Are Canadians Passionate About Science

David Kent recently made a blog post on The Black Hole (one of universityaffairs.ca‘s blogs) about Rick Mercer’s rant about science from last week. Kent disagrees with Mercer’s view that Canadians are passionate about science. I, on the other hand, agree with Mercer that we are a passionate country when it comes to science!

I encourage you to read Kent’s post, he makes some good points, and get in on the discussion. Are Canadians passionate about science?

Here’s what I had to say in response to his blog:

As a graduate student in science communications and having worked for three years on the front lines at a science centre, I would agree with Rick Mercer that Canadians love science and that they do get excited about it! They may not always understand or get excited about the finer details of how things work, as you mentioned, but they sure do get excited about the cures, new technologies and discoveries and those are all part of science and the public understands that!

To put it another way, there are lots of people who love to eat cake, but you would never say someone can’t love cake because they don’t know how to bake one. Don’t get me wrong, it would be great if everyone got as passionate about the finer details of the how in science, but let’s be honest even physicists don’t understand the finer workings of the cell or RNA. So, please, don’t accuse the public of not loving science because they only get excited about the science they know.

You also point out that the United Kingdom has great programs that are being exported and we don’t see similar programs here in Canada. Could it be that we are having trouble getting these things off the ground not because of a lack of passion from the Canadian people or lack of desire on the part or our broadcasters (Quirks and Quarks, Ideas, The Nature of Things are but a few great Canadian programs that show that passion and desire), but, as Rick Mercer pointed out, from a Government that is not funding science, science communication or even public communication in general? Our public broadcaster keeps facing cuts to its funding, so when the CBC goes to propose something like Planet Earth, can they justify earmarking $25 million and five years of time (the cost and time required for Planet Earth) when they are uncertain if they will continue with the same level of funding?

The most telling sign I have that Canadians love science is when I talk to them. Not at work, not as part of my studies as a science communicator, but just as part of day to day idle chitchat. Whenever the question of what I do for a living comes up and I tell them I work in a science centre, their first words are “That’s so cool,” and they always follow that with some very excited comment about some topic about science, be it simple and small like their bug collection, or big and complex like a recent discovery in astronomy or medicine. They are passionate, they are excited. Maybe all we have to do is take the time to listen.

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SNOLad Need I say More?

So yesterday started at 5h30. I rolled out of bed, groggy and rather reluctant I will confess. I generally don’t like mornings, and I like them less when the I am up before the Sun, let alone well before the Sun.

I dragged myself through the shower, managed a cup of tea and waited for my rid. When I steppe into the crisp, Sudbury morning, winter air it finished the job and I was wide awake. No stopping me now.

A half hour later I found myself with my Science Communication class in SNOLab’s offices. This was going to be the field trip of a lifetime! We got some last instructions, filled out some forms in case of disaster, more or less they asked where does Vale ship the body. A couple people got confused and put Laurentian University’s address instead of home, but they shrugged off the misunderstanding as a worthy donation to science.

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Everything you could ever need to go under ground. I swear those boots were full of lead though.

 

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Lamp. Check. Number tag. Check. Mostly half naked under overalls. Check.

 

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All smiles as we sign our life away and get ready to head over to the cage.

 

After that we were given some gear, got dressed and made our way over to the cage to start our 2 km descent into the Earth. We only descent at half speed (some 1000 ft/min) which rose a few grumbles from the miners who had to take five minutes instead of three to get down to work. Packed 44 shoulder to shoulder in a sardine tin, if it weren’t for the constant popping of my ears, I might have like 3 minutes as well. At least you were packed in so tight if you fainted you just stayed standing … or so I assume.

One underground, we started our 1 km treck to SNOLab. Mud, puddles, mine carts and lights. Not just on our helmets, but on the ceiling of the drift as well. This is one of the way Vale supports SNOLab, with lighting all the way. Usually there are almost no lights and you work by lamp light.

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It was much better light, but what can I say this looks so much cooler.

Once we got to SNOLab, we washed our boots, went inside then made our ways to the showers. There is no privacy for the sake of science. Buck naked and quick saunter to the showers to scrub down, before drying off and donning our clean cloths (we even got to borrow clean undies!).

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Cleaning our boots before heading into the clean lab. If you don’t clean them properly you find a sticky note on your boots when you leave. I just want to point out, none of us got sticky notes!

 

So what’s the first thing I do after descending 2 km into the Earth, trudging 1.4 km in miner’s gear in an active, baring it all, and finally being granted access to the worlds deepest clean laboratory? Go I seek out my personal Mecca, SNO (the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory) that solved the missing neutrino problem in the solar model? Nope. First, I tick one of the those boxes off my bucket list: Make and drink a cup of tea 20 km bellow the surface of the Earth. Check!

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Need I say anything?

 

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Also there were cookies.

