Category Archives: In the News

Maybe Not Everything is Terrible?

Here’s four quick things that have floated by on the internet recently that offer a smidge of optimism that we are not wholly and entirely doomed. (Of course, the usual caveats that half of these are still in the research stage, lab conditions are not real world conditions, etc etc.)

1.) Someone figured out how to turn CO2 into ethanol. The researchers found that by applying a voltage to a solution of water and carbon dioxide in the presence of plates covered in nano-scale spikes, the CO2 is converted into ethanol. The spikes on the electrode constrain the reaction so that only ethanol is produced. The notion that the waste product of carbon-based fuels can then be converted back into fuel (to be burnt, to be converted to fuel, …) is amazing and promising. Here’s hoping it works when scaled up.

2.) Someone else figured out how to kill antibiotic resistant bacteria by busting up their cell membranes. Other than climate change, the thing I lose the most sleep worrying about is antibiotic resistance: it’s staggering and distressing to think that in the span of one life time, we’ve entered the antibiotic era and the post-antibiotic era. We found a way to avoid dying from an infected scratch, and we collectively mismanaged that gift so egregiously in a race to make chicken cheaper than socks that scrapes may well be potentially lethal again soon. Drug companies aren’t spending much money to go looking for new antibiotics, and even if they were, we need to overhaul how we use antibiotics for that to do anything other than push the end of the antibiotic era back a decade or two. However, these polymers kill the bacteria by physically ripping it apart, rather than poisoning it, and so it does not carry the same resistance issues as traditional bacteria do. I slept soundly the night after I read this.

(Also, while we’re on the subject, phage therapy is fascinating and I’m baffled that the West has largely ignored it.)

3.) Tasmanian devils are developing resistance to the contagious cancer that is devastating their population. The contagious face tumor was thought to be lethal in all cases (with the devils starving as a result of the tumor interfering with jaw mobility), though some individuals have developed ways to fight the cancer and survive. Since 80% of the devil population is infected, they are in serious danger of becoming extinct. If a significant portion of the population develops resistance, hopefully the species will be able to stabilize.

4.) Renewable energy methods now provide more global energy than coal. This is excellent news, and we need to keep it up. It may be possible to convert CO2 into ethanol in a lab, but we’re a very long way from being able to scrub our emissions effectively, and ultimately the only way we’re going to at least slow climate change is by pumping drastically less CO2 into the atmosphere.

Another argument for overhauling the Nobel Prize

The Nobel Prizes were announced last week, and the physics prize went to three scientists for “for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter.” (I admit that even as a physicist that I have only a vague idea what that actually means, so I’m not going into it.) The Nobels are the premier award for science, but the scientific context in which they were conceived is vastly different than how science is done in the modern world: Alfred Nobel’s will (which sets out the framework for the prizes) was drawn up in 1895, two years before J.J. Thomson discovered the electron. (He got a Nobel for this in 1906.) The science world is fundamentally different today than it was around the turn of the 20th century.

This is not to say that the turn of the 20th century was a dull time in science: on the contrary, science was exploding with activity, and whole new fields were opening up. In physics alone, x-rays, radioactivity, the electron, and black body radiation were all discovered within five years (1895-1900). But the model of the scientist at this time was still very much the solitary figure toiling in a lab, perhaps with assistants or a collaborator or two, but not with the highly collaborative lab system that is ubiquitous today. To borrow a phrase from historiography, the traditional model of science is very much a Great Man model, where individual men (and only men, even though there have always been women doing extraordinary scientific work with little to no support or acknowledgement) profoundly shape the scientific era through their work and influence. The Nobels, then, are modelled in this same fashion: no more than three winners can be named, it cannot be awarded to groups or posthumously, and the award must be given for a specific contribution to science.

This is no longer a viable framework by which to reward excellence in science. There have been criticisms levelled at the Nobels for decades, and certainly there are many pieces of extraordinary science that have been overlooked for the prize. Women and people of colour have been drastically underrepresented: only two women have won Nobels in physics (Marie Curie in 1903, Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963) and about 10% of physics laureates are people (men) of colour, although who is racialized has certainly not been constant throughout the history of the Nobels. No-one from Africa or South America has won the physics Nobel.

Lots of people have made these arguments before, and made specific note of people whose work has been overlooked (*cough*VeraRubin*cough*). These are all robust arguments and I feel I have little to add to those: the structure of the Nobels heavily favours Western men in prestigious facilities, and making the Nobels more inclusive requires a lot of work from a lot of levels of the scientific realm. However, even if the prize is awarded to a more diverse group of laureates in coming years, it still operates under the premise that extraordinary science is done by individuals rather than groups, and one look at the author list of any big paper from CERN or TRIUMF should tell you that that’s not the case.

