Pick of the Day (Tomorrow Edition): Noon Year’s Eve

Whether you’re looking to celebrate the new year with the kids then head out on your own for some adult-orientated shenanigans, or you’re fully domesticated now and have zero interest in “adult-orientated shenanigans”, this promises to be fun.

That’s how I blurbed this event, which goes Monday at the Saskatchewan Science Centre, in the 14 Days section of our Dec. 27 issue. In addition to all the special holiday activities that will be happening like snow-shoeing and a grad finale at 4:45 p.m., you can also take in the Centre’s usual array of attractions, including the touring exhibit Imaginate which closes on Jan. 6. Noon Year’s Eve runs from noon until 5 p.m., and tickets are $12 with Science Centre members paying $8 and children two and under free.

To close, here’s something to get the kids revved up to party mode:

Final Frontier Indeed

Aside from all the excitement of discovery and broadening our horizons as a species, this is the main reason why I think we should stop fighting endlessly over what in a galactic context are insignificant slivers of territory (cough; the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Kashmir, Taiping Island, etc; cough) and start working seriously to expand our toehold in the solar system beyond Earth.

Catastrophic asteroid impacts have happened here before, and one’s eventually going to happen again. And if we get caught with our pants down so to speak it won’t be very pretty.

My “Captain Kirk” Moment

Chris Hadfield (pictured) is set to blast off into space aboard a Soyez rocket at a cosmodrome located in a remote part of Kazakhstan on Dec. 19 (he’s currently in quarantine there). The veteran of two previous Space Shuttle missions in 1995 and 2001, Hadfield holds the distinction of being the first Canadian astronaut to ever walk in space. Once he’s aboard the International Space Station he’ll be the first Canadian to assume command. That will happen during the second half of his stay, which is scheduled to last until May. In that capacity, he’ll lead a crew of three Russians and two Americans. 

After Hadfield’s second trip into space in 2001, I remember, the powers that be sent him on a cross-Canada to tour. I covered his appearance at the Saskatchewan Science Centre for prairie dog. I don’t recall the exact date, but it was late fall — I remember, because 9-11 had happened a month or so earlier. 

When reporters scrummed Hadfield after a public appearance on one of those stages where Science Centre staff do experiments like make your hair stand on end with a Van de Graf machine and freeze stuff with liquid nitrogen, I asked him for his thoughts on the tragedy from the perspective of someone who’d been up in space and had the opportunity to appreciate how precious our planet was in what was otherwise a pretty hostile universe. 

I don’t have a record of what Hadfield’s reply was, but it was an eloquent one. 

When the official part of the program was going on, I was standing up on the second level. There was a fair number of people there, so the ground floor was pretty crowded. My view of the stage was obstructed, but as part of the introduction hoopla the Science Centre had apparently arranged for indoor fireworks to go off. 

Unfortunately, no one thought to inform Hadfield, so when he bounded on stage these pretty loud explosions went off and startled the living shit out of him. A few days later, when I was visiting a friend to have a few wobbly pops and whatnot, I recounted the anecdote to him and we totally LOFAO. 

That’s my Chris Hadfield story. Hope he has a safe journey and that we continue to advance into space in the spirit of adventure and co-operation.

Post-Apocalyptic Brews Still Safe

Up here in the Queen City, we’re a little far removed from concerns about atomic bombs. But! Preparedness is almost always a good idea. In that spirit, I present this NPR report: “U.S. Explodes Atomic Bombs Near Beers to See If They Are Safe to Drink”.

It’s actually a post on Robert Krulwich’s NPR science blog, Krulwich being one half of the Radiolab hosting team. Specifically, the half that didn’t get a genius grant, but Krulwich is still great.

The experiments in question happened in the mid-1950s and involved exactly what the headline says. Krulwich’s summary of the results: “So here’s your government’s considered advice: Should you find yourself near an atomic blast and run short of potable water, you can chug a Coke or a beer, but don’t expect it to taste great.” Important information.

Boldly Going

I did an Ask Greg on this a couple of years ago. But on the 35th anniversary of its 1977 launch Voyager 1, after having conducted flybys of Jupiter and Saturn in the 1980s, is nearing the outer limit of the solar system. The boundary is pretty fluid as it depends on where the outrushing solar wind meets the inrushing interstellar medium meet. But once it’s crossed it will be a landmark moment in human history.

You can read more about it in this Associated Press article. One thing that leapt out for me is that both Voyager 1 and its companion spacecraft Voyager 2, which visited Uranus and Neptune in addition to Jupiter and Saturn, and which is also scheduled to exit the solar system in the next few years, have a grand total of 68 KB of computer memory each. And they also use 8-track tape technology to store and transmit data.

