December 2015
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Nuit Blanche photos

Nuit Blanche was four weeks ago, but I’m reliving the days of having photos developed and printed by waiting so long to show the pictures.

Nuit Begins

I managed to check out most of the (sometimes inadvertently) science-themed exhibits, and liked some more than others.

Do Not Disturb was an anthropology project. Artist Skeena Reece sat in a semi-transparent teepee all night, and you could interact with her through various means of technology, but she was selective about which input to respond to. This is the tail end of her conversation with Toronto’s mayor David Miller. It’s hard to hear, but you can see how he is at a microphone outside of the tent, and she is projected on the screen. On the photo you can see how hard it was to look into the tent.

Do Not Disturb

12 Hours of Power was as disappointing as I feared it might be. The lights that were powered by the bikes were very faint. You could see people biking like crazy to produce a tiny bit of light. It was also very far out of the way from everything else.

12 hours of power
That little lamp in the middle of the picture is powered by the dark shadow cycling like mad.

Beautiful Light: 4 Letter Word Machine mentioned “DNA sequences” in the description, but all I saw were other random combinations of four letters. The words lit up for a very long time before changing. I waited a long time to see if it got any better, but that was it. (Last year the display at City Hall was much better, so I had some expectations!)

Beautiful Light?

The Vodka Pool drew enormous crowds. Inside the lobby of one of the downtown bank buildings was a huge puddle of vodka, to symbolize the volatile nature of money (volatile like evaporating alcohol). People left and right of me were commenting on how they wondered how it hadn’t yet all evaporated, or whether it would make it until morning. It was kind of pretty, and so big that the crowds added to it rather than formed an obstacle.

vodka pool

How to Win the Lottery was an all-night performance art piece. When I got there (between 11 PM and midnight) the performance was a lecture about numbers. I didn’t stay for the whole hour, because I was on a tight Nuit Blanche schedule, but there were some statistical facts, and interesting tidbits: certain number sequences have never been the winning numbers in any lottery anywhere. Lots of people play the sequence 123456 but it has never won. A few other sequences that are often picked have occurred far less often than statistically expected, which makes you wonder how “random” the lottery really is!


Through a Glass Darkly was also an all-night performance. To celebrate the International Year of Astronomy, the project focused on Galileo, macroscopic and microscopic science, and other geeky things. It was the only Nuit Blanche project that I’m aware of that was in part organized by scientists. I went to see the Super Flammable Babylonians’ performance at 3 AM. They sang vocal quartet pieces about planets and stars.

(After staying up all night and moving about the city in the dark, you tend to not notice anymore when your photos are underexposed…)

Right before I went home I dropped by the Ice Queen: Glacial Retreat Dress. It was, oddly, inside the Eaton Centre, right in front of Sears. The location at the late hour (5:30 AM at that point) made for a very weird performance. I think I would have liked this better if it was outside, in less of a mall-setting.

ice queen dress

My favourite performance ended up being a music-themed one. Massey Hall, a downtown concert venue and theatre, was itself turned into a musical instrument. Groups of about 70 people at a time were let inside to sit on the stage, and watch performers pluck giant piano strings that were strung between the balconies of the space. The acoustics of the performance space now became the internal acoustics of the body of the instrument. And because it was 5 AM and I was exhausted, it was all very surreal.


Sitting on the stage, listening to the performance

Obligatory “look, I was on stage at Massey Hall!” photo-op before the next group was herded in.

Nuit Blanche – science picks

Nuit Blanche, the yearly all-night art festival, is coming up again this weekend. I had a look at the schedule to see if there was anything science-related in there. It’s slim pickings, but here’s what I found:

Through a Glass Darkly
All night, various projects.
This one is probably the most related to science of any of the exhibits. Plus, I know people who are participating in the music projects, and they read the blog, so clearly this had to go at the top of the list =)
Science: astronomy, biology, general science

Beautiful Light: 4 LETTER WORD MACHINE
City Hall
Light performance every 2 hours starting at 7PM (every odd hour, but the last one is at 6:30 AM, not at 7)
According to the description, four-letter words are projected on city hall. Some of the letter combinations include “DNA sequences”. Four letters, DNA? My guess is that is will just say ACGT in various combinations, and not actually be the sequence of something. But anything projected on city hall is always cool.
Science: Biology

12 hours of power
Interactive! Participants are invited to ride stationery bikes, which will power lights on a fountain all night long. This sounds like it’s going to be one of those Nuit Blanche projects that’s either hugely popular or one that breaks at 9 PM and just makes people grumpy when they travel all the way over there for nothing. I’m hoping it’s the first.
Science: Physics, alternative energy

How To Win The Lottery
“an all-night lecture performance that will demonstrate a variety of scientific and intuitive techniques geared to winning the lottery.”
Science: Not sure. Probably math/statistics and/or psychology.

