Of Carbon, Coal, Climate, and Clarity

Coal Plant

Coal is a far bigger reservoir of carbon than oil or natural gas, but we need to stop using all three. Photo: stockxchange

Andrew Weaver of the University of Victoria is one of Canada’s more outspoken scientists, and in the past two weeks he’s done even more speaking out than usual. First, it was the federal government’s alleged muzzling of scientists. Then on Sunday Weaver, along with PhD candidate Neil Swart, published a commentary in Nature Climate Change which showed that the potential global warming from Alberta’s oil sands is actually quite small compared to that from other fossil fuel sources, such as coal and natural gas. That may sound surprising, but it shouldn’t. The numbers weren’t exactly new; it’s the way Weaver and Swart presented them that made all the difference. And despite what some may argue, this study in no way provides a green light for oil sands development. Weaver is obviously a busy guy, but I did manage to talk to Neil Swart earlier this week. Here’s the story behind the latest paper.
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Come Talk to Me: Un-Muzzling Government Scientists

Sometimes I feel like I'm standing outside a broken phonebooth with money in my hand...Photo:StockXchange

Besides the rare and welcome chance to reference Peter Gabriel in a blog post title, today’s topic allows me to address an important issue that had been bugging me and all members of the Canadian science journalism community for quite a while: why is it so hard to talk to federal government scientists about their research?

The problem is not new. One of the first to sound the alarm was Andrew Weaver, a climatologist at the University of Victoria and, as part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. As early as 2008, he was alleging that Canadian government scientists were not free to speak to the media as they saw fit. Since then, a string open letters and editorials has flowed forth from all quarters: Kathryn O’Hara, then president of the Canadian Science Writers Association (CSWA) wrote a major piece in Nature in September 2010. CSWA issued its own open letter during last spring’s federal election. Last fall Bob MacDonald joined in the fray, and parliamentarians like Ted Hsu and Elizabeth May have weighed in as well.

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RSC Sounds Alarm Over Canada’s Ailing Oceans

Fish

Photo: stock.xchange

The Royal Society of Canada (RSC) is kind of a big deal, composed of Canada’s most distinguished scholars, scientists and artists. These are people who know an awful lot about an awful lot, and when they have something to say, it’s probably a good idea to listen. Yesterday they spoke out about the way Canadians are managing their ocean territories. Their message: we need to seriously clean up our act.

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The Speed of Size – Evolutionary Rates in Mammals

Paraceratherium

Paraceratherium, also known as Baluchtherium, is generally considered the largest land mammal ever to have lived. It appeared just 30 million years after the dinosaurs went extinct. Photo: Public Domain, via Wikipedia

About 65 million years ago, our nearest ancestor was probably something small, scuffling and more rat-like than you may be comfortable with. But after a giant asteroid wiped out practically all of the dinosaurs (excepting those which became birds) mammals were suddenly free to take up new lifestyles. 30 million years later, they had produced Baluchitherium, a rhinoceros-like creature twice the size of a modern elephant. Just how fast can an evolutionary group increase in size, and how fast could they do the reverse? Jessica Theodor has an answer. She’s an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Calgary, and one of about 20 authors on a major paper published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Unpressing the Flower – a New Burgess Shale Species

Siphusauctum gregarium

Artist's conception of Siphusauctum gregarium, a newly-described animal from the Burgess Shale Photo: Marianne Collins/ROM

This week, Lorna O’Brien realized what may well be every paleontologist’s dream: to be the first to describe a brand-new species. Hers is a slightly odd, stalked, filter-feeding creature which looks uncannily like a tulip, named Siphusauctum gregarium. It was found in strata from the Burgess Shale, Canada’s Cambrian fossil goldmine, which continues to produce new discoveries at regular intervals. “There’s been so much work done on the Burgess Shale in the past 100 years,” says O’Brien, a PhD candidate in Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto and the Department of Paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). “When I was an undergrad, I never thought I’d get the opportunity to name a Burgess Shale animal, so in that sense it’s been incredibly exciting.”

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Cold-FX vs. the CBC

The folks at CBC’s Marketplace have done it again. As a kind of a follow-up to their piece last January on homeopathic medicine, they’re now coming after the ginseng-based Cold-FX, purportedly Canada’s most popular remedy for the common cold.

