#sciencespark? Or #sciencefuel?

Recently my twitter feed has had a number of #sciencespark tweets roll through it – tweets in which people describe the moment(s) in which their love for science first clicked.

Frankly, I have had trouble identifying my own #sciencespark because as far back as I can remember, I’ve always had a fascination for nature. Perhaps one tweet of the many among that hashtag that I can identify most with is this:



…because, with some variation, that’s a reasonable summary of story as well.

Many of my childhood summer days were spent outside literally and metaphorically turning over rocks to see what was underneath, or trying out the latest gadget that I had cobbled together from Dr. Zed’s instructions in Owl Magazine. At one point I even attempted (unsuccessful) mark-and-recapture experiments with grasshoppers that I caught. Besides the fact that the overall population of grasshoppers during a typical Alberta summer likely overwhelmed my meagre releases, I’m sure that the black permanent felt marker that I used to color their forewings didn’t do my research – or the grasshoppers – any favors either.

I also kept more animals in the house than you can likely imagine. These included mice, rats, hamsters, gerbils, budgies, a cockatiel, canaries, a dove, cats at various times, tropical fish, goldfish, and even a very short stint with Mexican jumping beans. Usually my family’s house was home to several of these species at once. Of course I bred many of these creatures – or, rather, they just did they will do left to their own devices – resulting in lines of cages in our hallway. Gerbils produce a lot of babies when left unchecked, as it turns out.

Mom, if you’re reading this – and really, who else reads this blog anyhow? – thanks for putting up with that!

Throughout my young life there were so many so-called #sciencesparks that I’d be hard-pressed to name only one that sent me along this trajectory. So I think I’d prefer to call this process #sciencefuel, because a spark implies the lighting of something that is not on fire. Fuel implies the maintenance of an existing flame.

My family was one that encouraged curiosity and investigation. Like I said, my mom put up with rodent cage wood shavings all over the floor. My dad would encourage my science fair work and would help me to find materials for my various other projects. They aided and abetted one of my major hobbies – fly fishing – that also required natural history knowledge in the forms of entomology and limnology. And our family spent a lot of time outside in general – on my uncle’s farm; helping (or getting in the way of) my dad with his beekeeping hobby; or camping in some pretty amazing places like the redwood forests of California, Death Valley, Jasper, or the west coast of Vancouver Island.

These activities, and many others, represented ongoing additions of fuel to the innate fire if inquiry that I believe most kids naturally have in them. In other words, I suspect that for most people it takes more than a single moment to drive a passion for anything, including science. In the case of science it takes engaged adults, encouragement and opportunity to read widely, permission to just explore and make a mess, and good resources (e.g. books, magazines, museums, national parks, community programs, etc.). Kids who are provided with this #sciencefuel on a steady and continual basis will develop into inquisitive and broad-minded adults.

Of course, even with regularly dropping another log into the innate fire, not every kid is going to specifically become a scientist. But every kid who grows up in this atmosphere will become someone who is capable of – and who enjoys – making an honest inquiry into the things that truly interest them and into phenomena that they are tuned to observe around them. Ultimately, these are the kind of people that our world needs more of, particularly as we face myriad growing challenges.

So if you have children of your own, or know children, or have opportunities to take your science or other passion to children, make the most of it. Add some #sciencefuel to the fire.

Let’s go back to 1914

I am the editor of a small, regional journal called the Journal of the Entomological Society of British Columbia. Although it is a small journal – publishing a few papers and other items in a single issue each year – both the journal and the society that manages it have a deep history. The ESBC was founded in 1902, and the JESBC  has been around in one form or another since 1906 when it was called the Bulletin of the British Columbia Entomological Society.

That deep history combined with the fact that we currently publish excellent peer-reviewed reports that are of particular interest to entomologists working in the Pacific Northwest are what induce me to expend considerable time and effort on its yearly production. Our journal has been, and currently is, run mainly on volunteer efforts. It has always truly been a labor of love.

