Science Now - home

INSIDE OUT

Behind the scenes at a science museum

Kevin von Appen is Director of Science Communication at the Ontario Science Centre. He started his career as a crime reporter for a newspaper. So much for career paths.

Color illustration portrait of Kevin von Appen

Who flies there? Now I know. - Jul. 21, 2014

There's this little grey bird that's been bugging me for years.

I see it hopping around shrubs and trees, making little grey bird noises, when I go for walks in forests outside the city and I wonder what it is. But being the urban guy I am, my personal classification system for birds to this point has basically been:

  1. Robins.
  2. Seagulls. (Man, those things are irritating.)
  3. Everything else, except hawks. Hawks are cool.

The little grey bird until this point has fit squarely in the 'everything else, except hawks' category. Linnaeus, I am not.

Forested lane in summer leading to walkway and small building

But this has all changed, thanks to a visit to a remarkable place: the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York.

Five years ago, I wrote a letter of support on behalf of the Ontario Science Centre for the Lab to get a research grant to create software that could over time "learn" to help non-experts quickly and easily identify birds they see.

They got the grant, and the result, after years of work, is Merlin.

Wooden walking bridge through forest in summer.

Merlin is, in a word, amazing. If you have an iPad, iPod or iPhone, you can download it right now.

Android device? Go here.

I went down to Ithaca earlier this summer as part of the Merlin advisory team to meet with researchers and biology, computer science and user testing/evaluation experts to talk about what's next for Merlin. More about that intriguing subject in a moment.

First, let's go into the Sapsucker Woods.

The woods are a 230-acre slice of forested, ferny, swampy heaven beside the Lab.

Close up photo of gray bird with open beak perching on branch.

© Michael Hogan,
New Jersey, May 2006

I wandered along a sun-dappled trail in my bare feet for the simple pleasure of feeling the wood chips, had a seat on a bench by a pond, and moments later saw my little grey nemesis hopping around in some nearby shrubbery.

I pulled out my Merlin-equipped iPad. The app captured my location and the date, and then posed three simple questions to determine:

  1. The size of the bird I saw (helpful silhouettes - including one of a robin - made this super easy)
  2. The colour of the bird (with "paint chips" displayed to aid my choice)
  3. What the bird was doing when I saw it (eating at a feeder, sitting on a fence, etc.)

Then it showed me a photo. Was this my bird?

It was, exactly. And so I at last was able put a name to my nemesis: Gray Catbird. I clicked a button to hear its Gray Catbird song. The little bird in the shrub sang back! It felt like magic and I felt like John James Audobon.

I'm not alone: Merlin has been downloaded more than 180,000 times in a little over six months.

I think Merlin's stunning simplicity and user-friendliness is playing a big part in this. If Merlin was a person, she'd be a pal who knows a pile of stuff, but doesn't rub your nose in it. Rather the opposite of most of the printed field guides I've tried to use, which seem to assume you already know what you're looking for.

Merlin's success has also been propelled by the dramatic rise of smartphones and tablets equipped with GPS that occurred during its development. Knowing where you are and when you're looking helps the software rapidly zero in on the bird you're most likely looking at using the 400 North American species in the current app's expanding database. Every time someone clicks "This is my Bird!" the response is recorded to improve Merlin's accuracy.

So where does Merlin go from here? The trio of Lab leaders - Jessie Barry, Rick Bonney and Miyoku Chu - who I dubbed "The Bird Ninjas" when we took a hike and they identified ten species in 120 seconds without needing any help from Merlin, have some ideas about that.

Having Merlin identify birds using photos snapped by users and by sound, since we hear way more birds than we see (like a Shazaam for bird calls) and adding a "My Merlin" function so users can store what they identify in a personal "life list" are all in the mix, as is building the Merlin database to identify birds beyond North America. We're trying Merlin out with visitors at the Science Centre this summer as well.

