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 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.

Photo Credit:

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] … 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?”

Einstein looking like every other man in his 30s in the early 1900s.  [Photo credit:]

When you get to a certain age, do you really care what your hair looks like? [Photo credit:]

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 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 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 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.

Screen Shot 2014-04-09 at 7.16.23 PMBarry Shell is a freelance writer in Vancouver, Canada. He created, 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.

By Kasra Hassani

On your way out from the Abbey, remember to take a photo with the modest statue of the father of genetics at the back of the yard. [Courtesy: Kasra Hassani]

On your way out from the Abbey, remember to take a photo with the modest statue of the father of genetics at the back of the yard. [Courtesy: Kasra Hassani]

When visiting the Czech Republic, there is a list of sights that you absolutely cannot miss: Prague’s old town square and its famous astronomical clock, the Prague castle and its magnificent basilica and finally the haunting Charles Bridge over the Vltava river which connects the castle to the old town. There is a less familiar agenda for places to visit, including the Franz Kafka Museum, the opera house where Mozart premiered Don Giovanni and the old Synagogue. There is still, however, another more obscure site which in my opinion is as attractive and historically unique as the rest, maybe even more if you are into science: Gregor Mendel’s old monastery where he first discovered the laws of classical genetics.

Old and current view of the monastery where Mendel conducted his experiments with pea plants. [Top photo credit from the exhibition.]

Old and current view of the monastery where Mendel conducted his experiments with pea plants. [Top photo credit from the exhibition.]

St. Thomas’ Abbey  is located in Brno, Czech Republic’s second largest city, and about two  hours drive from Prague. The Abbey is now home to Mendel’s Museum of Genetics, to commemorate the work of father of genetics and his contributions to science.

Entering the Abbey’s yard was a moment of epiphany as I saw Mendel’s iconic peas decorating the backyard, the same place where he grew and studied them in the 19th century. The exhibit inside the museum depicts Mendel’s life in the Abbey, with charts explaining his experiments and discoveries. It rightfully ends with a large 3D model of the DNA double helix, reminding you how far science has gone in understanding nature and how important every little discovery – old or new – has been to its advancement.

Those of us who studied classical genetics vividly remember the stories of Mendel’s curious experiments with peas. He chose peas for his study because they are relatively quick and easy to grow and importantly so that he could have control over pollination, which was critical to Mendel’s study. Pea plants made it easy to determine which plants gave birth to which offspring and in turn the offspring of the offspring. It also gave Mendel the power to mate different plants with different traits and examine their offspring to see how the traits were inherited from one generation to the next.

Pisum sativum. Garden pea in the Abbey’s garden. [Courtesy: Kasra Hassani]

Pisum sativum. Garden pea in the Abbey’s garden. [Courtesy: Kasra Hassani]

Mendel observed that when plants with two distinct traits (say tall and short) are crossed, the first generation offspring entirely show one trait (in this case tall). If the offspring are crossed again, however, there is a 3:1 ratio of tall to short plants in the second generation. He observed this pattern with different traits such as flower colour (white or pink), seed colour (green or yellow), seed shape (smooth or crooked) and so on. These carefully performed experiments and other complimentary ones resulted in Mendel formulating a set of principles now known as the Mendel’s principles/laws of classical genetics:

-       Law of segregation: Each individual carries two copies of the allele that results in a trait. These alleles segregate from each other and the offspring receive only one copy from each parent. This leads to the 3:1 ratio of traits in the second generation. We now know the reason for having two copies of each allele is that most living organisms around us (excluding bacteria that reproduce via binary fission) carry two sets of chromosomes and each chromosome carries one allele. These chromosomes separate when the gametes (in our case spermatozoids and ovum) form and the gametes only carry one set. Quick note that halving the chromosomal copies in gametes of sexually reproducing organisms is essential so that the chromosomal copies do not double in every generation (every fertilization). You can read more about different mechanisms of reproduction here.

-       Law of independent assortment: Different traits are sorted independently of one another. In other words, being tall or short does not influence flower colour or seed shape in peas. We know that this law holds true for genes (traits) that are located on separate chromosomes, therefore sorted separately from each other. Genes that are close to each other on the same chromosome tend to stick together. They could still be shuffled through another mechanism, but are not as independent. The traits that Mendel chose for his experiments are all located in different chromosomes. So he could see that they assorted independently from one another.

-       Law of dominance: If the plant carries two different alleles simultaneously, only one (deemed dominant) will be seen and the other (deemed recessive) will be masked. There are many examples of genes with intermediate traits, when an individual carries one dominant and one recessive allele (sickle cell anemia, and Thalassemia), but this law still stands for many traits that are controlled by a single gene.