The JESBC has recently shifted to being completely open access. We are indexed on a number of major abstracting services. And our web editor has been spearheading an incredible effort to get all of our archives online and all of our citations over the years cross-referenced. In other words, our journal has always continued to evolve with the times, and we are working to ensure that trend continues.

As old issues have come online, I have enjoyed dipping into them to read some of the reports from the past. So, in what I intend to be a regular occurrence on this blog, I’d like to highlight a few of the items that I’ve read and that I hope may interest some of you as well.

Recently I was sampling volume 7 (1915), back when the journal was called the Proceedings of the Entomological Society of British Columbia (yes, we’ve had a number of name changes over the years). In it there are a number of articles that discuss a major “locust” infestation in the southern interior of British Columbia. From the reports, the insects involved were seemingly the migratory grasshopper, Melanoplus sanguinipes (called Melanoplus affinis in these reports) and the red-legged grasshopper, Melanoplus femurrubrum. Some very cursory research on my part found no other mentions of the infestation on the internet, so these reports may be the only easily accessible documentation of that event.

Here are some of my thoughts on several relevant articles from that issue:

Ruhman, M. 1915. Insect-notes from the Okanagan 1914. Proc. Entomol. Soc. British Columbia 7:7-11. LINK

This article is a survey of all of the recorded insect pest outbreaks in the Okanagan (southern interior) of BC. Besides being a comprehensive list with some very interesting and sometimes rather extensive notes on a variety of insects, the author mentions the grasshopper infestation briefly as follows:

…(the grasshoppers) are certainly plentiful enough to be taken notice of. Mr. Ben Hoy reports on the 14th that he visited a small orchard surrounded with range land practically defoliated by grasshoppers (species not identified) in Kelowna.


Wilson, T. 1915. The outbreak of locusts of 1914. Proc. Entomol. Soc. British Columbia 7:41-42. LINK

This paper outlines the geographical extent of the infestation and begins by particularly condemning the practice of “clean cultivation” – that is, removal of all weeds and alternate crop plants from near orchards and between the rows of trees – as a major driver of damage to orchards. In other words, maintenance of an orchard monoculture and the removal of alternate host plants for the grasshoppers meant that the grasshoppers turned to the fruit trees for food. This is, of course, an agricultural lesson that needs to be taken to heart even today.

Wilson also spent some time explaining the natural history of these insects and then lists what he feels are major reasons for the infestation:

The first reason I advance was the abnormally hot and dry season we have experienced, even for the Dry Belt. This condition was most conducive to the spread of these sun-loving dry-country insects. Second, the influx of settlers and the consequent diminution of the natural food of the locusts. Thirdly too heavy grazing on the range, or perhaps, more correctly stated, injudicious grazing on the range, has done away with the food-plants and forced the locusts to places where they would obtain the requisite amount of nutrition.

This is an interesting analysis, and one that provides a great picture of what was going on in the region at the time in terms of climate, culture, and biology.


Taylor, L.E. 1915. Notes on birds likely to be of service in the destruction of grasshoppers in the Nicola Valley. Proc. Entomol. Soc. British Columbia 7:43-45. LINK

Taylor provides an extensive list of birds that were likely to be present in the region at the time and gives estimates for how important they might have been as predators on grasshoppers. Besides being a potentially useful checklist of birds in the Nicola Valley in 1914, Taylor also vaguely mentions resources that he used to develop his estimates. It would be interesting to be able to dig up these reports and compare them to what, if anything, is known today about diets of various bird species.


Gibson, A. 1915. The Kansas remedy for the control of locusts. Proc. Entomol. Soc. British Columbia 7:45. LINK

This report is, frankly, frightening. But it is also a good glimpse into pest management back in the early-1900s. In this article, Gibson proposes experimenting with the “Kansas remedy” for control of grasshoppers. The Kansas remedy was comprised of:

Bran, 20 lb.; Paris green, 1 lb.; molasses, 2 quarts; lemons, 3 fruits; water, 3.5 gallons.

Most of the ingredients are identifiable. But what is that Paris green stuff? Well, it’s copper(II) acetoarsenite. As you might imagine, copper and arsenic make for a very toxic brew. And, being heavy metals, a persistent, toxic brew to be precise. I’m personally not a big fan of pesticides unless absolutely necessary, but I can say that I’m glad that what we do use today is safer than this.