Focusing on individuals rather than grounds means that work that is rewarded is somewhat misrepresented. While science in the early 1900’s was growing by the sorts of leaps and bounds that the Nobel was designed to reward, even the groundbreaking work of today is in some senses incremental. There were decades of work put in in understanding gravitational waves computationally, theoretically, and analytically, and all that work was necessary to both build LIGO and be able to intepret data from it. While the discovery of GW150914 was a singular shift in our ability to understand the universe, that discovery was the culmination of a mountain of scientific research and literally thousands of peoples’ contribution. Isolating only the final discovery from the context of preceding work makes no sense, and is a fundamentally inaccurate narrative to write about the scientific process.

It also, incidentally, reinforces the traditional model of Scientist as Devoted Monastic Scholar, where science is a calling only accessible to the most brilliant and devoted among us. This is nonsense: insisting that the Proper Way To Do Science a) exists in the singular b) is in isolation and drudgery and c) is imperatively all-consuming is a protocol for burnout. This model is regressive, extremely exclusionary, conducive to bad science and worse mental health, and a terrible yardstick by which to evaluate scientists and their work.

As well as failing to recognize the contributions of labs and collaborations, the focus on singular discoveries has lead to whole swaths of physics are un(der)represented in the Nobels. I’ve tallied up the fields listed with each Nobel physics laureate, and plotted the data below. For each prize awarded, multiple categories listed are considered individually, but if two or three scientists split the prize for the same work, each category is counted only once. Categories that were used to describe only one Nobel are applied electromagnetism, applied mechanics, applied optical physics, cosmic radiation, cosmology, critical phenomena, electron optics, electronics technology, fiber technology, interferometry, mechanics, metals, neutrino astrophysics, plasma physics, quantum optics, space physics, and theoretical physics; none of these are included in the plot for brevity.

Number of Nobels awarded for each subfield of physics.  Categories with only one Nobel listed are not included for brevity.

Number of Nobels awarded for each subfield of physics. Categories with only one Nobel listed are not included for brevity.

I’m surprised that there is so few awards given for work in the astrophysics / cosmological / gravitational physics, ie, work concerning the huge scales of the universe. Instead, the significant majority of the Nobels have been given for discoveries at the atomic level or smaller. The defining frameworks for the study of the universe at the largest scales (general relativity) and smallest scales (quantum mechanics) have been developed since the Nobels have been awarded, so both areas of physics have been rich with discoveries and breakthroughs throughout the past hundred years.

There’s also a dearth of Nobels given for research that falls in the range of scales where classical mechanics are sufficient: aside from a few prizes awarded for superfluidity, there have been no Nobels awarded for fluid mechanics. There’s nothing relating to environmental, planetary, geological, solar, or atmospheric physics, and nothing that can be considered interdisciplinary beyond the overlap with chemistry. Applied physics is almost entirely ignored, and the prizes listed as being experimental physics are largely also categorized as atomic or particle physics.

Here’s my theory about why this is the case: the Nobels are set up to reward single, defining discoveries, and the nature of small scale physics (especially particle physics) meshes better with that focus than many other fields. It’s straightforward to point to “we discovered a new particle” as a groundbreaking discovery, but it’s a little fuzzier to say “we figured out how to measure cosmological distances” and fuzzier yet to say “we understand the structure and circulation of the atmosphere.” There is a lot of work that leads to the discovery of a new particle, certainly, but one day there was no J/psi meson and then the next day there was. But describing the structure of the atmosphere was (and is) done in incremental pieces: there’s no clear single instance in time when the discovery happened. Understanding the structure of the atmosphere is extremely important, but it is difficult to point to a single prominent discovery or development that stands above the rest of the body of work.

(Also, the physics of the extremely small is tantalizing, since it is frequently weird and entirely inaccessible in everyday life. Since this is also the case for the physics of the extremely large, I have no satisfying explanation for why astrophysics and cosmology are so underrepresented.)

Ultimately, I think this is why we should overhaul the Nobels: clearcut discoveries typically involve hundreds or thousands of people, and individual people typically push the frontier of science by increments rather than by revolution. I have no knowledge whatsoever of Swedish law, and so I have no idea how legally entrenched the award criteria are; obviously it’s not nothing to overhaul a prominent international award rooted in a legal will. It’s quite possible that there is no legal way to adjust the number of possible laureates, and it’s quite possible that there is no legal way to permanently cease awarding the prize. But I think it’s time that those options are considered in depth by the Nobel Foundation, because the model of the Nobels is fundamentally incompatible with how scientific progress is made today. The most prestigious prize in science should reflect the collaboration and continuous progress woven into the ecology of the modern scientific world, and it should reflect the diversity of both scientists and scientific endeavours undertaken.

I am unconvinced that a single prize for all of physics makes much sense anymore, and there are critically important areas of physics that deserve recognition as well as the traditional fields. I believe that the prestige of the Nobels can be maintained while expanding the number of prizes awarded and increasing the diversity of work considered for recognition. Science is becoming more inclusive and collaborative, and though there is substantial work to be done at all levels of the scientific community, modernizing the Nobels is one way for the highest echelons of the scientific community to lead the way.