But what excites me the most is the idea of our everyday devices helping, even driving, us to become more aware and informed about the environment around us - and just maybe, care about it more. So what about a Merlin for plants, rocks, insects? Like the Gray Catbird, there are more than a few other things out there I can't identify. And that kind of bugs me.

Comments? Feedback? Contact Kevin

 

Diving Deeper - Dec. 3, 2013

Take a breath. A deep, deep breath. Now, hold it.

Keep reading while you keep that air inside. The point of this will become clear very soon.

We’re opening our first new exhibition in seven years this December. It’s called The Human Edge. There are many remarkable exhibit experiences in it.  But one of them in particular has really captured me and I’ve been thinking about why that is.

Still holding your breath? Excellent. Keep doing it. Let’s see how far you can go, ok?

If you love to swim, enjoy whispers of current passing your ears, or let’s say you absolutely hate the water: I suspect this particular exhibit will hook you, too. And even if you can’t get to the Science Centre, you can feel the experience – right here and right now.

I’m serious. Just keep holding your breath. Read on.

The diver in the photo is Vancouver’s Mandy-Rae Krack. She holds the women’s world record for diving to a depth of 88 metres on a single breath.

Free diver wearing wetsuit and monofin seen from below as she swims downward with arms above her head, following a guide line.

Alertdiver.com

A team at the Centre decided 18 months ago to try to give people the experience of diving with Mandy-Rae without getting wet.

There are three secrets behind how they’ve pulled it off that you will not learn by coming to the Centre – although I very much hope you can do that. You can only learn them by reading on. And please continue, if you can, to hold your breath.

 

 

Secret One: A traffic jam

Automobile traffic jam on highway.

Toronto Star

Oddly enough, the idea for taking visitors on an imaginary journey underwater was born in a car trapped in rush hour on Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway. To pass the time, the driver, senior designer Joe Sponder, turned on the radio. He heard the voice of Mandy-Rae Krack on the CBC, talking about what it’s like to do a single-breath dive.

Joe was transfixed. Through the power of Mandy-Rae’s voice alone, he could see it, feel it – the arc of a powerful surface dive, the water getting darker, pressure compressing the chest with each passing metre downward. The Gardiner faded away.

“I wondered if we could do something really simple, but really powerful, to give people that experience,” he says.  The key would be Mandy-Rae’s voice, narrating her unique achievement pushing beyond what was thought to be humanly possible, step by step, as it happened. Which is where the holes come in.

Secret Two: 33,000 tiny holes

A blue wall perforated by a grid of holes.

Holey Wall!

Joe sketched the design for a structure that has ended up like a huge, hollow teardrop. Inside the teardrop, visitors enter an immersive space filled with shimmering, shifting light and sounds that evoke a dive deep beneath the waves.

“I saw the poetry in Joe’s approach and I worked to realize that,” said David Poholko.

David's a drafter and detailer with more than two decades of experience, which includes work on designs for buildings capable of weathering the climate of Nunavut. He saw Joe’s design as a small building – a theatre, basically. And this theatre would need an amazing sound system.

“It has to transport people from being in an exhibit hall to being 100 feet underwater as soon as they cross the threshold.”

Speakers jutting from the interior wall like lollipops are placed so that when a visitor is positioned between them, Mandy-Rae’s voice will feel like it’s coming from inside their heads. And the upper walls are precisely perforated in some 33,000 places – just enough to be transparent to sound while maintaining enough solid surface to reflect projected light. And there’s a clever fringe benefit: the holes keep the air circulating.

I said to David I thought it was a shame visitors wouldn’t notice this remarkable design in the dark.  He just smiled.

“The point is they’re not supposed to notice it.”

Secret Three: The Murakoshi Bolt

Close up of fingers holding a bolt.

A Murakoshi bolt

Which brings us to the final secret, which will likely go unremarked as well. But without Murakoshi bolts, the “Single Breath” exhibit quite literally could not have come together. And we can thank Norm Johnson for that.

