Universities feeling stock market lows

Losses to U of T’s stock holdings from the recent market collapse could affect student scholarships and bursaries, and cut into department budgets if the downturn continues. The Globe & Mail reports that U of T lost nearly nine per cent in the third quarter on investment and endowment funds, but the administration is optimistic that better times are ahead.

U of T’s $5.5 billion in assets are managed by an independent subsidiary, the University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation. These assets include $2.8 billion in pension and $2 billion in endowment funds. According to VP business affairs Cathy Riggall, UTAM’s conservative policies helped avoid further losses seen by many other Canadian universities. The University of Victoria’s endowment also saw a nine per cent drop, with Waterloo already enacting a six-month hiring freeze.

A statement issued by Riggall and interim vice president and provost Cheryl Misak in response to the economic downturn says, “We have defined a risk tolerance and a target return that are appropriate over the long term. Our strategy also assumes that there will be some years of losses.”

Riggall said that student aid is not yet on the chopping block. “We’re not interested in cutting back on student aid unless we absolutely have no choice.” Riggall also emphasized that U of T has come through previous market downswings with endowments intact. In 2003, U of T lost more than $55 million on its investments.

She said that the economic conditions would not deter donors. “Over the past 80 years, there’s never been a year when donations have actually declined. They have slowed down,” she said, citing a lull in donations throughout North American in 1987 as an example. That was the year of the ‘Black Monday’ on which stock markets around the world crashed.

Thomas Felix, president of student group Investing in Integrity—which has been calling for reforms to the university’s investment policies—is cautiously optimistic about the current situation. “I think that by and large […] the market has shown that it’s slowly recovering.” Felix emphasized the importance of protecting student aid from the ravages of the market, but also thinks that UTAM’s actions are mostly in the clear. “If anything, what we’re facing is going to be across the board,” he said. “I don’t think we can pin this on U of T itself.”

UTAM has come under fire from I in I for its investments with controversial corporations such as oil giant Exxon Mobile and military contractor Lockheed Martin, amounting to $9.5 and $1.2 million respectively.

Scientists capture unprecedented image

Three University of Toronto astronomers may have made history this past summer by simply taking a picture. Dr. David Lafrenière, Professor Ray Jayawardhana, and Professor Marten van Kerkwijk claim to have taken the first direct image of an extra-solar planet orbiting a sun-like star.

After searching approximately 80 stars in the Upper Scorpius association using the Gemini North telescope, the team noticed the star 1RXS J160929.1-210524 seemed to have a planet orbiting it. Unlike anything in our solar system, the planet is eight times the mass of Jupiter, has an estimated temperature of 1500°C, and orbits 330 times further from its star than Earth does from the sun. Due to its distance from the star, a complete orbit takes around 6,000 years.

A direct image of an orbit is extremely rare, as stars are so bright they outshine anything in their vicinity. It can take years to completely verify that an image is showing a planet-star companion. Using other methods, astronomers have tracked down more than 300 planets that suggest they might be orbiting a star. One method involves looking for light alterations made by a planet passing in front of a star. Another looks for Doppler shift, a back and forth movement in the star.

The U of T astronomers’ surprising planetary find was made possible by the Gemini telescope’s high resolution adaptive optics capabilities. The sophisticated technology allowed the researchers to distinguish between the many things that orbit a star: namely other stars, brown dwarfs, and planets. Being able to differentiate between these objects became critical when the team first detected two stars with what seemed like objects orbiting them.

Jayawardhana explains that the first star’s object turned out to be a background star that appeared to be a close companion, but was actually much further away. To make a distinction between planets and stars, the team took infra-red and near infra-red images through filters to determine the object’s “colour.” The redder the object, the cooler it is. “We targeted young stars so that any planetary mass object they hosted would not have had time to cool, and thus would still be relatively bright,” says van Kerkwijk. Special filters allow astronomers to determine the composition of the planet’s atmosphere, which is usually water vapor and carbon dioxide. This eventually showed the star’s companion to be a planet, not another star.

While it may seem odd that a heat emitting ball of fire could possibly be a planet, Jayawardhana explains that temperatures of this magnitude are very low in stellar standards. It might be a hot planet, but is by no means even close to a cool star. The fact that it is hot and bright but remains at such a distance from its star means the planet is producing its own heat. In several hundred million years, the planet is expected to cool down and shrink to a size equal to Jupiter.