Science Borealis Carnival: National NMR Facility Faces Closure

To celebrate our one year anniversary, Science Borealis is having a blog carnival! While the theme is “The Most Important Science News in My Field in 2014,” I’m interpreting this somewhat loosely. I think the biggest on-going story in Canadian science is the sustained active cuts and passive underfunding of scientific research from the Harper government; however, this is by no means contained to this year, and to some extent, physics and astronomy has not borne the brunt of these cuts the way environmental science has. This is not to say that the state of Canadian physics, astronomy, and space science is uniformly rosy and healthy: lots of programs and institutions have weathered funding cuts and grant programs that have been allowed to lapse, and, notably, the Canadian Space Agency got a failing grade in Evidence for Democracy’s Can Scientists Speak? report. (Environment Canada, which has been one of the most visible sources of frustrated scientists unable to speak about their work, got a C-.)

The 21 T magnet at the National Ultrahigh Field NMR Facility for Solids

Possibly the most unassuming looking world-class physics lab in the nation. Source:

But to the best of my knowledge, no physics or astronomy facility that can be described as “the only one of its kind in Canada” has yet had to shut its doors as a result of the war on science. (If you know of one, please let me know!) However, this may change early next year, as the National Ultrahigh-Field NMR Facility for Solids is in peril of closing permanently in March 2015. (The lab announced in late November that barring immediate reprieve it would be closing on December 1, but emergency funding was found, and the lab will remain open until March.) The NUF-NMR facility houses a 21 Tesla magnet, which is used to probe into the atomic structures of biological samples and novel materials. This magnetic is the strongest magnet in Canada, and the strongest magnet in the world dedicated to studying solids. All NMR work requires a strong magnetic to resolve the fine differences in nuclear emission spectra, but the stronger the magnetic the higher the resolution of the emission spectra, and the more elements that can be analyzed in the apparatus. Since this is the strongest magnet in the nation, if this lab closes there will be no facility in Canada that can analyze materials with magnesium, gallium, germanium, zirconium, indium, barium, or lanthium. Note that these are not all rare elements: it’s not just research into rare and exotic materials that would be curtailed by closing this lab.

The facility’s funding woes started in 2012, when scientific infrastructure funding was frozen for a year, and the NRC was overhauled to be a business-oriented lab for hire rather than a public research institute. The facility is housed in an NRC building, and received funding and support from the NRC before the restructuring. However, after the restructuring, the support was not renewed, and the funding the NRC had already committed ran out this year. The lease on the space from the NRC is $100,00 per year, and the directors estimate that another $160,000 is needed to cover operational costs.

While this sounds like a lot of money, this is not that much. The facility cost $11.8M to build, and for the want of $0.26 M, may close because all the grant programs they previously applied to (successfully, presumably) are now shuttered or restructured. Not that my research is comparable, but when I got my notification of resource allocation from Compute Canada last year, they included an estimate of how much my allocation would cost (were I paying it out of pocket, which I’m not, obviously). My modest allocation, for one grad student’s work, cost ~$75,000 per year. Obviously the funding sources are wildly different, but for the price of four modest supercomputer allocations, you could keep a unique Canadian facility open for another year. That is not even close to an outlandish sum of money for the substantial scientific payoff it provides.

This has been a theme of the war on science: while the budget cuts are presented in terms of efficiency and fiscal responsibility, many of the casualties have had modest budgets and outsized scientific impact. The fisheries library in New Brunswick that was shut (along with several others) comes to mind: the government spend several million dollars renovating an updating the library, and then closed it months later to save a few thousand dollars. I chalked that up to an ideological motivation, given the sustained hampering of environmental science work, but now it seems like there’s at least some haphazard slash-and-burning going on too.

I’m surprised that the NMR facility is facing such a funding crunch in part because this facility seems to be exactly the sort of lab that the government is supposedly trying to foster: NMR is used in a lot of applied and industrial science, especially materials science and biological physics. That they qualify for not a single grant program is baffling — surely with all this focus on funding industrial and applied science, there would be expanded funding programs for facilities that do that work? Much of the scientific community has said that this “refocussing on applied and industrial science” rhetoric is empty at best, and the NUF-NMR’s situation is good evidence that that’s not just dark or bitter speculation. None of the work listed on the facility’s research page has obvious political ramifications the way say the ELA’s publication list does. A lot of it sounds very useful, and much of it (particularly the pharmaceutical section) looks like it could easily be economically profitable. That a world-class facility like this is facing imminent closure, shuttering multiple research programs at universities across the country, is a clear indication that all science is under attack in Canada, not just the science with potential political ramifications.

Since the facility’s situation has come to light, the NRC has agreed to waive the lease temporarily (read: until this is safely out of the news), and from the sounds of the lab’s news page, there are negotiations in the works to secure some measure of stability. That’s good, but it’s only a matter of time until the next funding crisis comes around, and that’s likely to be sooner rather than later.

