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Water at McGill

By Ingrid Birker

Water filling station

In May 2011, when the accumulated rainfall of 102 mm (three times the amount of rain that fell last May) caused the Richelieu River to breach its banks and force over 1,000 people to leave their homes, McGill  installed six high-volume water dispensing and refilling stations. Known as “BYOB”, these large, blue, mobile water kiosks were bought from WaterFillz with the money raised by Class Action 2011. This proudly marks McGill as the first place in the province where you can get municipal water easily rather than searching for a tap in a bistro or café or awkwardly trying to refill your bottle in a bathroom sink. Ready to use, the BYOB is hooked up to a power supply and promotes the consumption of municipal water, which is tested more frequently and rigorously than bottled water. Bottled water is heavily marketed as a smart and healthful choice, but the truth is that it is no purer or safer than local tap water and is much more expensive. At McGill the new BYOB lets us carry a refillable water container and confidently know that we can find six locations near our work, class, or recreational areas where we can easily refill it. This wonderful “blue” addition to the landscape will help McGill reduce the consumption of bottled water on campus — making it a truly “green” initiative. Bottled water creates enormous quantities of waste, most of which is not recycled and ends up in landfills, and each litre of bottled water requires 3 litres of water to produce.  It was not hard to imagine the need for easily accessible drinking water during the hot week of Convocation ceremonies and I spent a few hours talking to people filling up at the BYOB stationed outside McLennan Library. The overall consensus was positive.
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Neither monks nor beatniks

Order and chaos

A great University is on the one hand as rigid and hierarchical as a seminary, on the other hand as open and anarchic as a commune.

Our values include the explicit openness to all ideas – except for one: that all ideas are equally good. We believe the quality of ideas can be measured like stones on a scale.  Measuring, we identify – and at a great University, we recognize, respect, and reinforce – excellence and achievement.  We are hierarchical to provide a rigorous structure to do that appraisal; we are anarchic so that the ideas to be appraised can be proposed. (more…)

Convocation connections

By Antonia Di Paola-Belliveau

Convocation tent

Convocation preparations.

Walking onto campus this morning I noticed that the flooring for the convocation tent was being set up.  It felt like someone just punched me in the stomach and tears came to my eyes.  It hit me then and there that one of my own was going to walk across that stage and take her place as one the Science graduates of this great University.  I had been there before watching my husband Tom receive his PhD in Chemistry, my sister Giuseppa and her husband Tony both receiving their PhD in Chemistry and many friends and students that I have been blessed to meet during my time here at McGill. Now my daughter Janet will be starting on her road with a BSc in Chemistry.  Who would have thought oh so many years back when I first started at McGill that this day would come to pass.  On May 30th she and her classmates will take that walk from Redpath Hall to the convocation tent and across that stage in front of many family and friends to receive their diploma as a reward for their hard work and dedication.  To the McGill 2011 graduating class and to all their families I send my congratulations for a job well done!!

Love you Janet!

Antonia Di Paola-Belliveau works in the Faculty of Science as Assistant to the Dean (2003-), but has deep connections with the Department of Chemistry, where she worked as a research technician for Bernard Belleau (1976-1986) and Robert Marchessault (1986-2003)

Spring Convocation ceremonies for the Faculty of Science take place Monday, May 30, 2011. See www.mcgill.ca/students/graduation/convocation for details.

The Fermi paradox and a revolution in the head

Cupcakes in the shape of orange extra-terrestrials. These may not be a fully accurate representation of aliens.

Today, like on most days, I walked to work.  Walking is a funny thing.  While walking, one kind of falls forward while pushing backwards against the planet Earth with one’s feet in an intricate two-step dance. The Earth pushes back, and one is propelled forward in a sort of lurching way.  It is kind of clumsy, and takes babies a while to learn it.  But, like everyone else, I did not think about this while walking, I thought about my work for the day, my family and friends, and some things about science.  It was kind of a semi-related jumble of thoughts as I tried to figure various things out, particularly my thoughts about something odd that has confused me for a long time about life elsewhere in the universe. (more…)

Mini-Science 2011 – Nuclear power: energy for the future?