Live From Mars

Given humanity’s sorry track record when it comes to successfully executing space missions to Mars, it would be premature to consider this a done deal, but late Sunday night (11:31 p.m. Regina time, to be precise) NASA expects its $2.5 billion probe Curiosity to touch down on the Red Planet.

To drum up interest in the event, and space exploration in general, NASA will be streaming the landing live from mission control in Pasadena, California. For more information on the rover and its mission, along with a list of websites where the broadcast can be accessed, here’s a link to a CBC article.

Another Hack Journalist Talking Science On The Gormley Show

And, in this case, that hack would be me.

Yeah, I guess word has reached John Gormley about me declaring victory in our climate science bet (you can read about that in the latest issue), as it seems I’ll be back on his show this (Tuesday) morning. I expect we’ll be discussing the difference between weather and climate.

Update: My time on the show wrapped about 45 minutes ago. Wow. That was hard. Talking to callers and trying to stay polite is reeeeeeeally hard. Steve likened it to me being thrown into a monkey house. I don’t know if I’d go that far but… yeah…. Cosmic rays? Seriously??

Score Another Point For Climate Science

Yesterday’s New York Times opinion pages carried an interesting piece by Richard A Muller, a professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, and a former climate science skeptic.

Yes, former. In his NYT piece, Muller announced that he has switched sides.

Muller is the guy behind the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Study. It was a massive project to go over all the temperature and climate data available and see if the claims of a warming earth are for real. And when he started this three years ago, his climate-science-denier bona fides must have been, in part at least, crucial in helping him secure funding from the notoriously right-wing and climatology-hostile Koch Foundation.

With a pedigree like that, if the whole man-made global-warming thing was indeed a massive con-job by Big-Government-loving liberals, Berkeley Earth would have been the study to debunk it.

But that’s not what happened. In Muller’s words….

My total turnaround, in such a short time, is the result of careful and objective analysis by the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, which I founded with my daughter Elizabeth. Our results show that the average temperature of the earth’s land has risen by two and a half degrees Fahrenheit over the past 250 years, including an increase of one and a half degrees over the most recent 50 years. Moreover, it appears likely that essentially all of this increase results from the human emission of greenhouse gases.

In other words, when honest scientists actually take a look at the climate data, they can’t help but be convinced that the consensus position on global warming is the right one.

And that’s all fine and dandy but I still can’t help but feel that Muller is kind of a prick. I mean, the only reason he embarked on this whole adventure is because he formerly bought into a bunch of climate-denier hogwash then went around essentially claiming that the work of the climate-science community must be either fraudulent or inept. Then he caps it all off by saying, “Only I, Richard A Muller, am qualified to pass judgement on this data. Step aside and eat my science dust.”

But as it turns out, everybody in climate science was right and Dick just wasn’t listening. The models predicted it and the data confirms: the globe is warming and people are the cause.

Meanwhile, the Koch brothers must be livid. They’re used to spending their money on research that supports their burn-that-oil-and-damn-the-CO2 agenda. I’m betting Muller won’t be invited to their Christmas party this year.

For more on this, here’s a very good Paul Krugman piece about the Berkeley Earth Study from before Muller made his public conversion.

Massive Melt In Greenland

For the upcoming issue, I got to interview Michael E Mann, the director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University and one of the researchers behind the famed hockey stick graph.  I asked him if there’s a new piece of evidence for climate change that he finds particularly compelling. He said he couldn’t pick just one because he sees new, compelling evidence almost every day.

And as it happens, I’m looking through the science news last night, and sure enough, I come across a story about how almost all of Greenland’s surface ice vanished over four days in July.


From the NASA website:

For several days this month, Greenland’s surface ice cover melted over a larger area than at any time in more than 30 years of satellite observations. Nearly the entire ice cover of Greenland, from its thin, low-lying coastal edges to its two-mile-thick center, experienced some degree of melting at its surface, according to measurements from three independent satellites analyzed by NASA and university scientists.

On average in the summer, about half of the surface of Greenland’s ice sheet naturally melts. At high elevations, most of that melt water quickly refreezes in place. Near the coast, some of the melt water is retained by the ice sheet and the rest is lost to the ocean. But this year the extent of ice melting at or near the surface jumped dramatically. According to satellite data, an estimated 97 percent of the ice sheet surface thawed at some point in mid-July.

And here’s a pic of that melt. On the left, a July 8, 2012 satellite image. On the right, one from July 12, 2012. White is surface ice, light pink is probable melt, dark pink is actual melt.