The Personal and The Professional

I’m (as usual) very late to the party on the whole Scientific American masterclass on how not to deal with sexual harassment, but here’s the gist of the (first) situation:

  • Dr. Danielle Lee has been blogging at Scientific American for 2 years. Her research is in ecology and evolutionary biology, and she does a lot of excellent outreach work to the general public and especially underserved groups; she’s highly regarded for both of these.
  • She got an email last week asking if she would contribute to a site, she asked the terms of the request (including, among other things, if it was a paid gig), and then professionally declined. In response, the other person asked “are you an urban scientist, or an urban whore?” I’ll give you a moment to pick your jaw up off the ground — it can take a minute to jiggle it back into the joint properly.
  • She turns around and publishes a post on her blog at SA that not only clearly lays out not only why this is totally unacceptable, unprofessional, and breathtakingly rude, but also talks about it in terms of “your work is valuable — don’t let someone else dictate the terms you work on.” Academia has a lot of endemic and unresolved labour and sexism issues, and even outside of the context of this one incident, that is an important point to make. She handled this very professionally, I thought, and in a way to underscored how while this is an isolated incident, it exists within a larger context.
  • SA then took her post down without contacting her, later citing in a very hand wavy way that SA publishes on science, not on personal matters. The later justification was that they were worried that the site that contacted Dr. Lee would lawyer up, and until they had proof that she wasn’t making it up, they wanted to cover their butts. Note that these are totally incongruent explanations, and the second implies that Dr. Lee would potentially fabricate sexual harassment. Faaaaaantastic.
  • After much of the community around the SA and other blogs raised a stink about this, Dr. Lee’s post was reinstated, and an “apology” was posted. I’m using scarequotes because at no time in the piece was Dr. Lee actually apologized to by SA, and there was nothing in their post covering this to the effect of “this person’s behaviour was completely inexcusable.” While it’d be nice to think that that goes without saying, I’ve been around the sun enough times to know that that’s not the case.

And then yesterday morning, it came to light that SA’s blog editor Bora Zivkovic has sexually harassed a woman named Monica Byrne (and, judging by the comments on that piece, some other women) at what she thought was business meeting where she was trying to pitch stories. Byrne who wrote that post a year ago without Zivkovic’s name on it, and actually named him elsewhere a few weeks ago, but in light of Dr. Lee’s harassment, she updated her own post and it’s gotten attention. He’s issued an apology — notably not on SA — and while it’s a clear enough apology, I’m not holding my breath that it means an awful lot. It’s straightforward to apologize after the fact, but shifting your attitudes and actions takes work.

The second incident underscores how asinine the initial SA response to Dr. Lee’s harassment was:

The environment we live in shapes how we do our work, what work we do, how we talk about our work, and who we are as scientists. The personal isn’t separate and distinct from the professional, and nor should it be: our personal experiences and perspectives are bringing a much needed diversity of viewpoints to academia and to science. The personal, for women, includes navigating a minefield of sexism and sexual harassment in the past, the present, and the future, and as these two incidents clearly show, the professional regularly requires the same. Scientific American still owes Dr. Lee a proper apology, and Dr. Zivkovic needs to demonstrate that he understands where he crossed boundaries and refrain from crossing more. Hopefully both of these will occur shortly, but unfortunately I don’t expect that this will be the last instance of harassment being poorly handled.

Quite a lot of people have already written thoughtful reactions to these two incidents, so I’m just going to direct you to some of them (below this paragraph). Additionally, LadyBits has posted a call for submissions on sexual harassment for a collection on Medium.

WEDNESDAY EVENING UPDATE: More people have come forward about their harassment, notably Hannah Waters. I’ve added another few things to read at the end of the list.

Other things to read:

Scientist or ‘Whore’? Incident Symbolizes Familiar Struggle for Women of Color in Science
What @sciam’s actions tell me as a female scientist of colour
Derailing Techniques and My Final Thoughts on Scientific American’s Public Statement
Why Be So Militant About a Woman’s Right to Name Her Harasser
Another Sexual Harassment Case in Science: The Deafening Silence That Surrounds It Condones It
This is Not a Post I Want to Write
Silence and Friendship
Let Me Fix That For You
The Insidious Power of Not-Quite-Harassment
Mixed Up
Science, Blogging, Sexual Harassment, and the Power of Speaking Out
Science Online Board Statement 10/16/2013

Initial Thoughts on Yesterday’s Cabinet Shuffle

We here in Canada had quite a major cabinet shuffle yesterday, precipitated in part due to the departure of a few major cabinet ministers. So, the five positions with the most sciency-ness are now held by:

  • Minister of State for Science and Technology: Greg Rickford (Kenora) replaces Gary Goodyear (Cambridge)
  • Minister of the Environment: Leona Aglukkaq (Nunavut) replaces Peter Kent (Thornhill)
  • Minister of Fisheries and Oceans: Gail Shea (Egmont) replaces Keith Ashfield (Fredericton)
  • Minister of Natural Resources: Joe Oliver (Eglington-Lawrence) remains in the position
  • Minister of Health: Rona Ambrose (Edmonton-Spruce Grove) replaces Leona Aglukkaq (Nunavut)

Let’s go one by one. I’m pleased that Goodyear is gone, because having a science minister who dances around the question of whether or not he believes in evolution is frankly embarrassing. Rickford has worked previously as a nurse (though his law degrees are more emphasized in the bios I’ve seen), which is a step in the right direction. But he’s the MP for Kenora, the riding of the Experimental Lakes Area, and he was previously a vocal proponent for closing the site. So, we’re not exactly off to a flying start.

