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The Potatoes of Thanksgiving

Variety of fingerling potatoes. Source: iStock.com

When I lived in Philadelphia, I found out that American Thanksgiving is similar to but different from Canadian Thanksgiving.

It is something like bottles of Coke. When I moved to the States, all the bottles were 16 ounces. Canadian Coke bottles were 12 ounces. I was perplexed, as I didn’t understand the reason for the extra four ounces. My thirst was quenched after 12 ounces. Years later, I moved back to Canada to work at McGill. I was perplexed again. Twelve ounces was not enough. I was still thirsty.

At Canadian Thanksgiving, families get together and eat a big bird, just like in the States. But it is a holiday like any other. In the States, it is the biggest holiday of the year, it is a major family thing. People get worried if you are spending Thanksgiving alone. So they invite you to their home. What follows is a very heavily disguised, perhaps true story which I have told people occasionally when asked about reasonable accommodation. (more…)

Science and religion

Reflection in eye. Looking up at the ceiling of the Bahá'í Centre of Learning, Hobart, Tasmania.

Image: JalalV / Wikimedia Commons

Years ago I had breakfast with a well-known scientist, let’s call him Richard.  Richard had just finished a book on science, creationism, and religion.  That was pretty much all Richard talked about: it turns out he was not a big fan of creationism – neither am I, if you are curious – and also he was not a big fan of religion.  Actually, I am understating it: he hated religion.  He really really hated it.  His opinion started me thinking.  I was surprised by his vehemence, as it did not match my own recollection of my Roman Catholic upbringing.  His anger seemed misplaced when I thought about those I knew who had become nuns or gone into the priesthood.  Those people were touched deeply by something, a sense of wonder about the way of the world, they had a need to commit themselves to that mystery. (more…)

The academic legacy of Heather Munroe-Blum

Arts Building cupola with flag, looking outward to downtown MontrealI wish to reflect upon the academic legacy of Principal Heather Munroe-Blum. I appreciate deeply the Principal’s contributions to McGill, which have changed us for the better. How has the academic leadership of the Principal been expressed? It is both more subtle and more pervasive than one might think. (more…)

If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, why are scientists from Earth?

Solar system

I was lucky. When I was looking for an academic job in the early to mid-eighties, I looked to the success of the people who had graduated a few years before me to get some idea of my chances, naturally enough. To first order, it was pretty easy to calculate my chances. All the scientists a few years older than me had exactly the same success getting academic jobs: no success at all.

I admit to not finding this all that encouraging, but I nevertheless could not stop myself from working on science. And then, dumb luck came my way, as the job market for academics opened up at exactly the time I was looking for a position. At McGill, as a characteristic example, I and a few of my soon-to-be friends, were the first physicists hired in fifteen years. Versions of my story are shared by many scientists of my age (born in the mid to late 1950’s, a bit younger than baby-boomers). We could not stop ourselves from working on science despite the apparent long odds, and luck came our way. I don’t mean crazy world-changing, lottery-winning luck, I just mean lucky. If you want to be a scientist, you should really want it, because on top of everything else, you might just have to be a little lucky.

Why isn’t it hard to rip a piece of paper in half?

Tearing Paper

Interesting scientific questions come in at least two categories. The first category comprises those big questions that everyone knows. Things like the origin of the universe, how consciousness works, ways to ensure that our brother and sister species – and we – survive and prosper, how to build better computers with better algorithms, build better roads and buildings, conquer disease, and so forth.

The second category also comprises those things that everyone knows, but they are things we do not see as questions. I’ve written about some of these before. For example, while everyone agrees consciousness is a big question, we rarely stop to appreciate how truly strange the way we think is. While everyone agrees the origin of the universe is a big question, we rarely stop to appreciate how truly strange the universe’s complexity and richness is. (more…)

Reflections on WISEMS, the first annual Women in Science, Engineering and Medicine Symposium

by Katharine Yagi

Julie Payette

WISEMS participant Julie Payette, B. Eng. McGill '86, Québec Scientific Representative to the US / Canadian Astronaut.

On Saturday October 13th, I attended the first annual Women in Science, Engineering and Medicine Symposium (WISEMS). I am a graduate student, studying in the field of ecology and conservation biology. I’ve had a passion for biology since I was three years old, and I haven’t wavered in my choice to follow it through to graduate school. I was fortunate enough to be accepted to McGill University, where so many important historical women have graduated from, and this symposium showed me in detail how many significant contributions to science women from McGill University have made. It was very interesting to hear what these speakers had to say about their own experiences in the field of science and engineering as women. I honestly hadn’t given it much thought in the past, but now that I reflect on the symposium as a whole, women really did, and still do, have to put more effort into their jobs to prove they deserve to be where they are, especially if it is any high-calibre academic position, positions of authority or positions where men tend to dominate.

