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Posts Tagged ‘Canada’

Oil, Water, and Mixing

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

by N.S. Lockyer, Director

Oil and water.

These few words usually denote a problem. Joe and Bill get along like “oil and water.” We all know what that means: they don’t get along. Expect some fireworks. But the world may be changing because of oil and water, and the word to summarize it is “hydraulic fracturing” or just “fracking.” Oil is pouring out of the U.S. in places like North Dakota, New York, Ohio, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania, all due to the new technique of hydraulic fracturing being employed all over the U.S. (and Canada). The International Energy Agency has predicted that the U.S. could be the largest producer of oil in the world by 2017 and may be a net exporter of oil by 2035. Look out climate change!  Although fracking has been around for decades, only in the last few years has it advanced dramatically.

The U.S. consumes about 19 million barrels of oil a day, it produces about 8 million barrels and imports the rest. This voracious thirst for oil drives the U.S. oil imports and the newly forming gas fracking industry. The numbers for fracking are mind-boggling. Huge pumps and massive diesel engines must drive mixtures of water and tonnes of sand (which prevents the fracture from closing up after the process is over), two or more kilometres below the surface.  But once done, the oil leaps from the fractured rock and flows easily to the surface. There are tens of “fracks” per well and each frack lasts anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. The fracking fluid is mostly water but with certain acidic compounds added sometimes to help etch the rock. Interestingly, radioactive isotopes (gamma emitters like colbalt-60) are used to determine properties of the fractures. North Dakota is now producing 750,000 barrels of high quality oil a day up over 50% from last year, moving it past Alaska as the second highest-producing state (Texas is number one). A single well can produce several thousand barrels in a day. A few years ago, only one frack per well was standard.  In North Dakota, the number of wells planned is in the tens of thousands. The land area is massive and extends into Manitoba and Saskatchewan in Canada. Companies think they are still only extracting a few percent of the available oil and research is advanced to evaluate more exotic liquids to get at the rest.

Canada’s national newspaper, the Globe and Mail reported recently (Nov 17th by N. Vanderklippe) that all this drilling in the U.S. will lead to problems for Canada’s oil sands. Canada exports about three million barrels of oil per day, mostly to the U.S., or 27% of all imported oil to the U.S. Canada is the largest exporter of oil to the U.S.  So much oil is now pumping through existing pipelines (they are full) between Canada and the U.S. that oil is being transported by truck and rail now! The heavy oil from Alberta is always in the press for the relatively higher energy intensity needed for extracting a useful final product.  However the reserves are massive (second largest in the world) and it seems hard to believe the U.S. will ignore the opportunity to import oil from its friendly northern neighbour. It will be interesting to see if President Obama approves the 800,000 barrel a day Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to Texas in the near future. The Government of Canada and Alberta wish to forge ahead with plans for oil-sands extraction and building new pipelines. The Canadian public is somewhat less excited about the prospects due to concerns about the environment. Trade-offs!

All in all, there will be a lot of talk about oil independence in the U.S., cheap gas prices, and competitive exports; Canadian oil producers will be increasingly nervous about prices and business. Uncle Sam will be happy as prices are expected to drop. A top concern is the environment.  Should we just leave the oil in the ground because oil and water don’t mix? The alternatives are to develop renewables, conserve energy, and save the water for drinking.

One way or the other, these issues and discussions will affect all of us.

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Art and Science: Both or Neither

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

 

I don’t get it. I guess we just have different brains than them.” – two young science students, regarding a piece of art.

It’s a funny feeling, being an individual with a predominantly artistic mind working in a place dominated by science. I’m not saying I don’t have love for the sciences, but if we’re talking in terms of how my thought process lazily unfurls itself when faced with a problem, I’m definitely more of an artist than a scientist. The very fact that I have used the terms “scientist” and “artist” in a way that does nothing but reinforce the eternal dichotomy that exists between the two groups indicates that the problem is so widespread, indeed, that even the person trying to formulate an argument calling for a cessation of the “war” that exists between the two groups cannot avoid thinking of the two as incontrovertibly disparate.

 

A page from Leonardo da Vinci's famous notebooks. He remains one of the finest examples of an individual expanding his mind to take in both science and art.

 

The quote at the top is a real thing I heard. Aside from the disquieting use of “we” and “them,” the most troubling thing about the above assertion is the outright dismissal of the piece of art in question. The finality and hopelessness of the “Different Brain” argument does not seem ridiculous outright because it has been propagated by you (yes, you), me, and everyone else ever in the history of time when we don’t want to take the time to learn something new. Artists and scientists are two particular groups that use the Different Brain argument on one another all too often. In order to see the truly farcical nature that underlies the argument, picture two groups of early humans. One group has fire. The other group does not. One person from the fireless group is tasked with inventing fire for the group. The person in charge of making fire claps his hands; no fire is produced. He gives up, citing that he and his counterpart in the other group must have different brains. His group dies out because of their lack of fire.

