Einstein, or it’s okay to say “what?”

512px-E=MC^2_(7852234992)June 30 marks the anniversary of publication for physicist Albert Einstein’s first paper on special relativity. On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies (1905) sets out Einstein’s theory on the relationship between space and time, establishing relativity for time and distance, and the absolute nature of the speed of light. As one of his four annus mirabilis [Latin: “miraculous year”] papers published in Annalen der Physik science journal the year that he obtained his doctoral degree, Einstein’s paper turned the concepts of space and time inside out—or upside down. It also set him on track to incorporate gravity into a general theory of relativity 11 years later, which observations from LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) have only recently proved correct.

Einstein’s name is now synonymous with “genius”: he wrote his four papers while working as a technical assistant in the Swiss patent office, his mass-energy equivalence formula E=mc2 is the world’s most famous equation, he received the 1921 Nobel Prize in physics, he is the

Science communication along the garden path

Starburst fountain by William Pye, Alnwick Castle Garden; photo credit, afmaxwellI’m a lapsed scientist, so it’s no great surprise that I find science at every turn. However, I was pleasantly surprised to realize on a recent trip to the United Kingdom that science communication is also all around us, even as part of something as innocuous as visiting a garden. Even though I could only gaze at Alnwick Castle in the distance, the castle garden was fully open, warmed by an unseasonal blaze of sunshine and backlit by glorious blue skies. I quickly realized that this wasn’t just a walk in a park; science communication popped right out from the shrubbery.

…okay, yes—it is difficult to switch off as a writer. There’s always inspiration for another story just around a corner, even on holiday.

photo credit: afmaxwell The Poison Garden

Alnwick Castle has had its Poison Garden since 2005, and with appropriate Home Office licensing, it contains enough herbaceous material to kill off

Halley’s comet, impending doom and communicating science

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHalley's_Comet_-_May_29_1910.jpgOn May 18, 1910, Halley’s comet made its closest recorded contact (0.15 astronomical units,* or approximately 23 million kilometres) with our planet, and the Earth passed through its tail. The event was full of scientific excitement and wonder, since photographic plates and spectroscopy were newly available to researchers. With these new tools, astronomers and the public got a better view of the comet itself and also a first inkling of what it contained.

Exciting times for science!

However, as the comet approached, the spectroscopy results revealed that among other gases, the comet’s tail showed strong band signatures for the toxic gas cyanogen. First synthesized in 1815, cyanogen is toxic, since it reduces rapidly to form cyanide and thus poisons the essential cytochrome c oxidase system to mess with mitochondrial function (not good).

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABayeux_Tapestry_scene32_Halley_comet.jpgAlthough many chose to report the existence of the gas in the

Around town, a.k.a. back to school

By User Ancheta Wis on en.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons One of the reasons for highlighting upcoming science conferences in Vancouver in my Around Town series is that it gives me a push to find out more on a subject I may have little exposure to. It’s also a great inspiration for a regular series of blog posts!

Last month, press releases ahead of one of these conferences, the 68th American Academy of Neurology Annual Meeting, caught my eye. As is common in the promotion of meetings for large organizations, the preceding month saw a few press releases announcing some of the research coming to the Vancouver Convention Centre. The first reported a preliminary study on the effect of daylight saving time (DST) on incidence of ischemic stroke, and the second investigated engagement in various mentally stimulating activities in older age and the effect on development of thinking and memory problems.

When I blog about upcoming events, I

Muses: David Ng

Dr. David Ng is definitely our kind of person. In addition to being smart as a scientist, he’s an excellent and inventive communicator with a great instinct for creating hooks. He’s also very skilled at devising relatable premises that are truly capable of carrying a scientific discussion. I wrote a lot about this in my post on science writing, and Ng is a perfect example. If you plan to write about science for the public you need literary ingenuity in addition to scientific smarts.

A selection of cards from one Phylogame deck. © The individual artists (CC BY-NC-SA 2.5 CA)One of Ng’s more notable creations is the Phylogame. The idea grew from a simple observation: Despite a widespread difficulty with memorizing scientific facts, schoolchildren have a staggering capacity to memorize varieties of Pokemon. So Ng and his collaborators gamified actual animal biology. And this isn’t just a cosmetic operation (though several different styles of starter deck are now available): the game mechanics hinge on scientific knowledge and include variations for different