And in case you think this is just some kind of data error, the melt has been confirmed by three satellites.

Wind Turbines And “Conservative Fury Syndrome”

So I’ve been wading through my e-mails all afternoon in between watching that fishing surprise video and playing around with the Camera+ app I just bought (which seems pretty good). And I see this e-mail from Dechene this a.m.:

I was going to do a quick blog post about this* this morning but i can’t because your website is NOT FUKKEN WORKING i can’t post anything because everytime i try to start a new post IT HANGS FUKKEN UP (and no other website i’ve been to today does this) and now my dad is angling to go to the lumber yard so no angry blog post from me about harper’s anti-science agenda and how they’ll gleefully defund science in general but they’ll fund science if they think it’ll help their anti-humanity agenda (like the lizards in V) Oh, and this line from the globe coverage: “When this study is done in 2014,” Poilievre said, “Canada will have irrefutable statistical data on the health impact of turbines and what minimum distances should be placed between homes and turbines” completely begs the FUKKEN QUESTION i.e. it assumes there are health concerns that need to be taken seriously. There AREN’T. Two independent (i.e., non-lizard funded) studies have found that wind turbine noise does exactly zero harm to people and look at the list of symptoms you purportedly get from wind noise (sleeplessness, anxiety, nausea, headaches) these are the fucking things you get when you get yourself all worked up over something that pisses you off. i’m feeling those symptoms RIGHT FUKKEN NOW just thinking about Harper and what he’s doing to science in this country. will he fund a study to find out if his party causes Conservative Fury Syndrome and should be kept 50 metres away from governing because of the damage they’re doing to me? That’s a more significant public concern i’ll tell you. FUCKFUCK!!!!!!!!!!!!


Well said, Dechene. Well said.

* The link is to a Globe and Mail article about the Cons funding research into the health effects of wind farms.

So Who, Exactly, Suppresses Scientists Anyway?

Maybe tyrants who have shit to hide? Hey, wait a second, I remember this old TV show had a theory on that.

(Never saw the remake–anyone know if it had the same awesomely heavy-handed yet relevant metaphor?)

More on the Death Of Evidence rally in Regina — which ought to be well underway at the moment — here. More on the issues around the rally here.

Is That Spike In Your Graph A Higgs Boson Or Are You Just Happy To See Me?

Weeks of rumors on the science blogs finally came to fruition yesterday when scientists working with the Large Hadron Collider announced that they have discovered a new sub-atomic particle that looks very much like a Higgs Boson.

Of course, they haven’t actually seen a Higgs. You can’t. They’re too small and exist for too short a time. But after smashing a metric schwack of particles* together and examining the energy signals that are being given off from those collisions, they’ve found an energy spike at around the level they expect the Higgs to give off. And, in fact, two separate LHC detectors are picking up the same signal so, apparently, that gives the scientists a 99.9999 per cent confidence that what they’re seeing is a new particle.

But is it the Higgs? Here’s what Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, had to say,

Now technically, that’s all the physicists can say: the particle is definitely there. But is it the Higgs? Well, to be fair, they can’t actually say that. But if it walks like a Higgs, looks like a Higgs, and quacks like a Higgs… yeah.

So there you have it. A new fundamental particle has been found, and if it’s the Higgs – which it really really really looks like it is – is the first step to our truly understanding such basic concepts as mass and gravity in the Universe. It’s technical, and it’s complicated, and it’s the result of a vast amount of time, money, and effort by thousands upon thousands of people… but it’s real.

So. Huzzah. New particle. Probably a Higgs. We grok a little more of how the cosmos works. Yay humans. Gosh, aren’t we clever?


Continue reading “Is That Spike In Your Graph A Higgs Boson Or Are You Just Happy To See Me?”

Good News Pro-Lifers! Plan B Is The Birth Control For You!

Turns out the conventional wisdom — and even the labeling — of Plan B has been all wrong. The New York Times reports that apparently, the emergency contraceptive doesn’t work by preventing a fertilized egg from implanting in the walls of the uterus.

Instead, it delays ovulation thereby preventing fertilization from happening.

Here, let the NYT explain:

An examination by The New York Times has found that the federally approved labels and medical Web sites do not reflect what the science shows. Studies have not established that emergency contraceptive pills prevent fertilized eggs from implanting in the womb, leading scientists say. Rather, the pills delay ovulation, the release of eggs from ovaries that occurs before eggs are fertilized, and some pills also thicken cervical mucus so sperm have trouble swimming.

