I couldn’t help but laugh when I heard that a new Japanese anime called Love Kome: We Love Rice was airing in Japan. The title is a pun on the Japanese term for rice (kome) and “love comedy,” and here is a synopsis:
“The anime project anthropomorphizes rice (kome in Japanese) into schoolboys. At the Kokuritsu Inaho Academy (“Rice Ear Academy,” a wordplay on national schools), five new rice-inspired students attempt to supplant bread as the popular grain at the school. The new students form the “Love Rice” unit and challenge themselves to perform at the “Harvest Show” to show the delicious appeal of rice grains. The “heartwarming ‘kome’dy with laughs and passion” promises to let audiences rediscover the virtues of rice (“Japan’s soul food”)” (from MyAnimeList)
Looking a little deeper, the characters and settings hint that the anime creators may have really done their homework.
First, the characters in Love Kome are named after actual varieties of rice that would be well-known among people in Japan. In North America, people might be familiar with white rice, brown rice, or Jasmine rice, but in Japan, people often speak of finer differences between strains of white rice. Some rice strains represent a brand of the region where it is grown – such as Akita Komachi from Akita prefecture – and each of these rice strains have differences in taste, texture, and quality.
I grew up knowing Koshihikari rice as top quality, and sure enough, in Episode 1 of the anime, all the “rice” schoolboys attending the Kokuritsu Inaho Academy revere Koshihikari as their “senpai” (respectful way to call a senior) and strive to become like Koshihikari. Generation-wise, the Koshihikari variety is also a parent strain to four of the five main characters in Love Kome – Hinohikari, Hitomebore, Akitakomachi, and Nikomaru – as all of these rice varieties were cultivated from cross-breeding Koshihikari with other rice strains.
Perhaps the anime will be a battle of the new generation Koshihikari cross-breed descendants, but it leaves one odd one out: Sasanishiki. To Sasanishiki, Koshihikari is more like an uncle (see the rice strain lineage diagram here *in Japanese), as well as a rival since Sasanishiki and Koshihikari used to be the top two varieties dominating rice crop areas in Japan. The rivalry ended in 1993 when Sasanishiki crops were hit severely by an extreme cold year and was replaced by hardier varieties such as Hitomebore (more on the history of Sasanishiki is explained here *in Japanese). Maybe Sasanishiki’s old days in the spotlight explains the official Love Kome character synopsis (*in Japanese) that describes Sasanishiki as: prideful, confident and stubborn […, and] tends to make condescending expressions that he has trouble making friends. It’s pleasantly surprising if creators had really thought this out to incorporate the history of rice strains.
At the end of the first four-minute episode, Love Kome introduces a rice croquette recipe, demonstrating that rice is not only about having a bowl of plain white rice. When bread and pasta continue to be popular in Japan, I would like to see how the anime tries to make rice the main staple food in Japan again.
Last fall, I joined a discussion co-presented by a professional scientist and a technical writer from Golder Associates. In this leading firm in environmental consulting, design, and construction sector, technical experts in science and engineering will often work with an expert technical writer to prepare reports that are clear, accurate, and often lawyer-proof.
A technical writer who comes across a word such as “glory hole” while editing a technical document might pause with a smirk to wonder if it is a typo until an engineer confirms it is actually a technical term in underground mining.
Focused technical writers can contribute their eye for grammar and fluency with language to edit typos and wording, and also possibly revise syntax and structure. The fresh pair eyes from off-site can also help keep a document on track. Meanwhile, a senior engineer or scientist with years of education and experience in the field can focus on reviewing the technical content of important reports. Together, they will prepare documents to be ready for clients, lawyers, or the public.
I related very much to the role of the writer, thinking of my own moments reviewing post-graduates’ and professors’ research manuscripts, staring at an abbreviation or jargon in chemistry whether it is an accepted wording or not, and giving feedback with the right balance of knowing grammar as rules but style as choices. The collaboration between the writers and the technical experts is also something I found crucial for me to publish my work in a scientific publication, where the editorial team (technical writers) provided input on text editing, and reviewers (technical experts) checked for content and structure.
It covers an NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada)-funded initiative called CREATE-AAP that encourages students studying atmospheric issues to communicate and collaborate across different fields of science.