Cystic Fibrosis is an example of a trait that almost fully follows Mendelian genetics in humans. This sad disease occurs when an individual happens to carry two faulty copies of the gene coding for a protein responsible for chloride and sodium transport across cell membranes. This results in chemical imbalance in the body’s fluids, especially in mucosal organs such as the lungs. Cystic fibrosis patients suffer from thick mucosal secretions and are very sensitive to sinus and lung infections. If only one faulty copy is inherited, the other one will compensate and the individual will be normal, yet carrying the recessive trait for the gene. If a couple are both ‘carriers’ for the faulty cystic fibrosis allele, there is a one in four chance that their child would suffer from the disease. Same laws deduced in the 19th century by Mendel are used today to draw family pedigrees of cystic fibrosis patients and provide genetic counselling.

Not all genetic traits are as simple and clear-cut as cystic fibrosis. Despite earlier belief, most our traits are not determined by single genes. Almost all of what you see on the news about scientists discovering the gene for this and that are sadly misrepresentations of the actual scientific discoveries (exceptions do exist, cystic fibrosis being one). Our bodies function through harmonious action of all our genes (and the environment) working together in small or large groups. This complexity makes us appreciate the work of Mendel even more, as he managed to find such simple and solid laws without any hint of DNA, chromosomes or cell biology.

Mendel is recognised mostly for his work on laws of inheritance. But he was actually a multidisciplinary researcher. His background was in physics, which he studied at University of Olmütz for some time before joining the Abbey. He studied honeybees and documented the weather regularly. The tools he used for these studies are also part of the exhibition, as are parts of his diligently scribed notebooks (in other words, lab books).

Science tourism is the name of a Wikivoyage page listing exciting science attractions and museums such as Alfred Nobel’s museum in Sweden, CERN and the Space Center in Houston, Texas. Mendel’s Museum of Genetics, although maybe not as extensive and ostentatious as the others, is an essential addition to that list and a must-visit sight, especially for those of us who spent hours solving classical genetics problems.

On your way out from the Abbey, remember to take a photo with the modest statue of the father of genetics at the back of the yard.

KasraKasra Hassani is currently a postdoctoral fellow in mucosal immunology in Hannover Medical School, Germany. He uses mice and cell culture models to study the small intestine of adults and newborns. His research projects aim to understand the interactions of the cells lining the interior of the small intestine with different pathogens such as Salmonella, Rotavirus and Giardiaall of which cause significant morbidity worldwide, especially in children.


Science in Society Logo New Awards

CSWA Book Awards Shortlist

The Canadian Science Writers’ Association offers two annual 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. Entries, in either French or English were published in Canada during the 2013 calendar year. The winners of this year’s award will be announced in mid-April and the award will be presented during the CSWA awards banquet at the annual conference in Toronto on June 7th.

Here is the shortlist in alphabetical order for outstanding youth book published in 2013:

A History of Just About Everything, Elizabeth MacLeod and Frieda Wishinsky

Au labo les Debrouillards!, Yannick Bergeron

Before the World Was Ready, Claire Eamer and Sa Boothroyd

Buzz About Bees, Kari-Lynn Winters

Dirty Science, Shar Levine and Leslie Johnstone

Pandemic Survival, Ann Love and Jane Drake

Here is the shortlist in alphabetical order for outstanding general audience book published in 2013:

Catching Cancer, Claudia Cornwall

The Germ Code, Jason Tetro

The Juggler’s Children, Carolyn Abraham

Neutrino Hunters, Ray  Jayawardhana

Oil Man and the Sea, Arno Kopecky

Origin of Feces, David Waltner-Toe

The final winner in each category will be announced in mid-April and the awards will be presented during the CSWA awards banquet at the annual conference in Toronto on June 7th.


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By Wally Zeisig

Hey 007, Q has a new gadget for you, your brain. Forget the password, the fingerprint, the iris scan. In future when 007 needs security clearance he’ll simply just think about it. Seriously.

The aim of mind-reading has been around for centuries. When the research team of Shinji Nishimoto and Jack Gallant from UC Berkeley started out to discover ways of communicating with patients suffering from neurodegenerative diseases, or those locked in a coma, or who were struck dumb by paralysis, they were really onto something. With the aid of fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging), and computer models they were able to measure blood flow to the cerebral cortex and record the complex patterns of electrical activity generated by the subject’s brain while they were being tested. The resulting brain scans were then translated by computer models to become accurate images of what the subject was looking at or thinking at the time.

In another study by Dr. John Chuang et al of UC  Berkeley School of Information tested brainwave activities on 15 volunteers doing certain tasks, and found that the resulting brainwave pattern is not only specific to the task but also specific to the person performing the task. Even when the same person performed different tasks, the results showed a high correlation of the EEG matched to the right person doing the task. So how is this useful for the average consumer? It’s big news in the realm of security authentication.

