Sayanora, Snakes

Helloooooooooooooooo.

Today’s the last day for the Royal Saskatchewan Museum’s popular Snakes Alive exhibit, featuring all nine native Saskatchewan snake species. It’s excellent, so if you haven’t been yet… the museum opens at 9:30. Better hustle! There’s a stage show at 2:30 that will teach you things. I caught it Sunday and it was interesting and educational. That said, the highlight is the reptiles, who were very frisky yesterday. Maybe they know they’ll be released into the wild in the next few days?

Here are some photos:

Prairie Rattlesnake thinks it’s so cool. It is.
The tiny smooth green snake is very very very green.
The eastern yellow-bellied racer is Saskatchewan’s most bitey snake.
My 20-year-old pet corn snake Rusty is not in the exhibit but he’s very cute and people love him, so there.
Bye snakes. You are awesome.

Snakes Alive: Snakes of Saskatchewan

Photo credit: Darrol Hofmeister
Photo credit: Darrol Hofmeister

If you happened to read the cover story in our May 12 issue you’ll know that the Royal Saskatchewan Museum is getting ready to unveil a new temporary exhibit. The exhibit is devoted to the nine snake species that are native to Saskatchewan, and will include live specimens from each species.

The exhibit has a grand opening on Friday May 20 from 1:30-4 p.m. that will involve a variety of family-friendly activities. Then on Thursday May 26 the exhibit curator Ray Poulin will be giving a talk on snakes at the RSM at 7 p.m. This is a licensed event, but people 19 and under can attend if accompanied by an adult.

The exhibit will be on until May 2017 so if you like snakes you’ll have plenty of opportunities to commune with them at the Royal Sask. Museum in the months to come.

Release The Bats!

On Thursday May 12 the Saskatchewan Science Centre is hosting an evening event centred around releasing a number of bats that had been hibernating at the centre over the winter.

You can read more on the SSC website,  but doors are at 7:15 p.m., and the actual release of the bats, which should happen around 9:15 p.m., will be preceded by a talk by noted University of Regina bat expert Mark Brigham with input from a grad student named Shelby and a special bat handler at the Science Centre named Sheila.

The event is described as being for all ages, so if you and/or any family members/acquaintances are bat enthusiasts it’s something you might want to check out.

Mercury Transit

Path of Mercury's transit in 2006 as charted by NASA
Path of Mercury’s transit in 2006 as charted by NASA

On Saturday, universities across Canada held Science Rendezvouses where they invited the public to stop by for all sorts of fun and enlightening activities related to the world of science.

It’s too bad the astronomical event that’s happening Monday didn’t happen on Saturday instead as it’s something most members of the public will need some professional assistance in order to appreciate.

Starting Monday at 5:12 a.m. Regina time Mercury, the innermost planet in our solar system, will begin a transit across the face of the Sun. Mercury orbits the Sun once every 88 days, but because of the way its orbit is tilted in relation to Earth, transits happen only 13 times every century — always in May or November, and visible only from particular areas of Earth depending on the time of day.

Monday’s transit coincides with sunrise in Regina, and will last until 12:42 p.m. So assuming we have cloud-free skies, we’ll have what CBC describes as an “exceptional view”. If you’re an experienced astronomer, you can view the transit through your own equipment. But if you’re in need of professional help you can find some in-person and on-line viewing options here.

More Prayer In The Legislature Stuff

The Centre For Inquiry Canada has started a national petition campaign calling on the Saskatchewan government to end the practice of opening each session of the legislature with a Christian prayer as has been done since 1905. The Centre is also calling on Premier Brad Wall specifically to cease issuing an official Christian-themed Christmas message in his capacity as premier of Saskatchewan.

Both the prayer, and the Christian-themed message, go against the grain of a unanimous Supreme Court ruling in April 2015 that held that the state and its various agencies and representatives owe a duty of neutrality to all citizens in matters of religious belief or non-belief.

You can find out about the petition here.

Petition Circulating To End Prayer In The Legislature

The other day I posted about the Shift To Reason conference that was being held in Regina on Saturday. One initiative to come out of the conference, according to this CBC report, is a petition asking the Saskatchewan government to end the practice of opening each legislative session with an Anglican-derived prayer as has been the custom since the province entered Confederation in 1905.

The petition is a belated response to a Supreme Court ruling in April 2015 in a case involving city council meetings in Saguenay, QC that also opened with a prayer. In an unanimous decision, the court said that the state owed a duty of neutrality to all citizens in matters of religious belief (or non-belief) and that having a prayer at the start of a city council meeting violated that principle.

