When the kid with the diamond stud in his ear pulled the weird-looking rock out of his pocket, I rediscovered — one more time — why it’s worth having science centres.
Throngs in the Weston Family Innovation Centre at the Ontario Science Centre.
It was March Break and I had put on a lab coat and headed out to the exhibit floor to help out. We welcome somewhere around 65,000 people during the Break, so everybody on staff gets out of their office.
I was chatting with a crowd of visitors by an escalator when the kid - he looked to be nine or so - approached.
His rock was reddish and looked a little melted, with shallow depressions like little thumbprints. The kid thought it might be a meteorite and he said he had been walking around talking to people about it, but couldn't get a definitive answer.
I told him I wasn't sure, either.
But I told him it was promising that his rock seemed to have iron in it and the magnetic attraction he mentioned was intriguing. I encouraged him to keep searching and suggested that he come back when our new Rock 'N Minerals shop opened in order to talk with our volunteers.
We talked some more, but others were crowding forward with questions of their own, so I closed by suggesting that when he got to high school, he could consider coming to the Centre's Science School.
The kid looked at me like I'd just confirmed that Santa Claus was alive and well and jamming in a band with the Easter Bunny. Then he grinned, and left.
There is no shortage of facts out there. "Answers" are everywhere.
But coming to a Science Centre with a rock in his pocket and his caregivers gave a questing kid something that I think is more valuable than a fast answer from the Web or final ruling from an expert.
The kid got inquiry and discussion. He got a respectful hearing. He showed those close to him something interesting about himself. He got exciting new ideas to consider. He learned, I think, that asking questions can be at least as much fun as getting answers. In short, while he didn't get a final ruling on his science question, he did get a science experience.
It's the power to create a picture in your head. To imagine. And then, through application of bloody-minded persistence, to transform the picture in your head into something real. To innovate.
This power has driven Adam on a quest that began with simply looking at the water of a lake near his home in Lakefield, Ontario as a young teenager to where he stands today at age 18: as a young researcher who looks past visible surfaces and imagines something new.
"I noticed the water quality in Clear Lake was deteriorating and I was curious about it," Adam was saying at a small reception just before the speeches started. His voice simultaneously conveys childish excitement and understated, adult control. His imposing 6 foot 2 inch frame is topped with the open face and blushing cheeks of a boy.
Adam went looking for a "marker" for water quality and found it in the oddball microscopic form of a creature that in a sense straddles the plant and animal kingdoms - Euglena. "I thought it was pretty cool looking", he grinned.
Research experts advised against Euglena, recommending that Adam use something more readily available and accepted, such as a kind of water flea called Daphnia . But Adam stuck with his choice, painstakingly devised a system to grow Euglena himself, and then noticed - and imagined - something remarkable.
Euglena were able to absorb a particular kind of contaminant invisible to the naked eye - tiny particles of silver called nanosilver that are used as antibacterial agents in products ranging from cosmetics to sports equipment and toys. Could Euglena be more than a marker? Adam imagined so. And hundreds of hours of lab work and collaboration with mentors later, he has a patent application for a prototype biofilter that uses Euglena to remove nanosilver from wastewater and the attention of environmentalists and industrialists with an eye on the healthy market value of retrieved silver alike.
He also has won multiple science fair awards and a trip with fellow students to participate in a programme for promising young scientists at the 2012 Nobel Prize Awards in Sweden last December, where he danced with a princess. And now his latest honour, the Weston Youth Innovation Award.
We'll be watching with interest to see where the pictures in Adam Noble's head will take him - and just maybe the rest of us - next.
I really like cheese sandwiches. And like most of us, I'd love some help with making better decisions and being a generally smarter and nicer person.
So you can imagine my excitement when, while contemplating lunch at my desk, I suddenly tuned in to a TED talk that I had running on my monitor.
Neuroscientist Molly Crockett was saying that she had discovered the secret to successful decision making and it was this:
"A cheese sandwich. That's right. According to scientists, a cheese sandwich is the solution to all your tough decisions. How do I know? I'm the scientist who did the study."
Cheese is a source of an amino acid called tryptophan, which is a building block for a brain chemical called serotonin. Serotonin is linked with mood and judgement - more serotonin is, generally speaking, a good thing. Chocolate contains tryptophan. Excellent news, yes?
Here's the thing, though.
In Dr. Crockett's study, test subjects consumed a drink that lowered their tryptophan and were subsequently found to be more likely to react vengefully when treated unfairly, even if it was against their best interests. This is not exactly the same thing as announcing that cheese is a wonder drug.