The ScWRL site is a great resource for students and teachers with useful links, original videos, and activities for writing about or communicating science. Read more stories and tips from educators, writers, and expert scientists on their Guest Blog.
Thank you Prof. Allan Bertram and ScWRL team for the opportunity!
I’m not a wine connoisseur, but through visits to various vineyards this spring, I not only took home delicious new wine varieties but also caught a glimpse of the intricate choices in wine making that shape our wines.
With a tasting menu in hand, I awaited the winery staff to ask the exciting question: “Which wine would you like to try?”
I would usually reach for the classic white wines and red wines, but deferring to the wineries’ recommended specialties, I was pleasantly surprised by their varieties of ice wines, fruit wines, and rosés.
Though ice wines often can be excessively sweet, Lulu Island Winery offered a unique Pinot Gris which let me savor the distinct ice wine flavor without the heavy sweetness. Meanwhile at Paumanok Vineyards in Long Island, New York, their award-winning 2014 Semi-dry Riesling and Vin Rosé became my new favorites.
Since a rosé was not on my radar much before then, I asked, “What makes a rosé wine?” One casual question led to another, and in the developing discussion with the winery experts, the wine making process became much more imaginable.
Starting with the basics, using only the pulp of grapes makes a white wine, but leaving the grape skins on slightly longer into the wine making process makes a rosé. Also compare the amount of grapes in one bottle of wine: the 750ml bottle of Pinot Gris I tasted was made from 3-5 pounds of grapes, whereas the same size bottle of their ice wine uses 30-35 pounds of grapes for a white ice wine, or 60 pounds for a red ice wine variety (12 – 20 times more grapes!). For ice wines, harvesting the grapes later into the freezing days of winter ripens and concentrates the grapes, and allows to compress a lot of grapes’ sweetness into one bottle of ice wine.
Those are the broad types of wine, but every step of wine making affects a wine’s finish: from handling the crop plant and soil, to adjusting the subtle flavors and aromas with different ingredients and fermentation processes, and to bottling and sealing. Knowing the chemistry and processes of wine making, can wineries consistently make their great wines like the Lulu Island Pinot Gris, Paumanok 2014 Semi-dry Riesling, and Vin Rosé? Here is what scientists have done for us to help advance wine making; without them, we won’t have the wines we enjoy today. Yet, as Paumanok Vineyards credited their great harvests in winning the New York Winery of the Year of 2015, consistent processes also depend on the source materials.
Also, a wine’s flavor is not only based on what we can analyze with numbers; the flavor is affected by human perception. Lulu Island Winery’s white ice wines came in two flavors: a Riesling Chardonnay with honey flavors and a Viognier with mango flavors. Interestingly, most people naturally associate honey with a sweet taste, so even though scientifically the sweetness rating is higher for the mango flavored ice wine, the honey feels more sweet and heavy, and the mango more refreshing. A more in-depth look of how scientists study the relationship between taste, smell, and our personal perception and tolerance to different tastes is covered in this article on wine tasting.
Comparing different flavors of wine is also comparing wine makers’ careful choices in the wine making process and our tastes. The science behind delicious wine is better learned with tastings, isn’t it?
I welcome stories about everyone’s favorite wine tastings!
A low rumbling filled the room as Kelvin walked into the flight simulator.
Three flat screen monitors glowed in the dark, each the size of a regular office desktop computer. Only a thick brown curtain sectioned off the flight simulator from the rest of the store, but the vibrations sounded in Kelvin’s ears and echoed through his body as if he were boarding a plane.
Kelvin is at Flight City Enterprises, his local aviation store at the edge of the Vancouver International Airport grounds. After a long day of work, a Groupon gift ticket had brought him to try a 45 minute pilot experience in a commercial aircraft flight simulator.
“This is essentially the day one training program for all Boeing 747 pilots,” the instructor who introduced himself as John explained with a smile. “You’re the pilot, I’m the copilot.”
As John seated himself to Kelvin’s right, he pressed a few keys on an iPad and made Kelvin’s monitors flicker with fluorescent green, pink, and yellow gauges. A few more buttons made a fourth big screen above them change from displaying a sunny flight track to a rainy image of the Vancouver International Airport. The rumbling sound blended with soft clicks and splatters of rain hitting the plane body.
