- Annual Meeting
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Each year the Canadian Science Writers’ Association offers two book awards to honour outstanding contributions to science writing 1) intended for and available to children/middle grades ages 8-12 years, and 2) intended for and available to the general public for books that were published in Canada during the previous calendar year. This year the CSWA received a record number of entries in both categories. Entries were judged on the basis of initiative, originality, scientific accuracy, clarity of interpretation and value in promoting a better understanding of science by the public.
The winners for outstanding books published in 2013 are:
Outstanding General Audience Book:
Ray Jayawardhana for Neutrino Hunters: The Thrilling Chase for a Ghostly Particle to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe
Honourable Mention to Carolyn Abraham for The Jugglers Children
Outstanding Youth Book:
Shar Levine and Leslie Johnstone for Dirty Science: 25 Experiments with Soil
Neutrino Hunters is not what you expect from a science book on a topic that can hard for the general public to understand, “Neutrino Hunters was, quite frankly, a surprise to me. These expositions are typically dense and arcane, much like their subject matter, but this one was a lucid account of a complex and almost quixotic search. I went from “so what” to “cool” pretty quickly, without feeling that I was being talked down to.” Another judge said, “I think what most impressed me about it is that Ray Jayawardhana infused a human element into the book that made the book engaging. It also contained very easy to understand information about neutrinos and why they are relevant to the average person, or why it could be relevant in the future.”
Ray Jayawardhana is a professor and the Canada Research Chair in Observational Astrophysics at the University of Toronto. A graduate of Yale and Harvard, he has coauthored over 100 scientific papers. His discoveries have made headlines worldwide and have brought him numerous accolades such as the Steacie Prize, the McLean Award, the Rutherford Medal and the Radcliffe Fellowship. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Economist, Scientific American and more. The author of Strange New Worlds, he lives in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @DrRayJay and on the web at www.rayjay.net.
The Jugglers Children tackles profound questions around the genetics of identity, race and humanity and tells a big story about our small world, with vivid proof that genes bind us all to the branches of one family tree.
Carolyn Abraham is the author of Possessing Genius: The Bizarre Odyssey of Einstein’s Brain, which was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-fiction. She is a four-time winner of the Canadian Science Writer’s Association annual journalism award for her medical reporting and winner of two National Newspaper Awards. She lives with her family in Toronto. www.thejugglerschildren
Dirty Science: 25 Experiments with Soil is filled with fun, easy experiments and the lively illustrations that readers have come to expect from the team behind Scary Science: 25 Creepy Experiments and Snowy Science: 25 Cool Experiments. Budding scientists discover all the fun things you can do with dirt. There’s more to dirt than, well, dirt. In fact, don’t call it dirt to a scientist — it’s soil! Soil can tell you a lot about where you live and what’s going on behind, or beneath, the scenes.
Shar Levine and Leslie Johnstone are international award-winning and best-selling authors of over 70 children’s science books and science toys and kits. Leslie Johnstone is also head of a high school science department. Shar Levine is the President of the Children’s Book Centre. Shar is also a frequent guest speaker and demonstrator in schools and at educational conferences. www.sciencelady.com
The winners will be presented with their awards during the CSWA’s annual conference in Toronto at the awards banquet on June 7th.
by Sarah Boon
Do you comment on science-related blog posts or online articles? Do you share via Twitter or LinkedIn? Maybe you send an email about it to a few friends and you end up talking about it over coffee or lunch.
Ultimately a science article – and the discussion around it – tend to occur in parallel rather than in tandem. The author is likely unaware those conversations are happening, so misses out on feedback that provides alternate perspectives and generates new story ideas.
Scilogs.com is a science blogging network run by Nature publishing group, and includes Canadian bloggers like Malcolm Campbell (University of Toronto) and Chris Buddle (McGill University). One of its core mandates is to “combine the strengths of science culture and the blog medium”, largely by promoting interdisciplinary discussions about science and its related fields. To bring together science writers with their audience and increase public engagement in science, they’ve launched a new project called OpenSciLogs. This project was initiated by Paige Brown (@FromTheLabBench), a mass media communication PhD student at Louisiana State University, who shared her brainstorming and idea generating sessions via Twitter.
