Detectives, dildos, death and more! Tom Levenson on Newton & the Counterfeiter

“It’s partly the problem of what happens when you become famous and bored.”

What sounds like a description of the latest rehab-destined movie star is instead how science writer Tom Levenson introduced me to  Sir Isaac Newton’s unexpected transition from one of the greatest scientists of his time to a detective doggedly pursuing criminals. (more…)

The Moondog Coronation Ball, biological classification and Guided by Voices: together at last

This is an updated version of a post written as Song of the Week at The Finch & Pea on March 23, 2012.

Nearly 20, 000 people were beating on the doors of a venue that could hold less than 10, 000 shouting, “Let us in!” The tickets for the  second night had all been printed with the same date as the first. Faced with the overwhelming numbers, the police waded into the crowd and ordered the opening act, Paul “Huckerbuckers” Williams to stop shortly after he began. A man was stabbed as the confused crowd dispersed. On the surface, The Moondog Coronation Ball, March 21, 1952 in Cleveland, was a total disaster. It was also a defining moment for 20th century music. (more…)

Learning about science education from the experts: Kids

By far the best panel on science education I’ve seen recently was given by a few of the most important people in the field: kids.

I met them at LogiCon, an Edmonton-based science and critical thinking outreach event held annually at The Telus World of Science. The two-day meeting, April 14-15 this year, was open to all science centre visitors, adults and kids, and featured talks by researchers, writers, educators and more. There were talks on scientific topics, from vaccines to particle physics, and scientific thinking, such as how to evaluate claims in the media. One section of the conference was devoted to sessions for families and kids, and of course that’s the part I couldn’t resist attending. (more…)

Don’t count the feathers: Dan Mangan, nature study and a surprise Charley Harper reference

This is an updated version of a post written as Song of the Week at The Finch & Pea on February 25, 2012.

Dan Mangan‘s “About as Helpful As You Can Be Without Being Any Help At All”, from his 2011 album Oh Fortune, has more than a few layers to peel back. The mysterious title is crying out for interpretation, but that’s not nearly the most interesting thing about the song. (more…)

The blink comparator and The Rural Alberta Advantage’s Barnes’ Yard

It’s been two months now since I started writing regularly about science and music as the DJ at the online science pub The Finch & PeaIt has quickly become one of my favourite things to do each week. To celebrate I’m posting a few of my favourites here at Boundary Vision. These are the ones that most represent to me the intersection between science and culture that I aim for here. Enjoy!

With rich dark wooden curio cabinets and a narrow book-filled balcony accessed by a steep staircase, the Rotunda at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff feels like a natural home for the distinguished early 20th century scientist. Feeling the warm glow of scientific discoveries past, there was one thing in the room I couldn’t take my eyes off: the glass plates and elegant brass eyepiece of the blink comparator used to discover Pluto. (more…)

Talking about theories with David Dobbs on Skeptically Speaking

“What is a legitimate theory? How do you know a legitimate theory when you see one? How do you generate a legitimate theory?”

During our April 1 interview on Skeptically Speaking, David Dobbs pinpointed these as the heart of his 2005 book “Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral.” It tells the gripping human story of Alexander Agassiz, growing up in his father’s shadow and dedicating himself to an evidence-based quest to disprove Darwin’s coral reef theory.  I often teach undergrad classes that ask similar questions. Next time, I might just send my students to read his book instead. It is a fascinating account of several scientific giants and those around them trying to sort of what science is. You can read the great serialized excerpts he has been posting on his blog at and find my interview with him at Skeptically Speaking.

#BoraZUofA Linkfest: A collection of the sites and posts referenced in Bora’s talks

Scientific American blog editor Bora Zivkovic‘s visit to the University of Alberta was a wonderful whirlwind of talks on science education, science communication, open science, peer review and the scientific publishing industry. I’ve summarized his talks in an overview of the week. If you’re interested in a more in-depth look, Bora has also shared a list of links to the sites, posts and people he mentioned or used in his talks (or intended to use in some cases). It’s a terrific guide to exploring these issues online. (more…)

#BoraZUofA: A thought-provoking week with Bora Zivkovic

Enjoying some Tim Horton's treats while visiting Joel Dacks's lab

Just a few weeks ago I waved goodbye to Scientific American blogs editor Bora Zikovic and thanked him for a wonderful week of talks at the University of Alberta. Somehow in just a week we’d managed to chat about science teaching, science blogs, the history of academic publishing, open-access, post-publication peer review, science on Twitter and so much more. It was exciting and exhausting, and my ideas notebook is completely full.

As part of the University’s Distinguished Visitor program, a small group of faculty from cell biology (Joel Dacks), anthropology (Bora’s brother, Marko Zivkovic) and science education (me) brought Bora to town to speak with students and faculty. No matter what the topic, the theme seemed to be: keep an open mind. Be willing to consider new ways of doing things but also remember that they might not be as they first appear. (more…)

My interview with Deborah Blum author of The Poisoner’s Handbook

“I had been thinking about the best way to communicate chemistry. I’m a failed chemistry major from way back when and I wanted to find a way to kind of subversively write about chemistry, to tell stories that I would weave chemistry into without being a tutorial. Just like ‘this is a really cool story and along the way you’re going to learn some chemistry’ and I thought well, there’s no better way to do that than to tell a murder story. ”

And so began my conversation last week with science writer and journalism professor Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner’s Handbook. I was honoured to take on guest hosting duties for Skeptically Speaking (a science radio show normally hosted by the wonderful Desiree Schell) and to have the chance to talk to Deborah about chemistry, poisons, and writing compelling stories about science. Spoiler: the first thing Deborah says is “It makes me sound so creepy” Now that’s good radio!

You can listen to or download the interview at Skeptically Speaking.

Do scientific explanations have to ruin wonder? Stargazing and more with songwriter Jim Fitzpatrick

Jim Fitzpatrick and I met on an airport shuttle from Phoenix to Flagstaff. It’s not a particularly interesting place to meet someone, but an accident on the highway left us stranded at a gas station with lots of time to chat. Somehow the topic fell to music and it turned out we have a lot in common. Jim’s a musician and song writer who even expressed enthusiasm for Canadian music. We bonded over a shared love of Built to Spill and he patiently listened to my stories of interviewing bands when I was younger. Jim’s also a teacher and was traveling with his dad to a science writing conference. I could hardly imagine a better match to chat with on a long shuttle ride.