Author Archives: Tim Cheung

Stress & Survival: Birds Hanging in the Balance

As university students, we spend plenty of time trying to manage our stress levels when dealing with a plethora of assignments, projects, and exams. Stress has proven to affect the academic performance of students, but did you know that it may be the key to survival for birds in ever changing climactic conditions?

Biologist Roslyn Dakin and a team of researchers recently published a study with one goal in mind – to determine how stress affects the survival of baby tree swallows.

Tree Swallow | By Peter Wilton (Tree Swallow Uploaded by Magnus Manske) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

 In order to manipulate the stress levels of the swallows, Dakin implanted corticosterone pellets into their bloodstream. Corticosterone, a stress hormone, has been shown to impact how often a mother would feed their offspring. Therefore, experimenting with its levels should affect survival.

So what exactly did Dakin find? Their results were seriously disturbed by exceptionally cold and wet weather, the ramifications of which are discussed in the podcast below:

The study revealed some extremely complex relationships between stress, weather, parental investment, and ultimately, survival. An increase in corticosterone did not necessarily lead to an decrease in mortality, as predicted. In fact, the offspring of mothers with higher corticosterone levels showed an increased risk of failure. In inclement weather, however, all individuals had a high likelihood of mortality.

One fascinating finding involved the relationship between the male and female parents. As expected, with  high female feeding rates, the offspring were more likely to survive. However, high male feeding rates combined with corticosterone-implanted females resulted in a higher risk of failure compared to females without the implants. Why is this the case? Wouldn’t more care from a parent allow for better survival? Several hypotheses were proposed. Highly invested males may be more sensitive to changes in their partner. As well, the female may be more likely to abandon their offspring if they feel that the male could care for the offspring on their own.

Field site at the Queen’s University Biological Station, Ontario | Credit: Adam Lendvai

More questions were raised than answered in the study, and unfortunately swallow populations continue to dwindle in Ontario, where the experiment took place. Clearly, any solution proposed will have a variety of factors at play. Nonetheless, we valiantly attempted to tackle the issue of declining bird populations in unpredictable weather – check out our video below for more!

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Tim Cheung, Peggy Hung, Kamyar Kazemiashtiani, & Josephina Kim

How Many You’s Are There? – The Intrigue of the Multiverse

The answer seems obvious – one!

After all, we have a unique set of genes that separate us from everyone else in the universe.

But what if there are multiple universes?

A new study has taken the scientific community by storm this week. Ranga-Ram Chary, a researcher based out of the California Institute of Technology, claims to have evidence that our universe may have collided with an alternate one. He extensively mapped out the cosmic microwave background (CMB), which is the light emitted during the early Big Bang stage of the universe, and removed stars, gas, and dust, effectively leaving nothing but noise. However, Chary discovered patches of unexpectedly brilliant light. The implication of these light signatures is that they appeared when a universe with a different baryon-to-photon ratio bumped into our own universe, leaving their “fingerprints” behind.

CMB after 9 years of data | By NASA / WMAP Science Team [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s not get carried away just yet. After all, Chary concludes that there is a 30% chance that the emissions are not unusual, and his paper is yet to undergo peer review. But the idea that yet-to-be-observed universes could be out there has intrigued humans for years. Hugh Everett first formulated the many-worlds hypothesis in 1957, which states that there may be an infinite number of universes and that every event with multiple outcomes occurs in a different inaccessible branch of the multiverse. We have developed newer, more sophisticated theories since then, such as the model of eternal inflation – the idea that the universe has always been expanding and thus creating pocket universes, which are infinitely far apart.

Bubble universes | By English: Original by K1234567890y Vectorisation by Lokal_Profil 中文: 原作由K1234567890y制作 Lokal_Profil使用Vectorisation重制 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Generally speaking, the multiverse hypothesis and the notion that there exists a set of infinitely possible universes that are beyond the realm of what we can experience is a hotly debated topic. After all, how can we test a theory that allows for all possible outcomes?  Physicist Paul Davies argues, “For a start, how is the existence of the other universes to be tested? To be sure, all cosmologists accept that there are some regions of the universe that lie beyond the reach of our telescopes, but somewhere on the slippery slope between that and the idea that there are an infinite number of universes, credibility reaches a limit. As one slips down that slope, more and more must be accepted on faith, and less and less is open to scientific verification.”

The multiverse question is not only one explored by quantum mechanics but also by philosophy. Modal realism is an idea propagated by David Lewis which suggests that all possible worlds are just as real as the one we are actually experiencing, and saying our world is the actual one is simply our way of distinguishing it from others.

The multiverse hypothesis demands an inconceivably great burden of proof and we may never know if it is true in any of its infinite forms. Yet, nothing perplexes the human mind more than attempting to explore ideas that are virtually impossible to validate. One thing I do know: the multiverse is freaking awesome.

Minute Physics explains the science behind parallel universes: YouTube Preview Image

Tim Cheung

NeuroMythBusters – Breaking Down Issues in Science Literacy

As upper-level students at a renowned university, we often pride ourselves on an excess of scientific knowledge. So let me begin by testing that knowledge base.

True or False:

Children are less attentive after consuming sugary snacks or drinks.

There are distinct types of intelligences, and learners have a unique combination of each.

Left or right brain dominance can result in differences in learning ability.

