By Claire Eamer

I spent much of the summer researching a new kids’ science book. (Sorry – can’t get specific yet.) It’s about a very hot research topic – so hot that fresh stories seemed to hit the news every other day all summer long.

If you’re writing one of those news stories, it’s exciting. You can get your story out in days, if not hours. If you’re writing for a magazine or another long-form medium, you have a problem. Your story might not appear for a couple of months or even longer. That means you have to dig deeper into the background of the story and give your readers the tools to evaluate the hot-off-the-press news stories that will continue to crop up.

But pity the poor book writer! The authors of non-fiction books can spend years researching their topics, reading the literature, interviewing experts in the field, grappling with the complexity and implications of the topic — and that’s just the beginning. The process of editing, designing, proofing, printing, and publishing usually adds at least another year to the process.

I write science books for kids, and that gives me an advantage. The books are shorter, so the turn-around time is faster. Still, the book I’ve been working on since late last spring won’t hit the shelves until next fall. That’s a long time for a hot topic.

Nevertheless – you have to try, even if you’re writing for kids. Maybe especially if you’re writing for kids. They are the scientists and science-consumers of tomorrow, and they need the best, most accurate information writers can give them. Kids’ science writers generally try very hard to provide that.

And sometimes that relatively short lead time for kids’ books does work to our advantage.

A few years ago, I spent months researching material for Traitors’ Gate and Other Doorways to the Past, a book for kids aged 10 to 14 on the history of eight different buildings around the world.

(Yes, I know this blog is supposed to be about science, but we’ll get there. Promise!)

One of the doorways was the grand entrance to the Treasury, or Al Khazneh, in Petra, Jordan. You’ve probably seen it. In the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when Indy dashed up a wide stone stairway and through the imposing doorway of the Grail Temple, he was really dashing up the steps and through the entrance of the Treasury.

Of course, there’s no Grail Temple on the other side of the door – just a big empty room carved into the red-stone cliff. Both room and façade were created by the Nabateans, who controlled the desert trade routes for several centuries before the Romans took control of Petra in 106 CE.

Photo cutline and credit: In this 2010 photo of the Treasury, the grating covering the 2003 excavations is visible to the left of the great door. Photo by Arian Zwegers, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence

Photo cutline and credit: In this 2010 photo of the Treasury, the grating covering the 2003 excavations is visible to the left of the great door. Photo by Arian Zwegers, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence

The Nabateans built the Treasury about 2000 years ago, and the circumstances of its construction and its purpose were lost in time. In 2007, when I was researching my book, the best source of information was Jane Taylor’s beautiful 2002 book, Petra and the Lost Kingdom of the Nabateans. The author listed the most common speculations about the purpose of the Treasury, and the reasoning behind them. That should be enough, you’d think. After all, I was writing a single chapter in a book for kids – 20 short pages at most, with lots of pictures.

The trouble is, you have to be sure. So I searched academic journals, trawled the Internet, and poked through proceedings from archaeology conferences.

(See – I told you we’d get back to science!)

Although the journals produced nothing new, the Internet kept throwing up tantalizing references to recent excavations. But – no journal articles, no first-hand accounts, no contact information.

Finally, I searched for email addresses under the names I’d identified and sent messages to all of them in the hope that one would connect. One did. Dr. Suleiman Farajat of the University of Jordan and the Petra Archaeological Park responded and kindly sent me a draft report with the information I needed.

In the summer of 2003, with tourism in Jordan all but dead because of political tension, Jordanian archaeologists had done some long-delayed excavating in front of the Treasury, where ground-penetrating radar suggested there was something interesting. And indeed there was. The broad steps and huge entry were not, it turned out, the base of the structure. They were, in fact, one storey up. Beneath them, buried in millennia of flash-flood debris, was an entire storey – tombs, some still holding skeletons and the remains of offerings to the dead.

The 2003 excavations revealed this narrow stairway leading down to the tombs that once formed the main-floor level of the Treasury. Photo courtesy of Petra National Trust.