 

Okay, so making tea underground may not have actually been on my bucket list, but it was priority number one once we got into SNOLab. Seeing SNO on the other hand was on my bucket list. For those not in the know, and if you’re not a Sun obsessed nut like myself you may not be, but SNO found the missing neutrinos from the Sun. Which in the solar-physics world is pretty damn awesome and important because it help confirm our current standing model of the Sun.

We know the Sun runs on hydrogen fusion and one of the by-products of compressing hydrogen into helium under incredible pressure and heat is the creation of neutrinos, near massless particles that kind of just pass through everything. Given the size and characteristics of the Sun, we knew we should see X number of neutrinos in our detectors here on Earth. The problem was, we only saw half that number in the first detectors built. SNO found the missing half and added confirmation to our current solar model!

Our tour started with SNO, well SNO+ as the project is being refitted to conduct other experiments.

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I am just about to look down into SNO+ and can’t wait to see this amazing project!

 

 

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Boats for boating around in the heavy water when it was SNO. As SNO+ the heavy water has been replaced with liquid scintillator to detect low every solar neutrinos and be used as part of SNEWS.

 

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Inside this outer shell of phototubes is a 12 m acrylic sphere housing the liquid scintillator. The cavity housing the expirement is 20 m and greatly confuses any miners because you never need a cavity that big when mining.

 

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My classmate getting a close look at one of the phototubes. They are so sensitive that if you were as far as the Moon (380 00 km) and happened to only have a small pocket flashlight to Morse for help, this detector could pick it up from the Earth’s surface (not underground of course because visible light doesn’t get down there, nor cosmic rays – one of the big reasons these experiments are so far underground.)

From SNO+ we continued on through SNOLab seeing all kinds of amazing experiments and sights. Here are a few more highlights from the trip.

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It may not look like much, COUPP will be looking for dark matter interactions.

 

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Moving into its second phase (if I recall), COUPP has already eliminated several possible permutations of dark matter’s mass and speed. They are now looking for heavier dark matter. Only in particle physics do you get excited when you see nothing after running an experiment for 5 years.

 

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This is the ramp they built for when Stephen Hawking came to visit.

 

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It glows. And to be honest that’s all I retained on this experiment at this point. I was starting to hit excitement overload.

 

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The crane is the biggest piece of equipment ever brought into SNOLab. It had to be brought down in pieces suspended under the cage then manoeuvred by two forklifts down the drift.

 

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What’s a clean lab 2 km underground without a few stairs taking you further into Earth.

 

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DEAP, another dark matter detection experiment. It is interesting because a number of the experiments in SNOLab are all competing against each other to look for dark matter. And when dark matter is thought to interact maybe once a year with matter, you had better hope it hits your experiment and not your neighbours.

 

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Our guide, Samanthan Kuula, was just amazing. A store house of information and so engaging. As was Eric, one of the scientists on site who talked to us about COUPP.

 

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And this was the coolest thing ever. You are looking at HALO, the Helium And Lead Observatory. Each of those detectors is encased in lead and contain helium three. It looks for neutrinos that might arrive at Earth just before the light of a supernova does. Neutrinos don’t travel fast than light, they just don’t interact with much of anything, but light does interact with a lot on its cosmic journey. So as light is waylaid by dust, cosmic gas and gravity, neutrinos pass through it all and get here minutes to days before the light. HALO is part of the SuperNova Early Warning System or SNEWS. Once HALO picks up the signs of supernova neutrinos, it calls on other neutrino detectors around the world (including SNO+) and they try to triangulate the origin of the neutrinos!

 

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Getting ready to head back out to the drift and take the cage back to surface after an amazing trip!

 

 

Atwood’s Last Talk at Laurentian

Today I met a Canadian celebrity, albeit from afar, Margaret Atwood. For the last ten years she has been coming to Sudbury to celebrate her birthday and giving a talk at Laurentian. Being her 75th birthday this year she has said that this will be the last time she will be coming out.

It was a great chance opportunity to attend this last talk and I’m looking forward to reading my signed copy of “The Robber Bride”.

Here are a couple photos from the night.

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NaBloPoMo 16: Dug My Way Out

I have to apologise for to my faithful readers (all thirteen of you according the analytics – which I am told are little Ana’s that run around in the cables of the internet tracking all sorts of information. Analytics is after all short for ANA’s LYTtle Information Computing Services no?) as I have not kept up with NaBloPoMo.

To tell the truth I was buried under a pile of procrastinating paper work. I really only have myself to blame. I know paperwork well and I should know better. It’s always the same excuses, and yet every time I give paperwork a task I want to start off on the right foot and give him a blank sheet.

I don’t know why I expected something different this time. Maybe it was because he folded so quickly to my request without so much as a cited objection. Maybe it was because I wanted to paper over the cracks in our relationship and start anew.