Mini-Science logoAt the conclusion of each Mini-Science lecture, audience members submit their questions to the evening’s presenter, who answers as many as possible on the spot. Three of the unanswered questions are sent to the presenter for posting here. Here are questions from Dr. Ariel Fenster’s lecture “Nuclear power — energy for the future?” (April 20, 2011).
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Mini-Science 2011 – The dance of the molecules in cells

Mini-Science logoAt the conclusion of each Mini-Science lecture, audience members submit their questions to the evening’s presenter, who answers as many as possible on the spot. Three of the unanswered questions are sent to the presenter for posting here. Here are questions from Dr. Paul Wiseman’s lecture “The dance of the molecules in cells” (April 13, 2011).
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Jimi Hendrix and musical acoustics

Jimi Hendrix performs for Dutch television show Hoepla in 1967. Source: Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Netherlands license.

Jimi Hendrix performs for Dutch television show Hoepla in 1967. Source: Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Netherlands license.

Last year, I was attending a reception at a McGill event.  I was standing in the back – perhaps too far in the back – and a colleague asked me if I had ever thought about writing a book about the physics of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar sounds.  Huh, I said – just before a microphonic feedback howl announced that the reception’s speeches were about to begin.

My colleague said Hendrix’s playing must involve complex nonlinear dynamics (yes, my colleague was drinking the wine offered at the event).  The second thing I told my colleague was that, unlike most guitarists these days, Hendrix played so loud that he literally played the room, but, however that might be, room acoustics are linear, not nonlinear.  Then I stopped, because my colleague was right, there was something nonlinear going on in Hendrix’s playing.  The answer is not enough for a book, but fits a blog entry well. (more…)

Mini-Science 2011 – Biofuels: sustainable energy as the oil runs out?

Mini-Science logoAt the conclusion of each Mini-Science lecture, audience members submit their questions to the evening’s presenter, who answers as many as possible on the spot. Three of the unanswered questions are sent to the presenter for posting here. Here are questions from Dr. Donald Smith’s lecture “Biofuels — sustainable energy as the oil runs out?” (April 6, 2011).
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Mini-Science 2011 – From Jesuit’s bark to synchrotrons: the rise and fall of an antimalarial

Mini-Science logoAt the conclusion of each Mini-Science lecture, audience members submit their questions to the evening’s presenter, who answers as many as possible on the spot. Three of the unanswered questions are sent to the presenter for posting here. Here are questions from Dr. Scott Bohle’s lecture “From Jesuit’s bark to synchrotrons – the rise and fall of an antimalarial” (March 30, 2011).
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George Mercer Dawson – What’s in a name?

(By Ingrid Birker, Science Outreach Coordinator)

Painting of Kootenai [sic] Pass

"View in mts 10 m. N. of Kootenai Pass". Painting by George Mercer Dawson, 1862-1863.

The other day I was attending a meeting in the Dean of Science’s office, located on the second floor of Dawson Hall. I peered out, and the first thing I saw was a dell of trees—some exotic and some local, some wizened with age and some youthful and upright—where preschoolers love to play. From the Dean of Arts window, just across the hall, I can view the new outdoor skating rink created on the field in front of the Redpath Museum. About 150 years ago the view from this window would have shown a pasture with a few grazing Holstein cows on either side of a muddy track leading up to the Arts Building. At that time, Dawson Hall, located to the east of the Arts Building, would have been the home of the Dawson family, headed by McGill’s fourth Principal, Sir John William Dawson; today, Dawson Hall houses administrative offices of the Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Arts. The Dean of Science office occupies the Dawson family’s Drawing Room, a place where they would have withdrawn from daily life and academics. The historical photo showing Principal Dawson and his wife poised for their 50th Anniversary was taken in the Dean of Arts’ office which was Principal Dawson’s study. Beside them to the left, on the mantle above the granite fireplace, rests a small carved Haida totem, made from green- tinted ‘BC Jade’ or serpentine from the northern Rockies. It was collected by their son, George Mercer Dawson, when he explored and worked in western Canada in the 1880s, meeting First Nations people and studying their languages and customs. While studying the coal deposits of the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1878, he studied, photographed, and prepared a comprehensive report on the Haida people. He also published papers about the First Nations of the Yukon, northern British Columbia, and Vancouver Island, and the Shuswap people of central British Columbia. (more…)

Mini-Science 2011 – From the chemistry of chicken soup to the chemistry of the brain and behaviour