The 2003 excavations revealed this narrow stairway leading down to the tombs that once formed the main-floor level of the Treasury. Photo courtesy of Petra National Trust.

The mystery of the Treasury – still a mystery in the 2002 book – was a mystery no more. The Treasury was a mausoleum built to honour the royal family of Petra and to awe and impress visitors. Its grand entry had once loomed metres above the heads of visitors and worshippers, who filled the plaza beneath it with the smoke of their offerings and the murmur of their prayers.

When Traitors’ Gate and Other Doorways to the Past – a book for kids – came out in 2008, it was the only publication with that new information, apart from a print-only annual report on excavations that was shelved in a library in Jordan. And that remained true for a couple of years, until the rest of the publishing world caught up.

Sometimes, all those awkward timelines just work out right.

Claire Eamer is a Yukon-based science writer who writes popular science articles and books for both kids and adults, as well as writing and editing major scientific reports for international science-based organizations. Her latest book Before the World Was Ready: Stories of Daring Genius in Science, published by Annick Press, won the 2014 Lane Anderson Award for science writing in the children’s category.

Website of the Petra National Trust and its list of archaeology projects: http://petranationaltrust.org/UI/showcontent.aspx?ContentId=79

A guide to Petra as one of the Seven New Wonders of the World: http://www.theworldwonders.com/new-petra.html

An account by a tourism operator shortly after the 2003 excavations: http://www.diggingsonline.com/pages/rese/arts1/2004/petra.htm

A story about Petra and celebrations for the 200th anniversary of Europeans’ “rediscovery” of the city (the Bedouins knew it was there all the time): http://www.gadventures.com/blog/200-years-of-discovery-petras-re-discovery-bicentennial/

“Preserving Petra Sustainably (One Step at a Time)” in the inaugural edition of the Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies (2013): http://www.psupress.org/Journals/Journal%20PDFs/JEMAHS_mockup_FINAL.pdf

A rather breathless documentary about Petra from the program, Digging for the Truth – but with some good video and an interview with Dr. Farajat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VeKabIpA69A

 

 

By Pam Lincez

Cavendish Bananas [Credit: Marlith - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bananas.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Bananas.JPG]

Cavendish Bananas [Credit: Marlith - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bananas.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Bananas.JPG]

It’s a new day of Fall 2014. The leaves have changed, the climate is changing, updates of Ebola, ISIS and Jian Ghomeshi are changing, your wardrobe to battle the elements outside changes, the Earth spins, changing every day in to another, even the one thing that has remained the same in your daily routine is about to change — your Daily Banana is in crisis.

Your access to the potassium filled starchy comfort fruit that you pair with coconut water or French toast or chop up in your cereal or blend in your morning smoothie or split with dollops of French Vanilla, Chocolate and Strawberry ice cream, is in serious danger. As a staple in my daily food — and hangover cure regime, a recipe that I will divulge later — I am selfishly concerned with the status of banana production and the potential lack of starch and substance of my morning smoothies. More importantly, bananas are a staple food source (behind corn, rice and wheat) for 400 million people living in developing countriesand loss of such a food source would have widespread repercussions on food security.

"Nearly nine-tenths of the world’s bananas are eaten in poor countries, where at least 400 million people rely on them for 15-27% of their daily calories." [Credit: http://qz.com/164029/tropical-race-4-global-banana-industry-is-killing-the-worlds-favorite-fruit/]

“Nearly nine-tenths of the world’s bananas are eaten in poor countries, where at least 400 million people rely on them for 15-27% of their daily calories.” [Credit: http://qz.com/164029/tropical-race-4-global-banana-industry-is-killing-the-worlds-favorite-fruit/]

In the 1950s, the fungus Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense (Foc) race 1 targeted the Gros Michel variety and destroyed worldwide banana production, causing losses close to $2.3 billion ($22.74 billion worth in 2014). The call for a resistant banana variety began. Though smaller and less sweet than the Gros Michel, the Cavendish variety proved resistant to Foc 1 and brought bananas back to breakfast bowls around the world.