I’m also curious to know if this concoction was ever tried in parts of British Columbia. According to the short article it was used in parts of eastern Canada. A bit of digging shows that it was also at least tested, if not used, elsewhere. If the areas that in which was used could be identified today, it would be interesting to survey longterm effects on biodiversity of heavy metals used in agricultural settings.


Besides being an interesting glimpse into the past, these articles demonstrate the value of a longstanding, regional journal to the practice of science. I think that it is fair to say that without this journal (and others like it) reports like these would either never have been recorded in the first place or would have been buried in files somewhere and lost to contemporary analysis.

From these articles we learn that there was a substantial and damaging grasshopper infestation in the BC’s southern interior around 1914. We read some statements on the climatic conditions and the agricultural practices at the time that were thought to be partially responsible for driving this infestation. We are given a number of interesting natural history observations. We receive what amounts to a checklist of some birds in the region at that time (attention ornithologists!). And we are told about cultural and (sort of scary) chemical methods that were being proposed as pest management methods.

The JESBC, and other journals like it, are full of this type of information. Contemporary archiving, indexing, optical character recognition, cross referencing, and other means of resurrecting this literature are adding value to these fantastic resources. I imagine the value will continue to increase as imaginative people find new ways to sort through this kind of data.

In the meantime, we all now have the opportunity to use our own grey matter-based “technology” to learn from the past. I hope that as I pull out a few of these reports to highlight on this blog over the coming months you’ll also take some time to find some items that interest you.

If bump into anything interesting, feel free to share your finds here in the comments or on Twitter.


Update (12 November 2013): Chris MacQuarrie pointed this out on Twitter:

Indeed, that is the case. Here is some more information on Norman Criddle and his mixture. Also of interest in that link is the mention of the Rocky Mountain locust, a once prominent species that ended up on the same tragic trajectory followed by the passenger pigeon and (very nearly) the plains bison.

The “most admirable character in the history of science”

Today, 7 November 2013, is the 100th anniversary of the death of the great naturalist, explorer, entomologist (of course I had to mention that), and scholar-of-all-trades, Alfred Russel Wallace.

Wallace is remembered by many as one of the two co-discoverers of what we today consider the foundation of theory of evolution. The other discoverer being the much better known Charles Darwin.

Wallace and Darwin were both products of their age – a fact that is inescapable if you read their works. But, aside from that and the fact that they both came up with the same idea, in many ways they couldn’t have been more different. Darwin was born into privilege; Wallace was not. Darwin attended some of the best schools; Wallace did not. Darwin formulated his ideas while traveling and then mulled them over for years after returning home from his Beagle voyage; Wallace began to notice patterns in the field and worked toward sharing his ideas quickly. Darwin was financially secure for his entire life; Wallace often struggled to make ends meet and, in fact, did much of his collecting in order to sell specimens back home.

What did unite these two gentlemen was a love of nature and the discovery of an earth-shattering idea born of keen observation, intense study, and soaking in the scientific milieu of the time.

It’s usually very hard to say how an idea develops and who has absolute priority. New ideas, large or small, develop over time and are a direct result of trying other ideas on for size. Look at just about any scientific paper today, and you will usually see several co-authors. It was the same for the idea of natural selection. Others – contemporary and near-contemporary – such as Lamark and Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus, were giving the topic deep thought and consideration. Observations of life around them, and specimens brought back by intrepid adventurers like Bates and Wallace, told a tale of… something. It took Wallace and Darwin to put a finger on what exactly that something was.

While Wallace’s writings are sprinkled through with the idea, his thoughts are often summarized in what is called the Sarawak Law from a manuscript that he wrote while in Borneo entitled “On the Law Which Has Regulated the Introduction of New Species”:

Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species.

These ideas, also discussed in an essay that Wallace sent to Darwin, prompted Darwin to get his well-developed thoughts down on paper. He and Wallace famously co-published the idea shortly thereafter, and then Darwin wrote and published his most famous book.

