Science Outreach is Alive and Well

indexTrying to explain why Canadians’ perception of science is not as favorable as it can be,  a scientist on CBC’s Cross-Canada Checkup blamed it on himself and on the rest of the scientific community. He claimed that scientists do not engage in sufficient science outreach. What an odd thing to say! And yet I have heard that unfounded complaint before.

Here is some evidence to the contrary.

Walk into any public library and you will find several shelves filled with popularizations in every scientific discipline, and a fair percentage of those books such as Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series are written by researchers. Many of those scientists may be in the twilight of their careers, but that does not make them less qualified to communicate with the public. There are also younger and active scientists who maintain blogs or youtube channels, and although some may not find the time for such a medium, it’s been my experience that most respond to emails about their research.

Every week on CBC Radio’s Quirks and Quarks, scientists share their latest endeavors . With the help of the show’s producers and host, the jargon is kept to a minimum to make things understandable. The British Broadcasting Corporation and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation have comparable quality programs such as Crowd Science and Ockham’s Razor, both of which involve active researchers. Even in pre-World-Wide-Web days, university science departments held free public lectures, which are still ongoing. In addition, accessible to anyone with an internet connection are free introductory and first year undergraduate online courses in earth sciences, chemistry, biology and physics at and at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Other institutions such as the University of Waterloo specifically reach out to physics and chemistry teachers through their Chem13 News newsletter and the Perimeter Institute, respectively.

We can extend the list by adding popular science magazines such as Scientific American and Natural History which still have articles directly written by researchers; television programs such as Nature of Things and Nova who consult scientists; science museums such as the Exploratorium and the Boston Museum of Science and Technology who collaborate with outreaching professionals; and NASA’s astronomical efforts to educate the public. And if my list of examples seems to exclude certain continents, consider the long list of researchers involved in Science Circus Africa.  It is a pioneering science-outreach project that brings fun-filled science exhibits, shows and teacher workshops to South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Malawi.

So why do we have a persisting belief that scientists in general don’t do enough outreach? Prejudice, if we borrow a razor-sharp definition from a recent Philosophy Now editorial, “is a preliminary opinion that is mistaken for a final conclusion.” In the same way that people of a certain ethnicity are not immune from prejudices that do not favor their native culture, scientists can also hold mistaken beliefs about their own kind.

OSCAt the root of our discussion is last year’s (August 2017) Ontario Science Center’s Canadian Science Attitude Research poll. Leger’s online panel was used, and they interviewed 1,514 Canadians. (A probability sample of the same size would yield a margin of error of 2.5%, 19 times out of 20). The poll unfortunately revealed that 75% of Canadians believe that “scientific findings can be used to support any opinion” and 43% believe that scientific findings themselves are “a matter of opinion”.

Source: National Audubon Society

Almost half of our citizens, 47%, believe that the science behind global warming is still unclear. If you consider what the poll reveals about Canadians’ sources for confirming scientific resources —-only 44% rely on scientists and professors, while 50% rely on the internet, media and family—that could be the crux of the problem. The voices of scientists and professors on the internet, in the media and within their families are often overshadowed, not because scientists don’t do enough outreach, but because their voices are largely outnumbered by those of non-scientists. Special interest groups and the general population can easily express themselves online, dominate comment threads and publish blogs and websites. And when a minority of scientists engages in disingenuous outreach, if they become effective, it’s only because their opinions resonate with political and economic viewpoints. If quality-science outreach is like the voice of a songbird amid the noise of major highway traffic, all we have to do is get away from the road.


Not Yawning at Pure Science

The world would be a different place if people valued science, even as a hobby. In the same way that cities invest heavily in building indoor pools and artificial turf for amateur swimmers and soccer players, respectively, a society that relishes science for curiosity’s sake would alternately build centers for amateur research. The thought was inspired by a doctor’s answer to a radio listener’s question about yawning:

Unfortunately there’s not much research into finding out why people yawn. It would need a lot more work in the areas of psychology and group behavior, but there is not much interest in it. A lot of the granting agencies would probably consider the field a big yawn 1.