— Paige Brown (@FromTheLabBench) April 16, 2014
How does it work? Brown explained the concept briefly on Twitter:
— Paige Brown (@FromTheLabBench) April 16, 2014
I'm hoping that #OpenSciLogs can produce science stories that move from blog to larger media outlets, digital & traditional
— Paige Brown (@FromTheLabBench) April 16, 2014
The concept is empower science writers outside of traditional media outlets, by giving many writers ownership of the storytelling proccess
— Paige Brown (@FromTheLabBench) April 16, 2014
For more detail on OpenSciLogs, see her Medium post and her own blog at SciLogs. The basic premise is the development of “crowd-funded, open access, participatory science writing to produce in-depth science reporting from the ground up.”
The big question is: will it work? No one knows, but I’d like to share a few preliminary thoughts.
On the plus side, the new model promotes increased engagement with the science writing community, and seeks to foster collaboration and accommodate a diversity of voices and viewpoints. It also provides more in depth background to a story. This is what I enjoy about The Open Notebook’s model: that you see the mechanics of a story, from idea generation and shopping it around to good venues, to the research and writing itself. This provides a great opportunity to improve your own skills, and also gives additional context for the final product.
By incorporating the in-text commenting model of Medium, the conversation about a post can be more specific, and can also better incorporate the author. There should be a way to link to Twitter discussions on n OpenSciLogs project too, as those are plentiful and often quite insightful. Perhaps a hashtag for each project would be helpful to track discussion of that project via Twitter (currently they’re using the #OpenSciLogs hashtag to track conversation about the project).
On the negative side, the time investment is high for both the journalist starting the project, and for those personally engaged in reviewing, commenting on, or taking on side projects related to the main story. While researching and writing an article is one thing, inviting in a broader audience and explaining the process behind the article adds more work. For those involved later in the project – with online discussions, researching side stories, etc. – they invest a huge commitment of time and personal responsibility following the story to the end. In a community where many people do significant volunteer work on the side, how many people will be able to commit to this without being overloaded? Plus, the open peer review model also depends on volunteers for the review process, and some studies have suggested that reviewers are less likely to participate in an open review process – leaving the rest of the community to pick up the slack.
My biggest concern, however, is how this project will engage people outside the science communication community. Even the language of the launch post on Medium presumes some knowledge of science communication jargon and of the science communication community itself.
How can we spread the word beyond the community? This outreach needs more thought, as it’s critical to the success of OpenSciLogs that new voices be heard and integrated, to avoid being just the same group of people.
Perhaps OpenSciLogs could link to journalism/science communication programs to engage students. For example, here in Canada we have a new Science Communication Summer Institute at Seneca College with York University’s Dawn Bazely, CSWA’s Stephen Strauss, and the Science Media Centre of Canada’s (SMCC) Penny Park, as well as a new undergraduate Certificate in Science Leadership and Communication at Dalhousie University. Specifically engaging students attending programs like these would be a great way to incorporate new voices into the conversation, and make a broader audience aware of the OpenSciLogs initiative and the opportunities it provides.
Another possibility is to spread the word about the new project via professional organizations such as the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the American Geophysical Union (AGU), and more. These organizations are all committed to outreach and science communication, and including them directly in the OpenSciLogs initiative will go a long way towards engaging voices from outside the online science communication community – scientists, public information officers, freelancers, and more.
I’m excited to see how this initiative pans out, and will be following it closely as it develops – as I’m sure many people will. To support the OpenSciLogs initiative, you can find it on Indiegogo – already 33% funded on its first day posted!
Sarah Boon has straddled the worlds of freelance writing/editing and academic science for the past 15 years. She blogs at Watershed Moments about the environment, science communication & policy, women in science and academic culture.
By Egiroh Omene
You may remember a diagram like this from a biology course you took a number of years ago. While it’s fun to label the components of a cell, this exercise doesn’t really give you a feeling for what a cell is about. Many people leave an introductory college biology class with no intuition for the structure and essence of the cell. This post aims to give a more intuitive depiction of one way that scientists think the cell may have come to be.