I hope you followed the cautionary tale of our dismissive early human closely, for he is the rock I will build this post on. The reason one group died and the other thrived is quite obvious. It is not because they simply lacked fire; it is that they lacked the ability to extend their minds beyond their current knowledge in order to solve a problem. Moreover, they not only lacked the ability, they lacked the drive—a troubling trend that is becoming more pronounced as the misguided “war” between artists and scientists rages on, insofar as an intellectual war can rage.

If you were to ask a scientist what he or she would do when posed with a problem, the answer will invariably be something along the lines of, “I would wrestle it to the ground with my considerable intellect until it yields its secrets.” During my time at TRIUMF, I have noticed a deep, well-deserved pride in every scientist in their ability to solve problems. Therefore, it is truly a sad state of affairs when our scientists look at something that puzzles them and then look away. To me, that’s no scientist. That is someone who has grown too complacent, too comfortable, in the vastness of their knowledge that they begin to shy away from things that challenge them in a way they aren’t used to. What’s more is that no one (artists or scientists) sees this as a defeat. As soon as you’ve said, “Oh well, different brain,” you’ve lost.

Any person familiar with rhetoric will tell you that in order to build a strong argument and persuade people, you have to be honest. Be sneaky and fail to address something potentially damning and your credibility is shot and the argument is void. Since it works so well in politics (snark), I figure I should give is a shot here. The problem of the Different Brain argument does not just lay with the scientists; if I’ve excoriated them, it’s out of fear that soon, a generation of scientists will stop growing and thinking. The artists are guilty of invoking the Different Brain argument as well whenever faced with math, science, or anything, really, that they didn’t want to do. The only difference between the two is that I heard a scientist use the different brain argument in a place of science, in a place where knowledge is the point.

Different Brain is a spurious concept, which is obvious to anyone with more grey matter than pride, but it’s not just wrong because I say it is. It’s wrong because look around you.

I was standing in the middle of Whistler Village with my fiancé, when we spied a poster for a band called Art vs. Science (you’re doing it wrong, guys!). She immediately said, “Science would win.” No question. No pondering. No soul-searching. Gut reaction, like flinching from a feigned punch. She’s a statistics major and biology minor, so she has a “science” brain and her response didn’t necessarily surprise me. I was a little sad, though, because she wasn’t seeing the world like I was seeing it. We debated the problem for a few minutes until I told her to look around.

The shape of the buildings: Architecture

The pleasant configuration of the shrubbery: Horticulture

The signage on the buildings and lampposts: Design

The food in the bag in my hand: Cooking

The phone in her hand: Technology

I asked her to picture a world where science had “won”. What’s architecture without art? A shape. What’s horticulture without art? A forest. Design? A grid. Cooking? Paste. Technology? Sufficient. It’s a tough world to imagine. Look at the next thing you see and try to separate the science and art of it and imagine what it would look like, whether it would function at all. It’s absolutely dystopian.

It was then that my argument became clear: science and art are inextricable. There can be no dismissing, no deigning, no sighing in the face of it. There can only be and has only ever been unity between the two. The problem is that the two warring sides are too preoccupied with the connotations the words “art” and “science” seem to realize it’s not a question of either/or, but both/neither.

I was worried about whether this war of the different brains would always rage between the two sides, but three things lent me hope and I hope they will lend you hope, too.

1.)  These two quotes from Bertholt Brecht (20th century German playwright and poet, whose work I don’t much care for):

“Art and science work in quite different ways: agreed. But, bad as it may sound, I have to admit that I cannot get along as an artist without the use of one or two sciences. … In my view, the great and complicated things that go on in the world cannot be adequately recognized by people who do not use every possible aid to understanding.”

and

“Art and science coincide insofar as both aim to improve the lives of men and women.”

2.) I was feeling discouraged about my argument for this post and had taken to turning it over in my mind even when I was otherwise occupied, but when I heard Rolf Heuer, the Director-General of CERN, say, only a handful of feet from my face, “Science and Art belong together,” I felt a renewed sense of vigor course through my brain, spurring me on. If one of the foremost scientific experts of our age can see it, I wonder why many of us turn away from it, when it is clearly there.

3.) In case one thinks that I’ve gone too soft on the artists, imagine a world without science. Think of our society as a book of fiction or a painting. Unequivocal works of art. Yet, what holds the book together? How were the pages manufactured? How were the chemical composition of the paints devised? Science.

