Archives for : Dinosaurs

Short and sweet

Every since Science Online 2013 ended, I have been very busy with a variety of things including work, developing some super-secret side-projects and more. But being busy is often a double-edged sword.

While these projects are developing and turning into some fantastic stuff that I am sure you all will enjoy – it has left me with little time to read the ever-increasing amount of books I endlessly accumulate and post on this blog.

But, take heed loyal reader, as I have not forsaken you.

Over the past week and a half, I’ve been communicating with experts in various fields, and asking them questions that can come up in normal conversation – for example: How can black holes exist if we cannot see them? Or, how hot is magma locked in the Earth’s core?

The process is simple – I ask an expert in a field four questions. They pick two and answer each in four sentences of less so that anyone can understand.

I hope to continue this series going, so if you have any ideas for experts or questions to ask, please do so in the comments!

Man, that’s heavy
The first expert is David Shiffman, a shark conservationist and ecologist graduate student in Florida. He blogs regularly at Southern Fried Science and tweets at @WhySharksMatter.

Question 1: Since it is right there in your Twitter handle, I must ask – Why do shark matter?

Answer: Many species of sharks are top predators in their food chains. Top predators can influence their ecosystem both by regulating populations of prey, and by influencing the behavior of prey. In short, they help keep ocean ecosystems healthy.

Question 2: How can whales grow so big in the water, but the biggest animal on land (the elephant) is only a fraction of that?

Answer: The answer to this is simple- gravity. There’s a limit to how big things can get on land because after a certain point they get too heavy. Water provides increased buoyancy. Blue whales are bigger than the biggest land dinosaurs ever were.

Short, stocky and strong

This leads perfectly into our next expert, Brian Switek, a freelance science writer who spends his life getting to know anything and everything he can about dinosaurs. He blogs at National Geographic and is on Twitter as @Laelaps.

Question 1: Who would win in an arm wrestle, an average man or a T. rex?

Answer: There would be no question. Tyrannosaurus rex would win. Estimates based on bio-mechanics indicate that the arm of T. rex was about three and a half times more powerful than that of the average person. The arms of T. rex were short and stocky, but very powerful.

Question 2: How did mammals survive the extinction event 65 million years ago and the dinosaurs didn’t?

Answer: Actually, dinosaurs did survive. Avian dinosaurs – birds – escaped extinction and carry on the dinosaur legacy today. And even though mammals also survived, many mammal lineages died out in the catastrophe. Exactly why birds, mammals, and other creatures persisted while the non-avian dinosaurs died out, however, is a mystery that hinges on how climate change, volcanic activity, and asteroid impact translated into pressures that changed the world.

Invisible doesn’t mean it’s not there

The final expert is Matthew R. Francis, a physicist and science writer who writes at Bowler Hat Science and tweets at @DrMRFrancis.

Question 1: How do we know black holes exist if we cannot see them?

Answer: We can’t see black holes directly, but many of them are surrounded by matter – mostly gas stripped off stars or from other sources. When that gas falls toward the black hole, it forms a fast-rotating disk, that heats up and emits a lot of light in the form of X-rays and radio waves. So, even though black holes don’t emit any light of their own, they can be some of the brightest objects in the Universe.

Question 2: What does E=mc^2 actually mean in terms of everyday life?

Answer: “E= mc^2” literally tells us that mass is a form of energy, and anything with mass will have that energy even if it’s not moving. Most of the mass of your body is in the protons and neutrons in its atoms, but those are made up of the smaller particles known as quarks. The mass of a proton is a lot greater than the mass of the quarks that make it up; the rest of the mass comes from the energy that binds the quarks together. In other words, “E=mc^2” is responsible for most of the mass of your body!

Thank you very much to Brian, Matthew and David for all their help, time and effort – and remember, if you have any ideas for experts or questions to ask, please let me know in the comments.

My name is David, and I Am Science (AKA my origin story)

In the week since Science Online 2012 ended, there has been a lot of discussion over different social media platforms about the experience, what could be done differently, the highs and lows and most importantly, what could be discussed next year.

I’ve made a lot of new friends since the conference, and have already started discussing topics for next year.

But, this post isn’t going to be about that. This will be about something that came up after the conference by Kevin Zelnio.