YawnWhy should we be enslaved to doing research only for what tickles the fancy (or serves the interests) of sponsors and agencies? And why should practicing science only be for those who get paid for it? I find yawning a great subject and the modest knowledge we’ve gained about the topic was enough to awake me this morning. But as interested as I was in the topic, due to the mysterious contagious nature of yawning, while I read less than 500 words, I yawned no less than four times.

Ultrasounds reveal yawn-like behavior during the first 3 months of development in the womb, suggesting that it goes far back in our evolution. The notion that it was a warning to predators is a pure guess and probably a wrong one. Something that triggers more questions and which is more substantial is the fact that two different neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin, increase the frequency of yawning. The experiments were done on rats, and since dopamine does not cross the blood brain barrier, a researcher either has to use a dopamine precursor such as L-dopa or an agonist—a compound that triggers the same receptors. From what I could gather, they used apomorphine, an agonist for two of the 5 known receptors of dopamine.

The above structures reveal the similarities between the two molecules. Apomorphine is synthetically derived from the biologically produced morphine by treating the opium- product with phosphoric acid. Morphine’s protruding OH group gets dehydrated by the acid, which rearranges the structure to that of apomorphine.


Compounds that fail to do likewise include CO2 and O2. Increasing either gas in the air we breathe has no effect on how often we yawn, which puts a major dent in the hypothesis that yawning is induced by a change in the composition of air.

Physiologically, a  morning yawn differs from a yawn in the evening. The former spreads beyond the face, as if to help awaken us. A night- yawn is more localized, and maybe its role is simply to prepare us for sleep. I’m guessing that if members of a social group share the same shelter it may be advantageous if a behavior helps others reach a state of alertness in the morning and a period of needed rest at night. That could explain the contagiousness of yawning.

Five hours after I’ve awakened, just writing about yawning has induced two more yawns on my part. How many on yours?

1 Irvin Mayers, Catching the Common Yawn, The Quirks and Quarks Question Book. 2002. CBC

Comet Lovejoy Spewed Alcohol and Sugar: an Interview

MilamI created a transcript of a  Quirks and Quarks’ Bob McDonald- interview with NASA’s Stefanie Milam. It’s been slightly edited, and in brackets are my own detailed additions for those interested in learning a little more chemistry. Milam is a chemist by profession with a specialty in rotational spectroscopy. In the recorded interview, her enthusiasm for her research is apparent and contagious.

Bob: Comets can be pretty spectacular objects in the night sky, and they can also provide important clues to the formation of our solar system. But most comets orbit far from the sun where they and the secret storm within them remain frozen. On occasion though a gravitational disturbance will bring one closer, where the heat of the sun melts away the comet’s signature–components which can then be analyzed by scientists.Comet_Lovejoy

Well that’s what happened to Comet Lovejoy, which recently ventured close to the sun and gave scientists, including Dr. Stefanie Milam of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt Maryland, cause to celebrate. In fact when they discovered its composition, they have even raised a glass or two. Dr. Milam, welcome to Quirks and Quarks.

Stefanie: Thank you very much.

Bob: Tell me about Comet Lovejoy.

Stefanie:  Comet Lovejoy was a great comet for us astronomers. Comets are very few and far between whenever we get a nice bright one in the sky. Comet Lovejoy was only discovered a few months before we actually started observing it. It’s from the outer, outer edges of the solar system, way past Neptune, Pluto and New Horizons. So when it came in and all the icy material was melting, its activity was detected by Terry Lovejoy, an amateur, who discovered the comet. He notified the proper channels so larger telescopes could begin observing it.

Bob: When did the comet go by?

Stefanie: The comet reached its peak activity from mid to late January this year (2015).

Bob: Comets are called dirty snowballs , but in general what are some of the things that come off a comet when it gets close to the sun?

Stefanie: So water is the dominant molecule that you see in  comets, but there are lot of other things like hydrogen cyanide (HCN); things that everyone should know about like formaldehyde (H2CO), which preserves people when they pass away, methanol(CH3OH), carbon monoxide(CO), carbon dioxide(CO2), and we’ve also detected ethylene glycol (HOCH2CH2OH), which is used in antifreeze… ( Glycine, an amino acid, has also been found in comets.)

Bob: Boy, that’s outstanding!

Stefanie: …giggles…. It is really exciting because it’s showing us that we have a rich, organic chemistry in comets.