Following that ruling, Regina city council indicated it would end its practice of starting meetings with a prayer. While the ruling dealt specifically with a municipal council, the Supreme Court’s use of the word “state” seemed to leave open the possibility of the ruling having implications beyond the municipal level.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall was quite vocal in his belief that prayer had a place in the legislature and that his government was not interested in applying the Supreme Court decision to legislative proceedings. I did a news article on this issue in April, and wrote a follow-up editorial in June, suggesting that position likely wouldn’t pass constitutional muster.

It is true that, unlike city councils, provincial legislatures (and the federal Parliament) do enjoy a degree of autonomy from the legal framework we operate under as ordinary citizens. That autonomy is known as “parliamentary privilege”. But as I noted in my editorial, it operates only in very specific circumstances and is tied to rights that are absolutely indispensable to our elected representatives carrying out their legislative duties.

As individuals, Saskatchewan MLAs can pray or not as they wish. But when it comes to a state-sanctioned prayer in the legislature, it’s impossible to contemplate a court in the 21st century holding that prayer was indispensable to MLAs carrying out their duties and that parliamentary privilege therefore protected them from an unanimous Supreme Court ruling.

Hopefully we won’t have to go through a costly legal battle to have this issue resolved. But given the Sask. Party government’s track record on stubborn adherence to patently unconstitutional positions, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Shift To Reason Conference

Shift To ReasonBilled as Saskatchewan’s first secular conference, this event is being held at the DoubleTree Hilton in downtown Regina on Saturday April 30.

You can find out more on the Shift to Reason Conference website, but the goal of organizers is to promote secular thought and scientific rationalism over other “viewpoints” such as pseudo-science, superstition and whatnot that humans have long relied on in puzzling out the nature of our existence in the cosmos.

The conference runs from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday, and will consist of a mix of speakers and panel discussions exploring issues of interest to the secular community. Line-up information, and a schedule of events, can be found on the above-linked website.

Saskatchewan Fossil Election Enters Final Week

20151128_155129We’ve written and blogged about this election that’s been underway since last fall to select from seven prehistoric candidates a fossil to be an official emblem of Saskatchewan.

If you want a refresher course on what seven fossils are in the running to be our official fossil you can find that here. Similarly, if you’d like to find out which candidate I favour you can discover that here.

For most of the election period, voting has been done in person at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum where sample specimens from each of the seven candidates are on display. Now that the contest is in its final days, though, it’s possible to vote on-line at the RSM website.

Voting closes on April 25, so if you haven’t cast a ballot yet you have a few more days.

Space X Success

I’ve posted before about attempts by the company Space X to land a booster rocket in an upright position on a barge in the ocean. Pretty much since the dawn of space travel, booster rockets that launch astronauts and other payloads into space have simply been jettisoned during the early stages of the mission and have either burned up in the atmosphere or dropped into the ocean. Pundits have compared that to putting a new engine in your car after every time you go for a drive.

What Space X aims to do is recover the rocket intact, which would permit it to be reused — drastically reducing the potential cost of a space mission. After several near misses, Space X succeeded yesterday in landing one of its Falcon 9 rockets in an upright position on the barge.

While such landings are still a long way from being routine, it very definitely was a major step forward for Space X and its visionary founder/Internet billionaire Elon Musk. And if you don’t know already, here’s a bit of local trivia. While Musk himself was born in South Africa, his mother Maye was born in Regina.

So congrats to Musk and his Space X colleagues on their accomplishment.

Talkin’ About Bees: Diversity & Importance

Last summer, we did a bit of writing on bees and the benefits they provide to us. In May 2015, for instance, we did an article on an exhibition the Royal Saskatchewan Museum put together examining the evolution of pollination and how the co-reliant relationship that flowering plants (angiosperms) and pollinators (mostly insects) developed led to a boon in both types of plant and animal life.

The month before that, we did an article on urban beekeeping in advance of a presentation that a local beekeeper was giving at Central Library.

For a variety of reasons tied to habitat loss, pesticide use, mites and other diseases, bee populations throughout North America are experiencing stress these days. On Monday March 7 at 7 p.m. York University biology professor Laurence Packer will be giving a talk at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum on work he’s done studying bees in the field. Packer is regarded as one of the world’s foremost bee experts, so if you’re into bees, it should be an interesting talk. Admission is free.

Weekly Reckoning: Letterboxed Edition

weekly-reckoningPeople ask me if “recondite” is defined as “a reckoning so explosive that it’s like dynamite.” Which is a weird question! The answer, obviously, is no.

1 HAN SHOOTS FIRST, AGAIN For years, it’s been impossible to see the first Star Wars movie (you know, Episode IV: A New Hope) without George Lucas’ CGI tinkering and digital upgrading. Somehow, a group of diehard Star Wars fans calling themselves Team Negative 1 found a print of the original film, and now you can watch a restored version of the film! If you’re willing to go poking around on torrent sites, that is.

2 OKAY, BUT RIGHT AFTER THIS WE DESTROY THEM ALL Welcome to the “mosquito factory,” a lab where scientists perform research on mosquitoes to discover cures for Zika and so on. Apparently those terrible proboscis-bearing hemophages are useful. At least for now.