Questions that people ask the Dean, and the answers that I give

Question marks

I was interviewed for the job of Dean of Science some years ago in December of 2004, shortly before Christmas.  I was asked a number of questions, which I admit now to having largely forgotten.  Even at the time, I remember being preoccupied by the coming Holiday season.  But, with hindsight, I see this was a turning point.  Since then, many of the questions I have been asked are asked because I’m the Dean.  A lot of these are paperwork things like, can a dossier be a day late, or can the Faculty contribute to some project, or something like that.  A surprising number are not though. (more…)

Expo 67: the world is made of ideas

The US Pavilion for Expo '67, which now houses the Montreal Biosphere Museum.

When I was ten years old, my family went to Expo 67, the Man and his World Fair in Montréal.  I remember this as an astonishing event: the passports, the pavilions, the monorail, the people.  Canada was 100 years old, and Montréal’s sights were toward the future, not the past.  It was an exciting time.

In fact, I think it might have been more than an exciting time.  I think it was a time when the world became seized with innovation, invention, creativity, and a sense of wonder and possibility.  Expo 67 was just one example of this. That sense of possibility informed the excitement of Pierre Trudeau’s election the following year.  It informed the music and overwhelming experience of Jimi Hendrix, and many other artists.  It is no coincidence that scientific laws discovered at the time refer to “universality classes”, where properties are “self-similar”.  In fact whatever was in the air was so pervasive, it was in commercial advertisements, “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony…” went the jingle for Coca-Cola. It was the common language and mind-set of the times: the ideas of equality of opportunity for all people, and particularly of living now, in the present.  There was some sloppy thinking as well: “being here now” can lead to nihilism, where surrender to the realm of the senses becomes the only objective.  In any case, it is easy to recognize this ideology in hindsight; it was the language of the enlightenment, of naturalism and humanism, expressed in the streets rather than in scholarly tomes. It was a world consensus, empowering but more fragile than thought at the time; elements of this consensus remain in place – and indeed this ideology forms the basis of the meritocracies which constitute modern Universities – but it is no longer a public ideology. (more…)

Don’t send that email; pick up the phone!

By Victor Chisholm

Student Holding Books and Talking on Her Cell Phone on a Sunny Afternoon.Travel takes us out of our daily routines and usual places, so with an open mind, a traveller can easily find himself or herself bombarded with new ideas. I was a little surprised –but not that surprised – that it was two recent vacations by bicycle that pointed me to the perils of information in the digital age. All you who rely on search engines for your information, beware!

In the summer of 2011, I spent a few weeks cycling through some of the most beautiful parts of the province of Quebec, camping along the way. Quebec has some excellent tourist offices to help a tired and hungry cyclist find the best places to eat, stock up on provisions, and camp. The staff were very helpful and friendly, but I noticed a digital divide in information. It was not what I expected. (more…)

Origin of the species at Redpath Museum

Redpath Museum. Photo by Torsten Bernhardt.

Redpath Museum. Photo by Torsten Bernhardt.

One of the things that all schoolchildren find fascinating is the origin of our species through evolution.  It is no accident that we share four limbs, two eyes, two ears, and so forth with, for example, our brother and sister species of dogs and cats.  We are very closely related.  If we look back far enough, we can see how we are related to fish and plants.  But there is an earlier point at which we can look back and say, OK, that is when and where we started, these are modern people like you and me.  Picking where modern people started is of course arbitrary, but doing so provides a way to express those values to which we aspire, and what it means to be human.   For example, picking as modern people our early progenitors who only had stone tools does not ring true.  Perhaps a good time to pick is around 50,000 years ago when art, painting, jewelry and ritual gifts became widespread.  It is easy to imagine those people in communities with love and faith and bickering, with families of respectful and disrespectful spouses, children, and pets.  It is easy to imagine those people as the mothers and fathers of our modern age, as we are little different inside, notwithstanding our rocket ships, our color TVs, and other innovations. (more…)

Alice Johannsen, woman of the mountains

By Ingrid Birker, with help from Tania Aldred

Alice Johannsen

Alice Johannsen prepares for the exhibit "The Pacific in Peace and War", circa 1945. McGill University Archives, PR026515.