Dr. Crockett's point is the press and people with an interest in selling more cheese or other "brain enhancing" drinks and foods stretched her findings too far. In this case, the cheese became baloney. She was speaking about the wonders of cheese with a sarcastic tongue firmly planted in her scientist cheek.
Aside from making me laugh out loud (and a little hungry) Dr. Crockett reminded me how challenging it can be for scientist and non-scientist alike to sort cheese from baloney when it comes to making sense of the science we're told about.
That's a lot of science. That's a new article every 16 seconds or so.
So it helps if you have some basic guidelines for spotting science baloney before you swallow it. Anna Relyea, the Science Centre's Director of Strategic Communications, sent around a great blog post from TEDx offering just that.
Finally, I had a chat about all of this with Dr. Hooley McLaughlin, who is the Science Centre's chief science officer.
After swapping a few stories about some notable brushes with baloney at the Science Centre, such as the hysteria around Y2K and cold fusion, we settled on a handy list of three simple things to watch out for.
The person making the claim is convinced they're right.
As Hooley put it, "When somebody is sure, the big flag goes up." This includes, by the way, scientists who, in debunking pseudoscience, say that science itself is ultimate truth. Science is about ceaseless questioning, not certainty.
It sounds too good to be true (or even just really good).
True breakthroughs in science - like say, figuring out that washing your hands reduces the spread of disease-causing germs, are exceedingly rare. If you hear the word "breakthrough", get skeptical.
It's associated with human health, nationalism, or a popular movement.
A staggering amount of science news - from diets, to government-funded studies on oil reserves, to new fad theories on raising children - falls into this category.
What kinds of science activate your baloney detector? Let us know.
Like any great attic, it features moldering cardboard boxes and mysterious objects, a dry, papery smell and a thrilling aura of trespass and secrets.
And like any great attic, it’s not easy to get into and no one knows for sure what all’s in there. (Although we do know that we’re in possession of a device that a fashionable lady once upon a time hung around her neck to attract fleas. I’m not making this up.)
Along with the handwritten documentation we’ve discovered in crumbling ledger books, we have about 2,000 objects in our attic catalogued in a computerized database, from antique bee smokers to a 1767-edition plant catalogue by Carl Linnaeus.
Our curator Cara Culkin figures that’s a tiny percentage of the tens of thousands of pieces we’ve got stored. But given there are boxes in here that we haven’t opened in 20 years, it’s also pretty much a wild guess.
We’re trying to get more of the wonders from our attic out on our floor where people can enjoy them. There’s the Burgh Castle Giant that recently moved into the Hot Zone and just outside the Weston Family Innovation Centre, there are a series of kitchen gadgets, including a toaster from the 1920s that reminds me a of a Dalek from Dr. Who.
In the coming year, we’ll be getting the hidden treasures out of the attic and putting them where visitors can enjoy them. We’ll be transforming a few of our empty stairwells with cases populated with objects chosen to intrigue.
I’ll be pushing for the display of that fashionable flea catcher, pictured here around Ms Culkin’s neck.
Back in the 1700s, it didn’t matter how rich you were or how fancy your clothes, you might find yourself getting nibbled by a member of Pulex irritans and this vessel, formed from ivory and containing a sweetly-attractive and sticky substance, drew the little biters in to their doom.
It’s a very unusual artifact. So unusual, Cara says, that the august experts of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum at first assured us when we contacted them about it back in the late 1960s that there was no such thing.
But exist it does. Along with some other interesting objects in the slide show below.
Our never-displayed gun collection includes muskets stamped with "DC" for Dominion of Canada
This ivory figure dating from 1875 was used by Victorian female patients too shy to disrobe in their doctor’s office to point to the body part in question.
This Chinese cannon was used for launching fireworks.
Which of the items pictured here would you most want to know more about? What should come down from our attic? Let us know.
Major Matt was a rubber action figure toy that came out in the late 1960s. He had wires embedded in his space-suited limbs that enabled him to bend his legs and arms to grip the handles of plastic space sleds.
I found Major Matt so compelling that even when his wires broke and left him frozen in the shape of a floppy starfish, I kept having adventures with him. Sometimes — even in the midst of battles on the Planet of the Borrowed Barbies — I'd pause, lost in a daydream where the dust of my yard was rendered alien and lit by a strange sun.
Time has passed, and the only time I feel kinship with Major Matt these days is when I look in the mirror after an unfortunate haircut. The education-through-osmosis of working at the Ontario Science Centre has been a bucket of Martian ice water dumped on childhood daydreams of humans exploring space.