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Remembering Alfred Wegener

Alfred Wegener in 1929. Photo: Alfred Wegener Institute

“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” This summary, usually attributed to German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, seem especially true of scientific knowledge. Take plate tectonics. The idea that surface of the earth is constantly changing as continents drift around on top of a layer of molten rock is so well established that it’s hard for most people to imagine otherwise. But exactly 100 years ago today, when a 31-year-old German meteorologist named Alfred Wegener presented this idea at a meeting of the Geological Association in Frankfurt, he was mocked. It would take decades and the work of many other scientists – including some prominent Canadians – to show that plate tectonics are as real as gravity and evolution.

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Higgs, or Why I’m Probably Not Going to Get Any Work Done Tomorrow

Tomorrow, at 8 AM Eastern Time (5 AM Pacific) CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) will hold a seminar updating all and sundry on the latest data from two major experiments that have been going on for some time: the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) experiment and ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC Apparatus). The latter involves over 3000 physicists from around the world, including a good many Canadians. Both are looking for evidence of the Higgs boson, the so-called “God particle” that, if it exists, explains why certain particles in the Standard Model have the property we refer to as mass.

Over the last few weeks, there’s been a veritable deluge of virtual ink spilled on this matter (I personally like this article, and also this one) despite the fact that the press office has clearly stated:

These results will be based on the analysis of considerably more data than those presented at the summer conferences, sufficient to make significant progress in the search for the Higgs boson, but not enough to make any conclusive statement on the existence or non-existence of the Higgs.

So what’s everyone so excited about? Well, the fact is that even if the data is not strong enough to support a conclusive statement (the statistical term is five-sigma) it’s still the first glimpse the general public will get at the data that, given enough time and replication, will eventually allow a yes-or-no statement to be made. As Churchill is supposed to have said “It’s not the end, it’s not even the beginning of the end. But it is the end of the beginning.”

Given that so much has been written about the Higgs boson already, as well as the fact that high-energy physics isn’t really my bailiwick, I’m not going to try and tackle the subject in any great depth here. Instead, I’d like to point you to a few places where you can get real physicists to explain things to you, in person or virtually.

Waterloo’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics will be running a live webcast with the brilliant title of “What the Higgs is going on?” at 12:30 Eastern Time. It’s being pitched at the high-school level, so it should be pretty accessible and informative.

Torontoians can trundle on down to the McLennan Physical Laboratories on the U of T campus (60 St. George Street) at 12 PM to hear a presentation from physicists involved in the ATLAS project on the significance of the mornings findings. That will also be webcast here.

And finally, if you’re in Vancouver, noted nuclear physics facility TRIUMF will be hosting a public seminar in their main auditorium (4004 Wesbrook Mall) at 2:30 PM PT.

Have fun!

The Burgess Shale: A Secret Worth Sharing

A specimen of Anomalocaris canadensis from the Burgess shale, part of the ROM collection. (Photo by me).

Ever since I started this blog, I’ve been looking for an excuse to write about the Burgess Shale, a national treasure of science that has somehow remained a secret to many Canadians. Discovered over 100 years ago, these sedimentary deposits – situated on top of a mountain in British Columbia’s Yoho National Park – remain unsurpassed as the richest source of well-preserved fossils from the Cambrian period, which stretched from about 540 to about 490 million years ago. Hundreds of thousands of Burgess fossils have been recovered, and the story they tell constitutes a rare and vital peek into the beginnings of complex life on earth. Despite this, most Burgess fossils are only accessible to a handful of experts, and there are few places you can go to learn about them first-hand. All that changed on Thursday, when I was fortunate enough to be present at the launch of a new website dedicated making the Burgess Shale fossils accessible to all Canadians, and indeed the entire world. As Parks Canada CEO Alan Latourelle aptly put it, the Burgess fossils are “a secret worth sharing.”

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The Science of Dance, the Dancing of Science

Interpreting science for the general public is important, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Sometimes, no matter how many killer diagrams and visually stunning charts you have, or how refined and elegant your language, there is only one way to truly get your message across: interpretive dance!

The Dance Your PhD contest is the brainchild of John Bohannon, who writes the occasional “Gonzo Science” column in Science Magazine. The rules are simple: the participant must be (or at one time have been) a PhD candidate, and must appear in a video in which they use interpretive dance to explain their research. Beyond that, anything goes. Most videos include a number of collaborators, from lab mates to professional coreographers and special effects artists. This year, the fourth since the international contest started, saw a record 55 entries, which were then whittled down to a field of 16 semi-finalists. The field included two Canadians, one of whom won her category, and both of whom I had the pleasure of speaking with this week.

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