Ice Queen Glacial Retreat Dress
It’s a dress tent, and the project has something to do with fashion, dance, and global warming.
Science: Environmental science, geology

Vodka Pool
It’s a giant pool of vodka, if it doesn’t evaporate before the night is over. “As viewers gather around a reflecting pool of alcohol situated on the pristine floor of the atrium [of a bank building], they can ponder the volatile and symbolic qualities of 80-proof vodka. Liquor and liquidity bear more than passing associations to banks and money.”
Science: chemistry

And now I’m going to stretch towards the social sciences, just because I really like the description of this exhibit, and because it’s one of the most experimental of the night.
Please Do Not Disturb
Interactive! “By choice Skeena will try to live a normal life in the space ‘behind glass’. The project is inspired in part by Minik, an Inuit (Eskimo) boy who lived with five others on display at the American Museum of Natural History in 1897. During the performance the artist will invite the public to engage her through various media while she remains enclosed”
(Social) Science: anthropology

I plan on attending a few of these during the course of the night, as well as several even less scientific exhibits. Here’s my itinerary. If you’d like to meet up or find out where I am that night, send me an e-mail at eva.amsen [at] and I’ll give you my cell phone number.

Speaking of phones: For those of you with iPhones, Nuit Blanche has released an app that allows you to plan your night and interact with the festival during the night. It only works on the iPhone, and not on iPod Touch, which I found somewhat upsetting.

Duckies in research

A lot of scientific equipment is carefully designed to do exactly what is needed for the experiments in question. But sometimes regular objects work just as well, or even better. You’ll regularly find milk and nail polish in a cell biology lab, and fruit juice in a fly lab.
It seems oceanographers have embraced the rubber duckie as their tool of choice.

In 1992 a container ship traveling from China to Seattle lost a shipment of toys along the way. Among the toys were thousands of rubber duckies. The ducks, enjoying their newly found freedom, traveled along ocean currents. By 1995 they had reached the Bering Strait, and, trapped in the ice, it took them another 5 years to reach the Atlantic. In 2003, many of the ducks surfaced on beaches on the East coast of Canada and the Northern US. They were a bit faded, but still intact. Through the floating toys, researchers were able to learn a lot about ocean currents.

The lost shipment was an accident, but now NASA is purposely employing rubber ducks to track the flow of melted glacial ice. Initially, the team sent a probe with a sensor into the stream, but lost the signal. As a backup plan they sent 90 rubber ducks in the stream, in the hopes that people will find them and return them. The location of the found ducks will then show where the glacial water ended up.

Why do these ducks survive a trip through glacial ice? The manufacturer of the ducks that traveled the oceans between 1992 and 2003 says that the toys are made to withstand a two-year-old playing in the bath. I guess you can’t get a better quality test than eleven years on the ocean…

Grand & Toy inkjet cartridges

Since I’ve been thinking about reducing waste and because I already went through an entire black inkjet cartridge and half a coloured one in the process of writing my thesis I thought I should point out an awesome program from Canadian office supply company Grand & Toy. Like most office supply stores they sell ink cartridges for a wide range of printers, but they also have a “Grand & Toy” brand alternative for pretty much all of these popular cartridges. In my case I needed the HP56 cartridge, and there is a Grand & Toy cartridge (#99377) that is cheaper and fits the same machine. Why does it fit the same machine? Because it’s simply a refilled HP56 cartridge! But my favourite thing about them is that whenever you buy a Grand & Toy brand inkjet cartridge, it comes with an envelope that you can use to send your used cartridge back to Grand & Toy (not postage required) and they will fill it with ink again and resell it. That’s much less work and more efficient than dropping the cartridge off at a collection point for all kinds of chemical waste.
In my previous round of cartridge replacement I had a Grand & Toy cartridge and an HP cartridge (they didn’t have G&T brand for one of the ones I needed) and while unwrapping both cartridges I also noticed that the G&T cartridge used less packing material. Plus, the fact that they’re being refilled in Canada* also means they don’t travel as far. So if you’re printing in Canada, skip the name brands and buy your cartridges at Grand & Toy. They’re both cheaper and greener. The G&T alternative cartridges are right next to the name brand original in the store, so you can easily find them. If you buy them online you need to know your printer model.

*The address on the envelope is an office Oakville, ON. I thought I found a reference earlier to a refill centre in Mississauga but I can’t find it now. Anyway, if you live somewhere else, there’s probably something local to you as well. It’s no point ordering refilled cartridges online and having them ship really far.

Lab Waste

Here’s a project I’ve been working on since April. Today I finally sat down and finished it. It’s a video about lab waste.

Lab Waste from Eva Amsen on Vimeo.