Keeping these points in mind, I am calling for the abolition of the concepts underpinning the Different Brain argument. The war between art and science is one of mutually assured destruction and will turn us into a lopsided simulacrum of a culture if we are not careful.

–Written by Jordan Pitcher (Communications Assistant)

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Before I began working at TRIUMF, I knew that science communication was a thing; much in the same way that I knew that there was someone, somewhere manufacturing tissue paper. It was just something that was. Reading an article in Scientific American or, to an extent, Wired, I never paused to consider who had written the article and what made an effective piece of science writing. I simply read it and moved on. Now that I have written a few articles that discuss science—nothing too long or in-depth, mind you—I have caught a glimpse of the harrowing plight of the science communicator and it is one fraught with frustration and self-doubt, but it is not without hope.

I, along with the majority of the communications team at TRIUMF, attended a talk at UBC called, “STORYOMICS: Proof that Scientists Evolved from Humans,” presented by scientist and documentary filmmaker, Randy Olson. I won’t go into too much detail about what he talked about because, to me, it was somewhat commonsensical. (Note: This may be because I’m an English major, whose sole purpose is to be painfully familiar with the components of a story.)

After the talk, a man named Dave Ng joined us for lunch. While we were chattering away, he said something that, initially, seemed like just an insightful observation. However, It has been ricocheting around in the damp recesses of my brain ever since. The observation was this: when news broke about the faster-than-light neutrinos, everyone covered it. Everyone. Of all the people who covered it, what percentage do you think knew—without reciting the Wikipedia entry for it from memory—what a neutrino actually was? Very few, I would bet. Judging from what I had read at the time, it seemed that everyone had reposted chunks of CERN/OPERA’s press release with bits of fluff around it to make it look like an original work. The main thrust of my scattershot thought process, the philosophical question that has me wandering the desert of my psyche looking for an answer is: can you ever effectively report on/write about something that you don’t have a deep knowledge of?

I used to write for a university newspaper and, while I did write about current events and physical fitness (which, if you know me, is not my forte), I gravitated towards the Arts and Life section. I wrote about books, movies, television, and video games.  What do all of these things have in common? I know about them. When I wrote about books, I was in my natural element because I understood the underlying principles that govern narrative and I knew the significance of things that the woefully uninitiated don’t pick up on (I once wrote an entire paper on the use of en and em dashes in a play, so don’t even dispute me on this). The writing was full of verve and wit (if I do say so myself). It had a confident, singular voice behind it. Confidence is the key to communicating anything effectively, but it is rare to find someone who is confident speaking about something they are not knowledgeable of. That’s why we see this paradigm: The head of the communications department at TRIUMF, Tim Meyer, is an excellent science communicator…who has a PhD in physics. Randy Olson is an effective science communicator…who has a PhD in biology. The list goes on: Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, etc. The point is that there is no doubt that scientists can become communicators. Can communicators communicate science, though? That seems to be a point of contention for scientists and communicators alike.

Before we go any further, I should probably establish my credentials: My background in science is less than negligible. I took Physics 11 in high school and Biology 100 in university. One of my (many) problems is that I was born with the curiosity of a scientist but without any of the skills to back it up. My interest in science is what made the opportunity to work at TRIUMF so appealing. It promised the opportunity to write about science, which is something that scared me, still scares me.

I recently wrote about the controversy surrounding the CERN/OPERA faster-than-light neutrino experiment and I was nervous the entire time. The prose was shaky, too reliant on quotes, and meek. It was listless and gray, devoid of all effervescence or joie de vivre. It was a passable science article. I felt how I think many science communicators feel in the beginning: gutted. The lack of “myself” in the article called into question whether I could communicate effectively, or if I had ever done so.

Science communicators are in the enviable and rare position to be attacked from every angle: from scientists for not being thorough enough and from communicators for being boring and ineffective. Both parties are assailing disparate aspects of the work and no one is pleased. If you heard a funeral dirge in the back of your mind while reading this, prepare for the tinkling, inspirational piano number because, in my mind, there is hope. I’ve only been at TRIUMF for three months, but I already feel like I’ve learned a great deal about science communication.

1.)       Always collaborate, when possible, with someone who is deeply familiar with the science you are discussing. I know it’s easier to Google, but this is the Internet. I’m a doctor on the Internet. This way, when you cite your sources, you don’t have to cite Wikipedia, you can cite a professional, which will confer a lot of credence to whatever you wrote.

2.)       Metaphor is your new best friend. You already have a best friend? Too bad. You might not know the dictionary definition of metaphor, but humans have been using it forever (hyperbole) to communicate complex ideas to the many. The more complex the concept, the more important the metaphor becomes.