Jesse explains that the Voyager 1 probe that launched in 1977 has taken 35 years to travel 18 billion kilometres and it's just now reaching the edge of our solar system.
It's travelling 60,000 kilometres per hour, which is insanely fast, really. But even at that speed, it would take 70,000 years to reach the nearest star four light years away. If we could somehow increase our top speed tenfold, using technology that's inconceivable at the moment, we could get there in…seven centuries or so.
This totally bums me out.
With numbers like these, dreaming about exploring space feels like a big waste of time.
But happily, I recently found three things to warm the ice water and revive my inner Major Matt:
Let's go in reverse order (like a countdown!) and start with Michael.
Dr. Shara is Curator in the Department of Astrophysics at AMNH, whose research frequently employs the Hubble Space Telescope. I called him up and in a heartbeat he diagnosed my problem.
"You're caught in a particular place on the curve of travel that isn't favourable."
Think about Moore's Law, Dr. Shara suggested. That's the observation that computer speed doubles every 18 months or so. Travel speed? Same idea.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus' ships were puttering along at 5 kph. A little over five centuries later, we're moving through space so much faster that Dr. Shara predicts 500 years from now we'll be blasting along at half the speed of light - about 540 million kph - and that's fast enough for interstellar travel (especially with the longer lifespans we'll be enjoying by then) .
Dial B for Blog
Those of us around now may be at that too-early place on the travel curve, but…our species is going to get there. No doubt in Dr. Shara's mind about that at all. In fact, he says, people under the age of 50 will have an affordable shot at buying a ticket to travel into space in their lifetime.
So after I hung up the phone, I walked over to Beyond Planet Earth and looked at the sexy prototypes of form-fitting, next-generation spacesuits and the life-size model of the Curiosity Rover that's currently driving around on the surface of Mars. Then I went over to the Space Hall and in a dark corner of the exhibit looked at an image from the Hubble space telescope of 10,000 galaxies.
I thought about my dreams with Major Matt, then thought a bit deeper - about the future reality those dreams predict. And this, quite suddenly in the dark, felt more than good enough.
If you're reading this, chances are you've heard the term "cloud" applied to the internet.
As in: "All your stuff is out there, forever safe in THE CLOUD! Your documents! Your music! Embarrassing pictures of your cat! Emails to Mom! How fabulous is that?"
And you know, it is pretty fabulous, this idea that we're cradled by an invisible cloud of our "stuff" that thanks to the internet we can retrieve and share anytime, anywhere, with anybody, through a smartphone or laptop.
But a team of researchers who recently visited our Hot Zone parted the clouds, as it were, to present a deeper picture of the internet. It's fascinating. And a bit unsettling.
If you're at a computer at the Ontario Science Centre and you visit the webpage for the San Francisco Art Institute, here's how your data travels - and who spies on it along the way.
It's a physical thing. Your "stuff" travels through buildings and cables and computers and those buildings and cables and computers are owned by corporations and sometimes snooped on by governments.
In fact, you can be at home in Toronto and decide to check out the Hockey Hall of Fame, which is also in Toronto, and your request will bounce first through Chicago, one of some 20 cities in the U.S. suspected of hosting a National Security Agency internet surveillence post.
Seeing this sparked a lot of questions from visitors – and that's exactly what we're trying to do as a place for dialogue about current science: provoke questions, get people engaged and hungry to know more.
In fact, science centres like ours are increasingly serving as a place where researchers with a desire (or a funding requirement) to communicate what they're up to can meet the public face to face.
In some cases, as in our Research Live program, visitors can participate directly in the research itself.
What questions does the research of IXmaps raise for you? What's an area of research you'd like to learn more about? Tell us what you think.
Science centres typically don't concern themselves much with the delicate business of studying and conserving priceless artifacts. We make stuff that kids can whale on. When stuff breaks, we fix it or toss it.
Or hoard it in our offices, because, hey, you never know…
So what do we do when we've got two priceless, 1,400 year-old skeletons – leading experts tell us they're so fragile and unique most museums would hide them away to protect them – and we need to move them to make way for a new exhibition?
If they drop, or jiggle, or somebody breathes on them funny, they could literally turn to dust. The experts from the University of Toronto and the Royal Ontario Museum tell us they have no idea – seriously, no idea – how to move them safely.
It's an interesting problem.
And it's what we faced a few weeks ago when it came time to move the skeleton of the Burgh Castle Giant – more about the intriguing science tales told by the bones of this guy in a moment – from our Human Body Hall.
