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.

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WANT TO LEARN MORE?

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.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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.

13 Mar 2018

Nanotennis

By Simon Shapiro

Nanotechnology deals with particles ranging in size from 1 to 100 nanometers. A nanometer is one millionth of a meter. That's very small: a newspaper page is about 100,000 nanometers thick. Atoms are about .1 to .5 nanometers in diameter, so nanotechnology works at a molecular level.

Materials start behaving differently at nano scale and scientists are learning about this behaviour and finding uses for nano materials. One of the success stories has been graphene and carbon nanotubes.

Graphene
Image by AlexanderAlUS

 Graphene consists of a lattice of carbon atoms in a hexagonal pattern. It's a sheet of carbon one atom thick. And it's the strongest material ever discovered 200 times stronger than steel, but also very light and flexible.

Carbon Nanotube
By Arnero - Own work, Public Domain
Graphene can be formed into a cylindrical shape, which is call a nanotube. It's light, strong and stiff.

 So what does nanotechnology have to do with tennis? Would you believe tiny tennis players hitting electrons across a 1 nanometer high net? No, me neither.

In the early 1970s an aeronautical engineer by the name of Howard Head, revolutionized tennis by inventing a racket with a much bigger face. It was a huge improvement over existing rackets especially for average players. Head did this by making the frame out of aluminum, instead of wood, which wasn't strong enough for larger rackets. (This was Head's second sports revolution: 25 years earlier he had developed plywood/aluminum/steel/plastic skis which blew away the existing solid hickory ones. You can read about this story in my book Faster, Higher, Smarter.)

Head's idea of a larger racket face is still the dominant design, but technologists have been working away to improve the materials used. And the most advanced rackets today all use graphene sheets or nanotubes to make portions of the racket lighter, stronger and more rigid.

Silica (silicon dioxide) is another nanotechnology material used in tennis rackets. Silica nanoparticles are used to fill the gaps in other materials, for example between nanotubes. The silica adds stability and strength, without adding much weight.

Clay Nanoparticles
Silicon atom at the centre and four
oxygen atoms at the vertices

Still with tennis, balls use clay nanoparticles on the inside membrane. These silicon oxide particles are tetrahedral shaped molecules which form a barrier to gas. No gas leaking out gives the ball a longer life.

Fullerenes (or Buckminsterfullerenes, or just "Buckyballs") are carbon molecules made up of 60 carbon atoms linked into pentagons and hexagons, forming a structure that looks exactly like a soccer ball. It also looks like a geodesic dome. (The American architect, Buckminster Fuller, popularized the geodesic dome, earning him the nano-homage).  While we're on the subject of appropriate names, one of the three Nobel laureates for discovering Fullerenes was Richard Smalley!


Soccer ball 
By Pumbaa80 (Self-published work
by Pumbaa80) via Wikimedia Commons

Buckminsterfullerene
By Mstroeck at English Wikipedia

Buckyballs are also used in tennis rackets, to make them lighter and more resistant to twisting.

Nanotechnology is used in lots of other sports equipment.
  • Golf clubs: carbon nanotubes are used for strength and lightness. Buckyballs are used for flexibility.
  • Fishing rods: use silica nanoparticles to fill spaces between carbon fibres, strengthening the rod without increasing the weight. 
  • Kayaking: carbon nanotubes are used to enhance resistance to abrasion and cracks; nanoclay is used to reduce weight and resistance, making it easier to paddle.
  • Archery: carbon nanotubes reduce vibration in arrows.
  • Bowling: buckyballs reduce chipping and cracking on bowling balls.
  • Cycling: graphene and carbon nanotubes are used to build very strong and light bicycle frames. 
Nanotechnology is really important in other industries, of course: electronics, pharmaceuticals, textiles, food ... More to come in future blogs.



2 Mar 2018

The Science of Walking and The Art of Problem-Solving

By Larry Verstraete

My wife, Jo, and I are ardent hikers. She more than me, actually. Jo outpaces me on every trail, faithfully charts her steps with her Garmin, and competes with others online. I’m a bit slower, usually a quarter, perhaps a half kilometre behind. I track my steps, too, as well as heart rate and total distance, but I’m more interested in how far I’ve gone.

Recent studies tout the benefits of walking. Moderate walking reduces the odds of heart disease, stroke, insulin dependence and diabetes. It improves mood and sleep, reduces stress and anxiety, boosts energy and increases focus. Walking also changes the brain in remarkable ways.

A study conducted at the University of British Columbia found that regular brisk walking increases the size of the hippocampus, the brain region that monitors verbal memory and learning. Stanford researchers, meanwhile, discovered that creativity jumped 60% when subjects walked. Other studies showed that walking for 40 minutes three times a week Increased performance on cognitive tests and reduced declines in brain function as we age. It didn’t matter what kind of walking – whether on a mountain trail or on a treadmill – the benefits were the same.

Many problem solvers incorporate walking into their regimen. Aside from the physical benefits, walking is a way to wipe the slate clean, kick-start creativity, and channel fresh ideas. William Blake, William Wordsworth, and Henry Thoreau were among the many creative types who embraced walking.

“Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move,” Thoreau wrote, “my thoughts begin to flow.”

When I walk, my mind drifts which might explain why I sometimes lose sight of Jo and have taken a wrong turn more than once. While that’s not a good thing, the drifting part can be – at least to a writer like me. While plodding a respectful distance behind Jo, I’ve solved problems and come up with some of my best ideas.

Turns out, I am growing my brain too.  Who knew?

Photos by Larry Verstraete. Brain image from Pixabay.