All this to say that while some continue to claim that “Darwin stole Wallace’s idea,” this could not be further from the truth. Both gentlemen were thinking along the same lines. Both, particularly Wallace, were open with their ideas and they engaged in discussion with each other on the topic. Both acted graciously toward the other during their entire lives. And both have an important place in history as the scholars who have helped to forge contemporary biology.

Over the past year or so, I have been reading Wallace’s “Malay Archipelago” a chapter or two at a time. What strikes me about his words, and what I believe is one of the biggest lessons that we should take from his life, is that sheer curiosity combined with a commitment to ongoing self-education and an ethic of hard work and focus will take you to intellectual places that no one has ever gone before. At some point, when I finally finish my slow read of his book, I plan to write a “review” (as if one is needed) of this literary masterpiece. Suffice it to say for now that besides his amazing observations of biological phenomenon, the reader can easily tell that Wallace was continually thinking about geography, geology, astronomy, social sciences, justice, culture, anthropology, economics, and on and on. He was continually observing, continually recording, and continually consolidating his thoughts. His scholarly example – and his gracious bearing and commitment to openness – is one that we need to foster more and more in our current era.

So, sometime over the next few days, why not spend some time dipping into a bit of what Wallace has written, and see how his scholarly and personal example might be important for our scholarly endeavors today and into the future.

Along with some of the links above, here are a few other resources to get you started:

As Attenborough says in his video:

For me, there is no more admirable character in the history of science.

It could not be said better.

It’s cold out there!

Most of us would find it pretty hard to live outside all winter anywhere in Canada, let alone in places where temperatures routinely dip below -30ºC. But this is exactly what the mountain pine beetle (and many other insects) does. The question is, of course, how does it pull this off? What is it about mountain pine beetle larval physiology that allows the insects to make it through long months of deep cold?

A paper by Tiffany Bonnett and others, that recently came out of our lab, probes this process in pine beetles in a way that has not been done before. The publication is entitled “Global and comparative proteomic profiling of overwintering and developing mountain pine beetle, Dendroctonus ponderosae (Coleoptera: Curculionidae), larvae” and is available as an open access publication. We have also published the raw genomics data online at figshare. You can find those data here, here, and here.


What did we do?

Larval mountain pine beetles were collected from trees near to Valemount, BC during the early autumn and late autumn, and then again during the early spring and late spring. The larval beetles were prepared in the lab so that we could use a process called iTRAQ to assess all of the proteins present in the larvae at each of the different collection time points. Essentially we took four snapshots – two in the autumn and two in the spring – an then compared them to each other see what was changing. This gave us a huge amount of data to work with and we used statistics to tell us which proteins increased or decreased in prevalence across either the autumn or the spring.


What did we find?

Among other things:

  • Larvae expend a fair amount of energy on detoxification of host resin compounds, both in preparation for the winter, and then during feeding after winter is over.
  • Stress physiology plays a large role in this entire process, particularly in the autumn as the larvae are dealing with host tree resin toxins and readying themselves for the upcoming onset of winter.
  • We saw evidence for the involvement of several compounds that may play an antifreeze role.
  • There is an evident shift between emphasizing overwintering preparations (in the autumn) and emphasizing completing development (in the spring), consistent with expected shifting priorities at different points in the life cycle.


Why is this novel?

The overwintering larvae of the mountain pine beetle remain nestled under the protective bark of their host tree. This makes them quite difficult to work with, and until now not very much information had been generated on this life stage, particularly in the context of winter survival. This work, which has harnessed the power of some very useful genomics databases, has cracked the door (or the bark?) open to allow us to see in broad sweeping terms what is going on in this insect during this vital time in its life cycle. We have seen aspects of larval mountain pine beetle physiology that have never been seen before, and that provides the power to ask new questions and to investigate key genes and pathways in a much more directed manner.


Why is this important?

Up until now, the main known winter survival mechanism for larval mountain pine beetles was the accumulation of glycerol in the autumn. Glycerol acts as a natural antifreeze and is part of the overwintering survival tool kit of many insects. But in most known cases, glycerol is not the only part of the equation, and we didn’t think that it was the sole story in mountain pine beetle either. And it turns out that we were correct with that guess – there are a lot of other things going on as well.