(By the way, if you are still holding your breath at this point, I would very much like to meet you because you are clearly awesome. For everyone else, please enjoy that explosive exhale and the next of the 20,000 or so breaths you will take today.)

Norm came to the Science Centre as a cabinet maker back in 1989. He understands wood.

So he knew that to realize the curves of the teardrop envisioned by Joe and detailed by David, he needed a way to hold its wood panels in place, while giving quick access to the guts beneath to fix what will inevitably need fixing after serving a million visitors a year.

“This was a hard sell for me,” he says, pointing to the head of one of the 500 or so screw-on brass fasteners glinting on the skin of the towering teardrop that’s 18-feet, four inches tall. “I fought for these.”

Still holding your breath? Ok, let it out!

Wooodn facade with rectangular windows surroundging a tower inside, under construction in exhibit hall.

The teardrop circled by its entry wall

(Just breathe - you’ve earned it. I’ll tell you why in a few more paragraphs.)

Norm calls himself a tradesman, but he gazes at his tower with the critical gaze of an artist.

The top, he says, is twisted ever so slightly out of alignment with the bottom – about a quarter of an inch. Pointing out this utterly invisible flaw seems to make him as happy as his success in constructing the curves.

 “The last thing I want to see is someone as creative as Joe sitting on his hands,” said Norm of his efforts. “I want him to be free, because that makes me more creative. “

One last secret

Assuming the average adult reading speed of 300 words a minute, if you read all the way to the point where I told you it was okay to let out your breath, you matched the two minutes and forty-eight seconds of Mandy-Rae Krack’s world-record, single-breath dive.

Just remember you did it while calmly gazing at a screen and Mandy-Rae did it while kicking with a giant monofin down through chilly waters at pressures that compressed her lungs to the size of tennis balls.

The record for holding your breath while sitting still? That’s 11 minutes and 35 seconds, set by France’s Stephane Mifsud. Take a new, even deeper breath and read a few more blogs without exhaling – you’ll just about make it.

Comments? Feedback? Contact Kevin

 

A Question of Black and White - Oct. 23, 2013

Let's do a thought experiment. You're visiting a science museum and you see a sign telling you to walk only on the black squares of a black and white checkerboard hallway.

Would you do as you're told?

For more than 20 years we've asked that question at the Ontario Science Centre and watched what our visitors did. A remarkable majority - kids and grown-ups alike - have tiptoed from black to black to black.

It's fascinating to watch. Amusing, too. But it always gives me a chill.

Woman walking on black and white tiled floor of the Ontario Science Centre Milgram exhibit

Because at the end of that hallway stands an exhibit about the intriguing question of how and why humans follow orders that's tied to arguably the most famous and controversial psychological experiment ever performed on human beings.

Psychologist Stanley Milgram at Yale University in 1961 recruited unwitting participants as "teachers" who were instructed to give increasingly strong electric shocks to "learners" for each wrong answer they gave to a series of questions. There were no actual shocks and the "learners" were part of Milgram's team, but the "teachers" were told to keep upping the voltage even as they heard screams and pleas to stop from "learners" hidden behind a screen.

Milgram reported some two-thirds of participants administered potentially "fatal" shocks of 450 volts and that every single participant administered shocks of up to 300 volts. The horrifying findings were received by a shocked public as evidence that any of us - all of us, in fact - are readily capable of ignoring our conscience and performing brutal acts in obedience to authority.

For decades, Milgram's experiment has been cited as an explanation for the Nazi Holocaust and a cautionary tale to keep us vigilant when it comes to giving power to authority.

I've been thinking a lot lately about our Milgram exhibit.

shipping container lying on side of parking lot

Right now, it's in pieces and stored in a trailer in our parking lot as we complete the work on our new Human Edge exhibition.

I'm anxious to get it back. Here's why.

  1. After five decades, Milgram continues to provoke and inspire current science.

    Australian psychologist Gina Perry last year published a book called Behind the Shock Machine. She re-examined Milgram's data and concluded that who obeyed the order to administer shocks, who didn't, and why was not as black and white as people generally thought.

