6 May 2018

Nano-history (and Happy Birthday, Richard Feynman)

Richard Feynman was born 100 years ago, on May 11, 1918. He was one of the best physicists of the 20th century. He was famous for winning a Nobel prize for quantum physics; for helping develop the atomic bomb as a member of the Manhattan project; for being a brilliant physics teacher, and for playing the bongo drums. Maybe a little less well-known is that he's regarded as being the 'godfather' of nanotechnology.

He taught physics at Caltech (California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, which is famous not only for being where The Big Bang Theory guys work). The godfathering happened there, with a talk that Feynman gave in 1959, called There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom. In it, he mused about "the problem of manipulating and controlling things on a small scale" and its potential.
 He talked about the state of the art of miniaturization. How there were electric motors the size of a small fingernail and how the Lord's Prayer could be written on the head of a pin. He dismissed these as primitive.

Graham Short spent 300 hours engraving this.
Feynman's challenge was to write the entire 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica on the head of a pin, and produce an electric motor that would fit inside a cube 1/64th inch wide. Being Feynman, of course, he'd worked out all the math and showed that was certainly feasible. Then he went further and showed that if you didn't limit yourself to writing the information on the surface of an object, that all of the published books in the world could be written in a cube of material one two-hundredth of an inch wide! His point was, that as you get to the atomic scale, there's not just room, but plenty of room down there.

Feynman identified that a major barrier to miniaturization was that the then state-of-the-art electron microscopes weren't good enough. He called for an improvement in magnification of 100 times. In 1981 the Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM) was developed which was able to 'see' individual atoms. The STM works because of the quantum tunnel effect. The tip of a scanner goes back and forth very close to the surface of the sample. Electrons jump the gap from the sample being scanned to the scanner tip, even though they "shouldn't" have enough energy to do that. But the Heisenberg uncertainty principle shows that there is a small probability that they will, so a small number of electrons do just that. And the resulting electrical current is measured, revealing where the atoms are.

As the scanning tip gets closer to an atom, the current increases.
 Feynman went on to muse about how miniaturizing would be necessary to build computers powerful enough to do interesting and complex tasks. He gave face recognition as an example, and stated that with existing technology, a computer powerful enough for that would have to be the size of the Pentagon. He would have been thrilled to see the new iPhone X - small enough to fit in your pocket and using face recognition to allow access to only the owner.

He discussed how we might use tiny machines, and talked about the possibility of medical surgery by nano scale robots. That hasn't happened yet, but it's an enormously popular research field, and some applications are close.

Feynman talked about two possible ways of building things at the atomic scale. The goal of nano-physicists would be to assemble materials by building them directly using atoms as building blocks. He suggested that chemists might be able to do it more quickly by synthesizing the material out of related substances using chemical processes. He would have been fascinated by the technology of DNA Origami. (You have to love the evocative name.) Scientists take long strands of DNA, and then add shorter strands, called staples, which bind to the long strands in specific places, folding them into predetermined shapes.

Danish scientists at the Aarhus University Center for DNA Nanotechnology created a three dimensional box made out of DNA that features a lid that can be opened when a specific DNA strand is introduced as a key. The technology may allow for targeted drug delivery, with the lid opening when sensing the presence of a particular pathogen.

 At the end of his talk Feynman issued two challenges, and promised a prize of $1,000 to the first person who could make a 1/64 inch electric motor, and a similar amount to the first person to reduce a page of type by a factor of 25,000 (the scale you need to get Britannica on the head of a pin).

To Feynman's surprise, less than a year later, a Caltech engineer by the name of Bill McLellan walked into his office carrying a big box. Feynman thought this was yet another crank who hadn't understood the challenge. McLellan opened up his box to show a microscope and Feynman said "Uh-oh, nobody else brought a microscope." Feynman paid out the $1,000 but was disappointed that McLellan had built the motor using existing technology. Feynman had wanted his challenge to stimulate innovative technology.

The other prize was more satisfying. It was 26 years before a Stanford University graduate student, Thomas Newman, reproduced the first page of Charles Dickens' novel, A Tale of Two Cities, on a page only 1/160 millimeter long (20 times smaller than the human eye can see), using electron beam lithography. Feynman was happy to pay that prize since it had stimulated new technology.

Feynman's legacy continues: the non-profit Foresight Institute awards an annual "Feynman Prize" for the most significant recent advance in nanotechnology. It also offers a $250,000 "Feynman Grand Prize" for the first group which builds
  1. a robotic arm that fits into a cube of 100 nanometers, and
  2. a computer no bigger than a cube of 50 nanometers that can add two 8-bit numbers, and output the answer as raised nanometer-scale bumps on a level surface. 
Feynman would have loved it!

27 Apr 2018

Looking for a Good Science Book? But Where to Start....

