13 Oct 2017

Investigating Ocean Currents in a Rotating Swimming Pool

Have you ever wondered what happens when you put a 13-m-diameter swimming pool on a merry-go-round? Probably not. But I am here to tell you today about what happens when you do just that, and what you can learn from doing so.

I am part of an international group of scientists, doing research on currents in the ocean (and you can read more about who we are and what you do on our blog: http://skolelab.uib.no/blogg/darelius). Specifically, we are interested in how warm water is transported towards an Antarctic ice shelf. As you can imagine, Antarctica is not the easiest place to travel to and measure the ocean, especially not during winter. There are some observations of warm water reaching the ice shelf and contributing to melting the ice, but it is not known yet under what conditions this happens.

Why a pool?

In order to understand how water behaves in the ocean, we are reproducing real-world features that we suspect have an important influence on the current's behaviour, but in miniature, and inside our water-filled tank. Then we can modify those features and observe which parts of them actually determine how the water flows, and which parts are not as important. In our case, we are changing the miniature coastline of Antarctica to see what makes the current turn and flow into a canyon instead of just going straight ahead.

Why rotation?

We need to rotate the tank to represent the Earth's rotation. This is because the Earth's rotation influences all large-scale movements on Earth, including ocean currents: Moving objects get deflected to their left on the Southern Hemisphere. Below is a short video of the rotating, empty tank, to show you what happens when you roll a ball in the rotating tank: It does not go straight ahead but just curves to the side!

Before Nadine, the scientist shown in the video, climbed into the tank, you saw her walking alongside it. Even though the tank was turning very slowly (only one rotation per 50 seconds), she had to walk quite fast to keep up! This is how fast we need to spin the tank in order to have it rotate at the right speed for the size of our Antarctica.

How does it all work?

There is only one tank of this size -- 13 meter diameter! -- in the world, and it is situated in Grenoble, France. Researchers from all over the world travel to France to do their experiments in this tank for a couple of weeks each. In the gif below, you see the tank rotating: First, you see an office moving past you (yes, there are several floors above the water, including the first one with an office, computers, desks, chairs and all! That's where we are during experiments, rotating with the tank) and then you can see the water below, lit in bright green. 

There is a huge amount of effort and money going into running research facilities like this, and everybody working with the tank needs to be highly specialized in their training.

What do experiments look like?

When there is water in the tank, we need some special tricks to show how the water is actually moving inside the tank. This is done by seeding particles, tiny plastic beads, into the water and lighting them with a laser. Then special cameras take pictures of the particles and using complicated calculations, we can figure out exactly how the currents are moving. Below, you see a gif of one of our experiments: The current starts coming in from the right side of the image, flowing along our model Antarctica, and then some of it turns into the canyon, while most of it just goes straight ahead.

Depending on the shape of our Antarctica, sometimes all the water turns into the canyon, or sometimes all of it goes straight ahead.

What have we learned?

That's a difficult question! We are still in the middle of doing our experiments, and the tricky part with research is that doing the experiments (even though that can be a huge undertaking as you see when you look at what a huge structure our tank is, or what enormous effort it requires to go to Antarctica with a research ship) is only a tiny step in the whole process. Nadine, who you saw in the movie above, is one of several people who will work on the data we are currently gathering for the next four years! But even though we are not finished with our research, there are definitely things we have learned. For example, the length of Antarctica's coast line that the current flows along before the canyon interrupts its flow is very important: The shorter it is, the larger the part of the current that turns into the canyon. How all our individual observations will fit together in a larger picture, however, will still take months and years of work to figure out.

Where can I learn more about this?

If you have any questions, we would love to hear from you! We are hosting an "Ask Me Anything" event on October 18th but you can also leave questions on our Facebook page or directly on our blog.

9 Oct 2017

Award Ceremony at the Ontario Science Centre

By Simon Shapiro

Last month the SWCC (Science Writers and Communicators of Canada) presented me with their 2016 Youth Book Award, for Faster, Higher, Smarter. The book is about people who had brilliant ideas in sport, and explains the science behind those ideas. It is a huge honour to receive the award. It was that much better because the award was presented at the Ontario Science Centre, and a wonderful group of grade 5 and grade 6 students from Grenoble Public School were there.

David McKay of the SWCC presented me with the award. 

Then I had a terrific time with the kids. I talked to them about the wide variety of innovators in the sports field. They were the most attentive audience ever.


I told them about the youngest innovator in the book. Thirteen-year-old Ollie Gelfand figured out how to levitate a skateboard while standing on top of it (thanks to Newton and his laws of motion). 
I talked about the oldest inventor in the book. Art Myers was a retired farmer who realized that using elastic energy in a flexible fibre glass vaulting pole would work better than a rigid aluminum one.