3 SWINGLINE SWEET CHARIOT Here is an article about one of the coolest objects of all time: the stapler.

4 IRAQ IS DOING JUST GREAT Corruption and falling oil prices are wreaking havoc on Iraq.

5 WHAT IS THE REPUBLICAN PARTY WITHOUT A BUSH? Jeb Bush has quit the nomination race, which is as good an indicator as any that the traditional Republican party of conservative American aristocrats in a complete shambles. It’s too bad, because he was probably the closest thing they had to a real candidate.

Great Minds Think Alike

20151128_155046As you’re likely aware, Saskatchewan is in the midst of a five-month campaign to choose an official fossil.

We did a cover feature on the project in late November where we highlighted the seven nominees that had been put forward by the Royal Saskatchewan Museum and other organizers and outlined how the voting worked.

In a follow-up blog post a few days later, I said that while all seven fossils/species (such as the short-necked plesiosaur pictured above) were worthy candidates  to represent the province as an official emblem there was really only one choice — Scotty the T. rex.

To begin with, the Tyrannosaurus Rex is one the best-known dinosaur species. As far as carnivores go, it was pretty bad-ass. And no other province or state has yet selected it as their fossil. So it’s got a huge upside as far as promotional value for Saskatchewan. Plus Scotty is one of only around 20 partial T. rex skeletons ever found, and it’s pretty much the largest and most complete one in the world.

See, it’s a no-brainer!

On Feb. 17 Royal Saskatchewan Museum paleontologist Emily Bamforth issued her own endorsement of Scotty as Saskatchewan’s official fossil in a blog post titled “Why My Vote Is For Scotty”.

Voting’s on until April, in-person at the RSM where the fossils are on display, with an on-line component being added for the last two weeks or so. So cast away everyone.

Weekly Reckoning

weekly-reckoningWho wants to reckon?

HOW THE BIRDS FLY I watched this animated map of bird migration patterns for an embarrassingly long time. Check out the bird that only goes as far south as Cape Breton. What’s that bird thinking? But then, I suppose that if you’re spending your summers at Ellesmere Island, a rocky outcrop at the end of the Maritimes seems like a good deal.

NOW WITH 3 PER CENT MORE WAGYU If you’re thinking of sampling the menu at Toronto’s uber-fancy Azure Restaurant & Bar, you might as well trawl the aisles of your local Safeway. Organic? Not really. Homemade? Nope. Wagyu steak? Not at all.

MAWR SEKRIT BOWIE Even from the grave, David Bowie isn’t done with us. It turns out that the prolific artist had decades of unreleased material, some of which we may get to hear in 2017. Yay! Also, they’re rebooting Labyrinth! Non-yay.

GETTING DOWN WITH THE REPTILE AGENDA Is your spirit dead? If not, take a look at this dating site for Lizard People. This honestly feels like something from the weird old days of the Internet, when bored people had time to code strange sites (instead of going to California and forming a startup).

FILES ARE GETTING X-EY After many, many years, the show that dominated the ’90s is back for a six-episode miniseries. The first episode is apparently not the best? But who cares, it’s X-Files.

Missed It By That Much

After notching its first successful landing of a rocket booster in mid-December, SpaceX experienced a setback on the weekend when it attempted to land another booster. Instead of being on solid land as in December, the target this time was a barge in the Pacific Ocean.

Twice previously, SpaceX has attempted to land rocket boosters on barges and failed. While this attempt was unsuccessful too, it went far better than the previous two landings in January and April 2015, with the booster actually touching down before it slowly began to tilt and eventually topple over.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said later that one of the booster’s support legs had failed to lock into place after it had touched down, and that had caused the accident. He further speculated that the failure might have been due to ice build-up from condensation from heavy fog at the time of lift-off.

As might be imagined, a barge landing presents greater challenges than a landing on terra firma. This weekend, waves in the vicinity of the platform were in the three to four metre range. Barge landings offer greater flexibility in the type of launches SpaceX can do, though, so they’re seen as an important step in the development of a reusable rocket booster that would dramatically reduce the cost of space missions.

Here’s a short video clip of the Falcon 9 rocket’s descent:

The Galapagos

Charles_Darwin_seatedLater tonight at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, Nature Regina is hosting an illustrated talk by Ed Rodger and Laurie Koepke on the small group of islands off the coast of Peru that British naturalist Charles Darwin (pictured) visited during a survey expedition by the HMS Beagle. The voyage began shortly after Christmas in 1831, and concluded in October 1836.

Darwin was 22 at the time, and during his nearly five years at sea as a self-funded guest, he conducted wide-ranging surveys of geology and zoology in numerous locations in South America, Australia, Africa and many islands in between. In addition to observing living wildlife, Darwin also discovered fossils of prehistoric creatures.