Based on her previous role as Minister of Health, I’m not convinced that Leona Aglukkaq has the chutzpah necessary for her new portfolio. Environment is a portfolio that can easily be trampled over by many other portfolios (industry, natural resources, finance, etc) in the name of economic progress, perhaps moreso than other portfolios, and to my mind, the mark of a strong environment minister is someone who’ll go to bat for their portfolio (and, by extension, the environment). Peter Kent was spectacularly bad at this, not just passively letting other interests take precedent, but actively hindering efforts at making Canada a more sustainable, environmentally sound nation. I’m not saying that all ministers must be world experts at all aspects of their portfolio, but I think it does behoove them to get at least a working knowledge of the major aspects of their portfolio. It’s easy to snipe at Kent about not knowing what ozone is, but it belies a lack of knowledge about one of the major components of the environment, and the ozone question/lack of answer came up almost a year after he’d been appointed Minister of the Environment. It’s not like he’d just gotten the portfolio and hadn’t had time to get up to speed on it. So given all that, I’m guessing Aglukkaq will be a step up — but I’m worried that the department will continue to be chipped away and slowly dismantled, as she won’t effectively stick up for it when budget time comes around.

Fisheries and Oceans is one of those departments that I wish got more coverage than it does. We’re surrounded by three oceans, have an *enormous* ocean coastline, and yet don’t seem to give much of a hoot about marine science. The fisheries end gets more press than the ocean end, since that’s got a more obvious economic impact, but I feel I have a spectacular lack of data to form any reasonable opinion on the Gail Shea of Keith Ashford. Maybe it’s an issue on the deparmtent’s end, maybe it’s an issue on the press’s end, and most likely there’s a combination of factors that leads to DFO rarely making the news. Whichever way it goes, I’ll try and keep a better on eye out for press on Fisheries and Oceans.

Natural resources (which has a predominantly economic mandate rather than a scientific or conservationist one) is currently steam rollering all over the Ministry of the Environment, and since Joe Oliver is staying on, I suspect that’ll continue unabated.

And lastly, Rona Ambrose takes over Health. Whoever is here will likely helm the negotiations for the federal-provincial health accord next year, which sets the funding structure for provincial health care programs for the next (I believe) ten years. Health Council Canada is an independent committee that has overseen the implementation of these accords in the past; its funding was eliminated earlier this year, and it will close likely just before the new health accord is negotiated. (Convenient timing!) I’m decidedly not thrilled about her appointment, considering her voting record while she was Minister responsible for Status of Women. She seems to actually espouse a lot of the farther right policy measures put forward by the government (rather than just toeing the party line), and while I admit that that’s gut feeling and speculation, I’m not happy about the idea of her helming negotiations to fund socialized health care.

A sort of secondary (or at least a more chronic issue than a Thing That Needs Attending To Immediately) is the continual lack of MPs with strong science backgrounds. Laywers and bankers and business folk of all stripes are a dime a dozen in Parliament, but doctors are rare, and scientists and engineers are even rarer. This isn’t to say that a laywer cannot be an excellent Minister of State for Science and Technology, but an MP with a more direct background in science — whether that’s industrial science, academic science, theoretical or applied science — will bring a more relevant perspective to the portfolio. Having worked as a scientist will likely give a Minister of Science a more tangible view of how policy set forth by their portfolio affects Canadian science, scientists, and citizens than a working as an attorney would, and I think that perspective is important.

So, in short (ha!), things’ve shuffled around a bit on the science end of cabinet, but there’s not to really cheer for. On the other hand, I spent my bus ride home trying to think who among the current slate of Conservative MPs I would actually want in any of those five positions, and…… I drew a huge blank. There’s no-one that I’d pick out and say “aha! You would make an excellent Minister of the Environment!” on the CPC caucus. There may well be people who’d do an excellent job in some of the roles (or would were they not severely hampered by their own party’s machinations), but none come to mind. I’m curious — who would you want to see in these positions? Who’m I forgetting or overlooking?

Giant Squid!