For a few decades banana production was in the clear with the mighty Cavendish resisting Foc and disease. In the 1990s though, another Foc race emerged, Foc Tropical race 4 (TR4) that directly targeted and infected the Cavendish. The mighty Cavendish had fallen.

Growers in Taiwan first reported the TR4 devastation to their crops, followed by growers in Indonesia, Malaysia, North Australia, China and the Philippines. TR4 has now also been reported in banana plantations in Oman, Jordan and Mozambique. The fungus also infects varieties other than the Cavendish, which scares Latin American growers, who produce more bananas than anywhere else in the world. If the fungus reaches and spreads across their plantations it will devastate the economy.

Last month, at the 70th Session of the Committee on Commodity Problems of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) headquarters in Rome, Italy, banana stakeholders and decision-makers discussed and laid out measures to contain TR4 and support the development of resistant banana varieties. Top priorities include updating practices that control the spread, identifying the difference between African and Asian fungus, and analyzing the risk to the Latin American industry. The group will meet again in December and again during the FAO’s Intergovernmental group on banana and tropical fruits session (IGG) in May 2015.

Trana Discovery, a startup biotech company, has not waited for a “banana initiative” to combat TR4 and save the $8.9 billion dollar banana industry. Rather, the company has capitalized on their proprietary drug discovery technology platform and has developed a technology to effectively screen compounds for one that can interrupt the TR4’s ability to propagate. Specifically, Trana Discovery’s platform screens for candidate molecules that can target a transfer RNA (tRNA) that TR4 needs to make protein and propagate (tRNA is a nucleic acid molecule that is critical in the process called translation that converts a nucleic acid message from another molecule called messenger RNA (mRNA) into the amino acids that make up proteins.)

tRNAThe goal at Trana Discovery is to develop a fungicide that carries the specific anti-tRNA molecule to block TR4’s ability to make new protein and to kill the fungus. In a news brief, Trana Discovery CEO said that it should take no longer than a year to screen for compounds that can specifically target the unique tRNA used by TR4.

With no back-up resistant banana variety in market, I hope for the sake of my hangover cure…

Ibuprofen. Water. Banana. Coconut Water. Americano.

…and for the sake of all diets that depend on this “fruit of wise men,” as described in legends, that a fungicide against TR4 or a universal technology to protect bananas is quickly produced.

PamLincezPam is a PhD candidate in Microbiology and Immunology at UBC in Vancouver, BC researching a new target for type 1 diabetes therapy. Her undergraduate studies in Biochemistry and Biotechnology, work in various research labs from academia to industry and participation at a variety of Science conferences have exposed her to a diversity in scientific thought. Her participation in the Banff Science Communications Program and many Science Outreach programs have inspired her to communicate science from all fields and share her love for perfectly awkward science on her website The Big Brain Dump at pamlincez.wordpress.com. She is as her Twitter handle @PamLincez describes – a futurist, realist, optimist and traveler.

by Kristina Campbell

The microbes that live in and on us perform important functions for our bodies. In the New York Times, science writer Ed Yong recently dismissed the idea that there’s a normal or healthy microbiome that one should try to acquire. Yong says there’s no such thing, because “the microbiome is complex, varied, ever changing and context-dependent”. He gives examples where people who are in “perfect health” have microbiomes that change constantly or even look downright unhealthy.

Living with a dog is good for your microbiome. (And they’re good company too.) [Credit: Wikipedia, http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9c/Siberian_Husky_pho.jpg]

He highlights the faulty reasoning of a man who put a Hadza tribe member’s feces into his own gut in an attempt to get back to an ideal microbial state like in the good old days when we hunted and gathered. Implicitly, Yong is also critiquing another “good old days” argument in a recent book by NYU’s Dr. Martin Blaser; the book contends that antibiotic over-use is causing the disappearance of vital beneficial bacteria that evolved to keep us healthy, and we are worse off for it.