But something seems to be missing. A pilot’s cockpit brings to mind images of panels full of buttons and knobs like this to control the plane:
Kelvin scans across his equipment and there are no physical buttons to press or switches to flip. Maybe a lever or joy stick? With the exception of one steering lever in between his legs, all he has is the flickering lights from the flat screen monitors, with a digital image of a throttle moving on its own inside the screen.
More aircraft cockpits are switching to have an increasing digital control with flat panel screens like this:
Newer models of Boeing 747 have in their cockpits sleek flat panel screens and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner recently incorporated glass overhead displays that overlay digital images onto the window of the cockpit.
According to manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus, automated controls are beneficial since software is more light-weight and cost-effective to maintain compared to hardware and are re-programmable to various aircraft types and to further technological advances. The ability to type in exact numbers instead of manually adjusting controls allows for more precise control, thus affecting safety.
However, despite the widespread use, there are some issues to sort out in advancing computerized flight control. Some aircraft will have a mechanical backup where pilots can manually control the plane in case of an electronic failure, but this article in Flying Magazine more fully evaluates this advancement in digital flight, also coined “Fly by Wire.”
Today, first steps of flight training can be done entirely on digital flat panel screens (see Flat Panel Trainer for Lufthansa planes), and yet it quite closely reflects the actual controls on modern aircraft. As Kelvin began to adjust the monitor controls in the pilot’s seat, the excitement quickly took over. He is about to take off on his first digital “flight.”
In my previous post, I listed five discoveries and inventions from research presentations I encountered in 2015. For the remaining five presentations I cover in this post, I focus on the speakers who provided me with inspiration for communicating and writing about science topics. These speakers include a museum curator, public speaking professional, book author on engineering materials, researcher on atmospheric aerosols, and a game writer.
Ceiling-high black cabinet doors line the aisles of the Beaty Biodiversity Museum. Visitors are peering in through glass windows to see beautifully mounted specimens.
The next aisle down, one of the the black cabinet doors are open with a museum staff standing by it halfway up a ladder. He shuffles through furry animal specimens where squirrels and chipmunks are lined up belly down in perfect rows, showing off their stripes and long tails. Many visitors are surprised to see that what they see in the displays are only part of the two million specimens housed at this museum and the Biodiversity Research Centre.
Each specimen is a piece frozen in time and thus also a gateway to stories that make the animals come alive. Someone who seems to have no end to such stories is Chris Stinson, Assistant Curator of the Beaty Museum’s tetrapod collection. He is a walking encyclopedia of head-turning facts. Follow him through the rodents collection to see a Giant Flying Squirrel with a body as long as your forearm, smaller flying squirrels with the softest fur you can imagine, and pocket gophers with cheeks twice as wide as their face — Chris would be offering fun tidbits and commentary to give character to each type of animal, leaving you curious to delve into more.
You’re standing in front of a microphone and a huge audience. You have a great project idea and you know your research, but you’re unsure whether you’re going to tell that funny joke right, and whether you’d manage to convince people to like you and your idea.
It takes skill and practice to make a convincing and memorable talk. In a recent full day public speaking workshop, Ivan Waniz Ruiz took a group of 15 graduate students through ways to rethink the structure, language, and visuals used in presentations. Many students who were told to explain their research topic started sounding as if they were reciting their thesis title, and this rarely resonated with those outside their field. By the end of the workshop, however, the student speakers were engaging the entire class full of students who had no background in the presentation topic.
Ivan trained students to analyze people’s body language the way police interrogators would analyze a criminal’s lie or lack of confidence. By applying brain hacking tips to public speaking and practicing over and over again, presenters began to notice their own body language and use that to achieve a confident look to grab their audience’s attention and leave a lasting impression.
Ivan does what he preaches–in many past talks, I relied on notes I scribbled to remember what was said, but with Ivan, the take home messages for the students in this workshop have stayed in my head even months afterwards.
It was like going in to read a book for fun and coming out feeling incredibly smart and educated.
In the book Stuff Matters, a single, seemingly serene and plain photo of author Mark Miodownik sitting on the rooftop garden is the basis of his book on the great material inventions in our world. Each chapter picks up an item captured in the picture – steel, paper, concrete, chocolate, foam, plastic, glass, graphite, porcelain, and an implant.