3.)       Don’t be afraid to imbue the work with a sense of style. This is what I see most often. People think that because something is about science, it needs to be antiseptic. It doesn’t. If you’re a communicator, you have a unique voice, or I hope you have, anyway.

With the modicum of experience that I have in communicating science, I realize I’m no professional—yet—and this is by no means an “answer” to the questions posed earlier. These points are, however, a jumping off point for people who may be thinking about communicating science, but are afraid it has to be the written or verbal equivalent of gruel. They are also for the people who are communicating science but it has become so mechanical for them that they can’t see themselves in their work anymore.

My time at TRIUMF lasts five more months, and the journey will, without a doubt, involve more frustration and failure in the face of this nigh-rhetorical question. Instead of gently weeping into that good night, I will use the words of Charles Kettering, an engineer I just Googled, to give me hope: “99 percent of success is built on failure.”

–Written by Jordan Pitcher (Communications Assistant)

 

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Powerless Haikus

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

Jordan is an English major on a Communications co-op term at TRIUMF. When the power went out at TRIUMF, he was asked to write about what it was like. He decided to write it in haiku. He had never written a haiku before. It showed.

I have never written a haiku before. After the power came on, I Googled haikus and these barely count.  Enjoy.

 

The power is out

There is nothing left to do

Except write haikus

 

Computers shut off

I forgot to save my work

Many strong expletives

 

Eyes raised to the ceiling

A brief respite from the screen

It is sunny out?

 

A brief argument

On the location of Spain

No one can Google

 

Two scientists turn

Engage in deep discussion

Or maybe shallow

 

Silent Meson Hall

Punctuated by a laugh

Cannot find the source

 

The power is back

I am Googling some haikus

Amateurish, I

– Written by Jordan Pitcher (Communications Assistant)

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This is a follow-up from our last post where Paul Schaffer, Head of the Nuclear Medicine Division at TRIUMF, was talking about his experience of being in the media spotlight. In this post, Paul talks more in-depth about the science of medical isotopes.

It all started 19 months ago. A grant that would forever change my perspective of science geared specifically toward innovating a solution for a critical unmet need—in this situation, it was the global isotope crisis. In 2010, not too long out of the private sector, I was already working on an effort funded by NSERC and CIHR through the BC Cancer Agency to establish the feasibility of producing Tc-99m—the world’s most common medical isotope—on a common medical cyclotron. The idea: produce this isotope where it’s needed, on demand, every day, if and when needed. Sounds good, right? The problem is that the world had come to accept what would have seemed impossible just 50 years ago.

The current Tc-99m production cycle, which uses nuclear reactors. Image courtesy of Nordion.

We are currently using a centralized production model for this isotope with just a six hour half-life. This model involves just a handful of dedicated, government-funded research reactors, producing molybdenum-99 from highly enriched uranium (which is another issue for another time). Moly, as we’ve come to affectionately call it, decays via beta emission to technetium, and when packaged into alumina columns, is sterilized, and encased in a hundred pounds of lead. It is then shipped by the thousands to hospitals around the world. The result: the world has come to accept Tc-99m, which is used in 85% of the 20 to 40 million patient scans every year as an isotope available from a small, 100 pound cylinder that was replaced every week or so, without question, without worry. Moly and her daughter were always there…but in 2007 and again in 2009, suddenly they weren’t. The world had come to realize that something must be done.

In the middle of our NSERC/CIHR effort, we were presented with an opportunity to write a proof-of-concept grant based on the proof-of-feasibility we were actively pursuing. Luckily, the team had come far enough to believe we were on the right track. We believed that large scale curie-level production of Tc-99m using existing cyclotron technology was indeed possible. The ensuing effort was—in contrast to the current way of doing things—ridiculous.

With extensive, continuous input from several top scientists from around the country, I stitched together a document 200 pages long. It was a grant that was supposed to redefine how the most important isotope in nuclear medicine was produced. 200 pages, well 199 to be exact, describing a process—THE process—we were hopefully going to be working on for the next 18 months. We waited…success! And we began.

The effort started the same way as the document – with nothing more than a blank piece of paper. Blank in the sense that we knew what we had to do, we just had not defined exactly how we were going to achieve our goal. But what happened next was a truly remarkable thing; with that blank sheet, I witnessed first-hand a team of people imagine a solution, roll up their sleeves and turn those notions into reality.

