22 Apr 2016

The Case of the Totally False Fingerprinting Propaganda

A few weeks back, Jan Thornhill wrote a post about accuracy in the era of the Internet. It got me thinking about the biggest fact-checking challenge I ever encountered as a children's writer - and how glad I was that someone caught the problem before it made it into print. Here's the story.
The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century was responsible for more than just technological breakthroughs and the novels of Charles Dickens. It also caused a major spike in crime rates, as people moved from the countryside into the cities looking for work - and turned to crime when they couldn't find any.
Urbanization also made it harder to reliably identify repeat criminals. In small villages, everyone not only knew everyone, they knew with a high degree of certainty which of their neighbours was likely to blame for the local crime wave. Not so much in cities, where many people lived surrounded by strangers. Witness reports were often useless, because criminals wore masks or otherwise changed their appearances, and there was no such thing as photo ID. Many governments instituted harsher penalties for career criminals, but these penalties couldn't be applied without certainty that the suspect in custody was actually a repeat offender.
Enter Alphonse Bertillion. A file clerk with the Paris police, he was the fussy, meticulous son of a statistician, and he had a revolutionary idea. A criminal could change his hair cut or moustache or even his name, Bertillon believed, but he couldn't change his bones. Careful measurements of body dimensions, like the length of the finger or the long bone in the thigh, could be combined to produce a one-of-a kind profile - the first (Western) scientific basis for identifying human beings.
forensic-science-The Paris police took a while to come around to this idea, but in its first year of use, Bertillon's system, called anthropometry, identified 300 career criminals. By 1888, it was implemented in all French police stations and quickly spread around the world.
Until 1903, when a man named Will West was taken to Leavenworth Prison in Kansas and identified based on his measurements as a repeat offender. But West swore he'd never set foot in the prison before. By a bizarre coincidence, West's measurements perfectly matched those of William West - a man already imprisoned in Leavenworth! While the men did, in fact, bear a strong resemblance to each other, their fingerprints were completely different. This incident was one of the reasons fingerprinting replaced anthropometry as the standard method of legal identification.
Or was it?
When I was researching Forensic Science: In Pursuit of Justice, I came across this story in not one, but several of my reference books. Since it appeared well-verified and was the perfect anecdote to explain how fingerprinting came to dominate criminal identification, I included it in the initial draft of Chapter 6. Imagine my shock when the content consultant* for the book told me the entire incident was a myth.
A myth.
As Simon A. Cole explains in his book Suspect Identities (a volume the consultant kindly referred me to), the West story was carefully fabricated and cleverly circulated as a means of promoting fingerprinting as a superior alternative to anthropometry. And while fingerprinting ultimately replaced Bertillon's method due to its numerous advantages, this incident was not one of them.
For mysterious reasons, I had more "fact" trouble while researching Forensic Science that with any of my other books (excepting maybe Fox Talk, because some of the science in that book is both new and controversial). I have no idea why this subject matter in particular was so affected by conflicting sources and legend-as-truth, but it just goes to show that fact checking is one of the most important steps in writing new nonfiction - especially for young audiences, who may not have the broader context needed to be critical of what they read.
What about you? Do you have a favourite fact that turned out not to be true? 

Calling all Nova Scotian kids' book lovers! I, and many other amazing local authors, will be signing at the Celebrating Children's Literacy Book Fair. It's on Saturday, April 23, from 8:30-1:30pm, on the NSCC Kingstec Campus in Kentville. Come out and see us!
* Content consultants are experts that review my books before publication - they help me ensure that no errors make it into the final draft.

7 Apr 2016

Another Book Birthday!

Have you ever wondered what to feed a platypus? Or how to keep a lion from getting bored with a never-changing menu of antelope, antelope, antelope? Zookeepers certainly have, and for them it's literally a matter of life and death.

Keeping hundreds of different animals fed and healthy is a mammoth job. And I wanted to know how they did it. Do zoos have boxes of index cards with favorite recipes? And if so, what are they?

The answer is yes, they do, and all last year I chatted with animal nutritionists at zoos all over the world to find out their go-to recipes and secret ingredients. I also found out more about the issues zoos are facing:  about whether or not animals should be kept in captivity, and what to do for animals whose habitats are disappearing. I learned about best practices in animal and habitat conservation, breeding and more.

For example, do you know how  - or why - it is important to hand-rear flamingo chicks in captivity?
You'll find the answer, and a recipe for a yummers smoothie here! You'll also find out why pandas get birthday cakes and tigers get popsicles ---really.

Worms for Breakfast: How to Feed a Zoo is published by Owlkids Books and is a Junior Library Guild selection. You can find the book at your favorite bookseller anywhere in North America.