By a few days in when I came to check in on him, he had nothing to write home about. I thought of writing him up, but instead wrote if off as a getting the creative juices flowing. I wasn’t going to close the book on him just yet.

A few days after that paperwork was back in my good books, and had managed to pull something of a small rabbit out of his hat and it was looking good. I was hope full that all would be in place on time. Alas, he was talking out of his hat that day and by the time I realized his project had nothing to ink in it was too late.

I gave him his walking papers and the situation escalated rather quickly and he accused me of cooking the books and sabotaging the whole thing. Things got heated and it came to blows. For those who know me I am not terribly athletic and paperwork got the upper hand very quickly and had me pinned. I managed to punch a few holes in him, but he wouldn’t let me up. It took some doing, but with a sharp quill to the ribs I got the upper hand and pulled myself out from underneath of paperwork. He left, a little creased, but not worse for the wear. I was torn over it all, but I am sure once the ink dries we’ll look back at this all and laugh. Until then, I guess I have to do my own essay.

NaBloPoMo 7: An Afternoon at Science North

Having been studying for the last couple months I have not yet had taken many opportunities to explore the galleries at Science North, the partner to the Science Communication program at Laurentian University.

Today, however, my girlfriend was in for a visit during her reading week and so we took advantage of the opportunity to go and explore this great institution. I shared some of the stories that I head about the construction of the Science North and pointed out a couple of the neat features, like the shatter cone in the main tunnel entrance, that had been pointed out to me when we got our tour at the start of the year.

It was great to share this place with my girlfriend and discuss some of the things we have been learning in our respective programs and how they apply to Science North, science centres and museums. It was a lovely afternoon. We took a few pictures, so I hope you enjoy them.

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NaBloPoMo 6: Waxing Nostalgic

It turned out to be a busy day today. Between presentations, swing dance and course work I am finding myself cheating yet again. I’ll try not to fall back too often on my nostalgic times in France, but here is one of my clandestine cooking experiences.

 

Hi everyone and welcome to Clandestine Cooking with Kevin. Today we will be going over the basics for all those first time clandestine cookers out there. The first thing you want to do is check your lease and make sure you are not allowed to cook in you room at residence, after all it’s not clandestine if you’re allowed to do it right? Let’s have a quick look shall we…yep there it is, plain as day “cooking is strictly forbidden in the rooms”.

The next thing you will want to do is look for that little loop hole just in case, let’s read on: “It is forbidden to introduce such electrical appliances into the room such as hotplates, microwaves, radiators, stoves, etcetera.” I don’t know about you but I have never heard of an electrical etcetera before ha, ha, ha! Ok, we seem to be in luck, they have forgotten to mention the clandestine cooker’s best friend: the electric kettle, or as I like to call it my “humidifier”. After all these dorm rooms get to be rather dry (wink, wink). Feel free to pick one up at your local appliance store or have a friend lend you one of the four they have lying around their house. This, combined with your industrial sized steal thermos, will be the central point for all your meals, so treat it them respect. This means hiding them as soon as cooking is done, preferably in a location that is supper inconvenient for even you to get to (undoubtedly forcing you to eat out instead just for ease of effort). Now on to the next step: shopping.

This can be daunting at first when you realize that you have no fridge to store anything in. Just follow these few tips and you should come out ok. First don’t buy too much; you can always go back for more if you run out (except for Sundays of coarse, where even the churches close for the day). Second go for non-perishables and dry goods like rice, macaroni, soup in a cup, cardboard, stale bread etc. When it comes to things like meats buy salamis or you can go straight to the source and buy a cow or a pig. Simply stake it in the inner courtyard and use a “carve as you need” mentality. If you opt for the cow you can even make cheese from the milk, only remember to thoroughly seal it in wax (you might be abroad to see a new culture, but you don’t want it growing in your dresser).

Now onto the fun part: cooking. Get your kettle going and put a cup of soup in your one and only slightly oversized mug and a few handfuls of macaroni into your thermos. Once the water boils fill you mug and thermos, then enjoy your soup while the macaroni cooks.

Now I know what you are thinking, Kevin how am I supposed to strain my macaroni without a strainer? My friend that is the joy of a thermos, most have a spout that lets liquids out and keeps solids in! Once you’ve done this, poor your noodles (providing they aren’t cooked to the inside of your thermos rendering it useless even for tea the next day) into your one and only slightly oversized mug, add lots of wax and very little cheese and what ever cut of meat you managed to get without getting kicked in the head or head butted. Voila! A meal fit for a king! Follow with tea (providing your kettle hasn’t shorted out for some unknown reason…I knew “free” was too good to be true) and cookies for dessert.

Well that’s all the time we have for today folks, thanks for tuning in. Please make sure you tune in next time where I will be showing how to cook a Christmas turkey with tinfoil, a radiator and two double A batteries (apple flavoured of coarse).