If you would like to read the PET report, click here

 

 

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Paul Schaffer is the head of the Nuclear Medicine Division at TRIUMF. For the past 18 months, he and his team have been devising a method for Canada and the world to have an alternative way to produce medical isotopes. Currently, these isotopes are created on aging nuclear reactors, which are beginning to show signs of wear by needing emergency repairs. These repairs stop the flow of isotopes, affecting hundreds of thousands of people around the world. This is an inside perspective of what it means to work on the front line, and be in the media spotlight.

I’m going to start this post with the day I had the privilege of standing in front of a group of reporters along with a few of my esteemed colleagues to announce that we had, in fact, delivered on a promise we had made just over a year ago; the promise of making medical isotopes with existing hospital cyclotrons. We had set out to prove that it was possible to produce Tc-99m on a small medical cyclotron and at quantities sufficient to supply a large urban centre. The solution to Tc-99m shortages is to decentralize production. It was an example of Canadian innovation at its best – by taking a group of existing machines in existing facilities already tasked at making various other medical isotopes and extending the functionality of those facilities to produce another isotope.

Paul presenting his team's findings

The response from the press was remarkable to witness. The interest was swift, broad, and far reaching. The 24-hour news cycle had begun and with it came a deluge of requests for radio, TV, and print interviews. In the ensuing days I read a number of wonderful reports from capable reporters, often writing about a topic well outside of their background or familiarity. For that, I admire the work that they collectively pulled together in the short amount of time involved.

Something else happened, though; something I didn’t anticipate – the ensuing media blitz ended up becoming a very personal social experiment, an intense self-examination. On the way to my first-ever national television interview, I can distinctly remember reality sinking in—for most of my life, I’ve dealt with significant hearing loss. In my ever-quiet world, acutely and perpetually punctuated by tinnitus, verbal communication can be a consuming task.

It is a fact that I comprehend only 33% of the words spoken to me and that my brain fills the gaps using whatever facts it can absorb from my surroundings—expressions, moving lips, and other non-verbal cues. In that car on the way to the interview, I couldn’t help but to continuously wonder about how I would handle verbal questions on camera? What do you say on live TV when you can’t for the life of you figure out what your conversational counterpart is saying? My wingman kept reassuring me, giving background from experience and many, many reassuring comments; but deep down I had to wonder, was this the moment when the whole situation would finally come undone? My charade of being able to hear the world around me would finally end. Worse still, had the moment come to sell the team’s amazing accomplishments on national TV, with a significant number of people literally watching; and all I kept wondering was: will it fall apart simply over an unheard or misinterpreted question? Good thing most communication is non-verbal.

The interview ended up being remote, with the reporters in Ontario and a conspicuous 5 second ‘safety’ delay between what I thought I heard and what showed up on the TV monitor facing me. Five seconds was long enough for them to cut out a fleeting wardrobe malfunction, should I become a bit too passionate during my scientific descriptions, but not nearly long enough to spare a poor soul a repeat question. So, seated in a large, empty, and thankfully quiet studio it began with a single chair, bright lights, and an audio test – ‘please count to 5’ came in over the ear piece…this out of context and no non-verbal queue jolted my fear into reality. I couldn’t understand the question. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my wingman turn a shade lighter. Worry was setting in. The in-studio producer was almost dumbstruck – this ‘expert’ couldn’t count to five.  45 seconds to ‘go’ and he repeated the question. I got it, counted to five….30 seconds….15, an ambulance was coming, getting louder, I couldn’t hear the commercial any longer…..10, the ambulance was on the street directly below. I had to look away from the TV screen, as the delay was overwhelmingly distracting. 5 seconds. The sirens were starting to recede and before you knew it, I was live.

Paul on CTV News

At first I didn’t want to watch the interview, but family, friends and colleagues from across Canada starting chiming in and eventually convinced me to watch. I felt satisfied with the results, relieved that I had heard every question, answered everything without wandering or forgetting what the question was, covering the topics I wanted to cover. However, I was definitely watching an objective projection of somebody I wasn’t familiar with. I won’t get into the details of what I saw – it’d be different for everyone, but the experience has been life altering, as has this project. That said, I’m proud of the team that has worked so well and so hard together for the past 18 months. It’s been a remarkable project on all fronts. Whether our results continue to keep their momentum and become a permanent solution to the isotope issues that plagued us for two years remains to be seen. I do know success when I see it, and this team of Canadian scientists, engineers, and medical professionals should all be immensely proud of what they have done. They are Canadian innovation at its best.

The team of TRIUMF scientists Paul collaborated with on the groundbreaking project

 

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My Time at AAAS 2012

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

Jordan is an English major on a Communications co-op term at TRIUMF. This is his take on the AAAS conference that took place this February in Vancouver. AAAS is a conference that gathers researchers from around the world from all disciplines to share ideas with each other, the media, and the public.