1 Apr 2016

Helping Kids Look at the Small Picture

By Pippa Wysong

When I was in the eighth grade, my homeroom teacher gave the class an exciting geography assignment. It was to write an essay on anything related to geography that we wanted to. We were to pick some part of the planet, go to the library, read up on the topic and write a paper. We could do this project in pairs.
Nothing wrong with starting small.
Just ask this caterpillar.
Claire Eamer photo

My friend Cathy and I discussed it and decided on the Sahara Desert. We knew nothing about it, but it sounded incredibly exotic. We had visions of relentless sunlight, drifting sand and camels. We both associated it with Lawrence of Arabia and Peter O’Toole’s dreamy blue eyes, which added to our naïve concepts of the Sahara Desert.

We proposed this to the teacher, who said it sounded like a fine topic and that we should narrow it down a bit.

“How can we narrow it down?” we asked.

“Go to the library and start reading. You’ll figure it out,” was his reply.

Off to the library we went, the first of multiple visits. We quickly discovered there were shelves full of books about the Sahara Desert. And we started reading.

With no other direction than “you’ll figure it out,” we were nervous about going back to the teacher. We were both shy and nervous at that age. His friendly directive, to our minds, was a command. The leap we made was that we had to figure it out or get a failing mark.

I decided to tackle everything about the Sahara Desert. Its geographical boundaries, minerals, population, and date palms. I wrote down things about various industries and oil, and quoted large tracts with weird terms like GDP and import-export jargon.

The paper had a lot of big passages in quotes with references (I knew not to plagiarize). Most of what was in quotes was stuff I didn’t understand but sounded important. I was amazed with what counted as ‘geography.’

Lambs start small too. It's not a bad thing.
Claire Eamer photo
In the end, we handed in 52 pages of sweat. Cathy contributed a reasonable five pages about the weather.

Later, in high school, a science competition was announced and I wanted to enter. The directions were “come up with an idea and tell the teacher.”

There were several of us who wanted to be part of a science fair, but “figure it out on your own” was beyond us. We needed directions to the starting line. Where other kids got their ideas from was a mystery.

Back in the 1970s and 80s, there weren’t the large number of science experiment books for kids and teens that there are now. (And I worry about some kids who may over-rely on these wonderful books because all the answers, including observations and discussions of implications, are taking away from kids figuring out some of those things themselves. Hopefully reading about those still helps them understand the critical skills used in science.)

I hear from friends’ kids that they still get the “start from scratch” and “figure it out on your own” directives. Good in some ways, stunting in others – depending on the student. Some of us who wanted to be part of a science project didn’t know where to look. We didn’t have parents who said “How about studying the effects of watering a house plant with coffee?” or “Here’s a neat way to build a model of a volcano.” I never did enter.

I’ve also seen parents say “I have to leave early to finish building junior’s science fair project” – but that’s an essay for another time.

Even racecars and racecar drivers start small.
Claire Eamer photo
Later, a reader in the eighth grade wrote to me at my Ask Pippa column, asking how she could do a science fair project relating to rust and her bicycle. I wanted to help, yet knew I couldn’t tell her what to do. But I wanted to give her something to help her get past the "start from scratch and figure it out" directive.

So I wrote back, suggesting she look up the word oxidation. I didn’t tell her that was the key concept behind rust.

Apparently it helped. I don’t know what her experiment was, but she wrote back months later thanking me, saying that the one word made all the difference. She had placed in the provincial finals.

The moral? Nudge kids towards a reasonable starting place. Or it’s too overwhelming and science becomes painful.

For more of Pippa Wysong's work, see her article Like Swimming Through a Pharmacy in Hakai Magazine.

25 Mar 2016

Truth, the Internet, and the Number of Bacteria on Your Body

True Stuff cartoon Now Magazine Jan Thornhill

Before I started writing and illustrating kids' books, I did a weekly cartoon for Toronto's Now Magazine. I mined what I thought were entertaining factoids out of whatever I was reading or whoever I was listening to at the time, and illustrated these "truths" in scratchboard. I even called it, for a while, "True Stuff." 

Truth be told, I sometimes accepted as truth anecdotes told to me by other people, or things that came from dodgy sources such as supermarket tabloids. I admit, too, that I sometimes even made up some of what I drew. The above cartoon, however, was supposed to be one of the honest-to-gosh fact-based truths I'd come across and copied into my notebook. Perhaps you've heard or read something similar, something like "bacteria in the human body outnumber the body's own cells by 10:1."

child's microbe hand print
Tasha Sturm, a college microbiology tech, got her young son to gently
press his hand on a petri dish full of agar after he had been outside.
This is the fabulous collection of bacteria that grew! (photo: Tasha Sturm)

When I first came across this "teacupful" tidbit back in 1985, without the luxury of having everything at my internet-connected fingertips like I do today (even in the woods, even in the middle of the night, even a hundred miles from the closest big city), my fact-finding abilities were heavily reliant on what I read in books, newspapers, and magazines. Back then, I had to trust what I read, mostly because it was so very difficult to question the veracity of the printed word. How, back then, if I had questioned the trustworthiness my source, would I have been able to verify if it was true? I mean, even if something like the above statement about "a teacupful" of bacteria was sourced from, say, a research paper in an obscure journal, how would I, a non-academic, have been able to access such a thing back then? 

child's handprint bacteria
A close-up of the large flower-shaped colony from the above photo
that is probably made up of several million bacteria (Tasha Sturm)

My point is that back then, in the olden days before the internet, I had an excuse to repeat things that were sometimes untrue. Or at least more of an excuse than I have now. (I also seemed to have a heck of a lot more spare time back then, precisely because I didn't have easy access to so many of the scientific papers I now read—but that's a different story.) 

Back to the number of microbes on and inside a human body. I would never have fished out this old cartoon if I hadn't recently come across the following headline (on the internet, of course!): "Scientists bust myth that our bodies have more bacteria than human cells."

cut paper sculpture microbe Rogan Brown
Artist Rogan Brown's amazingly beautiful (and intricate!)
hand-cut paper sculpture of a bacterium  (Rogan Brown)

Here's the gist of what's come to light. This 10:1 bacteria-to-human-cell statistic, which gets almost nine thousand pre-2016 hits on Google, is based on a statement published in a review in 1977, a statement which had, in turn, been based on an earlier unsubstantiated calculation taken from a 1972 article. A group of researchers in Israel and Canada now say the ratio is more likely to be, on average, closer to one-to-one. Some people might have double that number of bacteria, some only half. And everyone loses almost their entire microbial load on a daily basis—at least they do if they're "regular," since the vast majority of human's bacteria reside in the colon. So the ten-to-one ratio is actually an academic urban legend.

But there's the rub: I haven't actually read the new study, nor have I read either the journal article or the review from the 1970s that I've cited in this post. Am I lazy, or is it reasonable for me to trust the distilled versions of the paper that have been published on the websites of the journal Nature, the National Geographic, and Scientific American, among others? I can't answer that. All I know is that it's getting harder and harder to figure out what is believable, not just on the internet, but also in contemporary books since so many are now based on internet research. I just hope I rehashed the gist of what I've been reading about the current research without garbling it too much—because I'm obviously as capable as anyone else of modifying what I've read when I rehash it.

Elin Thomas petri dish mold and bacteria art
Artist Elin Thomas uses felt and crochet to create petri
dishes packed with "moulds" and "bacteria." (Elin Thomas)

Take that original teacupful of bacteria "fact" I riffed off of all those years ago. Even with the mighty internet I cannot find a specific reference anywhere to "a teacupful" of bacteria on the human body. What I have found, though, are two separate references to the mass of all those trillions of bacteria found in humans equalling that of "a teacup Yorkie" or as being "roughly the same weight as a teacup chihuahua." Perhaps I was guilty way back then of dropping a qualifier in my copying down of this cool little factoid! 

More Academic Urban Legends:

If you think spinach is a rich source of iron, read this entertaining paper: 

Check out our very own Helaine Becker's UBC article that highlights an academic urban legend about how pearls are formedAnd if you happen to meet Helaine, ask her about Mendel's Peas.

More Information:

Directions for making a bacteria handprint in agar are contained in the Comments section of Tasha Sturm's original post on Microbeworld.org (N.B. Once the plates are grown they should NEVER be opened!!!!! The colonies on the plate can represent millions of bacteria that could potentially make someone sick. Mold also contains spores that could be inhaled causing serious problems as well.)

Rogan Brown's website with more dazzling cut-paper microbe art
Rogan discusses his science-based art in a short video

More of Elin Thomas's work on Flickr and on Etsy 

And if you want to know all about microbes and the human body, pre-order Inside Your Insides: A Guide to the Microbes That Call You Home, the latest book written by Sci/Why's own Claire Eamer (illustrated by Marie-Eve Tremblay)!

Inside your insides cover Claire Eamer


Ron Sender, Shai Fuchs, Ron Milo. Are We Really Vastly Outnumbered? Revisiting the Ratio of Bacterial to Host Cells in HumansCell, 2016; 164 (3): 337

19 Mar 2016

Make Mine Maple

by Helen Mason

At the first signs of spring, when the days get longer, the snow begins to melt from around the roots of the maple trees, and the temperatures rise to slightly above freezing during the day but stay cold at night, the sweet sap in the maple trees begins to flow. That's when both professionals and hobbyists tap sugar maples for sweet sap that is boiled until most of the water has evaporated. What's left is an amber-coloured liquid called maple syrup.

Sugar bush in early spring
The sugar in this sap was produced the previous year when sunlight, reacting with the chlorophyll of the leaves in sugar maples, produced sugar. This sugar was stored in the tree and released when the spring warmth caused the sap to rise from the winter-frozen roots.