In a larger sense, this means that we now have targets to focus on as we work to understand how deep winter cold can impact populations. Overwintering mortality is one of the major factors contributing to control of bark beetle populations. Now that the mountain pine beetle is moving from the cold interior of British Columbia into even-colder central Alberta, a major research question relates to the climate in its expanding geographical range and how that is going to affect the insect’s potential spread to other regions. Overlay that question with the impacts of climate change, and it should be apparent that understanding mountain pine beetle overwintering physiology is becoming more and more vital.


Where do we go from here?

We now have numerous potential gene targets to look at, any of which is a project unto itself. Because we have shown in other work that larval mountain pine beetles in the late summer are feeding on potentially very toxic food, we are interested in finding out how larval ability to detoxify and digest their food in the autumn can make or break their chances for winter survival. We suspect that certain larvae are better adapted than others at dealing with the nutritional challenges that they face, and thus better able to produce antifreeze compounds and the other components that allow overwintering success.

In other words, we suspect that there is variation in the mountain pine beetle population that results in some larvae surviving the winter while others don’t. We, along with collaborators, hope to determine which genes are important in this process and how selection pressure in their historical and expanding ranges are changing mountain pine beetle populations.

Some of our key questions are:

  • How do specific proteins function in protecting larvae from the cold?
  • What happens if we “knock out” some of those proteins?
  • What characteristics of tree defense and nutrition make some host trees more or less likely to allow the resident larvae to survive a winter?
  • Do adult beetle parents choose trees based in any way on how their young may fare?
  • Where in the genome should we expect to see natural selection as the insects move into colder and more inhospitable regions? How will these evolutionary shifts be observed in changes in behavior and physiology?
  • What are the larger implications of climate change on these processes?

As you can see – and as is the case with science in general – this paper not only provides some answers, but also provides fertile ground for more questions. This work, and other related work in our larger mountain pine beetle system genomics project, has given us the means to chase down some of the answers. We are looking forward to the interesting work ahead. Since this publication and its associated data are all open access, we also look forward to seeing what other people might find to do with our data.

Tiffany R. Bonnett, Jeanne A. Robert, Caitlin Pitt, Jordie D. Fraser, Christopher I. Keeling, Jörg Bohlmann, Dezene P.W. Huber (2012). Global and comparative proteomic profiling of overwintering and developing mountain pine beetle, Dendroctonus ponderosae (Coleoptera: Curculionidae), larvae Insect Biochemistry and Molecular Biology DOI: 10.1016/j.ibmb.2012.08.003

I’m not Grandpa Simpson (although I may sound that way)

Pretty much every morning I check the Google News page, and I generally scroll pretty quickly to the science headlines. Today one of the big headlines was about a fascinating new PLOS ONE study that shows quite conclusively that insects from several orders detect and respond to changes in barometric pressure. Such behavioral reactions in insects make sense as pressure changes usually indicate important changes in the weather that could jeopardize an insect’s reproductive success.

My antennae (no pun intended) immediately popped up because my hazy memory seemed to recall something like this being studied in bark beetles quite some time back. A quick search brought up this 1978 paper. I then went back to the PLOS ONE paper, and thankfully found the authors had cited the older paper in their final reference. The 1978 paper itself cites several other studies dating as far back to 1955 that hint at this kind of phenomenon. My bet is that this general phenomenon was observed prior to 1955, and further digging would take us quite a distance into the past.

The new result is extremely cool, of course. Hopefully it goes some way to reviving an old idea for some new and fruitful study. I don’t fault the study authors for the general tone of the 24 hour news cycle hype that seems to suggest that this is a brand new idea. The media are like that, and once a story gets into the hands of a journalist it can take on a life of its own no matter how careful the interviewed scientist was to state the full case. I suspect that most reporters rarely closely read reference sections.