Mini-Science logoAt the conclusion of each Mini-Science lecture, audience members submit their questions to the evening’s presenter, who answers as many as possible on the spot. Three of the unanswered questions are sent to the presenter for posting here. Here are questions from Dr. Amir Raz’s lecture “From the chemistry of chicken soup to the chemistry of the brain and behaviour” (March 23, 2011).
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Mini-Science 2011 – Chemicals for better and for worse

Mini-Science logo At the conclusion of each Mini-Science lecture, audience members submit their questions to the evening’s presenter, who answers as many as possible on the spot. Three of the unanswered questions are sent to the presenter for posting here. Here are questions from Dr. Joe Schwarcz’s lecture “Chemicals for better and for worse” (March 16, 2011).
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The McDLT and the arrow of time

The inexorable arrow of time
Years ago McDonald’s introduced a lettuce and tomato hamburger called the McDLT, where the (hot) hamburger was kept on one side of the container and the (cold) lettuce and tomato on the other.  The patented container was intended to keep the hot side hot and the cool side cool.  When you received your order, you would combine the two sides.   The burger was similar to, and presumably a competitor to Burger King’s whopper, distinguished by the unique packaging.  The product sought exclusion or at least a reprieve from the second law of thermodynamics – but physical laws, unlike those for speeders and tax evaders, brook no exceptions, as we shall see.
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Brooks and Rutherford Emanate

The more physics you have the less engineering you need. (Ernest Rutherford)

Portrait of Ernest Rutherford by R.G. Matthews, 1907

Portrait of Ernest Rutherford by R.G. Matthews, 1907

Physics at McGill was born in 1891 when the tobacco manufacturer, William Macdonald, dedicated funding for a new Physics Building and for the creation of the Macdonald Chair in Physics. In 1893 the Macdonald Physics Building opened and the M.Sc. program was established.

This was almost three decades before Ernest Rutherford split the core of the atom in 1919 and declared that he had “broken the machine and touched the ghost of matter”. The nucleus of Rutherford’s experiments into ‘transmutation of matter’ had started in a basement lab of the Macdonald Physics building in 1898. His instruments and apparatus, concocted with the help of laboratory assistants out of wire, wax and glass apparatus which they blew themselves, are today preserved and exhibited at the Rutherford Physics Museum. (more…)

The Story of Sam the Christmas Dog

Christmas dog(By Martin Grant, Dean of Science)

Many years ago, I made a homemade CD to send to family and friends at Christmas.  I got the idea from my brother Nick, who had done something similar the previous year.  The CD was called The Story of Sam the Christmas Dog.  There was some narration by me, my wife, our children and dog, and some silly songs.  All of this was to illuminate a silly story about how our dog Sam searches for and then finds the true meaning of Christmas (by the way, according to Sam: seeing family and friends, relaxing and having fun, and not taking yourself too seriously).

For your amusement this holiday season, I enclose one of those silly songs: Silent Night [.mp3].  Listen as much, or as little as you like, to me and my friend Steve goofing around, with some barking in the background.  Sam was a good dog, as my family told him many times; he died in 2005, just before I started as Dean. (more…)

New McGill degree program in Sustainability, Science, and Society

(Guest blog post by Prof. Navin Ramankutty, Department of Geography)

Mongolian Family Uses Solar Energy to Power Home (UN Photo)

Mongolian Family Uses Solar Energy to Power Home (UN photo)

Is it more sustainable to eat locally grown grain-fed meat or organic vegetables imported from far away? If all nations decide to curtail global warming by 2°C, how much would we need to cut emissions, and what are the ethically responsible ways to distribute these reduced emissions? Who pays and who benefits when we create a national park in a developing country?

Do these questions intrigue you?  If so, try the new Sustainability, Science and Society (SSS) program. (more…)

How many monkeys to type a book?

Monkey using a laptop computerHere is an interesting old riddle.  If we set up a room full of monkeys, how long would we have to wait before they type out Hamlet?  This is sometimes called the infinite monkey problem.  It does not take a long time to figure out this will be a long time. (more…)

The nation’s timekeeper: McGill and the Dominion Observatory

Image from McGill Archives, lithograph circa 1860s:  In this idealized artist’s sketch, the McGill Observatory is the building at the top left side.