In the very first chapter of the book, a knife stabbing incident throws you into a story of Mark’s fascination with steel, and in another chapter, his creativity flows in explaining plastic through a five-act play script. A dictionary or manual could tell you what each material is and maybe what it is made from, and an encyclopedia may tell you the history. But authors with creative writing like Mark Miodownik shows that truly everything around you has a story to tell.
Mechanical engineering professor Dr. Steve Rogak faced a mixed audience as he began his seminar talk.
The talk entitled “The Structure of Aerosol Nanoparticles” was of interest not only to his fellow mechanical engineers but also to students and faculty in chemistry, medicine, geography, and resource management. We are surrounded by tiny particles floating in the air which we call atmospheric aerosols, and researchers from various fields study how those aerosols – in the form of smog, engine exhaust, pollen, SO2, and others – affect our climate and health.
A talk full of jargon could have easily lost all the non-engineers, but Steve’s careful language, pace through tables and figures, and strong transitions walked the audience through the stories of his research on the structure of soot particles, which are typically emitted as a product of incomplete engine combustion. By the end of the talk, a non-expert audience like myself was able to appreciate the novel insight on proposing a new model for soot formation and structure.
As demonstrated in this seminar, when a topic like climate change has to be tackled with an understanding of chemical and physical reactions, geographical transport of air and clouds around the globe, health effects, and engineering that help mitigate emissions, many researchers in this field will have to learn how to speak to an interdisciplinary audience.
Each video game has its own world, set of characters, and narrative that takes you through a story. In the game making industry, all these elements start from a concept developed by a writer.
Take characters: someone telling you to draw “a male character wearing a hooded coat and weapons” likely won’t inspire much creativity, whereas a writer elaborating a concept of “an 18th century pirate in the Caribbean islands who disguises himself as a rogue assassin, using his pistol and dual blades to navigate the islands and fight his way through to an assassin’s guild,” may inspire a character with a hooded coat and weapons, but with a much richer backstory.
Writers develop the backstory, the colors of the world and characters, the features, the clothes, the behaviors, the voice and attitude–everything required to paint a picture in the minds of collaborating concept artists, modelers, animators, sound techs, and directors. Game writer Sean Smillie, in a recent talk at the launch of the Game Academy at UBC, showed how to approach writing from this creative perspective, from a writer’s role to how writers can use the power of their words to communicate ideas that materialize into a visual game.
Reflecting back on the researchers and science communicators I encountered in 2015, I selected a highlight of 10 topics that I have not yet elaborated on this blog. Part 1 focuses on discoveries and inventions.
Nature created berries with an amazingly vivid metallic blue color that doesn’t fade for decades, as I covered in this previous post. The following two studies also led to discoveries that help us learn something new about ourselves and our world.
Nobel prize winner Dr. Richard Schrock‘s discovery in double bond chemistry has a surprising application that prevents insects from mating. Using “olefin metathesis” (as a more efficient and greener way to synthesize new compounds, explained in detail here), chemists can artificially produce pheromones that would confuse male peach-tree borer flies such that they can’t find a female mate, allowing to get rid of fruit-tree eating larvae without strong pesticides.
In a previous post, I covered an invention of super gels that tackled the challenges of creating tough gel polymer materials. Here are a few more examples of discovery leading to creative new technology in our daily lives.
Like the organs created by 3D-printers, Dr. Kelly BéruBé has “built” a lung from live cells, but they are virtually fully functional – the surface structures beat rhythmically and chemical reactions occur just as in a lung in a human body. Dr. BéruBé’s man-made “living” lungs may allow scientists to test the efficacy of drugs and impact of pollutants on human health without human or animal subjects.
Biofuels – alternative energy sourced from plants – is a growing field. (More about biofuels on Inside Science news). While our current biofuel industry struggles to fully utilize a compound called lignin from plants, Dr. Gregg Beckham looks to soil microbes that naturally use lignin to fuel their metabolism. These microbes can help us invent “biological funnels” where ideally we can feed lignin to soil microbes and extract compounds that are more maneageable for us to turn into valuable biofuels. Red more in the paper published in PNAS.