Scientists say the pills work up to five days after sex, primarily stalling an egg’s release until sperm can no longer fertilize it. Although many people think sperm and egg unite immediately after sex, sperm need time to position themselves.

So I guess all the anti-abortionists who are hoping to get the morning-after pill banned by having a zygote declared a person can take the day off. Heck, they can start taking Plan B themselves, guilt free. Make it their birth control of choice.

Of course, I hear the side effects of the drug aren’t particularly pleasant. But, hey, has the comfort and well-being of women ever really been much of a concern to anti-abortionists?

(Found on The Mary Sue)

Harper’s War On Science: An Interview With Andrew Weaver

Carrying on from the interviews I’ve posted over the last few days with Dalhousie atmospheric scientist Thomas Duck and University of Regina biologist Britt Hall, here’s the last of the interviews I did with scientists on the subject of the Harper Government’s war on science. It was with renowned climate scientist Andrew Weaver. He holds the the Canada Research Chair in Climate Modelling and Analysis at the University of Victoria. And he was an author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fourth assessment report and is one of the authors working on the IPCC’s upcoming fifth report. He is also the author of the book, Keeping Our Cool: Canada in a Warming World.

prairie dog: We’re doing a piece on the possible closure of the Experimental Lakes Area. But we also want to take a look, more broadly, at the Harper Government’s war on science….

Andrew Weaver: It is exactly what is going on.

It’s almost [like the government is saying], “We have a decision of what we’re going to do, and so if you don’t like it and your information is not supportive of the direction we’re taking, we’ll just shut it down.”

So climate information, environmental regulation, toxicity information, this is the kind of information that’s kind of an important facet of what government does in terms of science that is required to formulate good policy. Science is there to inform the policy. But the problem is if you’re making policy in the absence of information then who knows what the ramifications of it are? It’s very short sighted.

Within the federal government there’s a lack of understanding of what science is. There’s some kind of thinking that science is somehow technology. That science is about discovering widgets. That’s not science. That’s completely different.

What they don’t understand too, there’s certain aspects of science that have to be done in the government. You cannot ask industry to self regulate by connecting measurements to determine whether regulations should be imposed on them. Can you imagine? Your job as an industry is to monitor your outflow so you can actually put regulations on your own business? There’s conflicts of interest there. You require a third party analysis. You have to put in stable monitoring programs. The type of stuff that universities can’t do, the type of stuff that industry can’t do. There’s a role for government here. So what they’re doing is arbitrarily shutting down this and shutting down that instead of thinking strategically about what the role of science is in Canadian society.

Continue reading “Harper’s War On Science: An Interview With Andrew Weaver”

Harper’s War On Science: An Interview With Britt Hall

The catalyst for that article on the potential closure of the Experimental Lakes Area was an e-mail sent to me by Britt Hall, a biologist at the University of Regina. And, full disclosure, Britt and her family are friends of ours. So, it’s not surprising she’d e-mail me about the ELA defunding seeing as she’s well aware that ranting about the depredations to which Harper and his Earth-hating minions are subjecting Canadian science is kind of an annoying habit of mine.

And, because she’s a friend, she also knows that I find transcribing interviews to be a real pain in the arse (and the metacarpals) so she offered to conduct our interview about the ELA through e-mail. (Thanks Britt!) What you’ll read below is that interview cut and pasted in full.

But before I get to that, I should note that since we published our article, a campaign has launched called Save ELA and they’re having a press conference in Winnipeg today (June 5) at which several top scientists will talk about the importance of this unique research site. If you want to learn more about the ELA and how you can help rescue it from Harper’s axe, be sure to check out their website.

prairie dog: Why is the Experimental Lakes Area [ELA] important? And you mention that its closure affects you professionally. How so?

Britt Hall: There are a number of reasons why the ELA is important.  But by far the most important is that it allows researchers to study possible changes to lakes and all of the life within lakes by manipulating the entire ecosystem.

For example, every biology and ecology textbook in North America describes a whole ecosystem experiment that found that excess phosphorus causes algal blooms in some types of lakes.  They discovered this by adding carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus to part of a lake. And carbon, nitrogen — but without the phosphorus —  to the other part of the lake.  Two curtains kept the water from one basin separate from the other.  The side of the lake that received the phosphorus turned pea-soup green as an algal bloom developed.