By Claire Eamer

If you're curious about Canadian kids' science books, but you don't know quite where to start, consider taking advantage of the expertise of others. A lot of that expertise goes into choosing shortlists and winners for a number of annual book awards that honour science and non-fiction writing for children. Here's where you'll find some of the best titles in Canadian science writing for children -- including some books by Sci/Why bloggers.
L.E. Carmichaeil's Fuzzy Forensics won the
2014 Lane Anderson Award for Youth Books.

Canadian Science Writing Awards

Science in Society Youth Book Award is given annually by the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada. For recent and current shortlisted and winning books, follow the links on the organization’s website at http://sciencewriters.ca/  Award winners for 2014 and earlier are listed on the Canadian Children’s Book Centre website at http://bookcentre.ca/awards/science-society-book-award-0/

The Lane Anderson Awards recognize Canadian science writing in both adult and youth categories. The current year’s shortlist will appear on the main website at http://laneandersonaward.ca/  Past winners and shortlisted books are at http://laneandersonaward.ca/past-winners-and-finalists/

Canadian Information Book Awards

The Children’s Literature Roundtables of Canada’s Information Book Award names a winner and an Honour Book each year. Many of the shortlisted and winning books are science books. For current and previous winners, go to the Vancouver Children’s Literature Roundtable’s website at http://vclr.ca/information-book-award/

The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk by Sci/Why's own
Jan Thornhill won the 2017 Information Book Award
given by the Canadian Children's Literature Roundtables.

The Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children’s Non-Fiction was established by the Fleck Family Foundation and the Canadian Children’s Book Centre. For a complete list of winners and shortlisted titles, many of them about science, go to http://bookcentre.ca/programs/awards/norma-fleck-award-for-canadian-childrens-non-fiction/previous-winners-and-finalists/ 

International Awards

The American Institute of Physics presents an annual award for science communication for children, and Canadian writers have won on occasion, most recently in 2017. The list of previous winners is at https://www.aip.org/aip/awards/science-communication/children

Claire Eamer's Inside Your Insides: A Guide to the
Microbes That Call You Home
was on the shortlist
for the 2018 AAAS/Subaru SB&F award.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science gives out the AAAS/Subaru Science Book & Film awards, and Canadian books have appeared on the award shortlists frequently. Find winners and shortlisted books at https://www.aaas.org/program/aaassubaru-sbf-prize

Our Booklist

If the awards lists have whetted your appetite for Canadian science writing for kids, why not delve deeper? Take a look at Sci/Why's own annotated listing of Canadian kids' science books. It's a free download on the Sci/Why site at https://sci-why.blogspot.ca/p/science-book-list.html

20 Apr 2018

A Mathematician Barbie???? Who'da Thunk It?

Post by Helaine Becker

When I was growing up, Barbie was the ultimate aspirational toy. She had a fantastic slinky black dress. An over the top wedding dress. And clothes for being a stewardess, a picnicker, and attending a sock hop.

But there was no Barbie mathematician attire. Are you kidding? This was the era of "men don't make passes at girls who where glasses." And "men don't like women who are smarter than they are. So play dumb!"

Image for BRB INSPR WMN DL 3 from Mattel

Times have moved on. Not enough, of course, but some.

And this is where I get to tell you about the newest dolls in Barbie's inspiring women collection, being released next month. One of them is Katherine Johnson, the subject of my upcoming picture book, Counting on Katherine. 

I only wish this doll had been available when I was growing up. I might not have skipped out on grade 12 calculus.

13 Apr 2018

The Littlest Mummy

Brooklyn Museum, 30 B.C.E. – 50 C.E.

Even people who really love Egyptology and know a lot about ancient mummies might be curious about this little bundle of linen. It's only about nine inches (21 centimeters) long, and less than two inches (3.5 centimeters) at its thickest point. What in the world could be mummified in such a small package?

The answer to this question can be found using modern technology! Modern scientists prefer to use non-destructive methods to learn more about mummies from the past. Instead of cutting or damaging their wrappings, they instead put them into a medical scanner.

Here's another mummy bundle with a very similar size, shape and date. When we look inside...what do we see?

Penn Museum, E12435: mummy from the side, paired with radiograph
It's a tiny animal! Even though the radiograph might seem a little hazy, this is obviously a small mammal skeleton. You can clearly make out the teeth and the long tail.

Most of us are not experts when it comes to mummies OR small mammals, but zooarchaeologist Kate Moore had the answer. It was the teeth that were the real give-away--this was a mummy of one of the world's smallest mammals, the Egyptian sacred shrew.

Dr. Moore and a shrew skull
Of course, this answer leads to more questions. What did a live Egyptian shrew look like, for example? And why would you make one into a sacred mummy?