Paper and tape – sounds simple, cheap, and light to carry around. With paper, tape, and some teflon ink printing, Dr. Frédérique Deiss crafted petri dishes to grow cells and conduct diagnostic lab tests. It may offer low cost options to reproduce diagnostic tests at remote sites and in developing countries where state of the art equipment is not available or too costly to transport. Read more in University of Alberta’s news coverage here.
Brumer, H. (2015 Mar). Sweet and Savory: Understanding biological systems through structure-activity relationships between carbohydrates and enzymes. Public lecture, Vancouver, BC.
Schrock, R. (2015 May). My role in elucidating the catalytic reaction that led to a Nobel Prize in 2005. Public lecture, Vancouver, BC.
Beckham, G. (2015 Oct). Lignin valorization via biological funneling and chemical catalysis. Seminar presentation, Vancouver, BC.
BéruBé, K. (2015 Mar). Alternative for Particle Research: Stuck Between a Rat and a Hard Place. Webcast, Vancouver, BC.
Deiss, F. (2015 Jan). Bioanalytical platforms from paper and imaging fiber. Seminar presentation, Vancouver, BC.
The summaries in this post is a personal selection of highlights from each of the talks and they do not necessarily reflect the overall idea delivered in each respective talk.
The word “dragons” bring to mind images of beastly creatures looming out of a dark cavern, spreading their tough and bulky wings and breathing fire in the air. However, shift your attention from European folklore to Asian historical art, and you’ll have dragons with a more serpentine body gracefully rising into the clouds.
As dragon claws show subtle regional differences, birds of prey show so much diversity in the shape and use of their feet. Next time I see a dragon or a bird, I might be looking at its feet, trying to guess its origin and lifestyle.
Do you like food? What if you find out all your restaurants, cafes and grocery stores will close down for 6 months?
This is what many chipmunks must face when the winter months are approaching, and soon no new food would be available until the spring. Through the summer and fall, many chipmunks busily collect nuts, seeds and other food items and bury them in underground caches to later revisit during the winter.
You might imagine a chipmunk stockpiling their favorite nuts in a single cache, which is basically “putting all their eggs in one basket” and viciously defending it (larder-hoarders). There is a second type of hoarder – those who spread out its collection in hundreds to thousands of small caches (scatter-hoarders).
I’ve chosen as our main character today the yellow-pine chipmunk, a scatter hoarder. How strategic are the yellow-pine chipmunks in how they store and recover their food stores? Let’s follow one through these hypothetical scenarios:
Again, time to cache! However, for scatter hoarders, it may be key where they cache each food item. Researchers have studied how far chipmunks will go from the source of the food before they bury the food item (for efficiency), and also how much distance there is between caches (to reduce risk of losing caches to competitors finding multiple caches in the same area).
Scenario 3: Another chipmunk is watching. It may steal my food.
May have to adjust the caching. Knowing a competitor is in the vicinity can affect the caching behavior for many animals in terms of the frequency of caching, location of caching, or whether they cache at all. Gray squirrels and some crows will create “false” caches by burying stones or digging up and covering an empty cache as a means of deception for its competitors (though there are no studies showing whether yellow-pine chipmunks do this as well).
Scenario 4: I found a better spot to hide my seeds!
Scenario 5: I found a seed, but it’s small and looks like it’s going to sprout soon.
Eat it now. Not all food items are cached — sometimes a chipmunk would just eat the food on the spot. Researchers propose possible reasons for why a chipmunk may choose to eat or store the food item, such as the abundance of the food item, whether the food item stores well and maintains its nutritional value in the long term, or the time required to eat it. For example, a large acorn with a hard shell may take longer to eat than to carry it to a cache, so it may be more efficient to store until later.
Scenario 6: I’m hungry, but winter is here and there are no seeds on the ground.
Given that level of competition, scattering the food stores seems a smart alternative – it reduces the risk of one competitor being able to steal the entire cache, and reduces the effort required to defend the cache. The challenge, then, is to strategically spread out the caches and to relocate them again.
If you were a chipmunk preparing for winter, larder-hoarding or scatter-hoarding – which strategy would you choose?
Thanks to the Beaty Biodiversity Museum for introducing me to the concepts of winter caching, larder hoarding, and scatter hoarding. This article applied those concepts to the yellow-pine chipmunk, but at the museum, you can learn about what winter caching is like for squirrels, foxes, and bears.