Kevin wrote a post on his blog here about how he ended up in science and called it #IAmScience. In the post, he outlined how he ended up where he is today, and that not everyone takes the standard A – B path to end up involved in science. This one post spawned a whole host of other people online to share their stories, and this is mine.

I’ve talked on my blog before about how, as a child, I was obsessed with dinosaurs. That was my first real exposure to science and that there were cool jobs involved in the study of living (or extinct) things.

I was always a smart kid, and this gave me an outlet to channel my love of information and learning. I would consume books about dinosaurs by the bucket-load, and would beg my parents to take me to the museum again and again, just on the off-chance I’d see something new or learn a cool tidbit.

My parents obliged more often than not, and bought me books, videos, wooden fossil duplicates and more.

This passion for paleontology sustained me for many years, but it eventually gave way to something else: acting.

All the world’s a stage

My family, especially my dad and older sister, are movie buffs. We have seen just as many classics as current movies, and I grew up with this love of film and theatre. So, it really came as no surprise that I eventually stumbled into acting.

And boy, did I love it, especially acting in musicals.

My first role ever was in a summer camp production of Beauty and the Beast, where I played Belle’s horse, Phillipe. Those of you who know your Disney movies know that it was not a major role, but it was enough.

The following few years, I acted in a bunch of musicals in school, camp and beyond, even landing the main roles in a few of them. For more on my acting, you can see my post on LabSpaces here.

But science was always there.

Throughout middle school and high school, I continued to be fascinated by science. I’d do experiments, learn whatever I could, absorb knowledge like a sponge and tell everyone I met about all the cool things I learned. My aptitude was in biology, specifically, animal biology.

I loved learning everything I could about animals, from weird facts to behaviors to ecology and diet.

However, like all things, my love for biology was almost extinguished.

In grade 10 Biology, my teacher was horrible and sucked all the fun out of science. He gave the class so many problems that parents complained, but nothing ever changed.

Once, during a group lab, one of my friend’s aunts passed away, so he went to Vancouver for the funeral. Unbeknownst to us, he took all the lab material with him, so we could not hand it in.

We all got a zero.

After much hubbub and calls by all of our parents, the teacher eventually relented and gave us all what we deserved. But, the whole experience with that class made me realize that science just wasn’t fun anymore.

My parents, however, convinced me to take grade 11, just to “keep my options open,” and I am glad they did.

The teacher, Mr. T, was fantastic. He was funny, energetic, passionate and not afraid to answer complex questions. And my marks skyrocketed along with my interest.

I still remember, after getting 100% on our genetic test, I asked him about variation in sex chromosomes from sex-linked disorders. And, after class, using nothing but a pencil and paper, he explained to me about “crossing over” (where chromosomes occasionally touch and exchange whole portions of their genomes with each other).

That one explanation opened my eyes to a world of science that I never even thought about.

It was then my future was decided: I was going to be a vet, combining my love of animals and passion for science.

The times, they are a changin’

Veterinary school was never really an option, though, after a visit to the allergist.

My sister was allergic to fish, so we never had any in the house. But, when she went backpacking through Europe, my parents thought it was the ideal time.
And, let’s just say it didn’t go well.

The allergist said I was allergic to fish and needed to carry an Epi-Pen, as well as dropped the bomb that I had a mild allergy to dogs and cats. It was nothing serious, but enough that could warrant medication and potentially wear off.

“And I don’t know about you,” he said in a somber tone, “but I wouldn’t want someone operating on my dog or cat who had watery eyes and was sniffling.”

So, as quickly as the dream popped into my head, it was gone.
But then, my dad mentioned pursing a PhD, becoming an expert in a field and working in that area.

“And what do you love?” he said.
“Animals!” I responded enthusiastically.
“Well, that would be zoology then, wouldn’t it?”

Animal obsessed

So, that was my goal.

I went to university for biology and zoology, and loved it (even when I said I didn’t, which was often).

In my second year, I took the “Animals” course, and met a new professor called Dr. K. He was bright, engaging and really funny, so he was perfect for such a dense subject.

As the semester went on we got talking about our likes, dislikes, the course, my future, etc… and he became a mentor of sorts. He introduced me to different professors, encouraged me to take a variety of courses and helped steer my education in the way I wanted.

I even took his fish biology class in fourth year (luckily, there was no lab component).

