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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The Jellyfish Chronicles

According to a new study, most jellyfish populations around the world are on the rise. Photo: Paul Caputo via stock.xchang

You’ve probably read the headline hundreds of times: Human Activity Threatens Survival of Species X. Given nature’s seemingly boundless creativity, you might well start to wonder if there isn’t, somewhere on the planet, a group of creatures for which all this anthropogenic activity might actually be a blessing, rather than a curse. A new study from the University of British Columbia may just provide the answer, in the form of the humble jellyfish.

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Trans-Canada Slimeways

Slime Mold (Physarium polycephalum)

Physarum polycephalum. Photo: Jerry Kirkhart via Wikimedia Commons

Regular readers of this blog (I flatter myself that such people exist) will know I’m keen on slime moulds, a form of life that defies easy description. So the publication this week of a paper that show how a particular type of slime mould can model transportation networks in Canada was simply too good to ignore. Not only does the research explore important questions about how nature performs computations, there’s also a cool YouTube video showing a time-lapse of the cool/gross slime in action. What could be better?

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Clearing the Air on Chlorine

Earlier this week, I was forwarded the following video from SunTV. In it, Ezra Levant interviews self-confessed Greenpeace dropout Patrick Moore about a supposed controversy over a very common chemical: vinyl.

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Climate Change Hits Where it Hurts: Hockey

Playing Shinny

Outdoor shinny games like this one are just one more human activity under threat due to climate change. Photo: Jeremy Doorten via stock.xchang

I know I’ve been writing a lot about climate change lately, and I promise that after this post I’ll try to switch it up a bit. But in my defence, for a blog about Canadian science, it doesn’t get any more relevant than this: a group of researchers from Concordia University and McGill University have published the first evidence that climate change is having a measurable impact on our treasured national pastime of outdoor hockey.

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