The Egyptian pygmy shrew (Image Bibliotheca Alexandrina)
The answer to the first question is simple--an Egyptian sacred shrew was pretty adorable! It was a very tiny creature, which could easily fit into the palm of your hand. It was very similar in size and appearance to one of its close living relatives today, the Etruscan shrew.

Wikipedia image of Etruscan shrew.
The answer to the second question is a bit more complicated. The important thing to understand is that many animal mummies in ancient Egypt were made as votive offerings--they were gifts to be offered to the gods. The links between animals and the gods were symbolic.

Shrews, although they are very tiny, are incredibly fierce animals! And because they are such mighty mites, they are capable of killing snakes and destroying their eggs. In ancient Egypt, the shrews were representatives of the god Horus, the protector of the Sun. By day, Horus has the form of a Falcon, but by night, Horus takes the form of a shrew or an Egyptian mongoose, to keep up His eternal battle against the cobras and crocodiles that threaten the Sun on its cosmic journey.


Animal mummies are a fascinating topic, and there are lots of great resources where you can learn more about them.

SOULFUL CREATURES: ANIMAL MUMMIES OF ANCIENT EGYPT is available on Amazon. But if you can't afford your own copy, you might find it in your library. If your library doesn't have a copy--you could always ask them to buy one for the collection!

National Geographic Magazine also has a gallery of ancient Egyptian animal mummies, which has beautiful images. It is connected to an article which was published in the magazine in November 2009. Does your library have back issues of National Geographic?

The Penn Museum Artifact Lab has a blog where scientist Molly Gleeson publishes posts about the lab's study of animal mummies using modern scanning technology.

The New York Times ran an interesting article about the Soulful Creatures Exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, which includes facts and interviews with scientists who study Egyptian animal mummies.


Arinn Dembo is a professional science fiction writer and software developer working in Vancouver, BC. She has degrees in Anthropology and Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology, and volunteers as a science educator at Vancouver's The Learnary, where she teaches an ongoing series of workshops called Gothic Science.

6 Apr 2018

Moby, we hardly knew ya!

By Claire Eamer

I recently wrote an article for Hakai Magazine, an online magazine about coastal life and science, on the accuracy (or lack of it) in the way whales are portrayed in children's books. Researching that article led me to a great irony: whole species and populations of cetaceans -- both whales and dolphins -- are at risk of extinction because of humans, while, at the same time, we humans are just realizing how amazing and possibly how like us cetaceans are. We could lose whales -- or, at least, a great many of them -- before we really get to know them.

A blue whale surfaces in the open ocean. Pixabay photo

The Bad News First

 Instead of teeth, blue whales and
right whales have baleen, plates
made of keratin, 
that sieve food
out of the water.
Claire Eamer photo
The bad-news side of that equation is how much damage we have already done to the world's whales. Take, for example, the blue whale, the largest animal that ever lived on Earth. Before the days of commercial whaling, the world population was probably about 250,000. Today, 50 years after an international ban on hunting blue whales went into effect, the world population has recovered to somewhere between 10,000 and 25,000 individuals, scattered across all the world's oceans except the Arctic Ocean. That's a tenth or less of what the world once supported.

Other whale species are further from recovery -- some maybe too far. North Atlantic right whales had a terrible year in 2017. At least 17 died in the waters off Atlantic Canada and the Atlantic coast of the United States, most as a result of ship strikes or entanglement in fishing gear. The most recent estimates put the population of North Atlantic right whales at about 430. About 100 are reproductive females, but after the most recent breeding season no new calves have been spotted. Some scientists have warned that the whales are just a couple of decades from extinction if nothing changes.

The waters around southern Vancouver Island, where I live, are home to a population of killer whales that is in just as much trouble as the North Atlantic right whales. Maybe even more trouble. The southern resident killer whales are fish-eaters -- and a whale can eat a lot of fish. They rely heavily on chinook salmon, which used to return to their spawning grounds along the coast of the Pacific Northwest in huge numbers. But commercial fishing, habitat destruction, and contaminants have reduced the numbers of chinook and, along with them, the numbers of fish-eating killer whales. The southern resident killer whale population is down to just 76 individuals at last count, and even those few have having trouble finding enough salmon to stay alive and healthy.

Killer whales, whether they eat fish or mammals, have impressive sets
of sharp teeth to catch and hold their prey. Claire Eamer photo

And Now the Good News

The good news is that we're learning a lot about whales, both through science and through a growing recognition of the traditional knowledge of whale-hunting cultures, such as the Inuit and other peoples of the Arctic. Perhaps if we know enough about them, we will care enough to save and protect them. As a start, here are some cool facts about whales.