To boost my resume, also in second year, I also started writing for the school newspaper. Nothing permanent, but I would write on occasion about cool research at the university, interesting things that were happening in biology around the world, and more. My favourite piece I ever wrote was an In Memorium piece to a hero of mine, Steve “Crocodile Hunter” Irwin, who perished in an accident with a stingray.

But the writing was always secondary to biology.

Then, during my fourth year, Dr. K approached me about doing research work in his lab.
But how, I asked, since he worked in a fish lab and I was deathly allergic?
As it turned out, he was looking to branch out to other animals, and would start up a whole area of the lab, just for me, using frogs as test animals.

How could I say no?

So, for a year, I worked there, adapting fish procedures for frogs, under the guise of an amazing grad student named H, and I loved it.

THIS was what I was meant to do, I said.

But once the experiment was over and the analysis began, I became listless. I didn’t like the sedentary being I was slowly becoming, by being attached to the lab bench every day performing the same chemical tests on tissues again and again. I loved the science and what I was doing, but I felt that what I was doing was not what I wanted.

A subtle shift

I realized this, as fate would have it, around Christmas of that year, when my grandfather passed away.

There was a moment, sitting in a chair at the retirement home where he had been living, where I asked myself “if I don’t want this, what else can I do?”

And then my sister did something.

She pulled out the latest article I had written for the school paper, and said that I’ve greatly improved as a writer.

“Huh, a writer,” I said to myself. “No one ever called me a writer before.”

Sure, English teachers and professors had complimented me on my writing, and my lab reports were always well done, but I figured that was because I read a lot.

So I thought about it while I continued to work at the lab.

Writing was something I never considered before, so I spoke to some professors, relatives and parents about it, and “journalism” kept popping up.

I could still learn about science, which I loved with a passion, and share it with others, which I had been doing ever since I was a little kid in the museum – science journalism seemed like a good fit.

So, crossing my fingers, I applied to some journalism schools in Canada for the Masters program, and got accepted by the most reputable one in the country.

It was a struggle going from science writing to writing about science, but I learned a lot and never strayed from my love of science.

Even though I am no longer attached to a lab bench, I am still tethered to science. I read copious amount of material, I blog and I share my love of science with an enthusiasm that knows no bounds.

I Am Science.

I Am Science from Mindy Weisberger on Vimeo.

Childhood joy

When I was a child, I started reading later than most kids (or so my parents tell me).

From what they say, it wasn’t that I found it difficult, just that I did not feel like I needed to. They tried to engage me with a variety of books, and I’d do it for a while, but quickly get bored.

Then, they found some books that interested me: dinosaurs.

I took to reading about dinosaurs like nothing else. I read everything I could get my hands on, from children’s books with more pictures than words, to big anthologies with printing I had to squint to read.

I was so ravenous for information, that my twin brother and I would beg our parents to take us to our local museum (the Royal Ontario Museum or ROM) to see the dinosaur skeletons. But, there was a catch – to see the dinosaurs, you had to go through an area known as “the bat cave” … which had nothing to do with Batman.

The cave was a S-shaped dark tunnel that featured real and fake bats on display, and I was terrified, because what young child is not afraid of the dark? I would cover my eyes and ears and walk through as fast as I could to reach the terrible lizards.

Seeing the Tyrannosaurus Rex was always a highlight of the trip, as it was considered the “bad boy” of the dinosaur world. Who would mess with something that had teeth the size of steak knives?

But, as much as meat eaters were fun to look at and imagine having as a pet, I was always drawn to the herbivores more. I am not quite sure why, but maybe it was because that in the evolutionary arms race, they had to protect, as opposed to destroy.

Everyone has his or her list of favourite dinosaurs, and I was no exception. I would tell everyone I knew about Stegosaurus with the golf ball–sized brain, the intimidating-looking Ankylosaurus and Dimetrodon, with its trademark sail.

I was so obsessed with dinosaurs that my brother and I would check books out from our school library over and over again, as we just couldn’t get enough of the information and pictures! We checked them out so much, that when our librarian retired, she donated those two most checked-out books to us.

The obsession went even beyond that.

During our countless trips to the ROM, my brother and I would correct the tour guides on pronunciation of nomenclature, locations where the bones were found, the time frame and more. I almost feel bad for the tour guides, but they should have known that stuff, right?

Not surprisingly, my first “dream” job was to be a paleontologist and travel all over the world discovering new dinosaur species.
Honestly, how good would a dinosaur that was named “Manly” be?