    In a fascinating interview, Perry points out less well-known variations of the experiment performed by Milgram showed that if the "learner" was in the same room as the "teacher", subjects refused to give shocks more frequently. If they had to hold the down the hand of the "learner" on a metal plate to give the shock, they were even more resistant. They were also likely to rebel if there were other teachers present who refused.

    In fact, University of Exeter psychology professor Alex Haslam - who also did fresh analysis of Milgram's data - says a direct order to give a shock met with less obedience. Participants were most likely to give shocks when they believed they were advancing a noble cause - in this case the cause of science. Conclusion? He thinks we should be more afraid of enthusiastic believers than obedient robots.

    These ongoing debates enrich and enliven our understanding of Milgram's experiment and we need that.

    Why?

  2. Real life is one big Milgram experiment.

    Check any news feed, on pretty much any day, and you'll see the evidence - and not just in the torture chambers where you'd expect to find it. For example, consider a story that broke this fall about male and female freshmen at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, who, as part of their frosh-week festivities chanted a cheer endorsing non-consensual, under-age sex. Sexually assaulting children, in other words.

    I suspect few, particularly the women, would have shouted those words in the street as individuals, away from the context of their university and the implicit authority of their student leaders. Look at the footage and you can't help but think about what you might do yourself in a similar situation and about Milgram's experiment, which will remain one of a kind.

    Why?

  3. There will never be another study like Milgram's done by a reputable scientist. No chance.

    Modern research ethics around informed consent make it impossible. That's a good thing. People aren't lab rats and some participants interviewed by Perry were still emotionally traumatized decades after the Milgram experiment.

    Having said that, I’m profoundly grateful for Milgram’s work. Because its message matters. And because we need to feel that chill.

Comments? Feedback? Contact Kevin

 

Citizen Science - Aug. 15, 2013

Weeks have passed, but I'm still wondering what the heck was up with the ants.

I was on an early morning stroll around my neighbourhood before heading into work. I was looking down at the sidewalk, which I like to do because I often notice interesting stuff on the ground – lost toys, a purple sock, a single, high-heeled shoe, nickels: you get the idea.

On that particular morning, every half block or so for a dozen blocks, boiling up from the cracks like rice in a pot, were swarms of little brown ants.

The phenomenon was so arresting, I grabbed my iPad and took a picture so I’d remember it.

Swarm of red ants on pavement

Ants hit the pavement

I nosed around the internet and talked to David Sugarman, a biologist who works at the Science Centre and quickly realized that ant swarms (the kind I was looking at were most likely "pavement" ants, aka Tetramorium caespitum) aren’t that mysterious or unusual.

When a colony runs low on food sources, gets too big for its burrow, or needs some mating with the Queen to happen, it throws a moving party.

But what tugs at my brain is the simultaneous timing of the thing: what was going on in the micro-environment of my east end Toronto 'hood on that particular morning to trigger a whole bunch of colonies to swarm at the same time?

Were they genetically linked? Were they signalling each other? Was it happening in other neighbourhoods, or even other cities, right then?

When something tugs at your brain it’s just natural to ask some questions, make some observations, form an opinion about what might be going on.

Host and student doing presentation in front of the main screen in the HotZone.

Journalism students talk citizen science in the Hot Zone

We all do it. But when groups of us start doing it together and sharing it, it gets really interesting. It can turn into a powerful force of citizen science.

Some journalism students from the University of Western Ontario recently came into the Hot Zone at the Science Centre to talk about citizen science based on the research they did for a seven part news series.

Citing citizen-science observation of locust outbreaks dating back 3,000 years to China’s Shang dynasty, they noted that citizen science is in fact the root of all modern science.

What’s new is that thanks to the rise of internet and computer technology, it has never been easier to become a citizen scientist. You can log in from your kitchen to start classifying newly-discovered galaxies or explore the ocean floor in the company of hundreds of thousands of other citizen scientists worldwide. It’s pretty cool.