Whales have cultures. They pass knowledge and forms of communication down from generation to generation. The southern resident killer whales know how and where to hunt for salmon, and they pass that information on to their calves. The Bigg's killer whales (also known as transients) know how to hunt sea mammals, such as seals and sea lions, and they pass that information along, generation after generation, possibly for millennia. A 2010 genetic study showed that Bigg's killer whales, which often hunt in the same waters as the southern resident killer whales, have been separate from other killer whale populations for 700,000 years.

Whales have language. And they sing songs. The long and complex songs of humpback whales have fascinated scientists and non-scientists alike for decades, but they're not the only singing whales. Most recently, scientists working near Svalbard in the Arctic catalogued 184 different song types sung by bowhead whales in the icy dark of an arctic winter.

Whales are like us in another important way -- they're mammals and they breathe air. However, over millions of years, their bodies have adapted to life in the water. Their nostrils moved to the tops of their heads and became blowholes that can suck in a lungful of air at the water's surface. The passage leading from their mouths to their lungs -- that's what lets us breathe through our mouths -- closed off so that they could gulp up food under water without drowning.

A Bigg's killer whale, its blowhole clearly visible, swims past
 the shore of Vancouver Island. Alan Daley photo
And they learned to sleep without breathing in water instead of air. A whale or dolphin rests only half its brain at a time. The other half stays slightly awake in order to make sure the animal opens its blowhole to take a breath of air and closes it to keep out water. After the sleeping half of the brain has had a thorough rest, it takes over breathing and swimming duties while the other half sleeps. Scientists call this method cat-napping but whale-napping seems a much better name!

That's just a taste of the amazing things we've learned about whales. If we can avoid harming them further with noise, pollution, fishing gear entanglement, ship strikes, habitat destruction, and all the other dangers we have created for them, we could learn so much more.

5 Apr 2018

Science Humour both profound and practical

There was a new Bloom County comic put out this week on Twitter and Facebook by cartoonist Berkeley Breathe. One of his characters, young Oliver Wendell Jones, is a science fan. The kid makes a nice contrast to the central character of Opus the penguin. This comic managed to have a blend of science humour that was both profound and practical. Inventions are wonderful things! You can check out the image here at this link.

30 Mar 2018

Big Pharma is Not Suppressing the Cure for Cancer

by L. E. Carmichael

Courtesy of Doug Wheller via Flickr Commons
Lately my Facebook feed has filled up with memes and videos about miracle cures for cancer that THEY don't want you to know about. I've avoided commenting on them, because I don't want to offend my friends, but every time I see one of these things, I spontaneously combust.

Look, I get it. I lost my mother to cancer in 2009, two days before her 56th birthday. I have lived the rollercoaster of pain and grief and desperation that cancer causes, and I would have given anything for a miraculous Australian plant to implode her tumours in one tasty and side-effect free treatment. So would she, believe me.

I'm not an oncologist or a cancer researcher, but I am a geneticist. And since cancer is a genetic disease, it got covered at length during my schooling. Which means you can trust me when I say that Big Pharma is not suppressing the cure for cancer. Even leaving aside the logistics of maintaining a conspiracy on that scale, it's just not possible, because there is no single cure for cancer, and there never will be.

Because cancer is complicated.

We call it cancer as though it's a single condition, like Type I diabetes or ALS, but "cancer" is actually an umbrella term for dozens of further categories of disease. They all have one thing in common - the mechanisms that control normal cell division in our bodies (the kind that seals that nasty paper cut) break down. Without those controls in place, the cells just keep on dividing, forming tumours and rampaging through the body. But here's the thing. Although the end result - out of control cell division - is the hallmark of cancer, the pathway by which cells lose control is always different. Always.

That's because the systems that control cell division are encoded in our genes. And the mutations that destroy those systems are accidents. They are random. Mutations can happen in any gene at any time. Acquisition of a collection of mutations that cause the failsafes to break down is completely coincidental.

Which means that every single cancer patient's cancer is unique. And that's why it's so difficult to treat. Cancer doctors and researchers have no choice but to play the odds - to attack the things that different cancers often have in common. But they can't account for the endless variation, no matter how hard they try. And they can't prevent cancer cells from continuing to mutate, becoming resistant to treatment - just like bacteria become resistant to antibiotics.

And that's why there will never be a magic bullet cure for cancer. It's not because cancer researchers aren't motivated - many of them choose to study cancer because they've lost loved ones of their own. And it's certainly not because there's too much money is keeping people sick (which is patently ridiculous - every economist will tell you that sick people cost money). "THE CURE" will never be found because cancer is a moving target, and worse, it's a target that's embedded so deeply within us, it can never be fully eradicated.

So stop with the memes, please. Just stop. And if you want to know more about what cancer medicine is really up against, do yourself a favour - read Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies. It will make you grateful that cancer medicine has come as far as it has.