January 30, 2014

Eva Gusnowski

A dream within a dream? Thanks Leo, but we’ll take it from here. Even more plausible than inception, because it does, in fact, actually exist, is waterception.


The existence of waterception is due to our good friend density, and its grandchild "halocline". Halocline describes an abrupt vertical salinity gradient in a body of water. What this essentially results in is layers of water of different densities where you can actually see a dilineation between. For example, this is seen in caves in Mexico where less dense fresh water sits on top of more dense salt water.

veronica von allworden


The Cenote Angelita near Tulum, Mexico, has an added layer of hydrogen sulfide between the fresh water and salt water, creating a ghostly effect on the top of the “river”. The result is an amazing feat of nature that you can visit and swim through. And that also allows the use of imagination to take some pretty spectacular pictures.





Water within water…its waterception! Leo would be so proud.

Quirks & Quarks

January 20, 2014

Torah Kachur

This week on Quirks & Quarks on CBC Radio - guest host = ME!!!


Yes, for some crazy reason the powers that be at CBC have invited me to sit in the biggest science chair in the land, the one occupied by Bob McDonald every week on national radio. 


I think I'm nervous, but it's hard to say because I really don't know what to be nervous about.  I'm not interviewing any Nobel Prize winners or science idols, at least I don't think.  I'm not sure what it means to be truly good at radio other than to be curious, have a little fun and throw in a 'wow, that's cool' or two when I'm chatting.


I really love science, I love talking about all sorts of topics and I hope that translates.  The topics on the radar this week - piezoelectrics, falcon hunting and a little bit of weather on brown dwarfs.  There are a few other stories we are chasing but I'll leave a bit of mystery for you to tune into the show.


Should I bill it as "Listen as Torah does a faceplant on national radio"?  Or "Torah takes over the airwaves".....only time will tell.


Addiction Awareness

November 19, 2013

Torah Kachur

Most people associate National Addictions Awareness Week with alcoholism and drug addiction but addictive behaviours go well beyond substance abuse.  It can even include addictions to sex, gambling and even hoarding. 


Rob Ford Torah Kachur Science in SEconds National Addiction Awareness Week


All addictions activate the same brain reward patterns that are associated with the 'high' of a drug.  You know, that feeling of euphoria that makes you draw self-portraits of yourself that look like this.  Heroin addicts are soothed by the use of a needle, even if there is no drug injected, this behavioural addiction can be just as powerful as the chemical changes that happen in the brain. 


These behavioural or process addictions, just like their substance abuse counterparts, stimulate the release of dopamine in the reward centers of the brain.  The flood of dopamine in areas of the brain like the nucleus accumbens caused addicts to have a surge of positive emotions.  Mice that have their nucleus accumbens removed are often cured of addictions, although most people aren't interested in having part of their brain surgically removed to stop them from buying too many shoes.


Sex addictions have broken up many-a-Hollywood couple which has made it an almost laughable disease of the too-hot-for-you but it isn't just the David Duchovny's of the world that crave the orgasmic euphoria.  Hoarding and shopping result in the same brain changes.  Although, I must admit, I'd have a lot more shoes if the act of purchasing was orgasmic. Maybe I'm simply not prone to addictions.


Addictions are not simply a result of bad choices, they result from brain chemistry changes and feedback loops on overdrive.  This National Addiction Awareness Week maybe it's time to stop teasing your shop-a-holic friends and understand that their compulsions are not simply a bad habit.


Can't help throw in a Rob Ford joke here - his list of addictions is loooonnnggggg - food, cigarettes, alcohol, oh yeah, crack.  You can't apologize and move on, sorry Toronto, you need serious therapy.



Rob Ford Science

November 8, 2013

Torah Kachur

#RobFord has been trending on Twitter for an eternity and the embarrassment of Canada shows no sign of stopping.  What is it about our world that is so delighted to watch another Lindsay Lohan-esque train public meltdown?


It's science.....


The human brain actually feels more empathy when bad people suffer - like said trashy crack-addicted bully of a Toronto mayor - than good people.  We feel sorry for them when they get what they deserve, moreso than when an innocent toddler has their parents die in a car crash.  It seems absolutely ridiculous and counterintuitive to me, but I gotta trust the science on this one.


