Author Archives: icarion

Just Another Seal? A look at the Northern Fur Seal

Climate change is a looming reality that we are all faced with. We are all aware that the earth is warming, but what you may not have considered, is how animals and their habitats will be affected. In this article we will look at how the results of climate change may influence Northern Fur Seals and their conservation.

So what is a Northern Fur Seal?

Northern Fur Seal

Northern Fur Seals are marine mammals who differ from other seals in that they have a thick fur coat. They eat mostly squid and fish such as pollock, herring, and anchovies. Their habitat ranges in the North Pacific from the coast of California, up to the Bering Sea and over to Russia and Japan. They spend their winter at sea, while during the summer they migrate to islands such as the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea to breed.

In the past the population of Northern Fur Seals has faced many challenges. They were commercially hunted for their fur which resulted in almost wiping out the species. Here an audio clip of our podcast which explains the how Northern Fur Seals were affected by the Fur Trade.

Seal FM Radio Podcast

 As you have heard in the podcast, despite the fact that Northern Fur Seals are no longer hunted, their population is still declining. It has been estimated that since 1998 there was has been an annual decrease in their population by about 6%.  One possible factor which may greatly affect their ability to survive is climate change. Northern Fur Seals are only able to live in a specific temperature zone, without expending energy. This ability to convert stored energy into a warming or cooling mechanism is called thermoregulation. We interviewed Dr. Rosen, a researcher at the UBC Marine Mammal Research Unit to learn a bit more about how thermoregulation works:

YouTube Preview Image

As you have learned from our video, thermoregulation is a factor essential to the survival of Northern Fur Seals. However, in view of the changing climate they may be forced from their natural habitat. This would additionally affect the distribution of their prey, potentially making it much harder for them to obtain food. Can you imagine how difficult it would be if your grocery store kept moving to a new location without you knowing?

Julia, Vishav, David and Rubeen

Miracle Material

Carbon. What ideas are associated with that word? Coal? Diamonds? CO2 pollution? Organic Chemistry? How about miracle material?

Carbon in its diamond form
Source: Lac16 on Flickr

Carbon atoms can be arranged in different ways. If they are arranged in a specific way, they are known as diamond. If they are arranged in sheets, they are known as graphite (pencil lead). As you know, there’s a huge difference between diamond and graphite. Diamond is transparent and super hard whereas graphite is soft and black. So how does this have anything to do with miracle material?

A single sheet of carbon atoms is known as graphene. Since it’s an atom thick, it’s the world’s first two dimensional material. Graphene used to be very difficult to make. Scientists had to slowly remove layers of carbon from graphite until it became graphene (known as exfoliation). However, two scientists accidentally discovered a cheap way to make graphene. After cleaning some graphite rock with scotch tape, they found graphene on the tape. Their resulting work on graphene won them the Nobel Prize in Physics.

So what if graphene is 2D? Well being 2D is not the only special property of graphene. A paper published in nature describes how it is super strong, flexible, transparent and super conductive. Graphene is harder than diamond, stronger than steel, and is many, many times more conductive than copper. What does this mean?

Graphene, a single layer of carbon atoms
Source: CORE-Materials on Flickr

Due to the many properties of graphene, it can be used in many different ways. Since it is transparent and highly conductive, it can be used to improve touchscreens in our electronic devices. It can also be used in the development of small sensors for detecting glucose levels or cholesterol in the human body. Since graphene can hold electrons, it can also act as a battery that charges in a few seconds. All in all, it has a huge amount of potential. Plus, it’s biodegradable.

Recently, graphene has been found to absorb infrared light. This means that it can function as a night vision light detector. And what’s more, it can be placed into contact lenses! With all of these properties, graphene really deserves the nickname miracle material.

– David Ng

Death by Sitting

Source: El Alvi from Flickr

Sitting too much is bad for you.  Everyone knows that.  As long as you follow the recommendation of 150 mins of exercise a week, you’ll be fine, right?


Sitting is a great way to relax for people.  Whether it be to rest during a car ride or to focus on some work, humans like to sit.  This is quite notable with the availability of chairs almost everywhere — in restaurants, in theaters, in cars, at homes, in parks, at bus stops etc.  It is a great way to rest the body when there isn’t much to do, without taking as much space as lying down.

Source: loop_oh from Flickr

With today’s modern lifestyle, many people are sitting pretty much all day everyday. For example, students sit to eat meals, sit during travels, sit during class and sit to do work.  Sure, sitting is very useful and comfortable. But this comes at a cost. Not only are there problems associated with bad posture, its harmfulness to human health has earned it the slogan ‘sitting is the new smoking‘.

The British Journal of Sports Medicine published a paper which claims that each hour of sitting while watching TV will reduce a person’s lifespan by 21.8 min.  The study suggests that someone who watches an average of 6 hr of TV a day throughout their entire life would die 4.8 years earlier than someone who has not watched any TV.

There is also a popular belief that sitting time can be negated by exercise time.  But like I said at the start, that isn’t true.  A recent study published by the Journal of Physical Activity and Health found that every additional hour of sitting (after sitting for 9 hr) was correlated with a doubling of disability risk. This held true in the study regardless of how much the person exercised.

Example of a Standing Desk
Source: Simplified Building from Flickr

Studies from the Journal of American College of Cardiology and PubMed also found that the increased mortality rates due to sitting persisted despite high levels of physical activity.

Does this mean that we are all doomed to die under the hands of sitting? Worry not!  There are solutions!  People have come up with products such as standing desks or even treadmill desks…where you can walk while working.  However, It would be much easier (and free) to just move around for 20 seconds for every 20 mins of sitting.

– David Ng

Memories are Lies!

Well…they could be. It turns out that our memories are not as reliable as we’d like to believe.

We catalog and store what we see and do everyday. We discard useless information and try to hold onto useful information (though that may suddenly be very difficult during exam period). This whole process is associated with three major steps: encoding, storage and retrieval.

Let’s say you see someone flip on their bike. You process the information that you see, hear and feel, selecting that is most important and filter out the distractions. You then store this information in a memory so that you can recall and describe this event on demand. This seems like a journal. You make an entry and you can read it back any time you want, just the way you wrote it. However, just recalling a memory will change it.

Car crash image used in Elizabeth Loftus’ study
Source: TED Talks

This effect can even be exploited to create false  memories. In a study done by false memory expert Elizabeth Loftus, she was able to successfully implant false memories in participants. A car crash involving a blue car was shown to participants. After providing half the participants with information that suggested the car was white, much of them later remembered that the car was white. In fact, just using the words smash to describe the crash rather than hit caused participants to falsely remember broken glass at the scene.

Childhood memories have also been manipulated. In the study mentioned above, a memory of being lost in a mall was successfully planted in participants. Another study planted an animal attack memory into 77 participants. In both cases, these “memories” became more and more detailed every time the participants retold the memory. At the end of studies, the false memories were rated by the participant as reliable and as vivid as the real memories.

Source: SalFalko on Flickr

Okay, you can plant memories in people. Cool idea for a movie, but how is this signifiant in real life? A lot of criminal convictions are based on witnesses. False memories have often led to false convictions. Victims have identified wrongly innocent people as perpetrators and have landed these people in jail. These convictions are pretty common, in fact, in recent study looked at 300 innocent people that spent up to 30 years in prison, 3/4 of these were due to faulty eye witness memory.

There is another exploit for false memories. Some have suggested to exploit this property for good: implant warm fuzzy memories about vegetables into children so that they eat health. Unethical? Maybe.

– David Ng