Authentication has been the Holy Grail since the early days of the Web, so when these findings were presented at the 17th International Conference on Financial Cryptography and Data Security in Okinawa, Japan in April of 2013, people were on the edge of their seats. Could this really be the next big thing in security authentication?

Large firms use security-sensitive biometric measures that include fingerprinting, iris scanning, facial recognition, and voice recognition.  Those, however, won’t work on your computer or mobile phone.

How convenient would it be to not have to bother remembering all our passwords, pin numbers, and secret codes?  Instead just put on a wireless headset embedded with a bio-sensor and just think of a password and presto, you have access to your computer or other consumer electronic device.  The uniqueness of your own brainwaves makes this a very real possibility in the not-so-distant future. And not only that but you’d have the peace of mind that all of your accounts are hack-proof. The implications of this technology are huge especially with companies like Google and Microsoft who are always looking for new ways to improve their password security systems.

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Traditionally brainwaves data (EEG) were collected by invasive probes attached under the skull or by wet-gel electrodes stuck all over the scalp with long wires ending in a huge machine. This method is called multi-channel and is necessary for diagnosing neurological diseases.

The Berkeley study, however, found that for the singular purpose of security authentication one channel of an EEG is all that is needed for accurate authentication 99% of the time. And that data can easily be captured by an EEG bio-sensors embedded in wireless headsets.

The study showed that brainwaves for similar mental tasks remained constant for each person. In other words, every person tested had his own brainwaves for that particular task. It is noteworthy that when subjects were allowed to choose their own mental tasks their EEG showed an even higher rate of accuracy of matching brainwaves to the correct individual.

Before this technology gets to the market it still has to jump through a lot of hoops. Maybe it won’t be long before 007 has more in common with the team on Star Trek.

WallyWally is veteran educator with a prestigious 20-year career, specializing in Biology, Chemistry and Physics. She has received critical acclaim for writing curricula for Senior Biology, Chemistry and Environmental Science.  Additionally, Wally was one of the first educators to incorporate computer technology and blogs in her teaching putting her classes on the pedagogic cutting edge at the time. Rather than let her love of Science go to waste after retiring from teaching, Wally embarked on a new career as editor and writer. Wally’s other passion is photography and to date has had 5 exhibitions of her work.



By Robyn Braun

Giant pandas are often the focus of intense conservation efforts. But now, rather than just needing help, Giant pandas and their poop, are themselves making contributions to the production of sustainable biofuels, which may ultimately help us all! The digestive tracts of giant pandas contains more than 40 species of bacteria, which researchers are now using to help break down tough plant material into the same simple sugars used to produce ethanol.

Even though pandas mostly eat only bamboo they don’t have the digestive tract of a typical herbivore. Pandas are not ruminants, like cows, and they don’t have extended intestines. In fact, they actually have the digestive system of a carnivore and food moves through their gut fairly quickly. Because the bamboo spends so little time getting mushed up and mixed with digestive juices in the pandas’ digestive tracts, the bacteria in the panda gut are almost solely responsible for digestion.

And here’s where the biofuel comes in. At an industrial scale, the most common biofuel, ethanol, is best derived from corn stalks and cobs, which is a very tough and fibrous plant material, just like bamboo. Corn fibre requires expensive industrial processing before it can be fermented into ethanol. Scientists at Mississippi State University saw room for panda poop to make this industrial process more efficient and cost effective.

There are two main kinds of microbes that live in the panda’s gut: those that break down the biomass and those that produce oils and sugars. The team at Mississippi State has already sequenced the genomes of each and is now even able to manipulate those microbes’ genes so that the oil-producing bacteria produce larger amounts of oil.

The most expensive part of biofuel production is the pretreatment process, where the tough fibres are broken down into simpler sugars. The introduction of the panda gut bacteria to the mix will make that pretreatment process cheaper and more efficient. A big goal of biofuel is to move away from using material that can also be used for food or feed to produce fuel. Panda poop, and the microbes in it, can make this move more likely.

Mississippi State University has a pilot scale processing facility for biofuel production, and they’re in the midst of bringing together the biochemists and engineers they need to work together on the research and bring the process up to industrial scale. At the moment the facility is using yeast coupled with sewage sludge to produce biofuels. With the addition of panda poop the facility should be able to increase the rate at which it produces its oil.

So let’s save the giant panda and its microbes. Not just because it’s cute, but because we just might need it for our future.

Robyn Braun owns a science communications company precisely so that she can research and write about all kinds of science for all kinds of audiences.

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