As a metaphor, the cell can be thought of as an underwater metropolis contained in a protective barrier. Within the metropolis are specialized districts, each with a specific function working to sustain the metropolis as a whole. Within the cell there is the microscale equivalent of a nuclear power plant, a network of highways, a towering array of skyscrapers, and an incomprehensibly-productive manufacturing sector. There is a highly refined waste removal system, and a grand repository of information containing the city’s blueprint (which also instructs the city’s destiny.) It’s a dynamic place with a million different components whizzing and whirling about. It’s a far cry from the static image you might’ve experienced in an intro biology course.
How Did the Cell Come to Be?
Let’s rewind a few billion years, to a time when most of the Earth was covered in ocean, and the atmosphere was markedly different than today. This early atmosphere was populated by a handful of simple, inorganic compounds, such as nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide. This early Earth had the right temperatures and conditions to allow these simple, inorganic compounds to react and create more complex organic molecules.
Just Add Heat, Electricity… Voila!
With a handful of inorganic molecules, just the right amount of heat, and a bit of electricity you can create many of the basic molecules we see in life. In a general sense, the molecules of life are a collection of organic molecules that are common to every living thing. More specifically, they are the sorts of things you might find on a nutritional label: fat, carbohydrates, amino acids (which make up proteins), and nucleic acids. As these complex organic molecules formed, they found their way from Earth’s atmosphere and into the Earth’s oceans.
These building blocks of life and these building blocks of cells are simple to make. But how do you construct a city without cranes and a construction crew? And who gives the orders?
From Organic Mélange to Organized Cell
This is where things get even more interesting. Again, imagine the cell as a metropolis, submerged in water and sealed shut by a barrier. In a cell, this barrier is essentially a thin film of fat. Think of what happens when a drop of oil hits water—it sticks to itself forming a sphere of oil separate from the water. This is the same sort of process that created the spherical barrier we call the cell membrane. Now, the actual cell membrane gets a little more complicated, but on a basic level we can see how its structure is created. A subset of molecules created in the atmosphere had this ‘oil-in-water’ property and provided the cell’s barrier.
The formation of the membrane is a key component of the cell. The membrane separates the inside of the cell (and all that happens there) from the outside of the cell (and all that happens there). This is an obvious but important point.
Now, imagine that as each of these spheres of fat form they capture a population of those complex organic molecules referenced before: a little nucleic acid, some carbohydrates, some amino acids.
Instead of floating around aimlessly, though, with nucleic acids going here, amino acids going there, and carbohydrates doing whatever, a subset of the nucleic acids have a special property: some nucleic acids embrace and hold on to specific amino acids every time they come in contact.
This bringing together of amino acids is the fundamental process of construction in living things, and the subset of nucleic acids in question is DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid. This selective behavior forms the basis of the synthesis of proteins from amino acids.
It is simple and it is magical. These amino acids are versatile parts, and at the instruction of DNA the amino acids have gone on to be assembled into a variety of things: pumps, propellers, highways and skyscrapers.
Complexity from Chaos
At every point, notice that something has happened to increase complexity and order. First it was the creation of complex molecules from the early atmosphere. Next, a unique and separate microenvironment was formed within the nascent cell membrane, a process that trapped and separated a collection of the complex molecules from the world outside of the membrane. Then, one set of these organic molecules created complex structures from the molecules floating within the membrane-enclosed compartment.
It is through this sort of process–of developing complexity and order–that the cell was built. And soon, from the individual cell we had communities of cells. These cells formed organisms–the sorts of organisms that themselves became more and more complex, going on to swim, fly, and run across the Earth.
From inorganic compounds, to complex organic molecules, to life. This is quite the journey
By Elizabeth HowellMy purse was gone. Snatched from beside my legs while I worked in a downtown Toronto public library in March, just hours after I arrived in the city for a brief vacation. Everything was inside it: my ID, my credit cards, my debit cards, a work phone, cash and of course, the ticket back home to Ottawa.