That said, this little episode started me thinking a bit – with help from a few of my Twitter friends – about how we do science and how much, or how little, we pay attention to the past. Interestingly Chris Buddle at McGill University wrote a very prescient blog post just today that provides a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Specifically, there are certain aspects of the way that science is currently done that cause us to rush forward into the future without paying enough attention to the past.

I can think of three reasons for this, and perhaps you can think of others:

1. The tyranny of high-speed novelty – This comes in at least two flavors, but they’re both mixed into the same underlying ice cream. First, science news, like other news, comes to us from all directions. University communications offices and journal PR departments are eager to capitalize on this for what amounts to free advertising. Although scientists who read these interesting accounts know that science, in general, moves at a modest pace at best, there is likely a subconscious tweak that says “hey, you need to move faster, everyone else is.”

Second, university tenure and promotion committees and granting agencies require ongoing productivity. This makes sense, of course. But the main measure of productivity is the peer reviewed paper. This means that there are likely many papers that escape into the wild from the lab or field before their results are fully mature. Contrast this to, for instance, Charles Darwin who spent years studying barnacles to the point where he wrote in a letter:

I am at work on the second vol. of the Cirripedia, of which creatures I am wonderfully tired: I hate a Barnacle as no man ever did before, not even a Sailor in a slow-sailing ship. My first vol. is out: the only part worth looking at is on the sexes of Ibla & Scalpellum; I hope by next summer to have done with my tedious work.

This type of longterm commitment to a study still happens today, but often in special circumstances. Besides the fact that getting funding for Darwin-style barnacle research these days would be woefully difficult, proposing to conduct such a long study with no predetermined timeline or outcome would sink any proposal.

So there are career pressures on one side that push scientists into grant-cycle-length (or shorter) studies, and there is the constant barrage of news stories and CSI-like shows on the other other side that give the impression to the public that science moves at a furious pace. Both together add up to at least some degree of myopia across the board.

2. Referencing software – In this case I’m talking about products like EndNote and RefWorks and others that are very useful, but also potentially damaging in the development of a good vision of the past. To this day I still do all of my reference work in papers that I write or edit without these tools. I have tried various software solutions in the past, but I have found that they tend to distance me from the literature and dull my ability to remember what has been done before.

When I physically type in a reference, or even copy-and-patse a citation from a previous paper and revise to fit the journal standard, it forces me to think about that paper and the foundation on which it was built. This often leads me down a reference rabbit trail that can, on occasion, help me to contemplate the topic in a deeper manner. If, on the other hand, I simply input “(Smith et al. 1997)” and the software does the rest, my brain just carries on with what it’s doing and doesn’t necessarily make any new connections. The writing process should inherently be a learning process, and by letting software do parts of the work for us, I fear that one part of that process is going by the wayside.

3. Online access – At this point I’m going to start to sound a bit like this guy, so please just roll your eyes for a moment and then hear me out. First, note that I think that the fact that much of the scientific literature in the world is now online is a great thing. Even better is the fact that a lot of it is either open access or is heading that way.

Now here’s the part where I will start to sound old. When I started my Ph.D. in 1995, the internet as we know it today had just barely gotten off of the ground. Prior to that I had been using things like GOPHER, ELM, and PINE… many of you probably have no clue what I’m even talking about here. The long and short of it was that virtually all scholarly outputs were on paper in the library. When I was researching a subject, I would go to the library, use an index based on a mainframe (or even extensive tomes of the paper version of Biological Abstracts), and then get a rolling cart that I’d push around the library. My cart and I would head through the stacks, picking up volumes along the way. Then I’d go to the central photocopying area to copy the articles that I wanted to read. Later, back at my desk or lab bench I’d read the articles and circle any references that I needed in order to delve back further into the literature. Then I’d make my way back to the library and restart the process. Chasing references was a process that took time and allowed for thought.

Today I fire up my web browser, point it at Google Scholar, do a few quick searches, and then I’m off to the races. If, while I’m reading a paper, I see a reference that interests me, there’s usually a hyperlink there to take me right to that paper. Within minutes my virtual desktop can be full of PDFs, enough to keep me busy reading for weeks. Reference chasing now takes no time at all.