Researchers from USC analyzed the pain matrix of people as they watched others suffer.  The pain matrix is a network in the brain that is comprised of the insula cortex, the anterior cingulate, and the somatosensory cortices.  Their study consisted of fMRI monitoring of a group of white Jewish males as they watched videos of innocent people in pain.  Watching suffering of innocents did cause the pain matrices to be active, but not nearly as much as when the participants watched anti-Semites in pain.  

Counterintuitive and completely ass-backwards?  Maybe.  But it also might be that individuals try to understand the pain of those Nazi-bastards a bit more to empathize with their humanity and not their beliefs.  In other words, the brain works harder to feel the pain of those that are hateful.  


My theory is simple:  the pain matrix was activated as the participants wanted to feel the pain of the anti-Semites so they could feel them suffer with vindictive sadistic grins on their faces, not empathy.   And who would blame them?  


As for Rob Ford?  His pain is only making my giggle.  You made your bed Mayor Ford, sleep in it. 

Happy Birthday Marie

November 7, 2013

Torah Kachur

Geoengineering the Planet

October 9, 2013

Brit Trogen

To many people, geoengineering is still a relatively unknown concept. It's, like, engineering? Something to do with the earth, maybe? In North America, geoengineering has yet to achieve the wide recognition of, say, biotechnology. But for a select group of researchers, geoengineering may represent the greatest hope for the future of our planet from a technological perspective.



Geoengineering is, in fact, almost nothing like what the name implies. The simplest definition is perhaps "largescale climate modification," but even that fails to encompass the variety of strategies and technologies included under the geoengineering umbrella.


Dozens of approaches are, if not entirely feasable, still pretty fascinating in theory. On the simpler side are things like just painting the roofs of every building on earth white, as a light-colored surface area would reflect more heat from the planet's surface. There's also the strategy (recently employed by a rogue businessman) of dumping iron into the oceans to encourage algal blooms, which, in turn, would capture CO2 from the atmosphere. 



But there are also more extreme ideas. We could, for example, throw an enormous mirror up in space, sort of like outfitting the earth with a giant pair of sunglasses. Or, using another dubious technological favorite, employ cloud seeding over the oceans as a method of increasing the earth's reflectivity. The list goes on, with some options even gaining credibility lately due to the most recent climate report of the IPCC.


There are, however, a number of technical and ethical issues to be raised by even the concept of technological tampering with the climate. For example, who would get to control it? (Canadians and Russians might, for example, prefer an ever-so-slightly warmer planet than the citizens of Ecuador.) Should the technologies be patentable? And who on earth would be held responsible if something went wrong? Assuming, of course, that we haven't destroyed the only habitable planet in the solar system in the process of trying to save it.


It's easy to get over-excited at the prospect of solving climate change using technology. But for now, geoengineering is still pretty much a pipe dream when it comes to feasable climate strategies. By far, our best bet (both economically and risk-wise) is simply to slow climate change now before it spirals out of control. Which means the same old mantra: reducing our carbon emissions. Not quite as flashy as a space-mirror, but it's undoubtedly a much safer strategy overall. 

World Animal Day

October 4, 2013

Torah Kachur

Today is World Animal Day, but considering the state of our environment we really should have more than just one day to celebrate our animal-kin.  We need to celebrate the animals in nature every day, each and every day we should kiss a few frogs or wrestle a few hogs to say "thank you" to the creatures that let us share the earth with them.


What are these kind and gentle creatures that so willingly let us co-habitate?  The answer is that we just don't know, there is an estimated 8.7 million species of the planet, most of those are microbes but if only 15% of living species are known to science, then that leaves a lot of those as animals. 


And even just this year we are discovering new animal species:


Take the legless lizard found living near LAX, this snake-but-not-snake is a lizard.  Anniella grinneli (we'll just call her Annie) can give you a little flirty wink because they can blink, which snakes cannot do.  What does this tell us about evolution?  That legs aren't really that important, both snakes and legless lizards have lost their legs independently suggesting that twice in evolution the world looked better at a slither.  Annie is pretty cute and was discovered around LAX, let's just hope that after this discovery the habitat of this rare peek into evolutionary history can be best preserved.