In the simplest terms, Yong is right: there is no single healthy microbiome. If researchers take people who seem to be free of disease symptoms and check what’s in their guts, they find all kinds of different things: More diversity and less diversity. Beneficial species and pathogens. This metabolite and that metabolite.

But before we throw cold water over the idea that we can reach for microbial perfection, there are two reasons to stay optimistic. First, there might not be a perfectly healthy microbiome, but there are definitely better and worse microbiomes. And second, it’s completely possible to get excited about the microbiome without overselling the science.

By now it is indeed clear that a microbiome can be better or worse – that is, it can be more closely or less closely associated with a disease state. Of course, better and worse are not neatly-defined categories. But better microbiomes (by some measure) have been associated with diets high in fibre, for example, and having a dog in the house. And worse is easy: Stanley Hazen showed that having gut microbiota that manufactured the metabolite TMAO (trimethylamine-N-oxide) was associated with atherosclerosis. Certain gut microbiota compositions are also (imperfectly) associated with disease states like inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, obesity, and some cancers.

Microbiome, Mayo Clinic [http://www.mayo.edu/research/labs/gut-microbiome/overview]

Microbiome, Mayo Clinic [http://www.mayo.edu/research/labs/gut-microbiome/overview]

What characterizes these better or worse microbiome states is probably very complex, but it doesn’t mean it’s impossible to ever know. If you sample the microorganisms in someone’s gut, for example, you’re going to get a bunch of bacterial genes. While some will be familiar species, a lot of them are so new they are simply given numbers, like “metagenomic species 20″. That’s the early stage we’re at with the science. So let’s take on the enormous task of identifying all the species in each bodily niche, the communities they are stable within, how they change over time and in response to environmental stimuli, their byproducts, and how they interact with human genes. And from all of that, let’s see what characterizes those “better” states.

Reason number two to stay optimistic: you do have permission to be excited about the microbiome.

Finding out about the microbiome – and really taking it in for the first time – is like learning the world is round instead of flat. The new round-earth knowledge doesn’t make a difference from the little piece of Earth on which you’re standing, but you can never again think about your existence in the old way. You can never go back to your flat-earth schema.

Similarly, once you grasp that the body as you know it is part of an invisible microbial ecosystem that changes constantly and changes you constantly, you can never go back. You can no longer think in terms of a self-contained body in, a state of health, residing in a distinct environment. All the definitions blur. Body. Health. Disease. Environment. It becomes difficult to keep thinking in terms of the traditional medical model.

That’s why the microbiome is exciting. Not because of the results of some new study linking a certain microbiome composition to shiny fur or restless legs in mice. The science will inch along like all science, in a way that is distinctly underwhelming.

Yong says we should embrace complexity in microbiome research so we can benefit from it. Yes, let’s embrace complexity, including all feelings about this new point of view that is possible with the microbiome. Excited is fair game.

Kristina CampbellKristina Campbell writes about the gut microbiome for the Gut Microbiota for Health Experts Exchange. Follow her on Twitter: @bykriscampbell

 

 

 

 

By Elizabeth Howell

In late October, I did something I haven’t done in two years as a freelancer – I took an entire week away from the business. I traveled (out of the time zone – heck, out of the country!) and deliberately filled my days in Los Angeles with film studio tours and visits to places I always wanted to see, such as the California Science Center’s shuttle Endeavour exhibit.