Also cool is the link between citizen science and a healthy democracy – the more of us who are watching and participating, the less likely we are to be misled by the interests of a few.

Curious? Start with citizen science clearinghouses such as Cornell University’s Citizen Science Central or Zooniverse to find a match that suits you.

As for me, I’m checking out the School of Ants. Looks like they could use some Canadian data.

Comments? Feedback? Contact Kevin

 

Generation G - Aug. 1, 2013

I often can’t remember where I put my keys. But I recall with startling clarity – down to the blue glow of the screen and the smell of the indoor-outdoor carpet in my high-school buddy Joe’s basement rec room – the first time I played Pong.

I can hear the ‘bip…bip…bip’ sound of that dot of light bouncing back and forth between the paddles and feel again the sweaty-palmed, fervent conviction that if I twitched the paddle just as it made contact, I could spin the ball to baffle my opponent slouched beside me on the chesterfield.

It was 1976 and the future had arrived. A computer game! On TV!

And so it was with a Proustian thrill that I met the entrance experience in a travelling exhibition we’re hosting at the Science Centre this summer called Game On 2.0.

It was Pong. Glorious Pong.

It’s a hoot to eavesdrop on the multigenerational memory-swapping that goes on in families as they play. But I was considering more than memories as I pin-balled through 100+ gaming stations in the show that span 60 years of video gaming history.

I was thinking about Generation G.

Science Centre visitors play Pong at Game On 2.0

Science Centre visitors play Pong at Game On 2.0.

Generation G is what author and entrepreneur Gabe Zicherman calls the millions of “millenials” born after 1980 who play videogames as their primary form of entertainment – a generation he thinks is getting measurably smarter as a result.

I'm skeptical about that, frankly. Measuring human intelligence is a slippery thing. We tend to measure what we value and value what we measure and both those things change over time. Having said that, I think having conversations about it is worthwhile.

And I'm very intrigued by how video games have started “game-ifying” life beyond our arcades, exhibit halls and living rooms and what that might come to mean. It could affect every generation, G included.

In my new car, for example, there’s a dashboard display that gives real-time feedback about how much fuel I’m burning as I step on the gas. Ease off and the number drops. It makes me feel like I’m winning – like I’m taking care of my planet like a Tamogotchi.

Game designer Jane McGonigal says a better future for all of us lies in harnessing this kind of behaviour. Humans collectively invest more than three billion hours every week playing online games, she says, games that reward collaboration, tenacious problem-solving and adaptability.

Channel that gaming energy through initiatives like “World Without Oil” or “Superbetter” and we’ll be a step closer to her goal: making it as easy (maybe as fun) to save ourselves in real life as it is in a video game.

It’s a long way from Pong and a basement rec room. But just think of the memories we’d have if it worked, even a little.

Have games made your life better? How? Tell us about it.

Comments? Feedback? Contact Kevin

 

A Fax from the Future Beach - Jul. 19, 2013

If you're reading this, I'm guessing you might care about what the future holds for science centres. So it's worth noticing what happened at an odd little gathering in the desert town of Albuquerque, New Mexico this summer.

Sixty people from around the world came together to talk about new kinds of experiences we'll be creating for and with visitors by 2020. After three days, for me it shook down into three big ideas.

  1. Reality will get "real-er"

    Emerging computer technologies will increasingly augment "real" experiences. For example, you play with a ball floating in a moving column of air and see a simultaneous virtual overlay on your phone, tablet or a screen that reveals air currents and areas of high and low pressure to give you deeper sense of how the Bernoulli principle works.

    Larger-scale projections onto the surface of big, mysterious artifacts such as steam engines, water fountain pumps, bridges, even whole buildings, will reveal and animate what's happening inside. What you can't see, you'll touch through "haptic" interfaces that let you feel the surface of artifacts like cloth or sculpture that are too fragile for handling, or get touch-based coaching through your clothing on the proper position to swing a bat or dance Gangnam Style.

    computer tablet resting in lap of crossed legged man on beach

    Image credit: YouTube/AT&T

    A blind PhD student from North Carolina State University named Sina Barham showed us, or rather played us, a map on a tablet computer that he tapped and talked with to explore Wyoming. When Sina said "Hey, buddy, centre that" and "Now, take me to the capital of the United States" and the map responded in natural language, it felt a step closer to Star Trek. "Hearing" data - from graphs of wind speed to the colours on a space image - is about more than accessibility for those with disabilities: it opens up a new way of experiencing information for all of us.

    And the tech can make room for visitors to contribute with delightful results: Jun Fujiwara's art invention that collects sound (from passing footsteps or giggles) in a bottle, then plays it back as danceable music when the bottle's uncorked, had us talking, and laughing, at the possibilities.

  2. "Stuff" will get "smarter"

    By 2020, sensors in our exhibits and buildings will broadcast when and where it's busy (the Rain Forest is empty and the snake's awake! KidSpark is jammed up with school groups until 2!) and ask if you'd like to broadcast your visit with your "likes" and "dislikes". Windows will double as multi-touch screens to talk about what you can see outside and be an interface to upload and download your own creations. It's part of what Rick Smolan, photographer and author of "The Human Face of Big Data", calls our planet's development of its own "nervous system" through its growing billions of digital sensors. Early example? Fourteen seconds before the massive Japan earthquake of 2011 hit, bullet trains and factories were halted by linked sensors, saving lives.

    By 2020, we'll be living in a world that goes beyond the internet and social media to living with an omnipresent, always-on, digital layer of experience and information.

    "One of the things our grandchildren will find quaintest about us is that we distinguish the digital from the real, the virtual from the real. In the future, that will become literally impossible."

    Science fiction author William Gibson said that in 2007. In Albuquerque, it already felt like old news.

  3. What visitors expect will change (or not)

    Here's the thing: you can't see truly disruptive technology coming (which is why we hedged our bets with predictions that looked out seven short years). While teens at a science centre in 2013 may roll their eyes when they can't get wifi, maybe this generation of "digital natives" described by Don Tapscott, will actually hunger more for the physical and low-tech - something tangible in an ocean of digital marketing messages. Will all those sensors that read and react to our facial expressions, anticipate our needs and cluster us together in "like" groups come to dominate the few open public spaces we have left? Stunt our abilities to overcome obstacles and innovate by making everything too easy and available?

    How do science centres keep creating spaces for surprise, wonder, the unexpected and uncomfortable? This is where it gets really interesting, this wrestling for what's good versus just what's current, or coming.

    We closed with a promise to email our 2013 thoughts in 2020 (assuming that particular technology's still around) to see how we did. And we looked at a fascinating cultural artifact from 1993 - a series of AT&T commercials that predicted, among other things, that in the future we'd be sending faxes from the beach. It's worth a look.

Comments? Feedback? Contact Kevin

 

Rock on, kid - Jun. 13, 2013

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.

Visitors interacting with exhibits in the Weston Family Innovation Centre.

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.

Here's my point.

If you type "Have I found a meteorite?" into Google, you'll get about 6,550,000 results in 0.30 seconds.

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.

I hope I run into him again. Cool kid.

Comments? Feedback? Contact Kevin

 

The Meaning of Adam Noble - Jun. 7, 2013

Before the awards and the media interviews and the admiring crowds, the letters after your name and the trophies on your shelf, there is something else that comes first.

Adam Noble in the Ontario Science Cednre HotZone

Watching Adam Noble on a stage at the Ontario Science Centre this week to receive one particular award – the 2013 Weston Youth Innovation Award – you are reminded of what that thing is.

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.

Comments? Feedback? Contact Kevin

 

Baloney and Cheese - Mar. 1, 2013

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.