Giant squid (Architeuthis dux) are rare deep-sea invertebrates, which are known mostly through dead specimens that have floated to to surface, washed up on beaches, or met an untimely end in the stomach of a sperm whale. Excitingly, the first video footage shot by humans of a live giant squid swimming at depth (around 900 m below the surface) was filmed earlier this year, and while a snippet has already hit the internet, the full footage is set to air Sunday evening on the Discovery channel (and has been broadcast on a Japanese television program). The short clip that’s already been released shows a graceful creature, gliding in a pitch-black, seemingly empty, ocean. A shot of its body shows its huge eye looking, if I can anthropomorphize the squid for a moment, almost baleful. (Though if I were swimming along in the deep ocean and were suddenly confronted with a submarine with lights, I’d probably look pretty baleful too.)

Giant squid are the world’s second largest largest invertebrates (behind the colossal squid), reaching up to 13 m in length. Much of this length is in the two hooked tentacles it uses to hunt, though there is no part of the giant squid that is not outsized. The tentacles can grow up to ~ 8 m, the arms are a comparatively puny ~2 m, the mantle (ie, the body) can be up to 2.25 metres long.

Giant Squid diagram

Artist’s rendition of a giant squid. Squid is broadly, but not at all rigorously, to scale.

The eyes are huge too, with a diameter approaching that of a dinner plate. The eyes, like much of the squid’s anatomy and behaviour, is still somewhat of a mystery: virtually no sunlight penetrates down to the depths that the squid lives at, so why does the squid for such a huge eye? It takes an enormous amount of energy to develop such a huge eye, and if there’s no light to be seen, that energy seems like a waste. One of the leading theories is that the eyes are used to detect the light from bioluminescent creatures, especially when they’re dispersing in the path of a sperm whale.

For more on the anatomy and behaviour of the giant squid, it’s hard to do better than this post from Deep Sea News. They also have an excellent link round-up of all things giant squid.

But its impressive physical qualities have enchanted not only scientists and admirers of weird marine creatures; the giant squid has a giant tentacle in the world’s marine lore. The giant squid lives in all the oceans, and is often thought to be the inspiration for the kraken. It’s huge, fearsome (it has hooks on the tentacles!), and lives in a murky world that we have only just started to be able to explore. It’s not surprising that these creatures are cast as the villain in sea-lore, but it’s not like the giant squid is a single-minded creature out for blood. Sure, I wouldn’t want to be on the wrong end of its beak, but I wouldn’t want to be on the wrong end of a killer whale or a leopard seal either. Yet we have children’s movies about orcas, and footage of a leopard seal gently trying to teach a photographer how to hunt penguins was all over the internet a while back. We don’t treat either of them as capital-m Monsters, so why the giant squid? It’s not even at the top of its food chain — while the image of the giant squid and the sperm whale struggling and fighting is culturally pervasive, in reality, the squid doesn’t stand much of a chance against the whale. I have a suspicion that some of the giant squid’s reputation is due to it being an invertebrate: to a vertebrate, land-dwelling species, squids are profoundly weird looking creatures. When humans first came across the giant squid, say in their fishing nets, there was probably not that much context handy for the sailors to make sense of these huge, intimidating creatures. We don’t have much contact with them — we’re only just getting footage of them in their natural habitat! — and we haven’t had time for any sort of image rehabilitation to take hold culturally. This video has gotten a lot of press so far, so it’ll be interesting to see how, if at all, it starts to change our collective perception of these elusive, strange creatures. I’ll update this post when I can find a video of the full Discovery Channel show.

In the mean time, if you’re interested in watching a dissection of a giant squid, the Museum Victoria in Australia has video of the dissection of a giant squid caught in a fishing net off Australia in 2008. It’s long, but the scientists go through the squid’s anatomy in some detail, and it’s well worth the time.

December 6th

December 6th is National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women here, and this year it’s the 23rd anniversary of the École Polytechnique Massacre. In the past year, the long gun registry, which was put in place in 1995 after considerable debate (and pressure from women’s groups and gun control advocates), has been unceremoniously scrapped. One of the perceived front-runners in the Liberal leadership race now contends that it was a failure, even though he previously voted for keeping it. Each year there’s fewer and smaller memorial services and recognition of the day, as it fades out of the collective memory and into a shadowy box labelled “History.” I’m not an advocate of dwelling on the past, but I think the massacre’s anniversary is an important touchstone in Canadian women’s history, and I’m concerned that that seems to be a minority opinion. There’s not a lot of touchstones in Canadian women’s history.

I am a woman, a physicist, and a feminist. I am exactly the sort of person that Lépine was trying to silence, so it’s important to me to take a moment to reflect both on how fortunate I am to live in a time and place where I can pursue a scientific career and an advanced degree, and on how much more work there is to be done to reduce gender inequality and drive out the ignorant attitudes and outright misogyny that allows attitudes like Lépine’s to flourish. Each year around this time there’s usually some dreck written (almost invariably by a man) about how Lépine was a lone madman, and there’s no cultural significance to the fact that he actively sought out women to murder and explicitly said that he was killing them because they were women (and assumed feminists), and right on cue, there’s an article that can only in the more generous of worlds be called drivel published in the National Post yesterday that does just that. I’m not linking to it (google it if you feel like spiking your blood pressure in anger), but the (male) author posits that the real victims are men, Conservatives, and anyone who is against the long gun registry. Apparently all three groups are “bitterly attacked” every year around the anniversary, and that’s totally more important than the fact that women face vastly disproportionate amounts of violence (domestic, sexual, physical, institutional, economic,…) every single day. If we ladies realized that we’ve bruised a few men’s egos and just stopped acknowledging that one of the most public acts of violence against women in Canadian history occurred, then everything would be peaches and sunshine!