Space shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center in Los Angeles October 2014. Credit: Elizabeth Howell

Space shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center in Los Angeles October 2014. Credit: Elizabeth Howell

The trip was expensive and lengthy, and scary. Could I leave everybody for a week? Yes, I’d have e-mail and could look in on emergency situations, but I certainly wouldn’t have the amount of time I usually do to deal with things. These are some of the steps I took:

1) Cutting costs wherever possible. I paid for most of my plane ticket with frequent-flyer points, which saved me hundreds of dollars off the bat. My hotel had free breakfast and was hidden just off the Hollywood Walk of Fame, making it cheaper and within walking distance of many attractions. I bought muffins for lunch and granola bars for snacks and only had to pay real money for dinners. What about transportation? For half the trip I relied on my feet and a metro pass, and for the other half I rented a car. That mostly worked, except for the time my bus stopped running at a particular stop (awkward), but I tried to see that as an adventure rather than a problem.

The moon shines above Griffith Observatory's telescope (left) and the lights of Los Angeles in October 2014. Credit: Elizabeth Howell

The moon shines above Griffith Observatory’s telescope (left) and the lights of Los Angeles in October 2014. Credit: Elizabeth Howell

2) Planning around the necessary costs and time away from work. I booked the trip 10 months in advance. That gave me time to prepare for the week I would be spending away from the business. Knowing you’re going to be missing that income almost a year ahead of time makes it much easier to plan. I naturally gave my clients a heads-up that I would be gone, and another heads-up when I came back. Also, I traveled with a family member who picked up half the cost of the hotel, which made the trip more fun and helped ease one of the biggest financial burdens of the trip.

3) Setting limits. I’m a space journalist and, unfortunately, a couple of difficult stories emerged the week I was away. A private rocket exploded on the launch pad at a NASA facility in Virginia, and a Virgin Galactic prototype spacecraft crashed in New Mexico during a flight test. I received interview requests concerning these incidents shortly after they occurred, and turned them down. Yes, it might have helped my career to take time out of my vacation to cover these stories, but I was okay with passing these up to try to get back home refreshed (which I did). Moreover, I knew there were plenty of space experts who might do an even better job of explaining the context than me.

At Universal Studios in October 2014, space journalist Elizabeth Howell checks out a spacecraft prop used in the movie Apollo 13, the film that launched her interest in space nearly 20 years ago. Credit: Amelia Howell

At Universal Studios in October 2014, space journalist Elizabeth Howell checks out a spacecraft prop used in the movie Apollo 13, the film that launched her interest in space nearly 20 years ago. Credit: Amelia Howell

4) Allowing myself some time for work. By the same token, however, I knew if I didn’t open my e-mail for a week I’d be obsessing about what important work-related issues might have cropped up that I was neglecting to deal with. So I kept light tabs on what was happening – checking in a couple of times a day, pushing off tasks (when I could) to after the vacation, and giving quick responses to the requests that couldn’t wait. For the most part, my clients were awesome and I had little to worry about. Big thanks to them.

Two-time Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain at the premiere for Interstellar in Hollywood, Oct. 26, 2014. Credit: Amelia Howell

Two-time Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain at the premiere for Interstellar in Hollywood, Oct. 26, 2014. Credit: Amelia Howell

5) Not thinking about the job. There were moments on my trip when I found myself immersed in the moment. The premiere for the movie Interstellar took place very close to our hotel, allowing us to watch as stars such as Jessica Chastain gave interviews and signed autographs for fans (including, very luckily, me.) Our tour of one studio gave us a chance viewing of The Big Bang Theory set, which is a rare opportunity. I say this not to brag but to highlight the fact that, especially for a journalist, it is important to get away from the computer and step out into the world — leave your comfort zone, do things that are a little crazy or different from your day to day, because you never know what sort of life experiences you will get out of this.

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: Nicola Temple

Grey reef shark

Grey reef shark

When UK scientists released research findings that sharks have individual personalities, I was not surprised. I used to have a Figure Eight puffer fish (Tetraodon biocellatus) that would curl its caudal fin around its body and let the suckerfish (Plecostomus) in my tank push it around the aquarium like a soccer ball. I’ve kept other fish of these same species, but I have never again seen this behaviour. For those of us who have spent many hours under water or staring into fish tanks, observing fish, this is no more news-worthy than a headline that dogs have personalities. Yet, as the editors at CSWA reminded me, not everyone has wasted away hours watching fish!

