Bill F*cking Nye?! Seriously?

Last week, March 6th, Canada’s Liberal Party was out promoting Budget 2018. This budget has Canada’s scientific community pretty excited because of the huge investment that the Canadian government is making in fundamental research. I am no exception. So last week, the Liberal politicians were out making the rounds to promote the budget and its impact on Canadian science: there was Navdeep Bains visiting Memorial University; there was Finance Minister Bill Morneau at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health and Brain Behaviour Laboratory; and there was Science Minister Kristy Duncan was over at the University of Waterloo. But all eyes were on Canada’s mascot, I mean Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. See Trudeau did his post-budget armchair discussion at the University of Ottawa with none other than Canada’s most prominent scientist and science educator…oh no wait, he sat down with Bill Nye. That’s right, American engineer and television host, Bill F*cking Nye. This pissed me off – so much that I actually had a Twitter rant about it. Bill Nye tweet

I am not one who is usually given to ranting my feelings on social media. I don’t feel that 280 characters is enough to fully express nuanced thoughts, and much of the time it feels like I am trying to talk in a room of 1000 other people all talking at the same time. But here’s my top 3 reasons why I am incredibly disappointed in the PM’s choice to have this discussion with Bill Nye:


I don’t think I can stress this enough. Bill Nye isn’t Canadian. He wasn’t born in Canada. He wasn’t educated in Canada. He never worked in Canada. He hasn’t lived in Canada. He has never paid taxes in Canada. Other than clips of Bill Nye the Science Guy showing up in Canadian science classrooms, he doesn’t have a Canadian connection. He is simply not a stakeholder in Canadian federal budgets.

It is deeply disappointing that of the THOUSANDS of Canadian scientists, myself included, that would have happily discussed the benefits of investing in STEM and research, that of the THOUSANDS of Canadian scientists who could have connected to Canadian taxpayers why it is so important for the government to spend their money on research and innovation even if they themselves aren’t scientists, the Canadian Prime Minister chose an American. Trudeau took away an opportunity for a Canadian voice to be on that platform. He allowed an American, someone who doesn’t benefit from the budget, and doesn’t have to answer to the consequences of the budget to speak on behalf of Canada’s scientific community.

That’s the thing about federal budgets: there is only a limited amount of money to spend. I know as a taxpayer that for every dollar the government spends on research and innovation, that is a dollar that isn’t getting spent on health care or infrastructure. Not to mention that with deficit financing, I will also be the one to pay off that debt. For me, that investment is worthwhile. And I am prepared to champion that to my fellow Canadians as to why they should also feel that matters, regardless of whether or not they are a scientist themselves. How can Bill Nye, an American, speak to any of that? He doesn’t qualify for NSERC grants. He doesn’t have to worry about Canada’s deficit. He’s not looking for jobs in Canada’s oil and gas industry. He doesn’t have to worry about under-funding some other Canadian program in order to fund science.

2) Bill Nye is Not the Only Voice

Okay, I know I have come off pretty hard on Bill Nye. I don’t hate Bill Nye. He’s done a lot for promoting STEM. But science has basically had one spokesman (two if you count Neil deGrasse Tyson) for the last 25 years. That’s not a lot of diversity. There are millions of scientific voices out there. I am personally tired of hearing Bill Nye’s perspective on science. I want to hear more of Jillian Buriak’s, Bonnie Schmidt’s, or on the more famous side Jay Ingram‘s. If I am going to hear about science from an American prospective, how about Raychelle Burks? My point here is that there are a lot of different science voices that can offer insight into why investing in STEM is a great choice for Canada. Bill Nye’s isn’t one of them.

Here’s another thing: Bill Nye’s version of science communication has actually done some damage to science itself. His willingness to entertain non-scientific individuals in debates about creationism or climate change, he has given these science deniers an elevated platform that they wouldn’t normally have. It puts creationism and climate change denial on the same level as scientific fact. It suggests that their beliefs they are passing off as fact are on the same level as scientific data. After all, debates are about two perspectives on the same set of facts right? Thanks Bill, but this wasn’t helpful. Actually, it made it harder for every other scientist trying to promote scientific literacy in the fields of climate change and evolution. This Scientific American article basically explains what I am trying to get at here.

3) The Kinder Morgan Thing

Or as Bill Nye called it “Morgan Kinder“. Pipelines and oil – this is contentious. I don’t want to get into all the science about oil or its impact on the environment. Yes, we know it is bad environmentally; yes, we know it is contributing to climate change; yes, we need to regulate and fix this problem. BUT that doesn’t happen by simply turning off the pipes. (Hey Bill, how’d you get to Canada? Did you like that jet fuel keeping the plane in the air? How about that car from the airport to the University of Ottawa? Was that water bottle you were drinking from plastic?) If you’re in Alberta right now, like me, you know that there is a lot going on in respect to the Trans Mountain Pipeline. The fact that this particular issue is so contentious that British Columbia and Alberta are having to go to the federal government to solve the damn issue should probably say to anyone, especially an American outsider, that maybe this wasn’t the best venue for discussing pipelines and what they mean. (Also, where is Bill discussing American shale gas production?) I go back to my point about Bill Nye not being Canadian. The pipeline is more than a scientific issue in Canada, with stakeholders in many sectors of the Canadian economy. Bill Nye is not one of those stakeholders and his woeful ignorance about this issue’s complexity was on display.

Now, I have ranted on Twitter. I have shared my thoughts here. But none of this is really going to create that much action. I am just not that important. But I believe that by taking action we put more meaning into our words. This is why I actually wrote a letter to the Prime Minister. I doubt that I will get a response, but I couldn’t very well complain about his choice on Twitter and not write to him to share my incredible disappointment in his decision to take away a great opportunity for Canadians to meet their amazing scientists and instead give it to the tired voice of science’s mascot, Bill Nye.

*Full disclosure: I have been a supporter of the Liberal Party but my previous political support does not mean an unconditional support of all their choices. That’s the fun part about democracy.


Dates, Jobs, and Balance in Science

I think it has been pretty clear that I have not been writing as much for Curiosity Science as I would like, even though there is so much to share in the world of science. That has to do with my new adventure: an actual paying job! I am working for Paracel Laboratories as the new business development person for the lab starting in Calgary. What is particularly awesome is that this is also a joint venture with Life Science Forensics. This has given me the opportunity to learn in a new field and also I will be writing for Life Science Forensics blog. It is a great opportunity, but all of this has me spread pretty thin and lacking the inspiration to move forward.

Me and the boy, getting ready for date night.

Me and the boy, getting ready for date night.

Luckily I have a great partner. He’s that handsome one on the right. He knew it was time for us to go out and have a date night. It was a Thursday. Where does he plan to take a scientist who is getting burned out, lacking balance, and getting low in inspiration? He takes her to the Telus Spark Adults Only Night!

Adults Only Night! I am so excited.

Adults Only Night! I am so excited.


This has to be one of the best dates that we had, and we have had some pretty great dates. (And yes, I am wearing molecule earrings. I try to dress on point.) I have always loved going to Telus Spark (or in Edmonton, the Telus World of Science) during regular hours, with all of the kids. My nephew has great fun there, and of course, Auntie will always take him, because, science. But this was BETTER! And not just because they were now selling booze (though, it is a charming perk) but you get to play in all of the exhibits without worry that some kid is going to cut in front of you and grub up what you are looking at. Sure, some rowdy adult might do that, but while people really give you the side-eye if you get annoyed with a six year who is wrecking your wind tunnel experiment with their mindless block stacking, they applaud you for pointing out the line to hold the snake. (I don’t really get mad at 6 year olds; I do point out lines. I like order.)

A fossil on display; a loan from the Royal Tyrrell Museum.

A fossil on display; a loan from the Royal Tyrrell Museum.

This time they had the Dinosaurs in Motion exhibit. Art + Science = Amazing! These are sculptures of dinosaurs that are also like big metal puppets. So you learn about the dinosaurs, you learn about how the sculpture was built, and also how to make them move.

Making a T-Rex move requires some decent force!

Making a T-Rex move requires some decent force!

Ever paid homage to a pulley? The pulley is one of the basic, simple machines, reducing the force required to lift an object. It reminded me of first year physics, where we actually had to calculate the amount of force that pulley would reduce the movement of a load by. Why did none of those problems involve us moving a T-rex? Seriously, it might have actually been an interesting exercise if I had to do that calculation.

Me trying to make this guy move with the playstation controller. It isn't going well.

Me trying to make this guy move with the playstation controller. It isn’t going well.