What we did with a combination of chopped up Haz-Mat suits, Christmas wrapping fluff and really big cardboard tubes broke some new ground around here. And it points to some new thinking.
First, a bit of back story.
We got the skeletons in 1967 and '68, well before we opened in 1969. Back then, many believed the Ontario Science Centre would be a traditional, amazing-objects-in-glass-cases-style museum. The thinking that created a hands-on, interactive experience trailblazer instead (with stuff for kids to whale on) was just hitting stride.
The skeletons date back to the 7th century and were discovered near the ruins of a Roman fort in England's Norfolk County. One of is from a man of roughly average size for his time (which is kind of little, actually). The other belonged to someone who towered more than 2.2 metres (7 feet, four inches) tall. That's the Burgh Castle giant.
The giant's bones are, scientifically speaking, really cool. He's got healed fractures on his forearms, his upper right arm, his right shin and his right foot. He's got a hole in his upper right arm that looks like he got hit with a bullet. He's got ridges – big ones – on the bones in his thighs and arms. The bones in his skull haven't fused completely.
And when we got ready to move him, we found an old packing peanut stuffed between his vertebrae.
The skull bones reveal the giant died around 40, in an era when most people didn't make it past 25. The big ridges on the thighs and arms indicate he had strong muscles. The hole actually came from a bone infection – the breaks from falls or violence. Farmer or fighter, the giant was a tough guy who lived a hard life. He also likely suffered from a pituitary disease that made him big.
And the packing peanut? Possible evidence of at least one less-than-formal strategy we employed at some point to protect and support those priceless bones.
The giant and his companion have proved over decades even in our hands-on, whale-away experience halls, a priceless, hands-off, "real thing" can be profoundly powerful, even inspirational. As our anthropology-schooled curator Cara Culkin puts it: "There's the hands-on. Artifacts are the brains-on."
And so these days, we're looking at our surprisingly-large collection of historical artifacts in a new way. We're pulling more and more "real things" out of our secret storage room and getting them out on the floor. More about that in a future column.
In the meantime, click through this slide show to see how we accomplished the delicate move.
First, Cara chopped up Haz-Mat suits made of slippery Tyvek, then sewed and wrapped the material around the bones to protect and hold them all together.
Next, each skeleton was encased inside rigid sonotubes typically used as molds for concrete columns, filled with the puffy polyester you can use for wrapping presents.
The tubes were loaded onto dollies and pushed very slowly out to the floor before we opened.
We re-suspended the skeletons very carefully to keep those bones inline.
We unwrapped the Giant to discover a gift - he'd survived his trip unscathed.
Our skeletons in their new HotZone home.
Now that the Giant – along with his companion and a third modern-era skeleton – are safely and temporarily hanging in our HotZone area, we're interested in your take on a couple of key questions:
What would you most want to know when you look at these skeletons? What is the most interesting thing about them? Do you have any expertise that could teach us more?
Your answers will help guide how we talk about the skeletons in their final destination: our new "Human Edge" exhibition hall, which is now in development. Drop us a line.
The Wednesday before the Curiosity Rover was scheduled to land on Mars, I went into the kitchen in the back labs of the Science Centre to microwave my leftover chicken – and walked smack into a debate on the nature of the universe
One of our Hosts – those folks in the lab coats you see on our floor – who also happens to be an astronomer, and one of our researcher/programmers, who also happens to be an astronomer, were talking about what it would really mean when we got the signal from Curiosity that it had touched down.
Here's the thing, said Rajiv the Host: it would take 14 minutes for that signal to travel to Earth. In earlier views of the universe, the event of the landing and the event of us getting the news (yay!) about the event of the landing would be understood as purely separate events, separated by time. But seen through a lens of our current understanding (which is based on Einstein's relativity theory), there is only NOW. So the fact that we get the signal 14 minutes after the event is neither here nor there – for us, touchdown is NOW because the signal is NOW. We only perceive it as later, and so we're, um, wrong.
Got it? Me neither.
So, I handed Rajiv a piece of paper towel from beside the sink to draw a picture of what he meant for Jesse, the researcher/programmer astronomer. (Jesse was looking puzzled, which made me feel much better). It looked like this:
Does this do your head in? What aspects of science or experiences you've had at a science centre have done that for you? Let's make a list!
The dot on the right – labelled "some event" – is the moment Curiosity lands on Mars from a Martian perspective. The dot on the left – labelled "Now" – is the moment we receive the signal. From our perspective, then, until we get the signal, Curiosity has NOT landed on the surface. Better?
