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Quilting in space is hard. We know this because one of the six human beings currently living in outer space, NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, has been working on a 9” quilted star block, and was so kind as to send us a how-to from the space station.
Thanks to Nyberg we now know that:
- Since everything floats around in zero gravity, you have to use Velcro to keep your supplies together. You need a Ziploc bag to hold any extras.
- You can’t just cut a pattern flat like you would on Earth.
- There aren’t any sewing machines.
Nyberg’s been sewing by hand, using spare needles instead of pins. Her block is a little uneven, since she wasn’t able to simply cut a straight line on a flat piece of fabric. But it’s beautiful, and she’d like us to help her make a full-size quilt. If you want to get crafty, Nyberg is taking 9.5” star-patterned blocks anytime before August 2014. Check out this press release for the address where you should send your stellar creations.For anyone who hasn’t made one before, the process for quilting yourself a little star block is reassuringly easy down here on Earth thanks to gravity, and hundreds of years of technological innovation.
Just for starters, we have access to extremely sharp scissors, rotary cutters, and mats that ensure clean cuts. Each of these is a specialized tool, available widely and cheaply.
Then there’s the matter of sewing, for which we have the celebrated portable sewing machine–a piece of technology that transformed American homes in the mid-1800s. In 1860, people called it “The Queen of Inventions.” It was big.
The more modern portable sewing machine is a descendant of Thomas Saint’s 1790 sewing machine, which used a chain stitch with one string to tie canvas or leather together. An awl poked the hole, then a machine moved the string in an over-under loop. It worked, theoretically. But it never went up for sale.
Forty years later, Barthélemy Thimonnier gets the credit for pushing the first automated sewing machine to market, which was great, until a mob destroyed his clothing factory.
Come 1850, the right entrepreneur, the now synonymous-with-sewing Isaac M. Singer, patented a rigid-arm, portable sewing machine. It was innovative on several levels. Singer’s machine had two strings (which was actually the innovation of Walter Hunt, who also invented the safety pin), a needle that moved separately from its arm, and a foot- rather than hand-powered mechanism. That last trick left both hands free for directing the fabric through the machine with accuracy.
Suddenly, it became affordable for factories to employ hundreds of seamstresses, and the clothing market moved from private home to grand corporations. Clothes got cheaper, but pay for seamstresses tanked. Sweatshops were born.
But for others, sewing machines introduced the possibility of purchasing ready-made rather than home-made clothing. Buying rather than hand-sewing a dress shirt saved the average housewife 14 hours a day. If she had still opted to make her shirt, but she made it on a new machine, it would take only about an hour. This freed up a lot of time for leisure, or for in-home mending businesses.
The world was changing.
But now, awash in an oasis of modern technology, Karen Nyberg is going back to basics, sewing by hand–in outer space.
Victoria Martinez is a writer and editor interested in science and poetry. You can follow her work on Twitter @eigenmotion.
About the only evangelical element missing from a recent IFLS popularization of science hootenanny held at the Ontario Science Centre were attendees speaking in muscular hydrostats – “tongues” to you non-church goers.
For the two or 11 of you who aren’t familiar with the letters, IFLS is an acronym for I Fucking Love Science, 24-year-old Elise Andrew’s hugely funny and hugely popular blog-like Facebook page.
On one hand the evening was entertainment personified. There were two musicians reciting (almost) the entire periodic table in a song. There was science comic Brian Malow telling jokes about Higgs bosons walking into a Catholic Church in Geneva.
Elise pointed to one of her Facebook postings about how sea otters hold hands while sleeping to avoid being separated, but don’t confuse that with Hollywood romanticism because the otter males are also known to rape seal pups until death.
And Dr. Carin Ann Bondar who stars in YouTube videos about the sex lives of animals pointed out that while human males have the biggest penises among primates that barnacles’ members are, relatively speaking, much, much bigger. Barnacle penises are, Bondar told the 472 or so people in the packed auditorium, 40 times bigger than their body lengths. And to show what that was like, Ryerson students and faculty came in bearing a replica of what a human’s penis would look like if we were equipped like barnacles.*
All of this came, however, with what you might call two moments of transcendence. One seemingly was just linguistic.
