29 Mar 2015

Looking for a good book? We made a list!

By Claire Eamer

Everybody likes a good book, right? And we (she said modestly) write good books. Honest! We really do!!
Rick Massie photo

(Can you tell I'm a bit excited about this?)

The Sci/Why crew and their writer-friends have compiled a list of Science-Themed Books for Children, all written by Canadian science writers. It's organized by curricular topic, so if you're looking for books about Astronomy, Biology, Evolution, Robots, or whatever your heart (or your kids' latest enthusiasm) desires, we've got you covered. Seriously.

Please feel free to download, share, forward, promote, and use. Especially, use.

This list is a work in progress. We'll try to update it regularly and add writers and books we've missed. You can help. If you're a Canadian author who hasn't sent us your list yet, please send. If you have a favourite Canadian kids' science book that's not on the list, let us know. And send us the publication details. Or post it in the Comments s
ection below.

Additions to the list can be sent to sciwhy (at) gmail (dot) com. They won't be added immediately - we're all pretty busy - but we'll get to them.

This first incarnation of our science book list was pulled together by Adrienne Mason, Helaine Becker, Joan Marie Galat, and Claire Eamer.

20 Mar 2015

Hands across the Border

Post by Helaine Becker

Last week I was privileged to attend the Tucson Book Festival as one of the presenters. I did a Zoobots-focused presentation on the main stage. I also helped kids make colour-changing octopus skin, an activity found in The Big Green Book of the Big Blue Sea.

But perhaps the highlight of my program was co-presenting on a panel about "Science Writing for Children" along with three of the best science writers working in the U.S. today.

If  you don't know them and their work, I'd love to share a little about each of them with you!

Sarah Albee is the bestselling author of Bugged: How 
Insects Changed History and Poop Happened. How can you not love someone who writes about malaria and cholera with such glee? Turns out she is now working on a book about poison. I can't wait til it comes out - though I won't sit next to her during ahem dinner if she is wearing a poison ring....

Loree Griffin Burns is super smart and super passionate. She brings both of these qualities to wonderful books about environmental issues like Tracking Trash: Flotsam Jetsam and the Science of Ocean Motion and  Handle with Care. She is so committed to writing quality books that she
allowed herself to be stung by bees, literally dozens of times, to get the perfect photo for the book.  You can see the photo in question in The Hive Detectives.

Elizabeth Rusch also brings a level of commitment to her work that simply boggles the mind. Yup, that's her, tramping over the still-steaming lava field after a devastating volcanic eruption, determined to get the story for Eruption. And yup, that's her, risking epic seasickness to get the goods for The Next Wave. And once she has the story? She tells it so dramatically, and with such "you-are-there" intensity that you can't stop turning the pages.

I am so pleased - and honoured - to now call these great ladies my friends. I welcome them as honorary Canadians to this Sci/Why blog, and look forward to bringing science fun to as many kids as we can on both sides of the border.

Sarah Albee, Loree Griffin Burns and Liz Rusch, with me  (in purple).

13 Mar 2015

Jumping Jiminy! It's Snow Flea Season!

Jan Thornhill
(Rolf Schlangenhaft)
Though there's still two feet of snow covering the forest floor, there are signs everywhere that spring is on its way. Chickadees have started singing their mating song! The warm sun is tatting lace into south-facing snowbanks! The driveway has turned to mud! And sunny depressions and ruts in the snow are liberally sprinkled with black pepper! But, wait a second...why would there be black pepper on the snow? And why is that black pepper JUMPING??

Close-up, tiny snow fleas have a blueish cast. 

The first time I found these leaping blackish blue dots in the snow, I had no clue what they were, so I called them snow fleas—which it turns out is what everybody else calls them, from Russia to Sweden to France— though they're not even remotely related to fleas. What they are is a very interesting type of springtail. 

Springtails are very cute little guys that, though they have six legs like insects, are nonetheless different enough that they're not included in that class: among other little quirks, they have fewer abdominal segments, lack proper compound eyes, and shed their exoskeletons throughout their lives. They also have a special way way of jumping. 