 They were spellbound hearing about the cyclist, Graeme Obree, who invented two different aerodynamic positions - both so much more effective than the standard one, that the cycling federation banned both of them. 

 They loved hearing about Howard Head, the unathletic engineer who totally transformed both skiing and tennis by inventing radical new skis and rackets. 

After the presentation, Maurice Bitran, the CEO of the Science Centre, moderated a Question and Answer segment. Enough hands went up that we could have been there for a couple of hours.

Annick Press generously donated a number of copies of the book to lucky students, so afterwards we had some quick autographs.


 Grenoble Public School, in the Flemingdon Park area, serves an immigrant population. Approximately 93% of the students and/or their parents have immigrated to Canada. Over 70 different languages are represented at the school! The school has won the prestigious National Quality Institute's Award of Merit as a Canadian school demonstrating excellence.

I was told that historically over 50% of these kids will go on to earn postgraduate degrees. Based on what I saw, that's easy to believe.

6 Oct 2017

Science Literacy or....What?

By Claire Eamer
Think scientists are scary? How about sitting
down with a few scientists at your local pub?
Not so scary after all, eh? Pint of Science is
one of several organizations making that happen.

A couple of days ago, I found myself in a Twitter conversation with an assortment of science communicators and scientists (sometimes, but not always, the same thing). We were talking about promoting science literacy. Or maybe not - because what do we actually mean by science literacy?

The conversation was sparked by a previous Twitter exchange, summarized in this blog post by the fiercely scientific and communicative Sarah BoonIs it time to stop using the phrase “science literacy”?

And that, in turn, started with a comment from Canada's new chief science adviser, Dr. Mona Nemer. She expressed concern that too many Canadians still think science is a matter of opinion rather than fact. She added, “I think that we need to develop a better dialog and better ways of exciting the youth about science.”

Imagine getting to play with all those cool science toys
at BC's Science World or Toronto's Ontario Science Centre,
without having to make way for scores of rowdy kids. It can
happen. Check your local science centre for an adults-only
night. And if there isn't one, ask them why not!
Now I spend a lot of time writing about science for kids and talking to kids about science - and most of them, I find, are already excited by science. Kids want to know how things work, where they come from, what they're made of - all the things that scientists want to know. And there are plenty of ways for kids to get involved with science: books, magazines, toys, museums, science centres, natural history clubs, space camps, and school itself.

But adults are another case entirely. I've met adults who are sure they can't understand science - are even afraid of science. And often intelligent, accomplished adults who are thoroughly competent in their own fields. At some point between the curious child and accomplished, competent adult, something has happened to convince them that they can't understand things scientific.

How about a science poetry slam? Or stand-up science comedy?
Watch as science lovers battle to communicate science.
What's on the line? Pride, fame, and eternal glory. And it's all
happening at a Science Slam near you.
They lack - in the most commonly used term - science literacy. That sounds awful, doesn't it? As if they can barely read and write. But, of course, that's not the case. Veteran science writer/broadcaster Jay Ingram suggests dropping the term science literacy entirely. No one's really sure what it means in practical terms, and it sounds like a chore, a duty, another unwelcome obligation in an already busy life.

I'd love to see grown-ups having as much fun with science as kids do. And why not? Imagine digging for real dinosaur bones, helping excavate a genuine archaeological site, peering at tiny critters through a microscope or enormous planets through a telescope. Imagine getting to play with all those gizmos and gadgets in science centres without having to compete with hyperactive eight-year-olds. That would be fun!

And, increasingly, you can do it. Science centres and museums and science communication organizations are recognizing that adults need some science fun too. Remember that Twitter conversation that started this bit of musing? It led to a bouquet of recommendations for organizations that are putting the fun back into science for us grown-ups. Click on the links under the images scattered around this post to learn more.

And - please - if you know of a great science event for grown-ups, add it in the Comments section below. Forget science literacy - let's have fun!

3 Oct 2017

The Elephant Keeper

By Margriet Ruurs

I am happy to share a new book with you that has been long in the making.

In 2014 I was lucky enough to travel to Zambia. There, I visited an elephant orphanage and learned much about how hard people work to help save an endangered species.

Elephants are in danger of illegal poaching. Because there are still countries in the world where people wants trinkets made from ivory, there are still poachers willing to kill these majestic animals.

When a mother elephant is killed, usually for her tusks, her baby elephant is left to die. Without her nursing and nurturing, the infant is not able to care for itself yet. In Zambia, Game Rangers International has trained staff that will rescue and transport the baby elephant.

The staff at Lilayi Elephant Orphanage have developed a milk formula and other pertinent care that gives the orphaned elephant a fighting chance.

Zambezi came to the orphanage at a young age after he was founded nearly drowning in a resort's pool near the Zambezi River in southern Zambia.

Aaron is the caretaker who was offered a job after rescuing Zambezi. To him, elephants had been the enemy that destroys crops in his village. But Aaron learned to care for elephants, to respect and to love them. Now he is a valuable caretaker who spends most of his waking hours with his little charges.

The elephants live in the protected forest and compound near Lusaka, until they are old enough to be released into the wild. They learn to forage and to act as elephants and form new family bonds with other orphaned elephants. They will live out their lives in the protected woods of Kafue National Park.

Find out how you can help - not only buy making sure you never buy anything made from ivory, but also by "adopting" a baby elephant. The $65.- US will pay for the elephant' food, milk, medicine and upkeep. What better gift for a child's birthday or a friend's Christmas gift than a baby elephant! You will receive photos and regular email updates!

Kids Can Press

978-1-77138-561-9 | Oct 3, 2017
List Price: USD $18.99, CAD $19.99
4-color  8 x 10 48 pages
Grades: 3 To 7 / Ages: 8 to 12

“A moving and unforgettable true story ...”
— Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review, August 2017
“... Ruurs's narrative builds a strong emotional connection between readers and the subject---this is a tale designed to pull at the heartstrings of readers.”
— School Library Journal, September 2017

23 Sep 2017

Science in Art

Spoiler warning: this post mentions artistic items people are making for sale -- but they're all about science!

This summer I have run into a few people who are inspired by science to make beautiful things. One is a potter looking at living cells through a microscope. One is a graduate student studying Earth Sciences, who inspires kids learning how science and art overlap in this way. And the third is making large pictures showing melting glaciers -- more colourful than you'd think!

Here's a photo I took this summer at the farmer's market in Sooke, BC, where Sydnie Nicole sells her ceramic art. She's studying Art Education, and the surfaces and glazes of her pottery show designs based on the images she sees of living cells through a microscope. Check out her website at this link, where you can see see photos of her work, and her artist's statement which reads in part:
Carved and stamped by hand, Sydnie’s functional and sculptural work reveals a dedication to detail that bridges the disciplines of craft and science into the everyday world.
One particularly charming oval platter is designed to show what a pine needle looks like when you cut a slice across the needle and focus a microscope on the slice. Along with mugs and bowls and plates she makes from clay, Sydnie also has this interesting panel of wall art you can see on the easel behind her, called "Biomedical Artistica." She teamed up with biomedical grad researcher Andrew Agbay for this piece, which shows small spheres delivering medication to the network of living stem cells turning into neurons.

This pair of pottery pieces is a particular favourite of hers -- it's salt and pepper shakers, that sit on her dining table. The nifty part is that the salt cellar is shaped like salt crystals are, in a cube. The pepper shaker is shaped like a black peppercorn, round with wrinkles. Charming!

I found another science artist, but this time online. Jill Pelto is studying for her Masters degree in Earth Sciences at University of Maine. You can check out her Twitter feed at this link, which shows some of her interesting drawings. "I create field sketches of places I have researched, and environmental illustrations," wrote Jill Pelto on her Twitter profile. Y'see, Jill not only makes drawings in the field when she's out gathering data on glaciers and doing research in places as far away as the Falkland Islands, or New Zealand and Antarctica. She makes art based on the jagged lines and curves made when her data is printed in a graph. Sometimes a zigzag line will look to her like a melting glacier, other times it will be part of her drawing of a forest fire. 

Here is an image of her work "Proxies for the Past" which appeared on Yale Climate Connections website. You can read what they wrote about Jill Pelto and her art at this link. To see more of Jill Pelto's art, check out this link to where she sells some of her Glaciogenic Art, including that image.
On Twitter, there's a link to images created by students who were inspired by Jill Pelto's art. It's nice to see emerging art as well as her polished pieces.

And if you're a fan of science-inspired art and want to see more, check out the pastel drawings done by Zaria Forman at this link, where she is making a striking series of images based on photographs of glaciers in Antarctica. She makes drawings and paintings using pastels, a chalk-y medium, on large sheets of white paper and large canvases. In the video shown at the link, she is working on a drawing big enough that she is using her fingers to apply the pastels. Melting glaciers means more than just statistics to me when I can see so many shades of blue and white in the ice she draws!

22 Sep 2017

Book Review: When Planet Earth Was New

It’s hard to say a lot about a book that has only 300 words. It’s elegant. It’s simple. It’s a look at billions of years of Earth’s natural history in 16 images.

