Wasabi alert: the Ig Nobel Prize-winning alarm

Link to original wasabi image on flickr
Wasabi – Photo credit Steven Depolo

A silent alarm that emits a stinging smell of wasabi may be life-saving for the hard of hearing.

You might be familiar with the green horseradish paste that comes with sushi: wasabi. Scientists in Japan used the pungent smell of wasabi as an alarm to alert people of a fire. This idea seems incredible, but it was motivated by efforts to create an alarm system effective for people with hearing difficulties.

Japan’s news station NHK reported the progress of this project that has started to produce hopeful results as early as 2008 (for Japanese readers, here is the original NHK article). A mix of wasabi and other mints create a bitter and stinging smell that stimulates the mucous membrane within the nose. This smell is collected into a pressurized can. When the fire alarm bell rings, the machine detects the sound and relays an electric signal to trigger the release of the smell. Continue reading

“Filter cleaning” with mussels

Mussels may be familiar to us on our dinner plates, steamed in butter and white wine sauce. In New York, it has become a city project  to study a related type of mussel called the ribbed mussel (Geukensia demissa) in Long Island Sound. These mussels are the focus of a developing technology called “bioextraction” that might help clean up coastal waters.

Link to photo on wikipedia.
Filter-feeding blue mussels, familiar to us on our dinner plates. Photo from Wikipedia.

Ribbed mussels have some fascinating facts – they grow their shells in an annual cycle, so like counting tree rings, we can determine the age of a ribbed mussel by Continue reading

March 31, 2014Permalink 1 Comment

Race to metamorphosis

For a tadpole living in a transient pond created by rainfall, the key to its survival may be how fast it can develop into a land-roaming toad before the pond disappears. A study found that tadpoles of the Eastern spadefoot toad (Pelobates syriacus) will speed up their development if they sense the water level around them decreasing.

A lot of Eastern spadefoot toad species live in permanent ponds, so their habitat is stable and provides them adequate time to mature. However, along the Black Sea coast in Dobrudja, Romania, the varied rainfall patterns create ponds that can quickly form and disappear Continue reading

February 16, 2014Permalink Leave a comment

In Reality TV casting

You turn on CBC, the reporter points to the map saying “beautiful day on the coast, 26 degrees. We see the high pressure area over here but later in the week, perhaps some showers…” We get a fair share of science from the news, including weather reporting. I was intrigued to see Ms. Claire Martin, meteorologist on CBC News, visit Vancouver last week to share what it means to be the voice for our information. On a local level, the daily forecast affects our everyday plans, and on a global
level, our understanding of weather can shape how we contribute to the discussion on climate change.

Coming from a purely science background, Claire captured me right away with her jolly voice and clear speech. Not missing a chance to include humor, she guided us though the key components of how to communicate what she calls “sexy, scintillating and straight forward science.” Continue reading

January 30, 2014Permalink Leave a comment

The Science in Movies

Link to flickr for image of the Avengers
The Avengers by marvelousRoland. Image from flickr.

Superheroes crowded this year’s movie line-up: Batman: The Dark Knight ReturnsIron Man 3Star Trek: Into Darkness, followed by Man of Steel and Thor 2: The Dark World… Behind the exciting action and science fiction, have you ever wondered about the scientists supporting the science of these pop culture icons?

Movie makers may consult an expert to check that their movie scenes are actually realistic. We may be looking for fantasy and incredible action in superhero movies, but if the scene is far too off from reality, many are likely to be turned off with a “What? No way…” Here are some questions a science adviser for the movie might ask: if there were to be an explosion, Continue reading

December 16, 2013Permalink Leave a comment

Back to Salt Marshes

Link to wikipedia for photo of salt marsh
Salt marsh. Photo from wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

In a recent chat at work, my boss recalled his childhood days of hiking in the forest and adjacent marshes. Over a few years, he saw his backyard marsh dwindle as people cleared the land for urban development. The water drained from the marshes was enough to create a pool of water that froze into a natural ice hockey rink. The remainder of the drained marshes were then re-filled to redevelop the seemingly ideal, open and flat land.

Over the last few centuries, lots of salt marshes were lost to urban development. In Canada’s Pacific, 70% of salt marshes were destroyed by pollution or turned into agricultural land, roads, and residential areas, according to Capital Regional District. If you have ever been to Victoria, imagine that there used to be a marsh in the vicinity of the Empress hotel, or near Point Hope Shipyards.

Why does that matter? The article “Salt marshes are great Carbon sinks” covers Continue reading

November 12, 2013Permalink Leave a comment

Tracing the Adelie penguins’ food – are the Adelies in decline?

Imagine that you went out to buy shrimp but the closest grocery store didn’t have it in stock. Even then, the same store most likely has their selection of other seafood and meat for you to choose from, so that won’t be too devastating.

Adelie penguins can do the same: when they can’t get enough krill – a tiny shrimp-like crustacean that is their main source of food – they can switch to eating fish such as the Antarctic silverfish.

Link to flickr photo of Adelie penguin
Adelie penguin by Marie and Alistair Knock. Photo from flickr.

Such a switch can be triggered by a competitor for the Adelies’ food: baleen whales. When these whales arrived to the Antarctic in the spring to feed, they ate about 2000 times more krill than penguins would. Continue reading

October 21, 2013Permalink Leave a comment

A life without air conditioning

Here are some numbers for how much energy we spend for making ourselves warm or cool in the changing weather. National Geographic says 47% of the world’s energy is spent on heating, way more than transportation at 27%. If you consider just your home, the number goes up to 60%, says HRAI Canada. Are we supposed to get rid of this energy use completely?—that sounds a bit too drastic for me who cuddles in front of the heater every day these winter days. Still, a lifestyle without any heating or air conditioning existed much closer to home than I thought.

This story takes place in a tea ceremony house in Kyoto, Japan. Continue reading

October 17, 2013Permalink Leave a comment

Learning from traditions – K’aaw K’iihl

This spring, I was asked to teach a Grade Four class how to show respect for the environment. To get them thinking from a new perspective, I brought up a story from the First Nations people about their tradition called “K’aaw K’iihl”. When the Skidegate community in Haida Gwaii attend a feast, they all bring their own containers to bring food back home. The host even cooks extra to ensure their guests have enough to take away at the end of the feast.

I would usually not expect to bring food back from a party, and would definitely not bring a container with intent to collect the leftovers. At the same time, thinking of the leftover food going to waste, disposable plates and cups filling the garbage can or landfills and polluting the environment, or thinking of the energy used to get rid of them–I can sure start to understand the benefits of K’aaw K’iihl.

Photo by Aleks Ivic

I asked the students to suggest how they can learn from K’aaw K’iihl. Continue reading

October 16, 2013Permalink 1 Comment

Driving Electric

Look at that cool Lotus sports car! Wait, that’s a hybrid?

Link to flickr photo of Lotus Evora.
Lotus Evora by Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Photo from flickr.

That was my reaction when I saw the “green” Lotus Evora 414E on its test drive.

This car has an impressive power and acceleration for a hybrid car. Each year, car makers are developing more higher-performance electric cars, but existing large, heavy-weight motors do not suit more compact sports cars. Lotus shows prospect for a very lightweight engine that enables 1000 Nm of torque and a 0-60mph time of 4 seconds with emissions of just 55g/km CO2. Compare this to the original version of Evora Continue reading

October 13, 2013Permalink Leave a comment