Sminthuridae sp. springtail (Tim Evison/Wikipedia)
Almost all springtails have a tail-like appendage on their abdomen called a furcula. This little device—the biggest springtails themselves are only 3mm long—is folded under the creature's belly and held there under tension by another structure called a retinaculum. When this click mechanism is triggered and the furcula snaps against whatever a springtail is sitting on—be it twig or fallen leaf or crust of snow—the tiny little guy is flung into the air. Kind of like the action of an old tin click toy. This makes it fun to poke your finger into a clutch of snow fleas, which makes them all trigger their devices at once. 

Remember these?

Sadly, springtails have no aiming ability, so they don't have much choice in the direction they go, but the quick random "boings" can be enough to keep them out of the mouths of predators.

Like most other springtails, snow fleas are mini garburators that help to make soil by eating decaying organic matter, algae, fungi and fungi spores, and poop—which is sometimes their own. Thousands can be rummaging though the moist forest floor litter at your feet, but are usually not noticed because they're so incredibly tiny.

When there's no snow, snow fleas can be found in forest litter.

No one knows exactly why snow fleas creep up through melting channels in snow to the surface on warm days at the end of winter, but the fact that these minute "cold-blooded" creatures are capable of such activity in cold temperatures when other over-wintering insects remain dormant has interested researchers for a long time. 

Thousands of snow fleas in tire ruts in snow... 
...or in crevices. (both photos Rolf Schlangenhaft)

A couple of these researchers, Laurie Graham and Peter Davies of Queen's University have isolated a protein from snow fleas that acts like antifreeze in their bodies. Though there are a number of different animals that have evolved proteins that protect their tissues against the nasty effects of freezing, including the woolly bear caterpillar and the grey tree frog, two characters featured in my recent book, Winter's Coming: A Story of Seasonal Change  about animals preparing for winter, the protein found in snow fleas, has a novel, and possibly very useful characteristic that other animal "antifreezes" don't have: at higher temperatures they break down. The exciting possibility is that this protein might be of use for organ transplants, which could not only be kept colder, and therefore stored longer than they can be now, but also, when the organ is finally used, the protein will be cleared from a patient's before harmful antibodies can form.  


Graham, L.A. and Davies, P.L. (2005) Glycine-rich antifreeze proteins from snow fleas. Science 310, 461.

9 Mar 2015

Who Wants to be a Scientist?

By Claire Eamer

Okay - we're a little bit late for International Women's Day. But encouraging kids to think about science is what we're all about, here at Sci/Why. That includes girl kids and boy kids. And black, brown, white, yellow, and purple kids. (Purple??? You never know...). Kids of all sizes and abilities. And kids of every nationality.

So here are a few Canadian organizations that are trying to open up science to as many people as possible:
Do you know of an organization that's helping broaden and diversify participation in science? If so, please share the information in the Comments section below.

And to inspire you, here are a few amazing scientists and bits of science that you might or might not have heard about:

27 Feb 2015

Spring Break Into Science - Science Books, That Is

by L. E. Carmichael

Every author's hosted a book launch or other event where not a single person shows up. We even have a theme song about it:

One of the best ways to avoid this kind of despair is to host a book party with friends, and that's what some of the Sci/Why bloggers are doing on Saturday, March 7.

Because we live in Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Alberta, an in-person event wasn't going to be practical. That's why the party is taking place on Facebook - and because it's a public event, anyone can attend, no matter where in the world they happen to be. Those in Australia might have to lose a bit of sleep though, as the party is from 1:00-5:00 pm EST (apologies, Australian friends!).

Can't hang out online all day? No problem! Each author is hosting her own hour:

1:00-2:00 - L. E. Carmichael - Forensic Science: In Pursuit of Justice and Fuzzy Forensics: DNA Fingerprinting Gets Wild

2:00-3:00 - Helaine Becker - Zoobots and Dirk Daring: Secret Agent

3:00-4:00 - Ishta Mercurio - Bite Into Bloodsuckers

4:00-5:00 - Joan Marie Galat - Branching Out: How Trees Are a Part of Our World

and you can pop in and out at your convenience. The event will be a great way to discover new books, explore science facts and other fun stuff, and kick off a science-filled Spring Break.