The experiment that I’m involved in is called METAALICUS – Mercury Experiment to Assess Atmospheric Loading in Canada and the US.  We used a boat and a plane to spray different isotopes of mercury to the water and surrounding forests and wetlands. We didn’t use a ton of mercury. The levels added were similar to that which is added to lakes and ecosystems near coal fired powerplants.  These different mercury isotopes are like signatures that can be traced separately.  So one isotope was sprayed on the lake, another on the forest and yet another on the wetland.  After we loaded the ecosystem, we looked at the mercury isotopes in all components of the lake: water, sediments, insects, fish etc. We were able to say that if mercury falls from the atmosphere onto the water surface, it will enter the food chain pretty quickly.  If mercury falls on the surrounding forest, it is bound up and not likely to be washed into the lake.  However, we don’t know if eventually that mercury in the forest will end up in the lake and then in the fish.  We stopped loading the lake a few years ago and are now studying how long it takes for the mercury levels in the lake to return to normal — or when and if we see that the forest mercury shows up.  This is important because recently the US developed mercury emission standards.  If we had loaded the lake and not seen the mercury isotope show up, then why ask emitters to spend millions reducing emissions?

My role in this project is to follow the mercury in the aquatic insects.  The closure [of the ELA] will mean that I will not be able to continue that project.

Continue reading “Harper’s War On Science: An Interview With Britt Hall”

Transit of Venus

Described as like a beauty mark moving across the face of the Sun, this rare astronomical event occurs later today when Venus, from our perspective here on Earth, will be visible against the background of the Sun.

According to NASA, the transit is capable of being observed with the naked eye, but better views are possible with binoculars and/or a telescope. It’s imperative, though, that anyone attempting to view the transit take the proper steps to shield their eyes from the glare.

Due to the orbital dynamics of Venus and Earth, transits of Venus occur in a predicatable, albeit quirky, pattern: in an eight year period, they happen in pairs, then don’t happen for 121.5 years, they another pair of transits occur in an eight-year period, then they don’t happen again for another 105.5 years. Today’s transit, which should start around 4 p.m. in Regina, was preceded by one in 2004. That means after today the next pair of transits of Venus won’t occur until December 2117 and 2125.

Harper’s War On Science: An Interview With Thomas Duck

In this issue, we ran an article on the potential closure of the Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario and how this is just the latest salvo in the Harper Government’s war on science. For it, I had a chance to interview Thomas Duck, an atmospheric scientist from Dalhousie University.

It was a really informative conversation but I only had room in the article for a few quotes from it. So, here’s a transcript of the complete interview….

prairie dog: What is your feeling about the Harper Government’s treatment of science?

Thomas Duck: It’s quite clear that they’re executing what I would call a war on the environment and a war on science. The very foundations of science in this country are being shaken. It’s falling down around us. This is due to draconian cuts to many different government departments, to research funding organizations, and the like.

Really, it’s a catastrophe for Canadian science.

pd: Have you been hit personally?

TD: Sure. Everyone has. Most people active in science right now have not been untouched by these cuts. Certainly, anyone working in the environment.

If you’re working, of course you’re probably working with Environment Canada or groups like this and they’ve been decimated. There are very large and important research programs at Environment Canada that are now just no more.

Continue reading “Harper’s War On Science: An Interview With Thomas Duck”

If At First You Don’t Succeed …

After coming within 0.5 seconds of lift-off the other day, Space Explorations Technologies Corp (SpaceX) successfully launched its Falcon 9 rocket this morning.

Once in orbit, an unmanned capsule called Dragon is scheduled to rendez-vous with the International Space Station (pictured) on Thursday. Assuming the docking goes well, the Dragon will deliver cargo to the station, then return to Earth in roughly two weeks time.

In an article on the launch, the L.A. Times heralded it as a “new era in space exploration”. That’s because SpaceX is a private corporation in contrast to other agencies like NASA and the European Space Agency that are government-funded. With other wealthy tycoons musing about mining Near Earth asteroids, expect a growing push from the private sector in the years to come to maximize commercial opportunities in space.

Private Enterprise (Literally)

Since retiring the last Space Shuttle (Atlantis) in July 2011, the United States has lacked the capacity for manned space flight. That’s something it’s had since 1962 — so it’s a tad embarrassing.

With the U.S. struggling to adapt to changing economic realities in the world, and NASA chronically underfunded and in long-term decline, the private-sector has stepped into the breach. On Saturday, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (or SpaceX) was supposed launch an unmanned capsule called Dragon (pictured) into orbit to rendez-vous with the International Space Station.   

SpaceX got within 0.5 seconds of launching at Cape Canaveral, then something went wrong and a valve shut down, scrubbing the launch. The company is dealing with tight launch windows, and the next attempt to boldly go where no corporation has gone before will be on Tuesday at 2:44 a.m. Regina time.