And that made me worry. Because wrapped up in the cheers and claps was IFLS’s second expression of science faith transcendence. It felt if you didn’t truly love all science, and believe in all things scientific, and scorn all those who didn’t share that faith, you were a kind of science church apostate. And you should be led from the room and directly sent to a science doubters’ underworld.
And I realized I would have led the line of people going straight to that I Don’t Fucking Love Science hell.
Because, while I think science is sometimes about cool things being discovered, it is fundamentally about methodology and reproducibility. It is about designing experiments or gathering data in such a fashion that you get enough statistical validity from them to be able to say to the world: If you repeat what I did you will find what I found.
And then others go off and try to do that.
And thus I Fucking Love Science should also mean I Fucking Love Spending 10-Hours-a-Day, 6-Days-A-Week In A Laboratory Or In The Field Poring Over Some Instrument Until I Am Half Blind And All Tired To Find Something Which Usually Only Maybe 97 Other Scientists And A Stray Alien Might Find Interesting.
And I don’t. If you told me that I would have to spend my remaining years working at a lab bench or the field my reply wouldn’t be hosannas of “I Fucking Love Science.” But instead an interior dirge declaring over and over: “I Fucking Want to Die Right Now Rather Than Do Science.”
And I don’t think I am alone in this like of scientific result and personal dislike of what you have to do to get it.
After the presentation IFLS presentation I started to wonder who had been measuring barnacles’ penises and what that had been like methodologically speaking. And it turned out there was not just information on this, but Canadian-based information as in 2011 Chris Neufeld at the University of Alberta published a PhD thesis and papers pertaining to the matter.
You can see everything that Neufeld went through to harvest, store, measure, inflate and quantify barnacle penises and their lengths. And oh Lord, the tyranny of precision. The never endingly precise ethanol concentrations, the toluene addition timing, and photographs measured to the nearest 10 μm and more and more and more. And if you want a summation of this turn to blissfully erudite Ed Yong’s description in one of his blogs of Neufeld’s barnacle inflation technique. It says, in part:
“To measure one (phallus) in all its fully extended glory, he needed the following contraption: a system of pulleys, which controls an open bottle, which leads to a rubber tube, which is connected to a hypodermic needle, which feeds into a capillary tube, which is glued to the base of a severed barnacle penis.”
You can appreciate that. And admire that but I can’t love that.
So I repeat again: IFLS and its roadshow incarnation is funn
-er than fun and definitely worth seeing.
But don’t confuse what Elise and her mates say they love about science with a true belief, with being able to easily and endlessly embrace science’s tedious, repetitive and generally compulsive experimental persona. In Stephen Strauss’s science-result-admiring but scientific-methodology-abhorring mind, that kind of true love requires the temperament of a modern Buddha.
A being who has first embraced and then transcended the soul deadening nature of the scientific method.
*Note to the number finicky. The 40 times body length figure Bondar cites is actually 5 times larger than that reported by an obsessive barnacle penis measuring naturalist named Charles Robert Darwin.
CSWA President Stephen Strauss has written about science for more than 30 years for The Globe and Mail, CBC.ca, Nature Biotechnology, The Walrus and many other places. One of his fondest memories of his time at The Globe was how his fellow journalists took to calling him Dr. Debunko
Tagged with: barnacle penis • barnacles • Brian Malow • Carin Ann Bondar • Charles Darwin • Chris Neufeld • CSWA blog • CSWA president • dissertation • Dr. Debunko • Elise Andrews • I Fucking Love Science • IFLS • muscular hydrostat • Ontario Science Centre • quasi-religion • science • sex lives of animals • Stephen Strauss • University of Alberta
By Lillianne Cadieux-Shaw
Oh, those familiar wishful words: “I want to be an astronaut when I grow up.” The dream associated with those words is common, most often reflected in one memory shared by thousands: a saucer-eyed child surrounded by family, staring at an old black and white television set, and watching a spaceship land on the moon. The moon! A man eventually emerges from the spaceship, climbs down a ladder and then hops — hops! — across the surface of an alien landscape.