Will there be prizes, you ask? Why yes, in fact there will! Everyone who purchases a book during the event will receive a small gift - in my case, I'll mail out a personalized, autographed bookplate and a small bonus surprise. Purchasers will also be entered into the four grand prize draws for extra books and/or awesome book swag.

So consider this your invitation and click through to join the event - no "friending" is necessary. But feel free to invite your friends or otherwise spread the word. The more the merrier!

See you on the 7th!

20 Feb 2015

Traditional Fishing Science

By Paula Johanson

Traditional fishing methods are not only the use of a simple hook and line, or tickling fish in a stream. There are surprisingly effective technologies for catching fish, technologies that were used traditionally by First Nations people. Here on the coast of British Columbia in Canada and Washington State in the USA is the area called the Salish Sea, after the Coast Salish-speaking people who have been living here since the end of the last Ice Age. Saltwater fishing techniques were developed to a science by these coastal people.

But the use of Salish reef-nets fell out of practise when these nets were banned by the Canadian government over a hundred years ago. It was only through the efforts of several people living on the Saanich peninsula (in and near the city of Victoria, BC) that the first reef-net in a hundred years has been built and put to use.

Leading their project is Nick Claxton (XEMŦOLTW̱), a member of the Tsawout community and a PhD candidate at the University of Victoria in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. He worked with a local school and members of the W̱SÁNEĆ nation to build a model of a traditional reef-net. The project was so successful that teachers throughout the school—math teachers, science teachers, socials teachers—began to teach their subjects through the model net.

Then, with the help of relatives from the Lummi Nation just across the border in Washington state, Nick and his associates built a reef-net in the traditional style. They put it to use on August 9, 2014, at a hereditary fishing location off Pender Island, as shown in this video they posted on YouTube.

Their short video will give you a sense of the power of that day and what it means to “carry on our fisheries as formerly,” as agreed to in the Douglas Treaty signed by the Saanich people in 1852.

If you're wondering what's so different about one net compared to another, well, there can be a lot of differences! This isn't a little net held and retrieved by one person. A reef-net is suspended between two open canoes. The upper part of the net is attached to floats, and the lower part is held down by weights.

If the video of this net being used doesn't load on your screen, you can click here to see a six-minute video, showing the project and the reef net being deployed.

9 Feb 2015

Ancient Fish Farming in Hawaii

By Shar Levine

What do science writers do when they go on vacation to the Big Island of Hawaii? If you are Shar Levine and Leslie Johnstone, you look for science at the beach.  At 'Anaeho'omalu Bay, or "A" Bay as the locals call it, the pair spent an afternoon at the anchialine ponds located between the Marriot Hotel and the beach.

Anchialine ponds are only found on two of the Hawaiian islands, Hawaii and Maui. These small inland ponds are found close to the ocean but are not connected to the surface of the sea. Salt water from the ocean seeps through the ground where it is mixed with fresh water flowing from the mountains. The pond is less salty than the ocean, but more salty than fresh water from a stream. The mixture of the two creates a unique "brackish" water for the fish living in the pond.

Anchialine Ponds, with "A" Bay in background

Hiding in the algae and water plants along the sides of the pond you can see shrimp, crabs, mollusks and tiny fish.  Much to the delight of tourists, an eel will sometimes poke its head out from the lava rocks in the waters just below the bridge connecting the pond to the beach. In the deeper section of the pond, large fish including amberjack and barracuda patrol the waters. The salinity of the pond varies with the depth and temperature of the water. Creatures who live in these waters are different from their relatives who live in the ocean and scientists are interested in studying how the fish have adapted to survive in this environment.

Types of fish found at "A" Bay pond

The ancient Hawaiians used these ponds as an early form of fish farming. There was very little work for the people to do. Small fish would enter the pond through a gated channel from the ocean to an outer pond. From there, the fish would thrive on algae and plants growing in the waters. The fish soon became too big to leave the pond through the gate. When the fish were adults,  they could easily be caught in a net and served for dinner.

The ponds form their own ecosystems. Here's how the food chain works: