If you could talk to an extraterrestrial civilization, what would you say? That’s the question being asked, in all seriousness, by a group of scientists and science enthusiasts at the University of Toronto. As part of the newly organized Toronto Science Festival (TSF) they are asking the general public to submit potential messages by e-mail, Twitter, or online video. Suggestions are already trickling in, and within a few weeks the winner will be chosen and actually broadcast into space by the Algonquin Radio Observatory, a 46-metre-wide dish perched on a lonely outcrop of the Canadian Shield in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park. A publicity stunt, you say? Perhaps, but it’s also a rare chance to re-connect with an important piece of Canada’s scientific heritage, and an opportunity to do some of the Big Thinking that is always needed to drive scientific inquiry forward.
Were dinosaurs dull green and grey like today’s large reptiles, or bright and flashy like their descendants, the birds? For a long time this was considered an unanswerable question, but that may soon change due to a singularly well-preserved sample of skin from a hadrosaur — a duck-billed dinosaur from the late Cretaceous — found near Grand Prairie, Alberta last summer. That sample is currently undergoing analysis at the Canadian Light Source (CLS), a particle accelerator based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. It turns out that the ultra-modern discipline of particle physics may be just the way to shed light — literally — on a hundred million-year-old mystery.
Erick James spends his days investigating the contents of termite intestines, a line of work that you’d think would relegate him to obscurity. But thanks to a bit of clever marketing, James, who works in the biology lab of Patrick Keeling at the University of British Columbia, has garnered attention from countless blogs and even some major newspapers. His latest discovery — a microscopic organism that helps its termite hosts digest their woody meals — is interesting on its own, and could have implications for industries like biofuel. But what has attracted all the attention is the fact that James named his pet organism after a fictional monster that has become a powerful internet meme.
If a star began to eat another star, what would it look like? Natasha Ivanova can tell you better than almost anyone; as the Canada Research Chair in Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Alberta, pondering questions like this is her full-time job. Last week, Ivanova and her colleagues published a paper in Science which showed that a certain type of stellar cannibalism previously thought to be invisible can be observed from Earth after all. The finding may explain the existence of the recently-discovered phenomena known as luminous red novae.
If you’re reading this on a computer, take a moment and look around your monitor or laptop screen. Do you see any stray pieces of paper, such as articles with highlighted passages, notes to yourself, or contact details to follow up with later? Me too. It seems that even after more than thirty years of widespread use, personal computers still haven’t completely replaced paper as a way of displaying and manipulating information. So can they? Should they? Members of the Human Media Laboratory (HML) at Queen’s University have been asking themselves this question for almost a decade. Last week at the Consumer Electronics Show, they unveiled a new prototype – dubbed PaperTabs– which they hope will provide part of the answer.
Of all the terrifying things that have ever lived in the ocean, mosasaurs hold a special place in my heart. Admittedly, the similarity between the name of the biggest mosasaur species – Tylosaurus – and my own may play a small role. But mostly it’s because they are the original sea monsters. Although more closely related to snakes and iguanas than dinosaurs, these giant aquatic lizards had huge heads full of terrifying teeth that would put Tyrannosaurus rex to shame. (Literally: when it comes to skull size, mosasaurs easily outrank any land-based carnivore you care to name.) And if ruling the oceans weren’t enough, this week scientists revealed that at least one species of mosasaur had adapted itself for inland river systems as well.
“Congratulations on the new paper! By the way, what’s the impact factor on that journal?” Scientists get this question more often than they would care to mention. Despite numerous critiques since it was first developed in the 1960s, today the impact factor remains the gold standard for judging the reputation of a given scientific journal, and is often used in funding decisions, in some cases even to calculate scientist’s salaries. But according to new research from Université de Montréal, information technology is slowly rendering the impact factor irrelevant. Increasingly, the highest-impact papers are being published outside the highest-impact journals.
I can feel the atmosphere heating up, and it’s more than just the sweltering August weather. The next few hours will either make or break the mission for the Mars Science Laboratory, better known as Curiosity. Just after midnight, it will attempt to land in the Gale Crater that straddles the border between the northern lowlands and southern highlands of Mars. It’s by far the biggest Mars probe to date: at more than half a tonne it’s the size of a subcompact car. And while the landing itself has attracted most of the attention, it’s really just the beginning of an exciting international scientific collaboration, one in which many Canadians are playing a prominent role.
In my experience, scientists generally like to stay out of politics as much as possible. So I was a bit surprised to learn that a group of several hundred scientists and concerned citizens are planning to march on Parliament Hill. Dressed either in lab coats or in black clothing, the group will stage a mock funeral mourning the “death of evidence.” It’s the most visible sign yet of a growing discontent toward the Conservative government’s policies vis-à-vis science and evidence-based decision making.
On June 5th, Canadians will experience a once-in-a-lifetime celestial event. Well, twice-in-a-lifetime if you caught the last one in 2004, and possibly three times if you’re very young and plan to live to be about 130, but it’s still very rare. The event is the transit of Venus, a conjunction of the spheres that has inspired astronomers for over 400 years and which has provided important knowledge about the dimensions of our solar system.
To learn more, I sat down this week with my friend Jesse Rogerson. A dedicated astronomer – the guy has a constellation tattooed on his back – Jesse is working toward his PhD at York University. He’s also a first-rate science communicator, working as a researcher at the Ontario Science Centre and hosting York Universe on astronomy.fm. Here is an edited version of our conversation.