The Beagle’s visit to the Galapagos Islands occurred in September 1835. While travelling from island to island, Darwin noted slight physiological differences between species of finches, giant tortoises, iguanas and other fauna and flora that he ultimately theorized were due to their having evolved on isolated island habitats over thousands of years.

That insight formed the crux of the theory of natural selection which he went on to develop and ultimately publish in 1859 in a 502 page book titled On the Origin of Species. The Nature Regina talk by Rodger and Koepke goes at the RSM tonight at 7:30 p.m.

Science Marches On

PeriodicTableMutedThere was big news in the world of chemistry yesterday when scientists from Japan, the United States and Russia announced the existence of four new superheavy elements that complete the seventh row of the periodic table. The elements have the atomic numbers 113, 115, 117 and 118 in the updated chart above.

It’s big news, I guess, although these elements, which have yet to be named, don’t exist in nature. Instead, they’re created in labs by slamming lighter elements together so they form a new element that exists only briefly before decaying into smaller components.

That process mimics, to a certain extent, how matter is created in the natural world. That’s done via fusion in stars. Hydrogen, being the simplest atom with one proton and one electron, is by far the most common element in universe. Under massive pressure in stellar interiors, hydrogen atoms “fuse” together to produce helium (two protons, two neutrons and two electrons). This fusion reaction produces some sub-atomic particles, along with a whole pile of energy in the form of light, heat and other radiation that, in the case of our Sun, we rely on for life.

Elements further down on the periodic table such as carbon, nitrogen and oxygen are produced through a similar stellar process using combinations of hydrogen and helium atoms. Carbon, for instance, consists of six protons, six neutrons and six electrons.

The further down you go on the periodic table, the heavier the elements get. The heavier the element is, the more difficult it is to produce in nature. Elements such as sulphur (16 protons, 16 neutrons and 16 electrons) and iron (26 protons, 30 neutrons and 26 electrons), for instance, are only created at the end stages of a star’s life when it becomes unstable and gravitational forces are generated that produce sufficient pressure to fuse larger numbers of atomic elements together.

Then you have elements further down on the periodic table such as silver, gold and platinum that are heavier still. Gold, for instance, has 79 protons, 118 neutrons and 79 electrons, and elements like that are typically only created during a nova/supernova explosion that marks a star’s death. Because of those special circumstances, heavy elements are much rarer in the universe than lighter elements. But they do occur naturally.

We’ve produced synthetic elements before, and the four announced yesterday join that list. As you can read in this Guardian report, scientists will likely continue with experiments to produce even heavier synthetic elements which I guess will open up a whole new row on the periodic table — although how far we can go is unknown. Some scientists speculate there’s a theoretical limit with estimates ranging from atomic number 128 to 173. Although synthetic elements larger than that haven’t been ruled out.

SpaceX Success

After a high-profile failure in April where SpaceX tried to land a rocket booster on an ocean platform, the company run by tech entrepreneur Elon Musk scored a major achievement just before Christmas when it successfully landed a rocket booster on a Florida landing site.

The Falcon 9 rocket’s primary mission was to install 11 satellites in orbit as part of a communications network. Under conventional rocket technology, boosters detach and fall to Earth while the space capsule (whether carrying astronauts or a mechanical payload) continues into orbit.

What Musk is seeking to do is create a reusable booster that would go a long way toward reducing the cost of space flight. Because of Earth gravity, a massive amount of fuel and thrust is required to achieve escape velocity. If the booster, which houses the engine where the thrust is generated, can be reused that’s a huge cost saving that would open the door to much more human activity in space.

Here’s footage of the successful landing here:

RPL 3D Printer

20151228_143706At left is a photo of the 3D printer that the Regina Public Library recently installed at Central Branch. You can find details on how to access the printer on the RPL website. But here are the basics:

First, you need a valid library card. Anyone 15 and under also needs parental permission. Then you register on the website and sign up for a training session. These sessions are held at various branch locations, and provide information on how to submit design proposals using drafting software and what’s called an .stl file (.stl is short for stereolithography).

Once you’ve completed a training session and have an account, you can submit designs to RPL staff who will review the design and provide a cost estimate. Proposed designs have to meet certain terms and conditions. You can’t submit designs for objects that are prohibited by law, for instance, or that violate copyright, patent and trademark protections.

Ready-made designs for some objects can be accessed at websites such as Thingverse. Size is limited to the dimensions of the build area on the printer, and the job can’t exceed 18 hours.

Once the design and cost estimate have been approved by the RPL and you, the job joins the queue and will be “printed” using extruded corn-based plastic. Several colours are available, and the print cost is 10 cents per gram rounded to the nearest gram. Once the object is printed, you’ll receive an e-mail, and can pick up the object at Central Library.