It is difficult to write about any event, be it a concert or a science convention, without slipping into a pattern that resembles a mad-lib (e.g. “I saw noun and it was adjective!”). In order to avoid that particular pitfall, it’s important to focus on the individual connection one forges with the event, the broader implications of the event, and the emotions evoked by it. AAAS 2012 was, surprisingly, an event suffused with emotion. I say “surprisingly” because “science” is a word that carries with it the connotation of a stodgy atmosphere built upon cold rationalism. Despite this, the atmosphere at AAAS 2012 was built on anything but.

AAAS 2012 began on a typical (see: rainy) Friday morning in Vancouver, but the mood inside the exhibit hall was in stark contrast to the gloom outside. Though it was quite early in the morning and a number of exhibitors were frazzled and silently checking and rechecking their to-do lists, the hall quickly became characterized by laughter and discussion. People dropped by booths asking after old friends they had previously worked with, smiling at the old memories and the assurances that their friends were doing well. People who knew each other only by reputation met on the floor of the exhibit hall and traded stories about their current projects and experiments. People who did not know one another perused booths, asked questions, handed out business cards, and walked away deep in thought. The entire exhibit hall was a microcosmic example of the scientific community as a whole; a community fueled by curiosity, collaboration, camaraderie, and a friendly sense of competition. Though Friday was not open to the public, there were still a number of unique visitors, particularly American Junior Academy of Science (AJAS) members to students who had registered for student scholarships through TRIUMF and the BC Innovation Council (BCIC). These students were given a full conference pass and a one-year membership to AAAS. The AJAS members and student scholarship recipients displayed a sense of curiosity and mental alacrity befitting the next generation of scientists as they interacted with one another and the ideas presented at numerous booths.

The free public event, Family Science Days, opened on Saturday and it made the excited atmosphere of Friday seem funereal. The enthusiastic chatter of the children who attended Family Science Days with their parents in tow created the feeling only generated by like-minded individuals, radically diverse in ages and backgrounds, interacting with one another without any sense of pretension or disingenuousness. It was an interesting example of how science has the power to unify people. This is fitting, since the theme of the conference was  “Flattening the World: Building a Global Knowledge Society.” To me, the theme of the conference was fully realized when I looked around and saw the old educating the young and the young inspiring the old with a vigor for attempting to understand the unknown and a heavy reliance on the words “why” and “how.” I’m sure this brought a smile to every scientist’s face, knowing that the inquisitiveness that has spurred scientific discovery for thousands of years remains an inextinguishable human trait that will always express itself, irrespective of one’s age or background.

In describing the emotions I witnessed, I have neglected to mention the emotions I experienced during my time at AAAS 2012. Being an exhibitor, I suspect I felt more stress than many of the regular attendees. It wasn’t like being stressed about exams; it was more like unveiling a piece of art and stressing about whether people would enjoy it – more butterflies than flop sweat. As my comrades—wartime slang is perfectly appropriate in this situation, I think—and I began to entertain visitors with magnet demonstrations and educate them about cyclotrons, the worry dissipated and gave way to excitement. People were enjoying our booth and I got to test the boundaries of my memory, attempting to recount the entire Wikipedia page for “Cyclotrons” and “Higgs boson.” I’m not a scientist—far from it, in fact—but I enjoyed the lively discussions and even managed to actually learn a thing or two in the process.

 

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Higgs for the Holidays

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

 —  By Theorist David Morrissey & Particle Physicist Anadi Canepa

 Last week we hosted two particle physics workshops at TRIUMF – an ATLAS Canada collaboration meeting and a joint meeting for theorists and experimentalists to study new LHC results.  Everything went smoothly, no participants were lost to the wilds of Vancouver, and we had some really great discussions and seminars.  During one of these presentations, it occurred to me that these kinds of scientific meetings are not so different from a typical holiday gathering.  In both situations, you frequently run into people you know but that you haven’t seen in a long time.  You catch up, you gossip, and you eat too much food at the coffee breaks.  There’s usually a large group dinner where you often meet new people and strike up conversations about future work.  And every so often one of the participants has too much holiday cheer.

Despite these similarities, most scientific meetings don’t involve gifts.  But this time around we were really lucky, and our workshops had a gift exchange of sorts as well.  In this case, the gifts were the presentations by the ATLAS and CMS collaborations of exciting new results from their searches for the Higgs boson particle.  On top of the live streaming presentations from CERN in the early hours of the morning, we were treated to a longer seminar in the afternoon at TRIUMF by Rob McPherson.  His talk was standing-room only, and we had a great time bombarding him with questions about the ATLAS analysis.