Defining Personality
The American Psychological Association defines personality as the “individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving.” This is not an anthropocentric definition.

Every individual of every species has a unique genetic make-up and unique experience of its surroundings, which shapes its subsequent behaviours. Each fish in a shoal has a different experience depending on where it is in the shoal, its proximity to predators, its access to food and its interactions with other individuals. These different experiences undoubtedly determine how an individual responds in future situations.

While a characteristic pattern of behaviour in fish is easy to accept, the idea that these creatures may think and feel may seem counterintuitive to our experience. Yet, there is a body of scientific evidence that supports the fact that fish do indeed have personalities.

Associate Professor Culum Brown at Macquarie University in Australia has a special interest in the learning and memory of fishes and has challenged many preconceptions about the cognitive capacity of fishes.

Moray eel

The Thinking Fish
Brown has shown that fish, like humans and many other organisms, can favour certain hemispheres of the brain – known as cerebral lateralization – for certain tasks. This allows for complex multi-tasking – an ability associated with higher thinking. Fish have also been shown to have long-term memory, a capacity to learn and to use clues from the surrounding landscape to find objects. Some fish species have even been shown to use tools; for example cod learned how to use a tag attached to their dorsal fin to trigger the release of food from a self-feeding mechanism . These are qualities we associate with more complex cognition – not a mindless creature.

The Feeling Fish
Research has also enlightened us to the fact that fish are more feeling creatures than originally thought. Whether fish feel pain has been the subject of scientific debate – a debate that seems largely based around the nuances of a definition for pain. During my graduate work I clipped the adipose fin off of many trout and – despite my best efforts – every one of them exhibited signs of stress before I clipped them, every one of them flinched when I made the quick snip and every one of them took time to recover afterwards. There is no debate in my mind.

The Fishy Personality
So if we can agree that every fish is an individual that has a unique experience of its environment and that it is capable of – at least in the most basic sense of the word – thinking, feeling and behaving, then it should be no surprise that fish would exhibit unique personalities. The interesting question is then not whether fish have personalities, but how these individual personalities reflect different survival strategies. Or how they might allow some individuals to adapt to situations more readily than others? Or how the variety of personalities compares with other animals of similar life expectancies and habit?unnamed[2]

While we await the answers to these broader questions regarding the personalities of fish, perhaps the acknowledgement that they are individuals will advance our ethical treatment of fish. I have a son and husband who love to fish, which means I have spent many hours in boats and on shorelines reading, writing and observing. I have often seen fishermen leave their catch thrashing helplessly on the shore beside them. It is equivalent to a hunter snagging a deer in a leg trap and then wrapping its head in a plastic bag to then watch it slowly die by asphyxiation. It simply wouldn’t be acceptable – so why do we find this OK for fish?

Perhaps we just can’t commiserate with creatures that have scales and gills. We have a natural affinity to our fellow hairy, milk-bearing mammals. Primates are such close relatives, we find it relatively easy to recognise individuals. Jane Goodall didn’t need tagging methods, she recognised each individual based on distinct features, just as we do with our own species. In whales, elephants and meerkats we can recognise the family units and social structures that have parallels with our own, including conflict and cooperation.

People who spend a great deal of time around fish can see the complexities of real personalities in these unique and interesting animals as well. Whether it’s sharks with wallflower tendencies or soccer star puffer fish, we are only beginning to appreciate and understand fish as individuals. With over 30,000 species of fish on the planet, we clearly have a lot to learn.

NicolaTempleNicola is a displaced Canadian working as a freelance science writer in the UK. Before writing professionally full time, Nicola worked as a biologist in some of the most beautiful and remote places in western Canada and Australia. It was in these wild landscapes, somewhere between counting salmon and tinkering with outboard motors that Nicola discovered a love of storytelling. You can see more of her work at http://www.nicolatemple.com/articles/

 
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