November 2015
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SCRIPT mini epic contest

SCRIPT Medical is holding a writing contest for people who hold (or are enrolled in) science or medical degrees and live in Canada. It’s not a science writing contest, but a writing contest for scientists. Here are the details from their website. The deadline is April 30. (Yes, that is soon, but it’s only 100 words, so technically it should take less than two minutes to type.)

The SCRIPT Award is a new Canadian writing award set up to celebrate the 10th anniversary of SCRIPT. The $1,000 prize will be awarded for the best “mini epic” written by someone who has, or is enrolled in, a postgraduate science degree or is a healthcare professional currently living in Canada (see the Official Rules for details). The rules are simple: the “mini epic” must be in English, must be exactly 100 words long and can be on any subject. Non-scientific themes are especially encouraged.

My brain has a hard time combining “epic” with “100 words”, though.


401_tb2.jpgSeason four of the science TV series ReGenesis started this past Sunday in Canada. I didn’t watch it then, because I don’t have cable, but I watched it a few weeks earlier. That’s because for this season I’m writing the “Facts Behind the Fiction” articles that accompany every episode. It’s a lot of fun, but it does mean I’m extremely busy at the moment. So blogging is light, but you can read the fact sheet every week for the next few months. Here’s a piece about tuberculosis!

The episodes also each get a piece on Science and Society, which rotates authors. This week’s piece about scientific literacy was written by Bonnie Schmidt of Let’s Talk Science. Coincidentally, I volunteer(ed) for the LTS partnership program, and just this past week I visited a group of Brownie Girl Scouts to talk about snow and ice. (I was going to blog about that, but didn’t get around to it yet.)


I’m back from a two-week trip to Holland. They do have internet there, I know, but I thought it’d be nice to take a blog break as well. My only new year’s resolution is to finish my PhD this year, so expect intermittent blogging. (I do blog more often when I’m on the computer more, so once I start writing my thesis full-time I should be blogging like Bora.)

Meanwhile, while I was away, CRAM science put up an article I wrote for them a while back. CRAM’s audience is 13-19 year-olds, and the website explains scientific concepts behind things that interest teenagers. I was asked to write about piercings. I knew very little about piercings until I started researching — I don’t even have my ears pierced — and wasn’t sure what to expect, but this turned out to be one of the most fun things I’ve ever written. Go have a look, and while you’re there don’t forget to click around the rest of the site. Even if you’re older than the target audience the pieces still make for interesting reading.


spacing_fall07.jpgI have a short article in the newest issue of Spacing magazine. Spacing is a magazine about Toronto’s public spaces, or urban landscape, and the current issue is all about the environment. (I’ve linked to their blog before) My piece is on the Air Quality Health Index project.

I knew the new issue would be in stores as of Thursday, so Thursday night I walked down to Pages on Queen Street to pick up two copies as self-centered Christmas gifts. I had to wait a while at the counter because the Pages-guy was on the phone, and in the mean time another customer got in line behind me. He was also buying Spacing! I smiled when I saw his purchase. “Great choice”, he said. I felt a bit over the top with my TWO copies, so I blurted out “They printed my article. That’s why I have two.” Like he cares. Then of course I had to show him what I wrote, and we exchanged some niceties about the magazine and both agreed that it’s great. You should buy one or two copies too! If you’re in Toronto, you can buy Spacing at independent bookstores such as Pages or Book City, or at the issue release party on December 3rd. You can also get a subscription online, from anywhere in North America.

Renaissance people trivia quiz

Ten famous people, all with an interest in science, but none of them famous for their involvement in science. Instead, you’ll know each of these for their contributions to music, film, literature, fine arts, or photography. Who or what are described here?
[update: Answers 1-5, Answers 6-10]

1. Which British composer invented a “sulphuretted hydrogen machine” in his home laboratory?

2. Which fictional character holds an honorary fellowship at the Royal Society of Chemistry?

3. Which rock guitarist recently defended his PhD in astrophysics?

4. What is “Galacidalacidesoxyribonucleicacid “?

5. Which chemist described himself as a “Sunday composer”?

6. Which actress is co-author on a neuroscience paper about frontal lobe activation?

7. Who photographed several of the attendees of the 1860 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Oxford?

8. Who was not allowed to present a botany paper on lichens at the Linnaean Society in 1897, and why not?

9. Which company started with chemistry experiments carried out at night in the founder’s mother’s kitchen in upstate New York?

10. Which movie director holds university degrees in both Physics and Math?

Answers will be up in one or two weeks or so (mid-November). (It’s not a contest, but I closed the comments to make it more fun for others to guess.)

Quality of Life

I found a job ad for a company that produces a certain type of instrument. In their job ad they describe their product as follows: “a scientific instrument that enhances the quality of life for people around the world”

Without using Google, can you guess which of the objects listed below they’re talking about? To help you out I’ve linked to relevant Wikipedia pages so you can read about the instruments and methods you might not know.

a. Mass spectrometer
b. Microwave oven
c. Geiger counter
d. Blood sugar meter
e. MRI machine

Answer will be up later this week.

Strange Alchemy

The Scream, Toronto’s yearly literary festival is in full swing this week. This year the festival’s theme is “Science and Poetry”, and Wednesday night I attended “Strange Alchemy”, a panel discussion about science and poetry, followed by the launch of the latest issue of Matrix Magazine, also with a science and poetry theme.
The panel discussion was held at Supermarket, a bar in Toronto’s hip(pie) Kensington Market neighbourhood. The tables in the backroom were decorated with erlenmeyer flasks and each had their own element.


The discussion was moderated by science writer Clive Thompson, who warmed up the audience by telling the story of how he almost got an automatic poetry generating software program accepted into The League of Canadian Poets.

The panelists came from a variety of backgrounds: Christian Bök, a.rawlings, and Ken Babstock are all poets with a particular interest in science. Lisa Betts, a postdoc in the neuorscience of vision at York University, was the only professional scientist on the panel, but, being married to poet Gregory Betts, she was familiar enough with the other side of the discussion.

From left to right: Clive Thompson, Christian Bök, Ken Babstock, Lisa Betts, a.rawlings

Science and poetry use a different kind of language when communicating, and the panel discussed the merits of both. In a scientific publication, Lisa explained, you need to be very clear because the experiments need to be reproducible. There can be no confusion about what you mean. Poetry uses language for the way it sounds, and a.rawlings is especially fascinated with learning and saying words that are normally reserved for science. In the reading following the panel discussion she read a fragment from Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists that sounded like a protocol for butterfly mounting. But she also recounted that at a recent retreat for sound ecologists, someone mentioned that there are relatively few words to describe sound, and they called on her and the other attending poets to find more words.

Continue reading Strange Alchemy