water is dihydrogen oxide and salt is sodium chloride. The difference between an artificial chemical and a natural one is that the natural one can be found in nature, without anyone making it.

To those who tell me “It’s natural, so it can’t hurt you” (I swear, people really say this to me) I respond, “You mean like poison ivy and peanuts?”

Of course they know that these natural things are quite harmful to some people. But they’ve gotten caught up in some rhetoric and need a little nudge to remember the truth they know.

Even arsenic is a natural chemical. It’s made in Earth’s crust and often makes its way to the surface because of mining operations. Arsenic is a deadly natural chemical. So is the botulism toxin. In fact, botulism is more than a million times more toxic than arsenic.

Synthetic forms of natural chemicals

What! Enter the grey area: chemicals we find in nature but that are manufactured in larger quantities than it would be reasonable to get from the natural sources. Vitamin C comes to mind. So does alcohol. Most synthetics are chemically identical to the natural form.

Some synthetic forms are actually safer than the natural form because of the natural source is prone to being bound up with some less desirable “by-products.”

Better terms

When we are writing or editing, let’s steer toward using terms that promote a better understanding of science, and of the world around us. Avoid using chemical when synthetic or harmful are the intended meaning.