Cannabalistic Stars – Explaining Luminous Red Novae

V838 Monocerotis
This outburst from the red giant star V838 Monocerotis – captured by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2002 – is an example of a ‘luminous red nova’. New research shows that such phenomena may be the result of common envelope events (CEEs) in which material tranfers unstably from one star to another. Photo credit: NASA/ESA and H.E. Bond (Space Telescope Science Institute), public domain.

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.

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Are we ready for the paper computer?

PaperTabs, a new prototype developed by the Human Media Lab at Queen’s University, aims to bring the advantages of paper into the computing environment. Photo credit: Queen’s University

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.

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A Sea Monster Moves Inland

Tylosaurus, the biggest of the mosasaurs. New evidence shows that some mosasaurs adapted to freshwater environments. Photo credit: Dmitry Bogdanov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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Are Impact Factors Losing Ground?

New Canadian research shows that the highest-impact papers are increasingly being published outside the highest-impact journals.  Photo credit: rodrigovco via stock.xchng
New Canadian research shows that the highest-impact papers are increasingly being published outside the highest-impact journals. Photo credit: rodrigovco via stock.xchng

“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.

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Curiosity’s Canadian Connection

Three generations of Mars rovers
A test version of Curiosity (right) towers over NASA engineers and previous rovers, including a test version of Spirit/Opportunity and a flight spare of Sojourner. The latest Mars rover is due to land in the Gale Crater in at 1:31 AM Eastern on August 6, 2012. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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.

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The Death of Evidence – Canadian Science Gets Political

The Death of Evidence?
The ‘Death of Evidence’ campaign alleges that the federal government is imparing both the collection of scientific data and its dissemination to the Canadian public. Image courtesy

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.

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Transit of Venus – What You Need To Know

Transit of Venus - 2004
Photo of the 2004 transit of Venus. Credit: Gestrgangleri, via Wikimedia Commons

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 Here is an edited version of our conversation.

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The Secret Lives of Chloroplasts

Green Plants
A new study shows that the chloroplasts live separate lives from not only their host cells, but each other as well. This individuality could help explain the diversity and resilience of the plant kingdom. Photo: Maja Pi via stock.xchng

At some point a couple of billion years ago, one cell tried to digest another and failed. The result was the first eukaryote, a complex cell type that today makes up all plants, animals and fungi: pretty much any organism you can see without a microscope. Eukaryotic cells are those that contain endosymbionts, the descendants of that original undigested cell. They are the mitochondria that power our cells, and the chloroplasts that allow plants to photosynthesize. Although they’ve been with us pretty much forever, they live separate lives, maintaining their own genomes, producing their own proteins, and exchanging them amongst each other. At least, we thought they did. But a new study from the University of Guelph has overturned a century of dogma by suggesting that chloroplasts may live as independently from one another as they do from the plant cells that host them.

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Dispatches from the International Polar Year Conference 2012: Part 2

In my last post, I gave you an overview of the International Polar Year Conference that just wrapped up in Montreal. In this post, I thought I’d provide a flavour of the research that was presented at the conference. While I couldn’t attend in person, over the course of the week, I was lucky enough to be able to speak via Skype with two researchers presenting on two very different but equally interesting projects. Both of them have produced short summary videos called FrostBytes, which I’ve included for context.

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Dispatches from the International Polar Year Conference 2012: Part 1

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Arctic research to Canada. Of our over 250,000 kilometers of coastline, over half of it is in the Arctic. A quarter of the total Arctic territory lies within our borders. And given that the earth’s polar regions are experiencing the effects of climate change faster and more dramatically than anywhere else, it’s only right that we should be at the forefront of scientific efforts to understand what’s going on. This week, those efforts were on display in a big way, as over two thousand researchers from around the world gathered in Montreal to share results from the International Polar Year 2007-2008 (IPY).

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