Dr. Molly Crockett speaking at Ted conference

Ted.com

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.

Toated cheese sandwich on plate

valeriekingbooks.com

There are some 28,100 active scholarly peer-reviewed journals out there, collectively publishing around 1.9 million articles a year.

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.



I also like Dr. Michael Shermer's 10-point "Baloney Detection Kit".

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.

1950s style illustration advertisement for sliced bologna: round, ready, right
  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

Comments? Feedback? Contact Kevin

 

Toys in the Attic - Jan. 3, 2013

A few steps beyond the happy tumbling of high-velocity toddlers in a corner of our KidSpark experience area, behind an unmarked grey metal door, lies a silent world of wonders.

Black door

It’s the Ontario Science Centre’s artifacts collection storage facility.
Our attic.

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.

1920's toaster in glass exhibit case
Black and white photo of Dalek robot

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Flea catcher necklace worn around woman'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.

 

 

Collection of six antique guns displayed on table

Our never-displayed gun collection includes muskets stamped with "DC" for Dominion of Canada

Ivory figure from 1875 displayed on table

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.

Curator Cara Culkin stands beside engraved wooden Chinese fireworks cannon

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.

Comments? Feedback? Contact Kevin

 

Space Between Your Ears - Dec. 12, 2012

Illustration of Major Matt in spacesuit

Wildtoys.com

When I look up at the night sky (usually squinting past the glare of sodium streetlights) I am sometimes transfixed by a childhood memory.

It's a totem - an embodiment of the noble and the intrepid, a shining exemplar of a probable future.

I am speaking, of course, of Major Matt Mason.

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.

Case in point: a podcast we posted recently featuring Science Centre astronomer Jesse Rogerson.

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:

  1. The Space Hall at the Ontario Science Centre.
  2. A travelling exhibition we've been hosting created by the American Museum of Natural History called Beyond Planet Earth: The Future of Space Exploration (it closes January 1, 2013).
  3. A very neat guy named Michael Shara.

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."

Huh?

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) .

Animated illustration of Major Matt in spacesuit in front of a field of stars

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.

Comments? Feedback? Contact Kevin

 

 

Forecast: Cloudy, with Questions - Nov. 16, 2012

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.

The team, led by Andrew Clement at the University of Toronto with Nancy Patterson of OCAD University uses Google Earth and some creative programming to track and reveal the routes your "packets" of data take as they travel around the internet in a project called IXmaps.

Their project shows the internet is much more like the much-mocked "series of tubes" referred to by the late Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens (and subsequently spoofed for your dancing pleasure) than some amorphous and benevolently neutral fog machine.

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 surveillance 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.

Comments? Feedback? Contact Kevin

 

 

One Giant Leap - Oct. 4, 2012

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.

skull viewed in profile against white background

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.

Curator Cara Culkin wrapping tyvek around the bones of a standing skeleton

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.

Standing, wrapped skeleton encased inside sonotube

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.

Sonotube standing on dolly in warehouse

The tubes were loaded onto dollies and pushed very slowly out to the floor before we opened.

Man suspending skeleton in display case.

We re-suspended the skeletons very carefully to keep those bones inline.

Curator Cara Culkin unwrapping skeleton

We unwrapped the Giant to discover a gift - he'd survived his trip unscathed.

Three skeletons suspended in glass display case

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.

Comments? Feedback? Contact Kevin

 

 

Science Does My Head In - Aug. 8, 2012

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:

Line map drawn in blue pen on brown paper

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.

Comments? Feedback? Contact Kevin

 

Viral Dialogue - Jul. 23, 2012

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.

Comments? Feedback? Contact Kevin

 

A (Post) Human Edge - Jul. 6, 2012

Bionic Woman figure, a combination of skeleton bones and prosthetics, lying on table with hands of a person working on her knee.

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.

Close up of Bionic Woman's legt with mans' finger pushing button on the knee joint.

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.

Comments? Feedback? Contact Kevin