Archives for : Scientific American

The Return of The Black

In just over a week, professional and amateur writers from all over the world will be participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), which I have missed the past few years. I always heard about it far too late into the month to really do anything about it, but not this year.

The goal of NaNoWriMo ( is exactly what it describes – write a novel over 30 days. Easy, right?

Actually, no.

But this year, I am determined to give it a shot (however, with one minor addition). Instead of writing a novel from scratch, I’m going to pick up my old and dusty copy of “The Black” and continue writing that.

I figured that, since the article on twins and the search for individual identity that I wrote for Scientific American has been published in The Best Science Writing Online 2012 (buy your copy here!), now was a good time to write as much as I could possibly stand.

For those new to my blog, The Black focuses on Roger Wilks, a lab technician for a big pharmaceutical company. After a series of very unfortunate events, he gets exposed to something that causes him to hallucinate his own past. But, when he begins to run out of past to remember, new memories begin to pierce the veil and drive him slowly insane. He then ends up in an asylum known as “Limbo” where he meets a cast of misfits that help him escape and ultimately, discover his destiny and that life is more than a series of accidents.

How does that sound?

I know the entire plot, all the character arcs and the major story beats that I need to get to, the major difficulty is just putting the entire thing down on paper. I’ve been slowly chipping away at writing this for a few years and while it will probably take longer than one month to write it (as it looks to be a long one), I hope to be able to put a dent in it.

This blog will serve, for the month of November, as a chronicle of my progress.

Every week I will update it with my progress, issues that I am having, interesting developments and the like. I will even ask for advice from time to time, which will directly affect the plot.

 I hope you are all looking forward to sharing this neat little adventure with me, and maybe when the month is done, I will put some chapters up for the hive-mind to look at.

September Synergy

It’s been a hell of a month filled with experiences that have made me soar and those that sent me crashing back down to Earth. Been quite a ride so far, with no sign of slowing down.

So, let me catch you up.

In the past month, I had two articles published on Scientific American regarding two very different subjects.

The first article came about when I was asked by noted Scientific American blogger, Jason Goldman, to write on his blog, The Thoughtful Animal, a post about animal behavior when he was on vacation last month. Knowing that I studied animal behavior and physiology, Jason couldn’t have asked a better person.

The resulting article, entitled “The Right Stuff: What It Takes To Be The Ocean’s Top Predator,” takes a closer look at the behavior of one of the most feared predators in the world – the Great White Shark.  In the article, I discuss how sharks hunt using some very impressive adaptations, as well as how they adapt their attack strategies based on the prey they are attempting to catch. It was one of the most fascinating articles I’ve ever written, and I hope you all find it as interesting as I did!

The second article stemmed from a conversation I had with my sister Sara about how much I love animals and visiting the zoo, and that her 16-month-old son Anderson enjoys going as well. Therefore, we packed up a week or so later with my twin brother in tow, and ventured off to the Toronto Zoo.
The article, “In the flesh and before your eyes,” was published last week on the Scientific American Guest Blog and uses the narrative of our trip to the zoo to discuss a wide range of issues, including conservation efforts, does a zoo do more harm than good and the price of poaching.

While it may seem like a very negative article, I believe it actually is rather hopeful and optimistic. But, you be the judge.

Lastly, I’ve been mulling over something different to do with my blog, and this month will be a little different. Every Monday starting September 5th, I will be putting up a very different kind of post. Some will touch on news and politics, others science and the natural world, and maybe even some pop culture or musings about life, the universe and everything in between. But rest assured, every post this month will deal with something note-worthy.

Keep an eye out for the first of these posts at the beginning of next week dealing with a topic that has never been discussed on my blog before. Stay tuned!

Father’s Day Deluge

Happy father’s day!

I hope that you are finding a way to celebrate that suits you dad’s needs, whether it be a big affair at a fancy restaurant, a small brunch or just sitting around with friends and family remembering times long past.

This blog post will be a little different, just like this past week. There has been a lot of family stuff that has required my attention, so I have not been online as much as usual. But, a number of things have caught my eye this week, which I want to share and discuss with you.

The first is a recent publication of mine on Scientific American celebrating, what else, but the good (and a few bad) animal dads. After all, in the animal kingdom, many father’s do not do very much. In fact, they just inseminate the mother and wander off. But, in this article, the lovely Lauren Reid and I decided to showcase some truly magnificent examples of animal fathers picking up the slack and really showing off!

You can read the article here.

The next little bit I want to share with you is a blog post I stumbled upon last week, that was extremely well done. It was written by a fellow science writer, DeLene Beeland, who writes a great blog entitled Wild Muse who writes about evolution and ecology.

A recent post of hers was called Advice on Science Writing, and was extremely well done.

I get asked why I chose this field quite a bit, and my answers have slowly shifted from when I decided that was what I was going to do to actually doing it now. And it can be difficult to explain why you like doing something so much without sounding completely insane, as we all tend to do when we are passionate about what we do. In this post, DeLene perfectly encapsulates the difficulties of being a science journalist, but also the thrill.