Reading about space-flight and NASA and astronauts always elicits a sense of childish wonder for me, born long after the Apollo 11 moon landing when Neil Armstrong imprinted forever his space boot on the moon’s surface.
I will never get to the stars, but reading Chris Hadfield’s new book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life On Earth, evoked that bittersweet explorer’s instinct of reading about far-off places you can’t imagine ever seeing. Hadfield appealed to the Buzz Lightyear-costume-wearing kid in me as he regaled tales of dare-devil blast-offs and playing guitar in zero-gravity and looking back on our planet feeling a profound sense of enlightenment as thunderstorms played out like a fireworks show over Planet Home. But what Hadfield also does, with humour and humility, is talk about the path he took to achieve his childhood dream of being an astronaut. Even more importantly, Hadfield’s book is, at heart, a motivational one, a feel-good story where everyone leaves feeling empowered. And the more I read, the more it occurred to me that most of his advice was directly applicable to science journalists. Hadfield is, after all, a scientist, and has made space education a particular goal of his. His advice may sound obvious, but it’s refreshing to hear it from an outsider, particularly from someone like Hadfield who has mastered the art of education and public engagement in science. With that in mind, here are five things I re-learned about science journalism from Hadfield’s new book.
1) Treat mistakes as learning opportunities.
After every space flight, the astronauts that were involved are gathered, along with every expert involved in every aspect of the mission, and grilled on anything and everything that went wrong. It’s a public grilling, but it has a purpose – everyone needs to be aware of the mistakes so they don’t happen again. Pride has no place in these debriefing sessions.
“At NASA, we’re not just expected to respond positively to criticism, but to go one step further and draw attention to our own missteps and miscalculations. It’s not easy for hyper-competitive people to talk openly about screw-ups that make them look foolish or incompetent. Management has to create a climate where owning up to mistakes is permissible and colleagues have to agree, collectively, to cut each other some slack,” Hadfield writes.
Errors happen all the time in science journalism, and it can be intimidating when a comment board gets up in arms or a fellow journalist writes a detailed article outlining your mistake. Taking ownership of the error, and even drawing attention to it, should hold no stigma, and should be encouraged. It becomes a learning moment for everyone. Getting the reader the right information is the most important thing, and writing a follow-up highlighting the mistake and explaining the correction shows a commitment to teaching. In fact, writing about how the mistake came about (false sources, confusion of two dates or names, etc.) can expand beyond the mistake into new ground ripe for teaching.
2) Never stop making the case for science — even if superstition gets in the way.
Getting sick is an astronaut’s worst nightmare. Good health is one of their greatest assets, and poor health one of their biggest threats. So when Hadfield was briefly ill after an intestinal obstruction, his supervisors were worried. Hadfield tried to make a case that he was healthy enough for spaceflight, and presented thoroughly researched medical evidence to support his claim, but a panel of experts ruled that the results were inconclusive and continued to insist on more invasive surgery (sure to put a halt to any flying). Hadfield eventually got through to them and was allowed to fly again, but he makes an interesting point about the hubbub after his medical diagnosis, where rumours swilled and exaggerations abounded.
“It felt as though we were mounting a case against superstition, which science is useless to dispel. You can present all the random sample studies you want to prove that it’s safe to walk under a ladder, but a superstitious person will still avoid that ladder,” Hadfield writes.
Science journalists face skepticism from all kinds of places, from climate change deniers and creationists but also from those who just have yet to be convinced. Supporting your case with facts and data and getting critical responses based purely on hearsay or superstition is frustrating — and getting discouraged is natural — but the only way superstition wins out against science is if science stops trying. A well-supported scientific argument won’t convince those who refuse to be convinced, but it will convince those who just needed a few persuasive facts to push the doubts away.
3) Connect with people on a human level.