Bob: Now when you say “peak activity”, what do you mean by that?

Stefanie: The closer the comet gets to the sun, the more ice that actually starts melting, which is not officially melting because it actually does not form a liquid but goes from ice directly to gas. (The ice sublimates due to the low pressure in space.) So the hotter it is and the closer it gets to the sun, the more the ices sublimates.

Bob:  When you examined Comet Lovejoy, what was different about it?

Stefanie: At first there didn’t seem to be much different; it wasn’t even one of the most spectacular comet we’d had. It was not as bright as Comet Hale Bopp that appeared in the mid to late 1990s (1995 to 1997; it was visible for 18 months), but it’s been the best comet we’ve had in the last decade or so.

Bob:  So what kind of things did you see this time that were surprises?

Glycoaldehyde is technically a sugar because it contains both an aldehyde group and a hydroxyl group. It was found sublimating from Comet Lovejoy.

Stefanie: So now we’ve had a fantastic detection of sugar and ethanol. So ethanol is the same alcohol that we have in our drinks. (The sugar found was the  simplest monosaccharide sugar, known as glycolaldehyde. Ethanol and glycolaldehyde ‘s abundance relative to methanol and water  is somewhat higher than what’s measured in solar-type protostars.)


F2.largeBob: Drinking-alcohol coming off a comet?

Stefanie: …giggles…. Yes, and a significant amount actually.

Bob: How much?

Stefanie: Since the campaign was led by a French group, we correlated it to wine. So there’s enough to produce 500 bottles of wine per second. (Assuming 1.0 L wine bottles, and 12 % content by volume, that’s 500 L*(12 L alcohol/100 L wine)* 789 kg of alcohol/1000L) = about 47 kg of ethanol spewed out every second.)

Bob: Holy cow! that’s quite a party!

Stefanie: …giggles…. Oh yeah!

Bob: Were you surprised by that?

Stefanie: We’ve reached a level of technology where we can start looking for things on a very fine level, and we could this now with comets because we could recover a large number of “fingerprints”. Compared to 20 years ago when we could recover 1 fingerprint at at time, now we could look for 50 molecules at the same time.

Bob: How do you do that?

The “fingerprints” of molecules detected in Comet Lovejoy

Stefanie: Every molecule has a unique fingerprint, corresponding to a different frequency. We aim the radio telescope at an area , and we start looking for spectral signatures that correspond to given molecules. The flux of each fingerprint is proportional to the quantity of the specific molecule.  (Gas molecules rotate. If they have a dipole caused by unequal sharing of electrons by  atoms, the molecules emit energy when they go from a high quantized rotational state to a lower one. As the comet approached the sun and molecules were being released from the comet’s surface, an IRAM 30m radio telescope in the 211–272 GHz band on Earth picked up the characteristic frequencies of ethanol and other molecules.)

Bob: So how would alcohol end up on a comet?

Stefanie: That’s an excellent question. Umm.. we’re striving to see how much chemistry is happening on the surface of a comet when the solar system actually formed. Was it highly processed or was it frozen material that’s never been altered since the formation of the sun–that’s representative of the same cloud, dust and ice that formed other solar systems?  If that’s the case, then that chemistry has been preserved and it’s remnant from when the sun and other systems formed, which would mean that the chemistry is ubiquitous.

Bob: Boy!

Stefanie: So that means that there could be other solar systems producing “wine”.

Bob:  So you’re saying,  either this alcohol is very well-aged or it was “fermented” along the way.

Stefanie: Yeah, that’s a great way to think of it.

Bob: Well if these comets are spewing out alcohol and sugar, what effect does this have on our solar system?

Stefanie: Well as the organic material is being spewed out, some of it actually survives the harsh environment of space. So we’re distributing organic material in the solar system, and the more complex that organic material is, the more exciting this is for us. It means that there is really a rich chemistry, a prebiotic one that’s so pristine coming from interstellar space. It would be the same mixture raining on other planets in other solar systems.

Bob: Where is Comet Lovejoy now? _Comet_Lovejoy_

Stefanie: It’s well on its way out of the system.

Bob: Will we ever see it again?

Stefanie: Yeah, in about 9000 years!






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