I’m a freelance space journalist. I’ve read about astronaut training for years and watched them work through problems in space. While I wouldn’t equate my understanding about emergencies with their understanding, astronauts taught me a thing or two about what to do when a problem arises. Contain the problem, then find solutions.
With the help of a library employee who offered me a desk and landline, I phoned the police, cancelled my cards, got in touch with my bank, and informed my phone company about the stolen cell. Using a second cell phone I have for personal use, I found friends who had an available bed for me to use. Two hours later, things were better; I had cash, temporary ID and a place for the weekend. The emergency was over.
Then I took the next step that astronauts take after a crisis: how to minimize the damage if it happens again? As days wore into weeks, I discovered this is harder than it appears at first. It would require me to sign up at another bank, buy a travel computer, and battle silly bureaucracy along the way.The police phoned me back the morning after. I was at brunch with a dear friend (hereafter referred to as DF), who patiently waited as I described the circumstances of the theft on the phone. As I was outside of my roaming area and the call was lengthy, the phone ran out of money and the call cut off. DF offered a computer, back at DF’s apartment, for me to do the refill. A snowy 10-minute trek later, I logged into my phone provider’s website. Let’s call the phone company, oh, how about Apollo? After all, I’m a space journalist. Also, I don’t want to flash brand names, especially in vain.
Turns out that without credit cards, Apollo only allows for Interac transfers from four banks in Canada. Not my bank, of course.
(I’ve heard since, anecdotally, that this is the case for all phone companies in Canada, to be fair to Apollo). I called Apollo and got a rep fairly quickly. I explained my circumstances. “Go to a gas station and get an Apollo coupon code,” he answered.
In downtown Toronto that wouldn’t be very easy. I explained the situation, asked for an alternative, and was told there was none. I asked for a supervisor.
“Why do you want to talk to my supervisor? He can’t do anything more for you.”
“I just want to make sure that I have all the options.”
He kept arguing. My polite journalist persona slipped an inch and I pulled a card I didn’t like pulling one bit. “I am a woman travelling in another city and require a cell phone. Please transfer me to a supervisor,” I snapped. Thankfully, he listened. The supervisor, as it turned out, did have another option: go to an Apollo store. DF and I rushed over there, where I refilled the phone with cash and called the police back. (In reading this paragraph, my editor points out it was her first idea to go to an Apollo store – so clearly DF and I were too exhausted from the day before to think logically. Sorry, Spock. You’re forgiven Ms. Howell, xoxoxo, Xtmprsqzntwlfd.)
I’d been with Apollo since 2005, but I was done with them. The next weekend I unlocked the cell phone to switch to a company that I’ll call Gemini. The process was arduous, requiring three phone calls, one online chat, and three visits to two Apollo locations in -20 degrees Celsius. But I got it done. DF, also a long-time customer, went with a Gemini affiliate.The police actually did recover my purse (missing the cash but nothing else) from a fast-food chain about 72 hours after the theft occurred. I was lucky. But what if this was to happen again, while I was travelling? I began asking myself about losing my wallet, losing my computer, and how I would fix things.
I decided it’s too risky (from a data privacy perspective) to bring my regular laptop with me. So I purchased a deeply discounted tablet/keyboard combination for $400 as a secondary computer.
When I got the purse back, I put it in a drawer and instead used a newly acquired fanny pack to store my wallet and a few other essentials. A fashion-conscious relative begged me to at least not use it on my front, which I promised to do. I’m sure I look a little silly carrying it around, but that was the advice the police gave me and I am prepared to follow it.
I also minimized my wallet even further. I didn’t carry a lot of cards in it before the theft, but now I’m being even more paranoid. I’m always carrying some essentials separately from the wallet now to give me backup. And if I’m in another country, I’ll have the address and phone number of the Canadian embassy with me (again on police advice).
Finally, I opened an account at one of the “big five” Canadian banks to give me more branches, opening hours and Interac options if I need to acquire cash quickly. If I’m in any major city across the country now, I can get my hands on some cash.
A couple of weeks after the purse was stolen, a friend asked me, “How were you feeling right after this happened?” I explained that I was focused on getting my life back together, and that I never was really mad at the person – they were obviously in a desperate spot. I mainly felt upset and alone after battling through administrative stupidity. Online accounts or phone systems that require card numbers to log in, that sort of thing.