I can tell you that I was not very good at moving the sculptures attached to playstation controller. Apparently moving passed the simple machine of the pulley was too challenging for me. This exhibit was so neat. I loved the art work. The artist that created these sculptures did a wonderful job. What really struck me with this though was that it was an artistic impression of physics, paleontology, and metallurgy. Science isn’t some esoteric field of study that can only be found in the recesses of dusty books; science is in every part of life, allowing us to create beautiful innovations. Whether it is moving dinosaurs or a new app for our smart phones, science can inspire. And the sheer number of adults queued up behind me just to try their hand at making this guy move, is a testament to just how fun expressions of art and science can be.

After playing with dinosaurs we explored the rest of the exhibits and found that there was a display of reptiles. Now, my partner LOVES snakes! (He may have been the adult that I had to point out the line up to.)

The boy and Steve.

The boy and Steve.

Me and Steve.

Me and Steve.

So that is how we met this guy: his name is Steve and he is a rat snake. And if you can’t tell, the look on my partner’s face is his “quick, stick him your purse and make a run for it” look. Of course, we didn’t. It wouldn’t be right. But we did enjoy snuggling with Steve for a few minutes. Snakes are pretty cool.

This date  was so fun. It was different and amazing. It reminded me of why I love science, why I love talking about science, and why it was important for me to start this project in the first place. I love what I am doing with Paracel and Life Science Forensics. I am just having a little trouble in finding that thing called balance. But luckily for me, Telus Spark had a whole display demonstrating balance in the Dinosaurs in Motion exhibit. Hopefully now I can find some.

Thanks Telus Spark: we had a great date!

Heading home after a great date!

Heading home after a great date!

The Trouble With Science Communication

I dedicate this post to Dr. Brent Rudyk and Nathaniel O’Coin.

The other day Nathaniel asked me “What is the Canadian Light Source?” He has a friend who was recently doing research at the CLS and didn’t know what it was. His friend was doing near-edge x-ray absorption spectorscopy. I hit a communication block: how do I explain this? I mean, I know what the technique is; I had a number of colleagues while I was in grad school making trips to the CLS and yet I found myself struggling to explain what CLS and near-edge x-ray spectroscopy is. I mentioned it on facebook and my friend, Dr. Rudyk, came back with a GREAT explanation: “CLS is a synchrotron, where highly intense, tunable x-rays are created by bending near light speed electrons. X-ray absorption near-edge spectroscopy (XANES) is the process of promoting a core electron into conduction states and analyzing the resulting “edge-jump” and the general vicinity of the jump.” I was excited. I couldn’t have said it better. I immediately recalled the classes I discussed it in. But here’s the problem: Nathaniel still didn’t quite understand. See he has no chemistry or science background, meaning that the terms “conduction state”, “edge-jump” still didn’t help him understand what was going on.

This whole situation really demonstrates the challenge in communicating science to a non-technical audience. My friend Brent is a wonderful teacher, easy to talk to, and is a great communicator, and yet, his perfect description of XANES and CLS still didn’t help Nathaniel understand. How do we, as scientists, make our explanations more accessible to non-technical audiences without coming off as condescending? This is what the mission of Curiosity Science is all about. I hope that those of you who follow with interest bare with us as we learn to talk about science most accessibly and I hope that other scientists interested in contributing to the project recognise the challenge and the wonderful opportunity that we have.

So with all of this in mind: here is my attempt at explaining the CLS and XANES-really I am just editing Brent’s answer because it really is one of the best explanations I have read. The Canadian Light Source is located at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. It is a synchrotron, which is a source of light generated by accelerating electrons to nearly the speed of light (2.99 x 10^8 m/s) and then bending these electrons using very powerful electro-magnets. As the electrons bend, they emit intense, highly focused beams of light. This light is at different energies: some are x-rays, others are infrared or ultraviolet. These beams that come off allow scientists to do various experiments depending on the wavelength of light.

Different wavelengths of light have different energies. X-ray is much more intense energy than infrared. When an atom absorbes an x-ray, there is enough energy to kick an electron that is closer to the nucleus of an atom to a higher energy state (excited state). These are the core electrons and require a lot more energy to excite or remove compared to electrons located farther away from the nucleus of an atom. The different types of electrons have very specific energies that are required to excite them, this gives rise to the “absorption edge” because in the actual spectrum it looks like a vertical line, like the edge of a cliff. The specific “edges” that one would see in a spectrum are element specific. You can therefore tell what elements are present, what their oxidation state is etc.

So there you go. There is a little bit about the CLS and what you can do with it. The CLS is a pretty cool, state of the art research centre. It is definitely a claim to fame for the University of Saskatchewan and the City of Saskatoon.

Also, Thanks Brent, for helping me in trying to explain XANES to the world. Let me know if I missed something!