The reason for all this excitement over a single particle is that the Higgs boson, first proposed nearly fifty years ago, is central to our current understanding of all known elementary particles, called the Standard Model.  (See here, here, and here for more details.)   In this theory, the Higgs is responsible for creating the masses of nearly all elementary particles and for making the weak force much weaker than electromagnetism.  Even though we have not yet seen the Higgs directly, we have indirect evidence for it from precision measurements of the weak and electromagnetic forces.  Discovering the Higgs boson would confirm the Standard Model, while not finding it would force us to drastically rethink our description of elementary particles and fundamental forces, which would perhaps be an even greater discovery.

 

Excitement about finding the Higgs has been building since the summer, when it became clear that the LHC would be able to collect enough data by the end of the year to possibly find it.  In the past few weeks the level has gone through the roof as rumours started to appear that the LHC experiments would soon release a significant result.  What we learned this week is that these latest searches did not discover the Higgs boson, but that they do suggest that it might be there with a mass close to 133 times that of a proton (125 GeV).  Finding a Higgs is hard work, and its delicate characteristic signal must be extracted from a huge amount of background noise.  What we have at the moment is an intersting bump, as you can see in the figure above taken from the ATLAS search, where we see more signal events than would typically be expected from the background alone for a candidate Higgs mass of about 125 GeV.  We just don’t have enough data right now to confirm that this bump is from a Higgs boson, and not just an especially unlucky spike in the background noise.  Fortunately, the ATLAS and CMS collaborations will be taking much more data in the new year.

So, for this year all we get is a gift-wrapped box that we’re allowed to shake and prod.  But if we’re good, we’ll get to open the box and find what’s inside at some point in 2012.  Dear Santa…


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— by T. “Isaac” Meyer, Head, Strategic Planning & Communications

One thing we have to add to this discussion is how media, news, and analysis enter into the political and policy-making process.  One clear objective of science communications and even any corporate communications activity is to influence decision makers.  But are the traditional streams of media still relevant?

Fortunately, our excellent and thoughtful friends at the National Journal have just publicly released a detailed study of U.S. federal senior executive, Capitol Hill staff, and professional lobbyists that documents how information arrives and is used “inside the Beltway” in Washington, D.C.   The study is entitled “Washington in the Information Age” and is, lightly put, brilliant.

With grateful flattery, I reproduce some of their conclusions here.

1. As the dust settles, traditional platforms (TV, print media, and radio) remain essential components of the media mix.  The report compiles hundreds of interviews and surveys to map out how U.S. political and policy staff receive their news.  Perhaps as a surprise, it is NOT all by Twitter and Facebook. Rather, the new technologies serve as alert mechanisms with trusted, credible analysis still being sought from the traditional sources.

2. Despite the plethora of choices, opinion makers associated with long-established brans carry the most influence online. We all worry that a random citizen in Darkmoor, Pennsylvania, or Blackwater, California, can publish an online blog and start a slanted or even misinforming news source.  It looks like the folks in Washington still rely on verifiable,  credible, long-established names and resources to gather their views.

3. Yet, Washington insiders value a long tail of unique opinion makers.  More than 400 distinct names were cited as credible sources for opinion from among the survey group.  So the Beltway doesn’t follow one columnist or one voice; rather, each person tends to accumulate a set of trusted brands/thought-leaders and then sticks to them over time.  So less fly-by-night than perhaps expected!

4. Washington insiders favour news sources that share political point of view. Perhaps obvious, but results show that Washingtonians cluster around columnists, news sources, and so on that reflect their own ideologies.

5. No longer just for e-mail, mobile devices are a gateway to news and information.  Many Washington insiders now read news and analysis on the small screen and some actually do a good portion of their composition and analysis on the small screen.

6. Mobile devices and new digital communication tools continue to blur the line between the personal the professional. As in, with 24 hour news cycles and multiple streams of referrals and content providers, Washington insiders often mix work and play when communicating digitally.  As anyone who has visited Washington knows, this is supported by the standard screens at a sports bar.  Not only are two or three games showing at the same time, but at least one TV shows CNN and CSPAN.

7. Online video and audio have yet to infringe on the dominance of TV and radio.  Despite the prevalence of online videos and podcasts, few Washington insiders report that they rely on these sources for content.  They are viewed primarily as entertaining.

8. The national obsession with Twitter fades inside the Beltway. Results suggest that Twitter is not a preferred communication tool and the common conception is that 50% of tweets are pointless babble, and the next 30% shameless self-promotion. Beyond that, there is some real content.