Absolutely not. We need to drag misogyny out into the light, call it what it is, and work to dismantle it, not wring our collective hands about the dented egos of men who make every issue primarily about themselves. Dented egos do not trump institutionalized violence, and the fact that this sort of dreck can still be published in a national newspaper is indication enough that there is still considerable work to be done.

So every December 6th, regardless of how much work I have on my desk or have managed to clear off my desk, I sit down and do science. Thankfully, actions like Lépine’s are rare, but the attitude and cultural narrative that informed his actions is still pervasive, and women are still woefully underrepresented in STEM fields at all levels. It’s a small action, but it’s important to me that on a day where women were silenced for pursuing what was perceived by Lépine (and plenty of others) to be men’s rightful work, I continue to contribute my voice and my work to a similarly male-dominated field. I’m currently working on writing a paper for publication, and it’s the first paper I’m working on in my PhD. I don’t expect that scores of people will read it, but I’m proud that I can contribute to academic literature, and I’m proud to put my female name on my work. I’m fortunate that I can be a part of normalizing the presence of women and their contributions to science, so that hopefully, women and girls who follow me will have an easier path.

Memorial plaque commemorating the 14 murdered women: Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte, and Barbara Klucznik Widajewicz.

In the News: Experimental Lakes Area Up for Sale?!

I’ve not written much here about the current slash-and-burn effort of the Harper government on federal environmental research (mostly through Environment Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans), and at this point there’s been so many cuts and so many groups dismantled, laid off, or functionally crippled that I don’t even know where I’d begin. One of the initiatives cut is the Experimental Lakes Area, a group of 58 lakes in northern Ontario that have been set aside for whole-lake research on everything from acid rain to fresh-water contaminants to lake ecology. The ELA is unique in the world, has been running very successfully for 44 year (generating an impressive stack of research), and costs about $2 million a year to operate. It is expected to cost substantially more than that to close the project, but in the name of “cost cutting” (…right…) the Harper government has cut the funding and shut the program down.


Apparently they’re looking to sell the ELA to an unspecified “interested party.” The negotiations are happening in secret (of course), so it’s totally unclear what terms the area is being sold under. The land it sits on is held by the Ontario government, not the federal one, and since the terms being negotiated are secret, I’m not sure what, if any, issues of jurisdiction would come up.

What’s really appalling is that this was a scientific jewel for the federal government. It’s known by scientists around the world (at least scientists who do research in fresh-water environments), it’s produced excellent and very important research, and it’s run on a comparative shoestring. There’s no reason to close it or sell it — other than ideological. This government has no use for good regulatory environmental research, and is hacking away at the research groups and stations that do that work. (See also: the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory [PEARL] near Eureka, in the very High Arctic.) To first cut the funding, and then turn around and sell the area is a kick in the teeth after a slap in the face to Canadian environmental science. Since the parameters are all secret, there’s no indication of what sort of science will be done by the buyers, but if it’s in private hands, there’s no reason to believe that the scientific program will stay at all on course. Will the results of the research be publicly available? Will there be any requirement that the work done must be documented in some way, for regulatory purposes? What sort of regulation will the lakes have, if they’re not being managed by a federal department? Those are important questions to answer, and I doubt we’ll get any satisfactory answer.

Furthermore, who is funding the organization that’s buying the area, and will their interests influence the research done and the results published? From the news article linked above:

Despite the lack of public information, the coalition of scientists working to save the facility insist the IISD is the only current contender in the talks.

They say they’re concerned that a policy group doesn’t have what it takes to run an active research station. They’re also worried that the IISD’s funders — which include energy companies such as Enbridge and Suncor — could taint the research coming out of the ELA.

If this is accurate, then a world-class, governmentally run research facility known for rigourous, independent research is going to become a greenwashing research site for oil companies. Just what Canadians need!

The Scientists Strike Back

With some notable exceptions, scientists are not generally habitual rabble-rousers, at least not in their capacity as an Official Representative Unit of Science. In my experience, many of them have deep political convictions, and are not shy about sharing them, but going out on the street en masse as scientists (rather than as ordinary citizens) is not a common sight — I can’t remember the last time scientists took to the streets to protest policy. So when a couple thousand of scientists in lab coats and funeral wear converge on Parliament protesting the Death of Evidence, something is going on.