My friends were fantastic, though. I had places to stay, free meals and even some money thrust upon me. Most of the police officers I talked with were also quite helpful, as were their websites. This Service Canada web page is a great starting point if your valuables have been stolen.I chose to write about this story for a journalist audience because many of us are freelancers, travelling for work, writing up stories in coffee shops or libraries or other places. I’m hoping that by telling my story, by explaining the difficulties I went through and how I’m trying to protect myself, I can stop others from having the same problem.
Stuff happens. But I’m hoping that if this ever happens to me again, I won’t be as vulnerable. I also don’t wish this experience upon someone else, so I urge you to take stock of how you carry items on the road to make sure you’re doing it as safely as possible.
Elizabeth Howell (@howellspace) is an award-winning science journalist who focuses on space exploration. Some of her favourite stories include covering three shuttle launches, and interviewing multiple astronauts concerning their space station missions. She has also done writing work in areas such as the environment, technology and business. Elizabeth’s work appears regularly in SPACE.com, Universe Today, LiveScience, Space Exploration Network and the NASA Lunar Science Institute, among other places.
by Barry Shell
For almost 20 years I’ve been handling science-related questions from people all over the world through the Ask-A-Scientist feature at science.ca. From how to get rid of warts to shooting bullets into space, the questions are never dull. Here is sampling of some of the questions and comments we received in March 2014.
The site is bilingual so things started off with a message in French from someone viewing one of our more popular questions and answers regarding the removal of warts with banana peel.
Eh oui, j’ai déjà une verrue en moins! Donc cela marche et c’est ce qui m’a conduite a rechercher les composants de la banane… Je frotte 2 ou 3 fois par jour. Translation: Yes, I already got rid of a wart! So it works, and that’s what led me to research the components in a banana [and why he ended up on science.ca] … I rub two or three times a day.
In my answer I speculate that fundamentally it might be a placebo effect based on my own personal experience of literally willing warts away just by staring at them and visualizing them shrinking. To be more scientific, my answer points readers to a 2005 paper on the chemical components of banana peel, which lists succinic acid, 12-hydroxystearic acid, and a few other organic acids. Since one of the main components in commercially available wart removal cream is salicylic acid, also an organic acid, perhaps it is these acids that help dissolve warts.
Another popular question on the site is: “What’s it like to be a scientist? Are you wearing big glasses, a lab coat, have crazy hair, and are you pretty old?”They must be imagining the iconic image of Albert Einstein. This question was, in part, answered by a retired physicist named Harry Murphy in New Mexico in 2006. What does he look like? He describes himself this way: “I am 74 years old, pretty bald and I wear glasses.” I think that describes a lot of older people, not just scientists. And most scientists do not wear lab coats.
Sometimes at science.ca things can get a little tense.
One angry reader chastised me for an answer I posted years ago about aluminum. The question was a simple one, and something anyone who ever reads make-up labels must have wondered, “What is an aluminum lake? Does it contain aluminum?”
My answer explains that a lake in this sense refers to a food colour additive, usually blue, adsorbed to alumina, i.e. aluminum oxide or corundum powder, a naturally occurring mineral but not elemental aluminum. I then go on to discuss how unlikely it is for aluminum to be toxic in its natural occurring forms of sand and clay. Aluminum is the third most abundant element in the Earth’s crust (after oxygen and silicon) so all life forms have evolved to handle it with ease.
Nevertheless, my answer elicited the following rant: “Do some re-research on the most abundant elements on the Earth. It is so irresponsible to feed people this load of crap. Shame on you, seriously. Let me guess, you work for a corrupt organization… and your experts are limited by biased-funding. Fuck all that, seek truth. Peace out Bitches.”
Peace out indeed.
Yet another skeptic, a 91 year-old man in Drayton, Alberta, wanted to know if waste-water injected into geological formations 2500 metres beneath the Earth’s surface could somehow make its way into ground water. “There is so much we don’t know and understand about the subsurface,” he said.