9. Social networking sites are popular inside the Beltway. As a tool to track contacts, trade views, and keep up with the vast network of potential wanna-know-yous, social networking tools are growing in use. Perhaps not surprisingly, the growth area for these tools is with Capitol Hill staff who have a tendency to involve more younger people than senior executives or K Street lobbyists.

10. The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Washington’s reliance on proven relationships extends online.  That is, the influencers of the influencers still have specific, personal, trusted connections. Other results of the study show that Washington insiders filter their e-mail by known e-mail addresses, then subject lines, again caring more about WHO than WHAT.

The study is powerful insight into how Washington is adapting to the age of information overload.

When I look at my own day, I can see some parallels to the report’s results.  I spend quality time with print media most often in the form of magazines (monthly more often than weekly) and I rely on news aggregators and other alerts to queue me to new content, but I hunt down my favourite sources to find out “what is really going on.”

Graphic depicting how Washingtonians "flip" between news sources to follow a story.

Please read, compare, and comment!

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–by T. “Isaac” Meyer, Head of Strategic Planning and Communications

I spent last night at the Vancouver Aquarium with some of my most talented colleagues and a few fish. We were attending the launch of the Vancouver branch office of the Science Media Centre of Canada. The event featured a panel discussion led by Canadian science icon Jay Ingram and a short reception in a darkened exhibit area surrounding by smiling sea animals. It was fantastic—and it prompted some existential conversations over bite-sized appies and the drive home.

The most important feature of the evening was that it was a PERFECT Vancouver evening. Literally. 65 degF, clear sky, amazing sunset. Oh, and then we went inside for the event.

A tough day in Vancouver.

Jay Ingram is a celebrity of Canadian science and communications. Most recently, he hosted and produced Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet¸ perhaps the most-watched and most-loved science show on Canadian television. For years, Jay would find something new in science, make it simple and inspiring, and work to share it with the public each day of the week. That’s commitment.

The panel included Lisa Johnson (CBC news reporter), Jennifer Gardy (BC CDC scientist and communicator), Candis Callison (UBC professor of journalism), and Marcello Pavan (a graduate of Quantum Diaries and TRIUMF’s outreach coordinator). Jay did something very clever and actually interviewed each of them separately on the stage for 3-4 minutes before starting the panel discussion. This provided an intimate conversation for the audience to get to know each panelist instead of the usual “prepared remarks going down along the table.”

Lisa talked about the timeline of a story. She might find out at 10am what she has to research, interview, shoot, edit, and air by 6pm that same day. That means a 30 minute delay in reaching someone credible could be a deal breaker. Jennifer talked about how important it is to give the journalist freedom to choose the angle of the story that works for them; she also said that the highest honour a journalist can pay a scientist is a chance to review the final copy of the story for any errors. Candis spoke about the skyrocketing role of new media and the challenges of communicating science as it evolves and changes at the forefronts. Marcello talked about the challenge of talking to people who have already made up their mind; he said his #1 piece of advice to journalists interviewing scientists is to give up that science is hard and that it’s too technical to make sense. As a scientist, its hard to do an interview with someone who has already decided you speak gibberish and cannot be understood!

The Q&A discussion with the audience covered some tough topics.

When science or science results are unpopular, surprising, or complex, who is responsible for championing the cause and getting them out there? Everyone has heard examples and allegations about governments around the world muzzling scientists for sharing research results that undermine policy positions or policy decisions. Are scientists themselves accountable for fighting the machine and having their truths known? What role should the media play? What about when scientists don’t know what the truth is, such as in the first few days of the Fukushima disaster where misinformation was 10 times more available than facts and yet everybody wanted a rock-solid assessment.

In the age of internet democracy, everyone and anyone can be a credible expert. It used to be that the newspaper was credible and if you saw it there, there were good odds it was true and verifiable. Nowadays, anyone can write a blog, run an online newspaper, or make a viral YouTube video that claims to be the truth. In some cases, crowd-sourced journalism can allow the public instant and immediate access to ground truth. In other cases, it means that a credible analysis can be excoriated by an anonymous user with only an e-mail address.

How can an organization like SMCC have an impact in this environment? The goal of SMCC is to raise the level of public discourse in Canada by helping journalists access evidence-based research. With this intention, the organization was formed to act as a bridge and a reliable clearinghouse and resource for scientists and the media alike. There was a lot of discussion about how to ensure that the organization could remain independent while also acting like a partner in the crucial moments when science hits the headlines. Likewise, instead of “science” sections in the newspapers, there is now science in almost every front-page story. SMCC will be helping the non-science reporters get the information they need so that the front-page headlines are accurate, timely, and useful to the public.

A fascinating evening and hats off to Jay Ingram and the panelists! Well done, and let’s do it again soon.

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