Hadfield’s video of himself brushing his teeth at the International Space Station has over one million views on YouTube. Him wringing out a washcloth in zero-gravity has over two million. There are videos of Hadfield making a peanut butter sandwich, cleaning up spills, and clipping his fingernails, all in space. Hadfield tells us something we need to remember with each story we write, that the success of these videos lies in the human connection, “…thanks to the Internet, we could show people what it’s like to be in space, in real time. They not only paid attention, our expedition became a social media sensation. The reason is simple: people are inherently interested in other people.”
Bringing the abstractions of science down to a human level is the best way to engage an audience. Hadfield mastered this with his YouTube videos – something simple, like making a peanut butter and honey sandwich, becomes endlessly fascinating when he is right there chasing a rogue tortilla through zero-gravity right past the camera. The people behind the science – their failures, their triumphs, their quirks — are what makes the science interesting to most people, and channeling the actual facts and data through them is the easiest way to connect.
4) Kids are natural scientists – amaze them and the education will follow.
Hadfield also does a lot of outreach to get kids excited about space exploration.
“It was never hard to get them excited about the possibilities of space,” Hadfield writes. “All I had to do was let go of the microphone so it floated for a few seconds, then answer the inevitable question about how we use the toilet in space, and they were hooked.”
Most kids are scientists by nature and are drawn to it, at least before it becomes too abstract. Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget believed that, just like scientists, children are constantly constructing and testing theories to actively build their knowledge base. So the interest is there. But more important for kids than for adults is the ability to show them, not just tell them. When Hadfield did a talk at the Saskatchewan Science Centre a few years ago, one child asked what it felt like to get launched in the space shuttle. Hadfield asked the kid to come down, then put the kid on his back and started shaking from side to side. As writers, we are a little more limited in our teaching methods, but using active, descriptive language, including pictures, and making the information interactive is the best way to achieve this.
5) Never stop learning.
Much of Hadfield’s training as an astronaut often seemed either esoteric or over-specialized, but the astronaut took advantage of every learning opportunity thrown his way, whether it be studying microbialites with a diving team in Pavilion Lake, British Columbia, or taking extra Russian grammar classes.
“A lot of our training is like this: we learn how to do things that contribute in a very small way to a much larger mission but do absolutely nothing for our own career prospects,” he writes. “We spend our days studying and simulating experiences we may never actually have. It’s all pretend, really, but we are learning. And that, I think, is the point: learning.”
As science journalists, we have a lot on our plate staying on top of the most recent research in our field, but we owe it to ourselves as well as our careers to always keep learning. From geology hikes that study quaternary glaciation to open lectures on functional imaging studies of aphasic stroke from a university’s neuroscience department, there are a million and one ways to keep learning about different fields. Hadfield’s extra training usually did end up helping him, but he never regretted it if it didn’t. However obscure or inapplicable to your field the knowledge might be, learning it will never be a waste of time.
You can learn more about Chris Hadfield and his book by visiting his website here.
Lillianne Cadieux-Shaw is a freelance journalist and writer passionate about science journalism, wildlife, space exploration and finding photos of pugs on the Internet. You can find her on Twitter: @lilcadieuxshaw
Earlier this year, when I energetically swabbed the inside of my cheek for National Geographic’s Genographic Project, I had no idea that my DNA contained genes from two extinct hominids.
A budding citizen scientist, I donated my DNA to the greater cause, intent on contributing to the body of knowledge about my ancient human ancestors.
At the outset, I knew more than most people did about their family lineages. My father’s English Protestant roots extended back 15 generations, to 1670 in London and Massachusetts. And my mother’s roots, the Irish Roman Catholic side of the family, had been traced to 1780, the year her relatives arrived in Prince Edward Island.
My Anglo-Irish lineage had seemed unassailable—or that’s what I believed—before I received the genographic roadmap of my DNA.
Like many of my fellow citizen scientists—more than 618,000 people from more than 140 countries donated their DNA—the results of National Geographic’s Genographic Project left me speechless.
I was humbled to discover that my mitochondrial DNA contained markers—unique sets of genetic mutations passed down, from mother to child, and used to identify and track discrete populations—indicating that my out-of-Africa DNA profile was comprised of 44 percent Northern European, 36 percent Mediterranean and 18 percent Southwest Asian.
I was also surprised to learn that my ancestors had left Africa, some 60,000 years ago, travelling through Israel, Saudi Arabia, India, Turkmenistan, Russia, the Caucasus Mountains, Italy and Spain. Even more astonishing was the discovery that my DNA double helix contained a 5.5-percent contribution from two extinct hominids.
Simply put, my DNA is made up of 2.8 percent Neanderthal, an extinct hominid cousin who disappearedfrom Europe and the Middle East about 30,000 years ago, or maybe earlier. My DNA also contains 2.7 percent Denisovan, a recently-discovered hominid cousin that once roamed Asia. In 2008, during a cave excavation in Siberia, paleoanthropologists discovered the well-preserved remains of a Denisovan adult and a young girl who had lived 40,000 years ago.
Launched in 2005, the Genographic Project has exceeded National Geographic’s expectations, shedding light on our deep collective past.
“The greatest history book ever written is the one hidden in our DNA,” said Dr. Spencer Wells, renowned population geneticist and team lead of National Geographic’s Genographic Project on the project’s website. Using state-of-the-art genetic science, investigators employ a collection of 150,000 DNA markers (or identifiers) to analyze DNA from around the world.
According to National Geographic, “Mitochondrial Eve” is the common direct maternal ancestor of the X chromosome found in all women. She was born in East Africa some 180,000 years ago.
Determining the other half (the paternal side) of my DNA history is more problematic. As a female, I lack the Y chromosome. Therefore, in order to map my paternal lineage, I need a DNA contribution from a close male relative, like my father or brother. Since my father is deceased, and I don’t have a male sibling, I’m content to focus on the X chromosome-side of my ancestral history.
My direct maternal lineage flows from Mitochondrial Eve, and has been traced to 67,000 years ago, to a group of people in East Africa dubbed the “L3″ family branch.
Many of the L3 family branch fanned out across the African continent. And, in more recent history, L3 descendants were transported from Africa to the New World, during the African slave trade.
My wandering L3 ancestors, likely on the move in search of food and water, migrated from Africa to the eastern Mediterranean region and West Asia where they encountered their Neanderthal cousins.
According to National Geographic, humans “made love and not war,” with their closely-related hominid cousins, eventually overwhelming the smaller populations of Neanderthals and Denisovans. In contrast, because the indigenous peoples of sub-Saharan Africa didn’t migrate from Africa to Eurasia, they don’t have any Neanderthal DNA.
By 55,000 years ago, the “R” family branch of my out-of-Africa relatives was established in West Asia. This branch of the family tree also included well-travelled explorers who left Turkey and moved north, across the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia and southern Russia.
Some 30,000 years ago my ancestors in the “HV” family branch, which included Cro-Magnon man, the first early modern humans, moved north, across the Caucasus Mountains and into eastern Europe. Subsequent mitochondrial genetic mutations in my DNA, which occurred during the past 30,000 years, point to the development of four distinctly new family branches.
Prior to the onset of the Neolithic and Bronze ages (8,000 to 800 BC), my hunting-and-gathering relatives migrated from Eastern Europe to the warmer climes of the Mediterranean, keeping ahead of the advancing ice sheets. The end of the ice age, marked by retreating glaciers and a warming climate, precipitated waves of human migration northwards to Western Europe.
Participation in National Geographic’s Genographic Project has taken me on an incredible personal journey.