Over the years, though, as I got older, that dream slowly faded. But the enthusiasm and passion still remains.

And yet, whenever I visit a museum, I always make a point to visit the dinosaurs and just marvel at them. I enjoy watching the kids staring at them in wonder, listening to the tour guides explain who is who, but most of all, I love remembering a long-forgotten fact and sharing it with a child. Because you know the first thing they will do is go back to their parent/guardian and ask if they knew that … and if they didn’t, that’s a great joy for a child to experience.

I still love learning about dinosaurs and staring at them with wonder and a huge smile on my face. I still get excited if I see a Stegosaur, Dimetrodon or T. Rex.

I still love them to this day, as that kind of fervent passion never dies – it always stays with you.

So, don’t be ashamed of a passion you still carry with you from when you were younger. Whether it is comic books, video games, magic tricks or a love of prehistoric animals, they are amazing and help make up the beautiful mosaic that is you.

David’s First Love

I’m heading back to Ottawa on Sunday to start my internship working for a Canada government funded science organization … should be an interesting time!

And after that, at some point near the end of August, I will be heading to South Dakota to do research and filming for my MRP about endangered species. Anyone know anything interesting to do in South Dakota during the day because I will be primarily occupied with night shoots?

The most interesting thing that has happened to me in the past few days is that, as many people know, I am a wee bit of a clutz. I bump into stuff, fall occasionally and hurt myself in new and interesting ways. Someone once said that it is because I am so pre-occupied with tons of thoughts in my head, that I forget the normal stuff (like not tripping).

Case in point, I was walking up some stairs to a sidewalk, and putting my phone away and I tripped. So, valiantly, I used my hand to percent any damage to the phone. And, in doing so, my left hand scraped against the pavement. It hurt, but I dusted myself off and continued walking to my car. That is, until about 30 seconds later, when I noticed that blood was dripping onto the sidewalk.

So, holding my hand up and looking like I was raising my hand to a question no one asked, I walked into a gas station and used their bathroom to wash up and asked them for a Band-Aid. Suffice to say, I will soon have a new scar add to my collection 😉

Now, to the meat of this post.

Do you remember your first love?

I’m not talking about your first person who ever loved, I’m talking about the first time you just immediately fell in love with something.

I remember mine quite vividly and fondly.

Dimetrodon synapsid

When I was a child, my dad introduced me to dinosaurs and I was transfixed. The idea that massive creatures roamed the Earth 65 million years ago and have disappeared fascinated me. I went a little nuts and tried to learn as much as I possibly could about every dinosaur.

I checked out library books, read encyclopedias and visited the Royal Ontario Museum enough times to drive my parents bonkers. It was enough that when the school librarian retired, she gave my brother and I some dinosaur books that we checked out dozens of times. Even more impressive, is that we would actually correct the tour guides on museum tours.

I wanted to be a paleontologist and discover dinosaur bones for the rest of my life.
That was the first indication that I wanted to pursue a life of science. As my mom said once, “I knew at once from your love and passion for dinosaurs that you were destined for science.”

This obsession continue through my elementary school years, and even influenced the books I read. In grade 5, I started reading adult books beginning with Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, which I still possess to this day.

And when that movie came out, I literally had a smile on my face the entire time. THAT movie defined my childhood, and I truly loved it. My brother and I saw it at least eight times in the theaters.

Parents, sister, mom, dad, grandparents, aunt and by ourselves twice 😉

Dinosaurs had a profound impact on my life.

Through them, I learned about he theory of evolution when I was a kid.
As well, when religious leader told me that I was not supposed to believe in dinosaurs because they did not exist, it shattered my faith. He said that “God put the dinosaur bones into the ground to test our faith,” which was the first time I thought that religion was not for me. Dinosaur bones could be felt, touched, studied, analyzed and dated. Cold, hard facts.

But, what happened to me wanting to be a paleontologist?
Sadly, it fell by the wayside to a brief stint wanting to be an actor, followed by a zoologist.

But, I will forever credit dinosaurs with beginning my love for science.

And, what are my favourite dinosaurs? There are far too many to name, but the ones that immediately come to mind are:
Dimetrodon (pictured above), the T-Rex (Sue, the most complete skeleton ever found is pictured below) the Stegosauraus (also pictured below) and the Pterodactyl (also below)

Tyrannosaurus Rex