We’ve all been told to reduce, reuse, and recycle when it comes to our households. But in the lab, unless there is an underlying money issue, this rarely comes into play. In cell biology or molecular biology labs the emphasis is on working sterile, quickly and reproducibly. So companies have been selling all these incredibly useful products to life science labs: sterile plastic tubes of all shapes and sizes, single wrap multi-well tissue culture plates, sterile plastic dishes, sterile pipettes. All these products make it a lot easier to do the required work. I can’t even imagine how you could work in a cell culture lab without them, but they do create a lot of waste.
I made this video as a creative outlet and to try and raise some awareness of all the disposables in the lab, and give some mild suggestions on how to reduce the pile of trash by a tiny amount. Every bit helps, right?

Visit the video page for full information and credits.

Garbage Island

There’s a lot of garbage floating around in the Pacific Ocean, and a team of documentary makers took a trip to check it out, take some samples to measure toxins, and be generally grossed out by the amount of garbage:

Part 1 of 12:

The remaining 11 parts are on the site. Here’s part 2 — you can figure out the rest.

[Through Treehugger and Blamblog]

Earth Hour – Interview with Liz van Gerven

earthhour.jpgTomorrow night at 8 PM, thousands of households will switch off their lights and unplug their electrical equipment for an hour in an attempt to become more aware of the enormous amounts of energy we’re consuming on a regular basis. Earth Hour, initiated by the World Wildlife Fund, was first held in Sydney, Australia, last year, and has gone global for 2008.
The idea behind Earth Hour is to emphasize how dependent we are on electricity, where it comes from, and how this impacts the environment. Electricity may feel “clean”, but a lot of it is generated by coal-fired power plants and these are not so clean

Awareness actions like Earth Hour stand or fall with, well, awareness. Advertising does a good job, but we’re all a little numbed by ads. In the case of noble causes like this, word of mouth and recommendations by friends might work better. Or the 21st century of word of mouth: online social networks.

I first heard of Earth Hour when my friend Liz van Gerven invited me to a Facebook event she created for it. After that, I regularly saw little notifications in my Facebook news feed that other friends were “attending Earth Hour”. But many of these people did not know Liz at all! Her friends were inviting their friends, and the invitations started snowballing. As of this moment more than four and a half million people have been invited to the Facebook event. Of these, over 750,000 are “attending”, and half a million are “maybe attending”. Over a million haven’t replied, and more than two million declined the invitation to turn off the light.
For comparison: only about 250,000 people have registered as participants on the official Earth Hour site.

I talked to Liz about the popularity of Earth Hour on Facebook, and to find out who the two million non-attendees were:

liz.jpgEva: “When did you create the event page? And why?”

Liz: “I created the page sometime in January after I heard whispers about the upcoming Earth Hour event taking place on Saturday. I watched some YouTube videos about the Earth Hour in Sydney, Australia from last year and was really touched at how everyone came together.”

E: “You started by inviting your own friends, but right now millions have been invited. How fast did it grow?”

L: “It grew really, really fast. I’m still a bit shocked to be honest. Within the first couple of weeks the numbers just nearly doubled every other day. Before this past weekend there were approximately 200 people signing up an hour. This week, that number is over 500 an hour. It’s insane.”

E: “What are some of the reasons you have seen people give for not participating? Are they not understanding the event, or are they not supporting the underlying idea?”

L: “I think the reason for the lack of Attendees is that people don’t read what the event is and they think that they have to go somewhere or put effort into something to participate.”

E: “What have been your favourite reactions so far?”

L: “It’s been funny, however annoying it can be, to read people’s wall posts with their excuses like, “I’m 8 months pregnant, can’t go!” or “I’m visiting my sister that day.” There are still the posts that simply say, “What is this?” and you’ll have the people that know what it is get mad and tell people they are stupid for not reading exactly what it is. I used to reply back to people, but I cannot keep up any more.”

E: “What are you going to do when the lights are off Saturday night?”

L: “I hope to be on a hill somewhere looking towards the south to see if I can see a difference in our light pollution but I’ll probably be here at home, yelling at my brothers to co-operate. Mum will be watching the hockey game so I may have to strap her down away from the television during that hour.”

Thanks, Liz!

More information on Earth Hour can be found in their extensive FAQ.

My personal plans for Saturday night are undecided (aside from switching everything off). I might go outside, go for a walk. I do have a long-term commitment: I”m getting a solar charger for my iPod and cellphone. Not that I think that these two things use that much energy to recharge compared to everything else I own, but because I’m curious if I can keep two tiny gadgets off-grid. If it turns out to be easy, it’ll boost my trust in alternative energy sources. If it turns out to be hard, then I’ll have more respect for the challenge of changing the way we use electricity. It’ll be good either way.