This just does my head in. It was like the time I suddenly, finally, got it that the music from my radio and the sunlight warming my face and the x-rays showing that stupid cavity in my tooth are the same thing: it's only that the electromagnetic waves that they are made of are vibrating at different frequencies. It is all light. All of it. Holy moley. This did my head in, and it still does. It makes me feel like I'm standing on a precipice above a giant, shimmering pool filled with fizzing champagne, about to fall in.
My sense is that this happens a lot to people who think about the things science can make you think about. And it can happen at a Science Centre even when the main thing on your mind is microwaving your chicken leftovers.
Look up from your lunch at the Science Centre's Valley Marketplace restaurant and you can get a quick education about sexually transmitted diseases.
To be specific, HIV, which - as a Science Centre-produced video animation running on large screens points out - is not just another STD. It's incurable.
The man who'd come in for a meeting to talk about our video was…not happy.
His 8 year-old had returned from a recent visit to the Centre to ask at the dinner table: "Hey Dad, what's a condom?" Consternation ensued.
Here's the video in question. What do you think? Should young kids see this at a Science Centre?
The man - let's call him Mr. H. - is a member of the Science Centre. He trusts us as a good place for his family, a safe place. He felt his trust had been betrayed. He didn't think a young kid should see this stuff - particularly not in a cafeteria with no parental discretion advisory. (He also thought we should have included abstinence as an option to avoid HIV.)
We sent him a link to the video so he and his wife could see it for themselves. It became clear through the ping pong of email that this did not allay his concern, to put it mildly.
So I invited Mr. H. in to talk about it. We were joined by my boss, Hooley McLaughlin, who is the Science Centre's Chief Science Officer. We had a good talk.
Mr. H. is clearly a thoughtful, intelligent guy and a caring Dad. He wanted the video removed, or at least put in a place where parents could choose whether to let their kids see it.
We respectfully informed Mr. H. we would not do that.
We said in a science centre with more than a million visitors a year and hundreds of exhibits, events, programs and demonstrations that often deal with the sharp and controversial edges of science, we expect to occasionally upset somebody. Sex seems to do it pretty reliably, as does questioning western science orthodoxy. Even showing performing animals in historic circuses recently hit a nerve.
Our take? If a visitor is old enough to ask a question, they're old enough to hear the answer. Does this mean we didn't take Mr. H. seriously? Far from it. His complaint prompted at least a dozen hours of discussions and letter writing between and from senior staff at the Centre. It's also prompted us to ask ourselves about what's the right science content for visitors in different places inside the Centre. Should we talk about feces or botulism in the place where we're selling the hamburgers? Some of us say no, others: absolutely. And the debate continues.
At its core, science is about fearless inquiry, dialogue and argument. Peer review (or a meeting at the science centre to discuss an exhibit idea) can feel like a crowd of angry villagers throwing rocks at Frankenstein's monster, but that's the energy that propels us forward.
So whether you love us or are seized with an urge to wring our necks, send us a note or give us a call. We'll talk.
Meet the Bionic Woman. She's part of an old exhibit at the Science Centre from the 1980s that showed the technology you could stuff inside a human body to fix it, make it work better, or make it look better. That red button-thingy on the prosthetic leg? It unscrews and pops out. When you push the red power button, it locks the "knee" in place so you can stand up. Push again, it unlocks to let you walk. Very cool. As are the titanium balls replacing the joints at the hip and the knee. And so on, up the chest.
Right now, the Bionic Woman is resting between gigs in our artifact storage room. She might be reappearing in late 2013 in a new permanent exhibition we're working on right now called Human Edge. More about that in a second.
I was looking at the Bionic Woman and unscrewing the button on her leg recently while I was talking with Joe Sponder, one of the senior designers working on Human Edge, and he told me a fascinating and slightly disturbing thing: the skeleton of the Bionic Woman - you can see the bones clearly - is from a REAL person. Joe showed me a healed fracture on the shin bone. We were quiet for a bit, thinking about that.
It left me thinking about where life can take you even after you cease to live. Like to the floor of a science museum where millions and millions of people marvel at what you were, and how technology and exhibit creators at that museum transformed you. Talk about edgy.
Which brings me back to Human Edge. The exhibition, which will mark an evolution of our currently closed-for-development Human Body hall, will deliver on its title by exploring what lies at the edge of the humanly possible.
What do you think of when you hear that phrase "Human Edge"? What kinds of things would excite you in an exhibition with that title? We'd like to hear.