Sugar maple trees are unique to eastern North America. Their sweet sap was first harvested by Aboriginal tribes during the "maple moon."

French and English explorers wrote of the "sweet water" that North American Indians took from the trees and boiled down to a coarse dark brown sugar. In the 18th and 19th centuries maple sugar was an important food item and was used for trading. By the late 19th century, however, white cane sugar, which was cheaper and easier to get, replaced maple sugar as the sweetener.

This hobby bush is in a sugar maple stand near Parry Sound, ON.
Today, maple syrup and sugar are made both by hobbyists and professionals. Commercial bushes use pipeline to move the spring sap to an evaporating shed where it is boiled in large commercial evaporators. Many hobbyists tap a small number of trees and make just enough syrup for their family and friends.

In 1980, Mark Mason used a battery-powered drill to tap.
In small bushes, the process begins when the hobbyist drills a hole in the tree trunk to collect some of the sap as it rises. A cone-shaped funnel or "spile" is hammered into each tap and a bucket hung from the hook attached to each spile. As each day warms, sap plinks into the buckets, creating a springtime maple melody.

In most bushes, the sap is collected and poured into a large flat evaporating pan. The sap is boiled until the watery liquid gradually turns from pale yellow through gold, to a warm amber. This process uses up a lot of firewood, gas, or propane. In some commercial bushes, it's sped up by reverse osmosis.

Partially boiled sap is poured into a hydrometer cup. Is it maple syrup yet?
The work demands patience. About forty litres of sap produce only one litre of maple syrup. Making it demands hours of boiling, buckets of patience, and many maple trees.

As the temperature of the boiling sap begins to rise, the specific gravity is checked. The finished product has a specific gravity of 1.37 and boils at exactly 104 °C. Traditionalists use a glass column called a hydrometer that will show about two-thirds of its length when the correct specific gravity has been reached.

A felt sock filter purifies some dark syrup from late in the season.
Once the syrup reaches this stage, it's quickly removed from heat, filtered to remove any impurities, and bottled or canned, ready for you to enjoy over pancakes or in your favourite maple recipe.

11 Mar 2016

Animals Have Cultures, Too

by L. E. Carmichael

Behaviour is what you do, culture is how you do it.

This is totally obvious in human cultures, which have rules and guidelines for every behaviour - from table manners to what we wear to how we greet each other. But in the last few decades, scientists have begun to realize that animals have culture, too.

And we're not just talking about primates.

A recent National Geographic's Weird Animal Question of the Week deals with accents and dialects in animal communication. One of their examples is wild canines, whose howls are not only distinctive between species - grey wolves and coyotes - but are also characteristic to particular geographic regions and populations. These differences probably help animals identify members, not just of their own family groups, but of their broader regions.

The article mentions the long, single pitch howl of the arctic wolf, a group I studied during my PhD research on the genetics of wolves and arctic foxes. My work focused on gene flow, the transfer of genetic material from one population to another. For gene flow to occur, an animal must do two things:

1) Leave the population it was born in

2) Find a mate in a new geographic region, thus passing its genetic material into the next generation.

I discovered there was very little gene flow between tundra wolves and wolves living below the tree line, even though there were no physical impediments to travel between the areas. More surprising, there were several distinctive populations of wolves on the tundra, signalling low gene flow even among wolves living in what was apparently the same habitat.

Or was it?

What I'd stumbled on turned out to be another signal of animal culture - hunting behaviour. All wolves hunt, but what they hunt varies. It has to, because different prey species prefer different habitats. Wolves below Canada's tree line, for example, eat deer and moose - animals that tend not to move around much. Wolves in the tundra mostly eat barren ground caribou - animals famous for their long-distance migrations. And wolves in the tundra were sorting themselves into populations that corresponded with the migration ranges of their prey.

What this suggests is that wolves are doing more than passing distinctive dialects down to their young. They are teaching their pups how to hunt particular food types. And once the pups learn effective hunting strategies, they tend to stay in an area where they can use those strategies. Because tundra wolves are most often mating with other tundra wolves, their genes as well as their behaviour will diverge from those of wolves in other areas.

Culture - one more thing that does NOT separate humans from animals. :)

Interested in learning more about animal communication? Check out Fox Talk: How Some Very Special Animals Helped Scientists Understand Communication.

3 Mar 2016

Eclipse Plans

NASA has plans for the total eclipse of the sun expected in Indonesia on March 9. Here's their short video discussing the photographs they plan to take during that brief time:


If the video doesn't load here, you can see it by clicking on this link. Click on it anyways if you're interested in eclipses! On that webpage, NASA writers have posted several short comments with interesting pictures on their studies of eclipses and the sun. Most important among these comments is the advice on eye safety when observing a solar eclipse -- that's a must read for anyone!