The problem with the old process was that it was painfully slow and labor intensive. The problem with the new process is that those silicon brains are so fast that they don’t allow time for our human brains to stop to really think. In 1998, when I was standing by the photocopier, I was also mulling over the papers that were dropping into the copier tray. The process forced the time to think on me because I really couldn’t go anywhere else while the copier was doing its job or while I was wandering through the stacks. In 2013 the process should provide me with more time to think because it is a lot faster. But that extra time does not necessarily get filled with contemplation unless I make it so. And there are many pressures – and temptations – that all of us face that can easily reduce that technologically found time into lost time in no time.

It should also be noted that while there used to be a “demographic” gap in the papers that were online, most journals have now archived almost their entire collection (e.g., a shameless plug for a fine journal here). This is to our benefit, if we take advantage of it.


So what can be done about this? There is not much that we can immediately do about media, administration, granting agency, or public expectations and perception because these are all an ingrained part of the current culture. Cultural shifts take time.

The challenge to scientists, then, is to work to change that culture, one researcher and one act at a time. I am not blaming referencing software or online journals. Far from it. Both are vital parts of the process in our era, and both bring benefits that were hardly imagined a couple of decades ago. But with this technology comes a responsibility to ensure that we are doing things like undertaking longterm studies; reading deeply into the literature; spending time contemplating instead of getting caught up in a Red Queen scenario; making sure that both our students and ourselves understand and explore the deep foundations of current breakthroughs; and doing our level best to get it across to the media that our results are only possible because of work that has been done by others.

We owe it to our students, to the public, to our scientific “ancestors,” to our current colleagues, and to ourselves.

My Voyage(er)

What were you doing on 25 August 2012? Now think back (those of you who were even born then), and tell me what you were doing on 5 September 1977.

In my case, last year on 25 August my family and some friends were hiking in the Valley of the Five Lakes in Jasper National Park. My two boys, five- and three-years old at the time (bookending the crew below, in red and blue shirts, respectively), were enjoying time exploring nature in one of the most beautiful spots on earth.

Eli (on the left) and Marcus (on the right) take a break with some friends during a hike in Jasper National Park.

On 5 September 1977 (here I go, revealing my advanced age) I was five-years old – like my oldest son in the photograph – and it was Labor Day. Just as he was in that photograph above, I was getting ready for my first day of first grade and the beginning of my formal educational journey.

Why are these two dates important beyond my personal reminiscing? Back on 5 September 1977, Voyager 1 was launched on its scientific journey. And on 25 August 2012 it is estimated that Voyager 1 became the first human-made interstellar spacecraft in history.

This has hit me pretty squarely over the past few days since this announcement. As it turns out, Voyager 1 and her sister, Voyager 2, were among the major influences of my scientific pursuits. Both probes launched just as I began first grade, and Voyager 2 sent home some of its final photographs (of Neptune) in the summer of 1989, just a couple of months after I had graduated from high school.

All through grade school my cohort and I were amazed by the spectacular photographs sent back from these probes, photographs that remain iconic to this day. During those years my fascination with nature grew in many different directions, shaped in no small part by this awesome example of basic scientific exploration. My growing realization that the universe around us was such an incredible place made me want to explore my own corner of the earth. And the living things in my yard and neighborhood were right there and available for me to study. Being given the opportunity to imagine then (as I’ve been doing again over the past few days) where the Voyager probes may go and what (or who) they may encounter over the upcoming eons pushed me towards finding out all that I could about at least one small part of the puzzle.

NASA’s Voyager program is a prime example of why we need basic science not to only survive on the scraps thrown to it by applied science, but to thrive, well-fed, on its own. Voyager has not only shown us more about our universe than we ever knew (and the probes are still sending back data!), but it has doubtless been instrumental in inspiring many among an entire generation of kids to become the scientists of today. I’m sure that I’m not the only scientist about my age who felt a wave of nostalgia – and even re-inspiration – over the past few days as we remembered some old friends who went on a long journey.

Now that the Voyager spacecraft are exiting our solar system to explore the universe expanding before them, I wonder what will inspire my two boys as they explore their own expanding world.