The Death of Evidence protest was organized by some scientists (mainly grad students, I believe) at the University of Ottawa, and was timed to coincide was a very large evolutionary biology and ecology conference in Ottawa to attract more marchers from across the nation. The list of policies that the protest was targeting is long and broad:

The Harper government has embarked on a systematic program to impede and divert the flow of scientific information to Canadians through two major strategies. The first involves the gutting of programs and institutions whose principal mandate is the collection of scientific evidence. Examples of this include:

  • Cutting the mandatory long-form national census.
  • Major budget reductions to research programs at Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Library and Archives Canada, the National Research Council Canada, Statistics Canada, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
  • Decisions to close major natural and social science research institutions such as the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area, the National Council of Welfare and the First Nations Statistical Institute.
  • Closing of The Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) in Eureka, Nunavut

Mr. Harper’s second strategy is perhaps less overt, but even more insidious: to impede the bringing forward of scientific evidence into the public debate. Examples:

  • Not renewing the The National Science Advisor in 2008.
  • Dozens of instances of censoring of, impeded access to, and coercion of government scientists, a practice which Minister of Environment Peter Kent has justified as merely in keeping with “established practice”.
  • Shutting down the National Round Table on Environment and Economy (NRTEE), an arm’s length advisory body providing independent advice on environmental protection and economic development, because the government didn’t like its advice.

This is beyond death by a thousand papercuts: this is more like death by hundreds of axe wounds. I’m not saying that every federally-funded science initiative needs to be funded in perpetuity without any evidence (there’s that word again!) that it’s viable and productive research. I am saying that when multiple scientifically flourishing initiatives are having their funding unceremoniously ended, with no credible evidence presented to back up that decision, things start to fail the sniff test.

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Whether the Boson is Higgs or Higgs-like, It’s Still A New Fundamental Particle

The news out of CERN that a new, heavy, subatomic particle has been discovered by the ATLAS research group has the science-y part of the internet all a-twitter. It’s certainly not every day that new fundamental particles of nature are discovered, and to be 99.99995% certain that it’s an accurate conclusion is no small feat.

The Higgs boson is, in one sentence, a particle which is theorized to give other particles (like protons and electrons) mass. There are plenty of people who’ve done primers and more detailed explanations of what the Higg’s boson is, and for the sake of getting this up while everyone is still reading about all things Higgs, I’ll skip the drawings this time and point you elsewhere for the basic explanation.

What I do want to talk about are some of the significant results of such a significant result. The Large Hadron Collider was built essentially to find this particle, and while it’s not entirely clear that it is definitely a Higgs boson and not an exotic Higgs-like boson that we’ve not anticipated existed, something new has been found. Getting such a positive result underscores the worth of large-scale collaborations. Large-scale science is very difficult to get off the ground due to the sheer scale of resources necessary to built the devices. Things like particle colliders, gravitational wave detectors, space telescopes, even the shuttle program, fall under this category, and because there are so many resources poured into these programs, there’s extra pressure for them to succeed. It’s heartening when they do, because inevitably when big science programs that probe the edges of our knowledge of the universe come up, there’s people who bemoan the investment and say that the money would be better spent doing something practical.

Sure, we need money going towards practical things, but I agree with Neil deGrasse Tyson on this, and we need big, visible, exciting projects. We need things that excite our collective imagination to push innovation forward and give students and young researchers something to aspire to, and discoveries like the Higgs boson show both fill that need and show that the boundaries of science can be pushed. The knowledge that the Higgs boson (or something like it) exists may not make an appreciable difference in people’s everyday lives, but that moment of wonder is important. Without those “wow…!” moments, we don’t have a grand vision of scientific exploration, and without that vision, science stalls in the realm of what we know and understand to some degree, and never makes it much past the boundary between what we anticipate and the unexpected. How do we push the boundaries of knowledge without a grand vision? We don’t, and moments like today’s announcement are the culmination of grand vision backed by adequate funding.

It’s not well publicized, but there are often plenty of practical spinoffs of big-project science which filter into everyday peoples’ lives. The enormous magnetics that bend the particle beams in a circle at the LHC spawned new technology in high-speed rail in Europe. NASA’s space program has generated enormous amounts of technological innovation, from velcro to novel materials. This is setting aside the enormous amount of support staff that are hired to run and maintain facilities like CERN, and the obvious societal benefits of giving hordes of physicists something to tickle their brain with and keep them out of trouble and off the streets, both of which keep people gainfully employed and contributing to the economy. To say there is no practical reason to fund grand vision science is to be ignorant of what exactly grand vision science entails.

We haven’t had many collective “wow..!” moments in science lately, and there’s been a steady stream of funding cuts, regressive science policy, and wilful obfuscation of information by government agencies at the behest of the minister, and that’s just in Canada. There is Canadian involvement in the results — some researchers at TRIUMF are involved in the ATLAS collaboration — but even if there wasn’t, we could use a “wow…!” moment or five lately. Science in Canada is being ground away, and we need moments like this to inspire us to keep pushing the boundaries of knowledge.