Photo courtesy of James Parnham


Or how about the teddy-bear looking Olinguito discovered high in the Columbian and Ecuadorean rain forests.  This is a new mammal, the first new mammal discovered in years.  And it's cute to boot!  Hopefully the idea of preserving a teddy bear's habitat will spur some better protection of the Amazon and it's early streams better than a pirahna can.



Olinguito Science in Seconds


But that's just it, we don't care if we discover microbes living at the bottom of an ice-encased salt lake because they aren't cute.  But when we characterize a fuzzy cuddly animal it is international news.


What would you rather protect?  An animal that looks like something I sleep with every night and snuggle with (TMI?) or an ugly epaulette shark discovered off the coast of Australia? 


So what they aren't cute - the epaulette shark is a walking shark that can survive in low oxygen waters suggesting incredible adaptations to the changing environment.  These guys may be better clues to our evolutionary past and future than just another furry thing.



Save all the animals....but sometimes especially the ugly ones

How Hospitals Reinvented the Doctor

October 1, 2013

Brit Trogen

Going to the hospital when you're seriously sick or injured is so ingrained into our current medical system that it is difficult to imagine what people could have done without them. But in fact, hospitals are incredibly recent developments in modern medicine. A few hundred years ago, a broken limb might result in disfigurement or death. Any illness stronger than a cold might mean, at best, a course of blood-letting or change in diet.


The invention of the hospital—believed to have occurred in Paris around 1800 CE—changed medicine dramatically. Amazingly, though, this transformation was not always an improvement.


Before delving into the birth of the hospital, it's important to first take a glimpse of what medicine consisted of beforehand. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that doctors in the eighteenth century were almost completely unrecognizable in comparison to the medical practitioners we know today. Doctors, on the whole, weren't highly paid. And neither were they of particularly high social standing; in this era, having to work at all placed you firmly in the lower classes relative to the aristocracy and nobility. And most surprisingly, perhaps, doctors didn't typically engage in any formal education. Medical schools were still novel developments at this time, and the vast majority of doctors were trained through an apprentice-like system with other established doctors.


The relationship between the doctor and the patient was, then, drastically different from what exists today. The only people who could afford to pay for medical care were the upper classes, which meant that doctors were much more akin to hired servants to their patients than respected professionals, and they almost exclusively conducted their business through house calls. The entire power dynamic of this system was held by the patient; if they didn't feel respected, listened to, or properly treated, they would simply take their business elsewhere.



With the growth of the hospital system in the nineteenth century, however, this entire system was turned upside-down. The first hospitals were not, surprisingly, intended solely as medical treatment facilities. The Paris Hospital of 1800 was, perhaps foremost, a method of keeping the troubled, insane, and sick away from the general population. There were thousands of patients crammed together in these buildings, often resulting in massive spreading of disease.


But doctors began to flourish under this system. First, having so many patients in close proximity made it possible to begin to observe symptoms of disease in a scientific manner, looking for commonalities and successful treatments across a wide number of cases. The creation of "rounds" occurred, and groups of students were able to observe more than ever before about illness and treatment. For doctors, working at established hospitals quickly began to be viewed as a respectable (and even preferable) option to the system of house-calls. And finally, doctors were now placed firmly above the vast majority of their patients in socio-economic status. 


The repercussions of this shift were enormous for modern medicine. Interestingly, it is only in this period that medicine begins to take on Latin as a reference language. What doctors previously described as a simple "cough" became a tussis, highlighting the aura of intelligence and respect to be attributed to medicine. And of course, therapeutic advances in this period began to increase the efficacy of medicine by leaps and bounds.


With all the debate about healthcare these days, it might seem as though the quality and efficiency of medical treatment is at an all-time low. But in fact, these are really only minor developments in the history of medicine. Historically speaking, doctors are faring extremely well under the current system. And while patients may not hold the upper hand they once did, it should be at least a small relief to know that the emergency room offers more of a safety net than the blood-letters of yore.

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