Alice Elizabeth Johannsen was born in 1911 in Havana, Cuba, but she was raised in the mountains of Norway and the Adirondacks of New York State. She also worked most of her life at two major cultural institutions sited under two small mountains in the Monteregian chain.  She was a geologist, naturalist and educator.  She was the daughter of well-known skier Herman-Smith “Jackrabbit” Johannsen, who introduced Nordic skiing to Canada. In 1984, when I first met her at her home on Mont Saint-Hilaire, she introduced herself as the “imam of the mountain” and immediately took us to see the glacier-scraped rocks she had picked up in Norway and the Laurentians. These mountain rocks were passed around and launched her vibrant three hour nature walk around the site. At the time she was already officially retired but was still active leading educational tours and providing nature interpretation. Her lifelong love of geology, nature, museum education and recreation was infectious and it started young. (more…)

Where do all the socks go?

Colourful socks

Image source: USDA ARS via Wikimedia Commons

(Everyone is familiar with losing socks.  No matter how careful you are, or more precisely how careful you think you are, socks inexorably disappear.  Scientists have the same problem.  Or rather, in addition to the sock problem, scientists have a related problem: the disappearing book problem.  Typically, we don’t have a lot of books compared to scholars in the humanities, but the ones we have decrease in number over time.  I was thinking about this recently when I was asked to write a book review, and I enclose that review for Physics in Canada directly below.  Some of it is a little technical, for which I apologize for this forum, and heads up as well for a private joke: my PhD supervisor was Rashmi.) (more…)

Unintended consequences: With red squares in the sunset, what is the value of a University education?

Tree growing out of bookExcuse me while I back into this.  In Charlottetown PEI, when I was young, for one day each year children would wear masks and roam the streets at night, walking from door to door to get candy from neighbours.  At some point children started to wear face paint instead of masks so they could see cars coming.  At some point parents started to walk with children to ensure their safety.  At some point people only visited homes of those they knew.  And, at some point in Charlottetown PEI and everywhere else, people started to lock their doors, and groups of masked children no longer roamed the streets on Halloween night calling out trick or treat.  With the benefit of hindsight, an unintended consequence is revealed – a last Halloween trick – our fear for our children diminished our community: our neighbours first became strangers and then potential predators. (more…)

Mini-Science 2012 Q&A: “The pain-reward connection”

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. Here are some of the best questions from Dr. Petra Schweinhardt’s May 9 talk, “The pain-reward connection.”

Q: Why are opioids released higher up in the brain? (more…)

Mini-Science 2012 Q&A: “Just say know: what marijuana has taught us about pain control”

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. Here are some of the best questions from Dr. Mark Ware’s May 2 talk, “Just say know: what marijuana has taught us about pain control.”

Q: What can you tell us about smoked cannabis for chronic neuropathic pain? (more…)

Mini-Science 2012 Q&A: “Helping people with pain resume occupational involvement”

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. Some of the best questions are posted here. Here are questions from Dr. Michael Sullivan’s April 25 talk, “Helping people with pain resume occupational involvement.” (more…)

Sabbatical: Release?

Text and photos by Prof. Prakash Panangaden, School of Computer Science.

Giving a talk in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Giving a talk in Sofia, Bulgaria.

I was curious about the etymology of the word “sabbatical” after just completing one last August. There is the obvious connection to “sabbath”, which suggests a once-every-seven-years cycle. Apparently it comes from the Hebrew “Shmita” and means the land is to lie fallow once every seven years, with activities like planting and harvesting forbidden. So much for etymology!

Perhaps no other academic practice is so open to misunderstanding as the sabbatical. For many outside the University it is deemed to be a year long “holiday.” I remember thinking to myself as I hauled my suitcase off yet another luggage carousel on my way to give yet another talk that I would slug anyone who asked me “how was your vacation?” Mine was anything but a fallow time. I counted 37 lectures that I gave in my sabbatical year, very few of which were repeats. I racked up far too many frequent flyer miles, travelling to Australia, Bulgaria, Germany, Iceland, New Orleans and even Toronto. I was based in Oxford for the whole year so even Toronto was a trans-Atlantic trip. But was it all just a travel junket? (more…)

Mini-Science 2012 Q&A: “Pain, friends, sex and your mother” and “Why a broken heart really does hurt”

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. Some of the best answered or unanswered questions are sent to the presenter for posting here. Here are questions from the third and fourth lectures in the series.