In the current climate that prioritizes applied science far over basic research, who and what are the “Voyagers” of 2013 that will fascinate and inspire a new generation?

Kids, go outside… or maybe not?

My family is lucky enough to live in a city that is surrounded by vast tracts of wilderness. We’re also lucky to live in a city that has seen fit to preserve at least some of that wilderness within the urban boundaries. While Prince George has a long way to go in terms of truly being a green city (ahem… let’s at least start with a municipal recycling program instead of just talking about it), people here tend to love the nature that surrounds them. In fact, I would guess that many of the residents here – both longtime citizens and more recent arrivals – a big drawing point to life in central BC was the beauty of nature that surrounds us here. The city is surrounded by lakes. We’re at the junction of two rivers. Jasper National Park is just down the road. There is an awesome inland rainforest just to the east of us. And that’s just skimming the surface of what’s available to residents here.

Did I mention that we’re lucky?

I assume that many of you who read this blog (all six of you, not including my mom), enjoy spending time in nature too, wherever you may live. So think back to your own childhood for a moment. Did that love of nature emerge because you sat in the basement all day playing Atari? Or did you spend a lot of time out-of-doors, both with and without your parents or other relatives? I suspect that it’s safe to bet on the latter in most cases. Basement dwelling does not generally create lifelong naturalists.

However, today I get the impression that our municipal leaders would prefer that kids not get outside; or rather, if they do get outside, it’s only under strictly controlled conditions.

Why do I say this? It turns out that someone in town, whose kids obviously enjoy playing outside in the yard, decided that a prudent and completely unobtrusive thing to do would be to post a small sign obtained from the British Columbia Automobile Association on their own front lawn to remind passing motorists that there were kids in the area. Sounds like a perfectly reasonable thing to me, both as a father of two boys and as a driver.

The city of Prince George, however, thought otherwise, and the family was sent a bylaw warning to remove their sign or face a fine. That, in itself, is well off the mark. But the part that really irked me was a comment from the city manager of transportation operations in response to a media inquiry:

“Parents should encourage their children to play in playgrounds as playing near the street is not the safest place to play.”

The thing that bugs me about this comment is its deeper implication that spontaneous play in a child’s own yard is not safe and that the only places that kids should be are in a playground (highly supervised, of course) or, presumably, in their house. This comment leaves the impression that, in the mind of our city officials, a yard is inherently unsafe.

This is not surprising, of course, since the notion of the “unsafe outdoors” is likely one of the main reasons that parents don’t let their kids play outside as much as they used to. But is keeping kids indoors most of the time and then shuttling them back and forth to tightly-monitored playground- or soccer-type situations really any safer in the long run? Is it really safer for them to learn to be sedentary as kids and head off into a sedentary adulthood, as modeled by their parents? Are the indoors really safer anyhow, in terms of overall household accidents? Does attempting to remove all dangers from kids teach them how to monitor, assess, and avoid real dangers when they inevitably encounter them? Is it safe for the local and global environment to be raising a generation of kids who don’t know anything about their local natural spaces because they never get out into them – and who thus have a mainly academic (if that) knowledge of nature?

So, to the good leaders of our fine city I say this:

Please take a serious look at our city’s bylaws and their enforcement and think about what they mean for parents who want their kids to spend time outdoors. You have done a great job in creating and maintaining natural spaces throughout our city, and for that I truly applaud you. But if we want the next generation to appreciate and work to protect those spaces – and to care about our environment in general – we need to find ways to encourage parents and kids to walk and play in the local environment. Messages that such play is somehow unsafe, combined with overzealous enforcement of bylaws that have the effect of stifling such childhood activity, need to be carefully reconsidered.

(On a side note: A great book on this very topic is Richard Louv‘s “Last Child in the Woods.” I highly recommend it to anyone who cares for children and who cares about their welfare and the welfare of our planet in general.)

(Another note – added 5-VII-13: I just noticed that the Nature Conservancy of Canada has a great little article in the Globe and Mail about a children spending time in nature. You can get it here.)