I answered: “My feeling is we know more about this than you may think. If you provide me with a more specific reference about where this practice is occurring and as much detail as possible, I will check with a geology professor at a Canadian university. However, my cursory look at the general information shows that most ground water aquifers are 100m to 500m deep. The deepest of all known aquifers is 1800 meters. Hence 2500m would seem to be far enough away, but I am no expert. If you can provide more information, perhaps I can help a bit more.” But the fellow thanked me and said he was satisfied.
At science.ca we get a lot of questions about outer space and cosmology. The recent movie Gravity caused a 32-year-old fellow from the Northwest Territories to ask, “Can you fire a bullet in space? If a bullet was fired would it slow or spin forever?”
I answered that yes a gun can be fired in space because the bullet contains a chemical oxidizer so no oxygen is needed. The bullet would indeed reach a certain velocity and travel forever as long as it was not attracted to a large mass such as a planet or the Sun, in which case it would go into orbit, and eventually fall into the massive object.
The guy also asked, “What do you think about the Mars project, will it be successful? Are there aliens on the dark side of the moon? What do scientists and the general establishment, your peers, think about aliens and the popularized theories about alien civilizations throughout history and the possibility of governments hiding alien information from the general public?”
I told the guy I had my doubts about the Mars project but with Elon Musk involved, who knows? I then provided a link to the Wikipedia page on Conspiracy Theories. This questioner was an average guy, representing a lot of sane people who wonder about this stuff, so as science writers we need to address such questions.
Next, a 17-year-old boy in Marikina City, Philippines asked, “Is it possible in the future to travel without moving our body, I mean by converting our body into data then move it to another place using the Internet, Bluetooth and other programs used to transfer data? I’m just asking if it’s possible.”
I told him, no, it was not possible, but who knows what the future holds? Nobody thought you could get super bright light from a piece of sand (Light Emitting Diodes) until Einstein theorized it in 1905 and 110 years later we now find that all light bulbs are moving toward this extremely efficient technology.
A couple days later a man in Sault Ste Marie had this brilliant idea: “If you had a geosynchronous satellite in outer space with a hose hooked up to it that reached the ocean; would outer space act as a vacuum to suck up unwanted water from the ocean?”
I pointed him to asimilar question and answer on science.ca whereby a boy proposed hanging a rope from the Moon that dangled all the way down to the Earth. He wondered if you grabbed onto it, would the Moon whisk you around the planet? A cool idea, but one of our expert volunteer scientists, UBC physicist Jess Brewer, replied that no ordinary rope, and not even carbon nanotubes would be able to support the weight of the 384,400km long cord required. Even a geosynchronous satellite, while much closer than the Moon, still needs to be at an altitude of 35,786 km to maintain its position. The mass of such a long hose would be enormous and impossible to support. And anyway, I explained that his idea would never work because the Earth’s gravity keeps the water in our oceans. No amount of vacuum would pull it into outer space (or else it would already be gone).
The questions keep coming in, and you never know what the inbox will hold tomorrow. It keeps me busy in retirement, and it’s a constant stimulating source of story ideas for sure.
Barry Shell is a freelance writer in Vancouver, Canada. He created www.science.ca, the top Google hit for any search on Canadian science. He has written four books, and has published in magazines and newspapers including the Globe and Mail and the New York Times. Originally from Winnipeg, Barry has a BSc in Organic Chemistry from Reed College in Portland, OR and an MSc in Resource Management Science from UBC. His book, Sensational Scientists profiling 24 of Canada’s greatest scientists and published by Raincoast Books, won a national book award in 2005. Barry also plays sax in a Vancouver pop trio that performs regularly at Trivia Night in Our Town Cafe.
Tagged with: Alberta • aluminum lake • aluminum oxide • Ask-A-Scientist • banana peel • Barry Shell • blog • bullets • canada • conspiracy theories • corundum powder • cosmology • CSWA • Einstein • Elon Musk • Geosynchronous satellite • Gravity • ground water • Harry Murphy • Jess Brewer • Mars project • Moon • movie • physical appearance • physics • science • shoot gun in space • Simon Fraser University • UBC • wart • waste water