Publish or perish

BooksAcademics and academic administrators are always looking for ways to measure and quantify performance.  That is, how can we tell if someone is doing, or not doing, excellent science?  This is easy to assess in hindsight – excellent science is that which advances the field – but it is a surprisingly tough question to answer in real time, because the scientists doing the work are studying right at the boundaries of what is known.  The scientific method provides the rules for the game, but it does not keep score: there are no infallible scorekeepers regarding the importance of just-discovered knowledge.  This is why we enlist the work of other active scientists to assess quality, called peer review.  It is a cumbersome method.  We do this for publishing scientific papers, for decisions on hiring, on tenure, to prepare nominations for awards, and so forth.  The real-time assessment of science and of scientists is a lot of work. (more…)

Mini-Science 2012 Q&A: “The chemical conquest of pain” and “How the mind can alter pain”

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. Some of the best answered or unanswered questions are sent to the presenter for posting here. Here are questions from the first two lectures.

Origami pteranodon: Mathematical art at the Redpath Museum

Text by Ingrid Birker.

Robert Lang, one of the world’s leading artists in origami—Japanese paper folding—just happens to be a physicist who loves animals and math. He puts mathematics into his folded animal sculptures by using his MacBook Pro, TreeMaker and ReferenceFinder — two freeware programs he created — and Wolfram’s Mathematica, to convert simple stick figures into full-blown origami crease patterns.

According to Lang, “The cool thing about origami is that it is a very mathematical art. In many arts, there’s pure artistic skill. In origami, it’s almost half and half. You can do things with pure art, you can do things with pure math, but if you put them together, you get far more satisfying results than either one alone.” (more…)

Traces from the past

Text by Ingrid Birker. Photos by Torsten Bernhardt.

Wooden column showing the marks of time, Redpath MuseumTypical of a museum junkie, my favourite things in life are leftovers from the past. Most often these historical items are not large or monumental, or even striking. Often, the relics that I am most attracted to are small, rough and left behind by unknown sources. At the Redpath Museum in Montreal, where I have worked since 1981, some leftovers are imbedded into the pillars of century-old columns that hold up the lecture hall. These marks were made by students who listened to countless hours of discourse, and were compelled to leave behind a remnant of their own existence. So they carved their initials into the wood. Often they noted their degree and the year it was granted. For instance, SB Fraser, proudly capitalized his name and graduating degree in “MED” in 1907. Above his inscription is the scratching left by HL Snyder from Shawinigan Falls. He carved his rank as “#2 C.A.U.C. ’44”. It seems that he was training for the army as well as studying and probably served in WWII. Other engravers were clearly sardonic such as: “Chris Columbus 1492.” (more…)

Holiday fun ideas inspired by Sam the Christmas Dog

(By Martin Grant, Dean of Science)

Small dog wearing reindeer antlers

As we come out of a long strike by our support staff, like everyone at McGill, I am pretty tired and not in the mood for fun or even a holiday – but boy oh boy do I need one, as does everyone else here.  With that thought in mind, I would like to suggest a few family-fun things for the holiday season, in the spirit of the advice of Sam the Christmas Dog which I suggested last year: see family and friends, relax and have fun, and don’t take yourself too seriously.  So, to get everyone out of their bah-humbug moods, here are some ideas for Holiday fun for kids of all ages! (more…)

Africa… What a magic place!

At the equator

At the equator

Martine Dolmière is the Faculty of Science’s Internship and Field Studies Officer, and helps coordinate our Canadian Field Study in Africa Program. She was so interested to see the kinds of things our students see that she recently spent part of her own vacation in Kenya and Uganda. Her hosts were Professors Lauren Chapman (Biology) and Colin Chapman (Anthropology), who conduct their field research in Uganda and also teach in the CFSIA program.

We left Montreal on a Wednesday evening. Flying through London allowed us to have a long lay over and to have a chance to hop on the tube (the metro) for a short downtown visit. We reached Entebbe (Uganda) 48 hours after leaving Canada.  As we were stepping off the airplane we were pleasantly surprised by how comfortable the temperature was.  We rode to Kampala with Robert (our cab driver). On the way to the city we were stopped couple times by armed soldiers. Finally I asked Robert why so many checkpoints were erected on the road to the capital. The new elected president of Uganda, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni was arriving by airplane the same day we landed.  We passed his convoy as we were approaching the city limits. (more…)

The black tie and the purple tie

Neckities in a rowIn my office I keep two ties for emergencies.  I do not mean emergencies like preventing a fire or helping someone with a health problem.  Rather I mean occasions where I should be wearing a tie, but regrettably I have shown up to work without one.  One tie is black, one is purple.  I have never worn the purple tie, though I may one day.  I have worn the black tie once.

In the fall of 2009, I received a call that I was to be interviewed on television on very short notice.  Usually such interviews involve our Principal or one of our Vice-Principals, but they were unfortunately unavailable.  Being without a tie I looked at my two emergency ties, and picked the black one. (more…)

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