Image from McGill Archives, lithograph circa 1860s: In this idealized artist’s sketch, the McGill Observatory is the building at the top left side.

The Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences marks its 50th anniversary this year, but meteorological work at McGill began about 150 years ago inside a stone tower built by the Dominion of Canada to track the north star and keep time for the freight trains. Known locally as the McGill Observatory, this tower enclosed a 7-foot telescope and stood on the bluff just behind what is today the Leacock Building. “The nation’s timekeeper” was housed inside this tower, and most of Canada’s clocks in the last century were set by McGill’s time!
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Toppermost of the poppermost

Student Holding Successful Exam PaperMcGill aspires to be one of the world’s Grande Ecoles.  How do we get there, from where we are now?  When I started as Dean of Science several years ago, this is something to which I gave a lot of thought, and I still think about it a lot. A meeting I had with a Dean at another University from Europe when I started snapped this into focus for me.

At the time, both of us were young (in Dean years) newly-minted academic administrators – or more precisely, and with the benefit of hindsight, both of us were know-nothing, overly-aggressive academic administrators, who thought we had all the solutions to all issues.  Both our institutions were highly ranked on respected international scales.   And both of us were committed to moving our Faculties up in those rankings. (more…)

The strange and unusual world of patents

A device for the treatment of hiccups (United States Patent 7062320)

A device for the treatment of hiccups (United States Patent 7062320)

Which famous inventor was furious when his father-in-law applied for a patent before the inventor thought it was ready to go? Answer below, or in this book: The Reluctant Genius by Charlotte Gray (TK6143 B4 G73 2006 in the Schulich Library).

Before the answer, you should know that there are still lots to be invented. The patent application to the United States Patent and Trademark Office for a hiccup treatment is a cup that gives you a shock when you take a drink. However, a patent has yet to be granted. (more…)

What is Science, and what’s in it for me?

The Thinker (Auguste Rodin, 1840-1917)

The Thinker (Auguste Rodin, 1840-1917)

To be a Dean of Science means different things, in a shallow sense, at different institutions.  At the same time it means the same thing, in a deep way, at any institution.  Some Universities have Computer Science in their business schools, some have Biology and Chemistry in their medical schools, some have Mathematics, Psychology, and Geography in their arts faculties, some have Physics, Geology, and Meteorology in their engineering faculties, and some would have a Natural Museum in their office of public affairs.  All of these are in Science at McGill, and make up the Science Faculty.  At another university, another, almost random mix of departments might make up a science faculty.  But, whatever the mix of Departments and Schools which make up a Faculty of Science at any institution, there is only one point of view on what science is, and what it means to all universities.
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Mini-Science Q & A – Are cell phones and WiFi harmful to your health?

Mini-Science logo At the conclusion of each Mini-Science lecture, audience members submit their questions to the evening’s presenter, who answers as many as possible on the spot. Three of the unanswered questions are sent to the presenter for posting here. Here are questions from Dr. Lorne Trottier’s lecture “Are cell phones and WiFi harmful to your health? ” (May 19, 2010 ).
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Mini-Science Q & A – Homeopathy: dilution or delusion?

Mini-Science logo At the conclusion of each Mini-Science lecture, audience members submit their questions to the evening’s presenter, who answers as many as possible on the spot. Three of the unanswered questions are sent to the presenter for posting here. Here are questions from Dr. Ariel Fenster’s lecture “Homeopathy: dilution or delusion?” (May 12, 2010 ).
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Life in Hong Kong

By Edmund Lam

Edmund Lam at a temple in Hong Kong

One of the primary reasons for choosing Hong Kong as an exchange locale was because most of my extended family lives in Hong Kong. In addition, my parents, who usually live in Montreal, are here in Hong Kong for a few months. As such, I have had, in the last month here in Hong Kong, more family dinners and functions than the first 20 years of my life!
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Mini-Science Q & A – Creationism, evolution, and God

Mini-Science logo At the conclusion of each Mini-Science lecture, audience members submit their questions to the evening’s presenter, who answers as many as possible on the spot. Three of the unanswered questions are sent to the presenter for posting here. Here are questions from Dr. Brian Alters’ lecture “Creationism, evolution, and God” (May 5, 2010 ).
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Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.