Here are a few tidbits:

“It’s selfish, but writing about science allows me to learn with each and every story I work on, and that aspect is the fuel that keeps me running. It also gives me a small mouthpiece to communicate about issues I feel the general public ought to know more about: ecology, biological diversity and the affect of human development upon wildlife and natural systems.”

“The language of science is not always easily translated for lay audiences. And the more highly trained you are, the harder it may be for you to be cognizant of that gap. There are some rock stars that can straddle both worlds and the languages codified by each, but for the rest of us mortals, we need to study the language of popular media, the way stories are constructed and told, and how ideas are imparted in persuasive essays and objective news stories. There are patterns, hierarchies and formulas that work well, and it’s time well spent to analyze them, learn them, and harness them for your own work. Your audience, and your editors, will thank you.”

If you want to understand science writing and those that do it, do give the article a read. It’s extremely well-done, and doesn’t pull any punches with regards to the difficulty of the industry.

Finally, about a week ago, my dad pointed out an article to me on from The Toronto Star about an issue that I’ve spent a lot of time doing research and writing about: Invasive species.

Invasive species are animal that have been brought into a completely foreign habitat and thrived to a point of harming the local flora and fauna, and even causing extinction of native species. Examples are goats on the Galapagos islands, zebra mussels in the Great Lakes and the Nile Perch in Africa.

In Canada, there is a new threat: The Emerald Ash Borer or EAB.

Ugly little guy, isn’t he?

The insect traveled to the northern United States in the late 1990s from Asia, and completely decimated the ash tree population there back in 2002. And since then, the insects have been spreading into over 15 states and all over Southern Ontario.

The insect is a master at what it does, and that is killing ash trees. The larvae burrow into the tree and make their way in a serpentine pattern, cutting off supplies of the trees nutrients and killing it. It is akin to being slowly starved to death.

But this is old news, as the insect was found in Toronto as early as 2007 (far from its predicted arrival in 2022). What is new is what is going to be done about protecting the almost 900,000 ash trees in the Toronto area. The answer?


The city is not taking an preventative action, and instead focusing on replacing every tree with other species instead of battling the insect and letting up to 95 per cent of all the ash trees in Toronto die. Sadly, not much can be done for a tree once it is infected, and must be destroyed to prevent further spread.

There are preventative measures that can be taken, such as injecting a tree with the drug, TreeAzin, a biological pesticide. But Brian Hamilton, the Emerald Ash Borer Program Specialist for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), says that TreeAzin cannot save an already infected tree.

“Once injected, the chemical kills the larva under the bark and is absorbed into the leaves. And the double whammy is that, if an adult female EAB eats the leaves, she becomes sterile and cannot produce any offspring.”

While TreeAzin is a good solution for uninfected trees, it is extremely expensive to administer, and any time money is involved (and we’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars), the purse-strings tighten. A few other control methods are being explored in the United States, such as utilizing stingless wasps from Chinese forests as a natural predator of the EAB. However, this is just another example of introducing other (potentially less harmful) species to eliminate others in a foreign environment.

But is doing nothing, like Toronto is, the best option?

I should hope not.

Looking Back

Sorry for the lack of blogs popping up here recently, but I have not forgotten. I’ve been very busy the past few weeks with stuff popping up that needed to be done rather quickly, as well as being sick twice!

For those of you that missed it last week, I had a new Scientific American Guest Blog post entitled, “Regeneration: The axolotl story,” on the unique amphibian known as the axolotl. It is a fascinating animal, and I hope that you all will give it a read. It was a lot of fun to write!

Other than that, I’ve been working on a number of things recently that should be popping up in various online publications and in print soon, as well as working on a seminar and workshop I’m planning at a university to increase communication between scientists and the media. Suffice to say, it should be an exciting few weeks.

But, that is not what I want to talk about.

A year ago today (April 22, 2010), I finally arrived home after completing my Masters of Journalism degree at a university in Ottawa. The month of April was primarily spent working on my Masters Research Project or MRP on the status of the endangered black-footed ferret. I had officially handed it in a day earlier, packed a large duffel bag and left the city until graduation.

It’s been one hell of an interesting year!

I’ve loved and lost, made countless friends over Twitter (and I do consider them friends), and lost other friends for a variety of reasons (some sensible, some not). I applied to jobs by the bucket load, but initially made little headway. I did a few freelancing pieces here and there, before I got a job writing press releases for a science journal in the United States, where I learned a lot.

I expanded my online presence by being one of the first bloggers to join up with LabSpaces, which I still love to do. When my position at the journal ended, I received other freelance job offers through Twitter, some of which I accepted, others not.

And then, in the New Year, I wrote my first post for Scientific American about my experience in South Dakota pursuing the black-footed ferret for MRP. There was such a good response to that piece, that I have since written other posts for them about ugly animals that deserve love on Valentine’s Day, the biology of snake venom, what it is like growing up as a twin, and more!