You may be surprised to learn that the answer to each of these statements is false.

But how? These ideas have been taught by a plethora of teachers, science or otherwise. And based on a study by Paul A. Howard-Jones, many educators do believe that the above statements are scientifically accurate.

Teacher at Chalkboard, via Flickr (cybrarian77)

Teacher at Chalkboard, via Flickr (cybrarian77)

These commonly misunderstood notions, or neuromyths, can be attributed to issues in science literacy and science communication as a whole. I will address a few of these problems as they pertain to the neuromyths above.

1. The use of jargon in surveys and articles

57% of teachers in the UK believe that sugary products make students less attentive. However, studies have proven that there is no connection between sugar and hyperactivity. This idea may be propagated by a difference in understanding – teachers comprehend the word ‘attention’ in terms of behavior compared to neuroscience’s cognitive terminologies. As well, the unnecessarily complex and technical jargon in journals makes it difficult for non-specialists to understand the exact meaning, often leading to oversimplification.

2.  Difficulty in testing

Howard Gardner By [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The idea that intelligence cannot be quantified by a single general ability is a popular one. This theory, introduced by Howard Gardner in his book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences gained traction because everyone wanted to believe they were smart in some way. A critical review has argued that there is a lack of empirical evidence to support this theory; yet Gardner claims that it was misunderstood. Furthermore, the complexity of the brain makes it nearly impossible to test its legitimacy. When ideas cannot be definitively tested or counter-evidence is not clear, it is easy for the average reader to simply accept ideas.

3. Misinterpretation of graphs and images

H. Garavan, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

Activation of right hemisphere during inhibition control via H. Garavan, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (1999)

Educators are encouraged to determine the dominant side of a learner’s brain in order to teach better. While it is true that different brain regions are preferred for different tasks, the idea of hemispheric dominance has no scientific basis. This neuromyth has been aggressively promoted due to misreading of neuroimagery that shows ‘hot spots’ in the brain. Graphs and images are meant to present information in a straightforward manner; however, non-specialists can be easily led to believe there is a greater significance than what is presented.

So where does this leave us? It is obvious that scientists need to do a better job balancing simplicity and detail, whether it be in the form of words or graphs. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to know that while people may not know a lot about science, they still hold a positive view of scientists and consider scientific progress important. If we can continue to build understanding between science and the public, future generations will develop both skill in critical analysis as well as a fervor for scientific advancement.

Famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on scientific literacy:

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Tim Cheung

Life on Mars? – The Key to Survival on The Red Planet

Science is all the rage in the film industry these days, with films like Interstellar proving to be massive hits both critically and in the box office.  Consequently, The Martian is hoping to capitalize on that success. This science fiction adventure is based on a best-selling book written by Andy Weir and features Matt Damon as Mark Watney, a botanist turned astronaut who finds himself stranded on Mars after an intense dust storm forces his crew to evacuate the planet. The film follows his quest to survive alone on a barren wasteland and his attempts to contact Earth and seek rescue.

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Credit: 20th Century Fox

While scientifically feasible and chock full of technical jargon, The Martian is a fictional story by all accounts. After all, humans can’t be expected to grow potatoes inside a tiny habitat for long term survival, as Mark Watney does in the film. But is life on Mars a reachable short term goal? At least one team of researchers thinks so, and they believe they have unearthed the key.

Cyanobacteria By Doc. RNDr. Josef Reischig, CSc. (Author's archive) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Doc. RNDr. Josef Reischig, CSc. (Author’s archive) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Astrobiologist Cyprien Verseux and his team at NASA’s Ames Research Center have discovered a way to use cyanobacteria in order to sustain a long-term human presence on Mars, which was previously thought to be unrealistic due to the amount of resources that would have to be sent.

The idea of cyanobacteria in outer space research is not new. Humans have already been using microbes to search for life on Mars, as illustrated in the video below:

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Credit: Open University

Cyanobacteria not only have the ability to survive and grow in Mars simulated conditions, as determined in a study by Karen Olsson-Francis, but they can also fix carbon from carbon dioxide (CO2) and create useful nitrate from dinitrogen (N2), which Mars has plenty of in its atmosphere. While we can’t actually survive simply off of eating cyanobacteria due to their lack of vitamin C and overabundance of vitamin A, they can be used to feed microorganisms, which can then be utilized to convert biomass into potentially fertile soil. Aquaculture is also a possibility, as crustaceans and shellfish are already feeding off of cyanobacteria as a main food source.

Furthermore, Verseux also explored the prospect of using cyanobacteria to produce oxygen, finding them to be even more efficient producers than fully grown trees. Cyanobacteria were even able to produce components of biofuel that could be used to power vehicles and equipment as illustrated in a study by Daniel Ducat; however, further advances must be made for either of these applications to come to fruition.

Often times we watch these ambitious science fiction movies thinking that they’re simply the pipe dream of an idealistic filmmaker. But just as screenwriters are dreaming up new frontiers to impress and amaze audiences, scientists are working diligently in the background to make those frontiers a reality.

To infinity and beyond!

Mars Exploration Rover By NASA/JPL/Cornell University, Maas Digital LLC [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mars Exploration Rover
By NASA/JPL/Cornell University, Maas Digital LLC [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 Tim Cheung