Despite the fact that I’m a scientist, albeit a geoscientist, I remain mystified that the deep story of my human lineage can be reconstructed from a smidgeon of my DNA that fits on the head of a Q-Tip. This type of personalized, hands-on scientific discovery is an amazing vehicle to educate the general public on the relevance of science and society. And, this type of magical discovery can captivate the imaginations of children, our scientists of the future…
View this personalized infographic showing my ancient ancestry from National Geographic’s Genographic Project:
Based in Calgary, Alberta, Susan R. Eaton is a geologist, geophysicist and journalist with an intense curiosity about planetary processes, the marine environment, climate change and global sustainability issues. Susan reports on science, technology, energy, the environment, ecotourism and extreme snorkeling. She explores the marine environment from the snorkel zone, the unique land-air-water interface where the exhalations of marine mammals and snorkelers often become indistinguishable. You can follow Susan on her website, http://www.susanreaton.com/
By George Mercer
A day in the North American suburbs might look something like this: Deer jostling each other for the tastiest morsel in a suburban garden; geese preening and pooping around park ponds; beavers creating a wildlife version of a McMansion when they move into the stream next door. The reality of life on southern Vancouver Island — and most of North America in the 21st century — led me to read Jim Sterba’s Nature Wars (Random House, 343 pp. $14.95), a book that came out a year ago but hey, I’ve been too busy evicting beavers, cleaning up goose poop, and building deer fences to read it until now. (And it was just released in paperback this month.)
Sterba opens Nature Wars with an anecdote of waging a battle against non-native grapes that were “smothering the trees” in a local forest only to discover that “the grapes and meadows were there first” and in fact it was the forest that was “invading them and destroying” the meadows. These realizations spur him on to research and write about the loss of America’s forests through land clearing for homesteading, farming, and logging for timber and the concurrent demise of much of its wildlife as people hunted birds and mammals for food and sport.
But the essence of Nature Wars is the recovery of America’s forests throughout much of the continental United States. Coupled with the resurgence of forests is the reality that as human populations expanded and moved beyond the cities and suburbs, the resulting sprawl placed people in second growth forests that were also now seeing the return of wildlife species that had been previously devastated by homesteaders, who literally brandished an axe in one hand and a gun in the other.
Nature Wars does an excellent job of chronicling the return of problematic species, including deer, beaver, turkeys, and geese. Sterba makes a compelling case that their resurgence, along with the expansion of human populations into what is referred to as the urban-wildland interface, has resulted in an exponential growth in human-wildlife conflicts pitting people whose homes and neighbourhoods are at the centre of this wildlife invasion against wildlife advocates and in some cases land use and wildlife managers.
Sterba points out that many of these problems arose from the over-zealous species restoration effort and a failure to adjust those same efforts to present-day realities — the new habitat differed significantly from the old habitat. Sterba is chronicling a return to a state that never existed. Humans have tolerated beavers, geese, deer and the like, but we’re less accommodating of bears, wolves and cougars. And the absence of these top predators has partially led to the circumstances Sterba describes and ascribes to the reforesting of America.
The reforesting of America, much like the “re-wilding” of Europe, is not the result of any well thought out, government-sponsored land-use management plan. Rather, it is a by-product of collapsing or shifting agrarian economies and industries and the ebb and flow of populations, over generations, in and out of urban settings. The resulting mess finds the majority of Americans living in landscapes also occupied by white-tailed deer, geese, and beavers whose populations are exploding as fewer people hunt and trap even as the habitat recovers, inviting a wildlife revival.
A key point to remember in reading Nature Wars is that our perspective on how land is used largely depends on your point of reference.
While Sterba initially points out that prior to being cleared for agriculture these areas supported first growth forests, his main thesis seems to skip that fact, suggesting that forests are now the intruders. This perspective implies that a return to fields and meadows is a preferred option, and that forests and the wildlife that live there were made to be managed by humans, despite his many examples of how we’ve mismanaged things generally.
Nature Wars does an excellent job of profiling the changes that have taken place in American forests and the recovery of a few wildlife species but the author oversells the notion that this is an “incredible story” of wildlife comebacks. Instead, it’s a story about the logical outcome of changing landscapes, its associated wildlife, and changing relationship between them and humans.
Nevertheless, Nature Wars is a good read that challenges some of the conventional thinking about contemporary wildlife and land use issues.
George Mercer worked as a national park warden in Canada for three decades, during which time he was actively involved in law enforcement, public safety and resource and ecosystem management. His work took him across Canada, working in six national parks on both east and west coasts, the North and the Rocky Mountains. George continues to be passionate about parks and protected areas which form the backdrop for most of his writing on biodiversity and conservation issues. George’s ramblings can be followed at Write Nature.