Many things have changed in the past year, and I had plenty of ups and downs along the way. It is not easy breaking into the journalism industry, especially as a science journalist. It has been tough at times, but I want to say thank you to all my friends in real life, my family and my Twitter friends. You all have been so supportive of me, and of that I am most thankful.

Hopefully, some day soon, I can pay you all back in kind.

It’s Elementary, Watson!

What a week it has been!

So much has been going on that I hardly even know where to start!

Earlier this week, my next Guest Blog for Scientific American went live, which focused on how twins (both identical and fraternal) forge their own identities. Being an identical twin myself, it was a very interesting article to write, as it took hard work to separate myself from my brother and become an individual.

The post is entitled “Mirror Image: Twins and Identity” and I’ve been getting a big response to it. Special thanks go out to my parents, my brother, Amy and Jaclyn Jacobs and Elise Milbrant for helping me with this project.

Also, the great Epic Writing Adventure came to a close this week, as the month went up. Because of an unexpected increase in my work load, I was not able to finish what I set out to do (finishing the novel). However, it got me writing and I am well over 15,000 words into my novel. It is good to know that whenever things die down, I have this little side-project to work on.

Rest assured, it will NOT be forgotten!

And lastly, a new episode of The Definitive Answers is now live! This installment focuses on three questions asked by some elementary school students in New York City.

Remember to email science questions to:

And, for those eagle-eyed viewers out there who saw my shirt in the above video, I ask you this: “What do Androids dream of?”

The answer (for those who don’t know), is “Electric Sheep.”

Thank you, and enjoy!


I made a mistake while listing the weight of the African Elephant. I said that they weigh “220 pounds,” which is, of course, ridiculous. Football players weight more than that!
That number was how much a baby African Elephant weighs at BIRTH, but male bull elephants can grow to upwards of 10,000 pounds!!!

I am sorry for the confusion.

Week One: The Adventure Continues!

Before I get to the update on my adventure into writing a novel, I had another article published in the Scientific American Guest Blog about so-called “ugly animals.”

In the spirit of February (the month of “love”), I decided to write a post dedicated to animals that may not be the cutest or most lovable, but still deserve some love … or at least respect. You can read the whole article, entitled “Ugly Animals Need Love, Too” by just clicking here.

Now, onto the main event – The Epic Writing Adventure continues (Week One)!

I decided against blogging my progress every day, as that could be rather boring, with instead doing a weekly catch-up post to tell you how I have been doing in this little adventure.

Last week, I picked up the 15 or more pages I had written on “The Black” about a year and a half ago, and read all five chapters (plus the prelude) and noticed something. There were a lot of consistent themes and errors throughout my rough draft.

But, equipped with a red pen for corrections and a blue for added content, I persevered. And there were some substantial changes that were made, especially in the first few chapters and prelude.

The greatest asset, that I have found, was an outline of the story I wrote almost two years ago on my computer at work during the summer of 2009. There I laid out all the main characters, the overall narrative structure of the plot, and even some dialogue I wanted for important scenes. If you learn anything from this, or are attempting the writing adventure on your own, an outline is a great thing to have (even if it is just a few points written down).

An outline helps you with flow, but most importantly, organization. The worst novels I have ever read were just scattered thoughts, like buck shot fired at a target. Just random thoughts thrown into a rough narrative structure.

You don’t want to end up with this – just a random assortment of plot points

I am at almost 7,000 words at the moment, and I am still going strong.

I have also decided to throw you, my faithful readers, a few tidbits of information about the novel. As I know you are all looking forward to reading it when it’s done!

First off, the main character’s name is Roger Wilks, and he is a lab technician at an experimental biotech company, testing various drugs on animals. He also recently broke up with his girlfriend, which shattered him to the very core. He needs something to grasp onto in his life, and so he dove into work. But that was not what he needed. He needs friends, a purpose and a mission.

Lastly, the themes of fate versus free will and the subject of destiny play a significant role in the novel, as (eventually) Roger is confronted with two branching paths: one that has been laid out before him, and one he must forge himself.

Which will he choose? Which would any of us choose?

A New Year, A New Start and New Possibilities

Happy 2011 everyone!

It is five days into the new year, and I hope everyone is still sticking to their New Year’s resolutions (or at least trying to).

I am excited and thrilled to say that the new year has started off with a bang, as something I wrote was chosen to be out on the Scientific American Guest Blog.

Yes, one of the most prestigious science magazines asked me to write a post, and I said yes without hesitation. But, now I was faced with the daunting task of what to write about.

Those of you who read my blog regularly know that in the summer of 2009, I embarked on a journey to South Dakota for my Masters of Journalism project to find an endangered species. My adventures were a very interesting one, and I always thought that there was more than enough material for my project as well as another article.

I pitched it to SciAm, and they loved it!

So, here is a more in-depth look at me spending a few days with “The Ferret Hunters”