This picture book is made up of engaging stylized art accompanied by super-simple text with a touch of the poetic. I would love to have a little kid again to read this to. It is accurate, but accessible. Images are full of action. Gladstone wrote about complex things using words are short and common; though a parent might have to explain “evolve,” it is a common word. Sentences hover around 10 words.
“The earth cooled slowly — so slowly…”

While this book doesn’t have the resilience of a board book, I’d much rather have read this to my son than Goodnight Moon every night for four years, even before he knew what the words meant. We would look at all the scenes, talking about what is shown, how long a million is, whether humans rode dinosaurs (they didn’t, and the text makes it clear that the two creatures are separated by several pages). We would use the folio at the end to guide discovery of each image, making it a scavenger hunt as we spot more detail. A glossary and list of related websites would help me explain even more and guide that little learner where their curiosity leads.

Diemert created the art with ink, collage, and digital media. She made every image active and engaging and full of detail that kids will love to discover every single night. Even the spread showing a dinosaur skeleton in the desert has an active tiny creature kids can imagine a story for.

The book leaves us with a sense that though Earth’s journey was long, it’s not over. Little minds will wonder where it might lead, and they’ll repeat the poetic words making them part of the family lexicon.

Recommended for kids from 1 to 8.
by James Gladstone, illustrations by Katherine Diemert
36 pages, OwlKids Books

Images from the book reproduced with permission of OwlKids Books.

Moving Moai and the Birdman Battle

By Margriet Ruurs

Note: This is the second of two posts by Margriet about Rapa Nui. To see the first, go to https://sci-why.blogspot.ca/2017/09/exploring-world-through-travel-rapa.html

Walking along the steep cliffs of the southwest coast of Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, I gaze down on foaming white waves pounding the shore of a small island: Moto Nui. This is where history was made.

The view of Moto Nui from the cliffs of the larger island, Rapa Nui.
The first inhabitants likely arrived on Rapa Nui in wooden canoes from far-away Tahiti. From these first few grew a population of thousands. But European diseases and fighting reduced their numbers to a low of 110 at one point. After the era of the moai (stone figure) carving culture, competing tribes designed a non-violent way to establish order on Easter Island: the Birdman Cult. Chosen young men competed for the right to have their tribe rule for the next year, until the next competition was held.

Birdman figure
The competition was held near the most important site on the island, the Rano Kau volcano, and consisted of climbing down the steep rock face of Orongo to the wild ocean below, building rafts from reeds, using these as flotation devices and swimming the rough kilometre-wide passage of pounding ocean to Moto Nui island.

The young men had to bring back the first egg laid by birds returning in spring. They tucked this egg into a woven headband, swam the ocean and climbed the cliff to hand the egg, unbroken, to the chief.

I saw tiny rock houses at Orongo and scattered rocks carved with birdman and boat pictures. We climbed the sides of the ancient volcano to look inside the crater, filled with shallow lakes where drinking water was collected and reeds for the rafts were cut.

The best came last, when we visited the site famous from so many photos – the long row of moai standing shoulder to shoulder. This is iconic face of Easter Island.

But my favourite site is the quarry. When I first heard the name, I pictured a rock excavation site where rocks were dug up. However, when you approach the quarry, it is as if the stone people have come to life and are walking out of the mountain from where they were born. A gently sloping green side of a volcano is scattered with upright figures. They seem to be walking down, stumbling and standing all over the slopes. The sight gave me goosebumps and a lump in my throat.

The moai were carved here from gigantic blocks of basalt and lava. Weighing many tons and measuring up to ten metres in height, their individual features were carved. I had heard that most figures only show the upper body while the lower half is still buried.

Before I saw them, I thought that this meant that the moai had been covered by drifting sand over the ages. But that is not true at all. There is no sand. Only lava and rocks. The artists did not have ladders, so they dug deep pits in which they lowered or raised the moai until they could reach their faces to carve them.

Once a figure was finished, it was erected and “walked” down the mountain to spots all over the island – a mind-boggling feat that National Geographic has tried to recreate.

Why did people stop carving and moving the figures? It seems like they were in the middle of ongoing projects when work came to a halt. No one knows why.

Why did the Rapa Nui create these statues in the first place? Scientists believe that well-to-do families ordered a moai in memory of an important member of the community. When this person died, male or female, a moai was constructed in his or her image and erected over their bones.

Once the grey basalt figure, with or without red lava topknot, had been given white coral eyes with a black obsidian center, it was believed that the deceased person’s spirit had entered the moai and would now protect Rapa Nui and its future generations.

For details on Easter Island and its history, click here: http://www.mysteriousplaces.com/easter_island/

See a reenactment of ‘walking’ the statues here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yvvES47OdmY

All photos by Margriet and Kies Ruurs. For more of the Ruurs's travel adventures, visit their blog, Globetrotting Grandparents.