Spray or pay

If you were walking on College Street last week, you might have seen a business owner spray-painting his storefront a solid colour while his employees looked on. It’s a frequent scene on a street where businesses and private homes are regularly the targets of graffiti. This man was following the law—the City of Toronto says owners are required to remove graffiti from their property, and do it fast.

The Graffiti Abatement Program and Graffiti Bylaw are only two of the city’s most recent measures, introduced with the goal of cleaning and beautifying Toronto’s urban landscape. The municipal government and Toronto Police have declared a zero-tolerance stance towards any public markings, drawings, or writings that aren’t art murals, especially hateful or gang-related messages. If graffiti appears on private property, owners must remove it within 72 hours, or the city will hire someone and send them the bill. While property owners are assured that city staff will “work closely” with them, often they are simply served notice, and left to paint over the graffiti at their own cost.

“Toronto isn’t as clean as it used to be and the graffiti is just not pleasant,” said Jean-Pierre Centeno, owner of Gamelle restaurant on College, who has dealt with several cases of vandalism. Business owners in the College Street area are well aware of graffiti in the city. Their properties are regularly marked, most often with graffiti artists’ individual tags that reappear as soon as the day after they’ve been removed.

“It just adds insult to injury,” said Cal O’Shaughnessy, a supervisor at Canada Computers who goes through a can of silver spray paint per month. “It is unfair to be punishing a business for being the victim of graffiti.”

Though clearly unpopular, the bylaws aren’t unreasonable, argues City of Toronto official Fernando Aceto. A cleaner urban appearance creates a sense of care for the community and attracts tourists, improves living standards, and raises property values, he said.

“A cleaner city helps the area and helps the business,” said Aceto, who maintains that the disadvantages of graffiti outweigh owners’ inconveniences.

O’Shaughnessy counters that covering up graffiti isn’t enough, stating that the city should address the roots of the problem. Other businesses people in the area, like the owners of computer shop Perfect Solutions, said Toronto could provide the community with greater incentives to stop the graffiti, either by funding its removal, hiring the perpetrators for art work in the city, or banning the sale of spray paint to minors.

Did you know that the periodic table of the elements is universal?

First proposed by Dmitri Mendeleev in 1869, the periodic table of the elements has been deemed not only valid on Earth, but throughout the universe.

Using techniques involving the analysis of an object’s light, scientists are able to reveal its chemical composition. This allows them to determine the chemical composition of the most distant objects in the universe, as well as the strangest objects on Earth. By using these techniques, specifically light spectroscopy, scientists determined the chemical composition of the sun and that the atmosphere of Venus has a rich abundance of greenhouse gases.

This phenomenon raises some important questions. Why is the entire universe composed of the same elements, and how did these elements come to be?

An element is composed of positively charged protons, neutral neutrons, and negatively charged electrons. The combination of these particles gives rise to elements. The periodic table starts with lighter elements such as hydrogen, with one proton and one electron, and concludes with the heavier elements. While lighter elements usually combine to make heavier elements, these reactions require massive amounts of energy in the form of heat, as well as large compression forces. Luckily, the universe is rich in regions with these specifications, specifically the cores of stars.

Stars produce their energy from the nuclear fusion of elements. On the surface of stars, smaller chemical elements, such as hydrogen and helium combine to make other elements. However, it is only in the core of stars that great heat and compression forces are available to make even heavier elements, like carbon.

When a star dies, it explodes. All the elements inside of that star are now released into the universe in the form of debris. This debris condenses over time to make new stars and planets. The debris that gave rise to our planet was rich in these elements. If it hadn’t been, life as we know it wouldn’t have emerged on Earth. In other words, we are all made out of star debris that is millions of years old.

U of Ottawa investigates email attack

The University of Ottawa wants to know who’s behind a widely circulated email that alleges one of its professors is a prostitute. The university’s concern, say administrators, is not whether or not the rumours are true, but the invasion of privacy. The email was sent anonymously through a Yahoo account over the university’s network.

Attached to the email were graphic photos of a woman, whom the anonymous sender claimed is a sex worker with the Montreal escort agency French Kiss Society, as well as a newly hired faculty member at U of O. According to the Ottawa Citizen, the university has confirmed that it recently hired a woman of the same name mentioned in the email. Beyond that, the school is not discussing the matter.

“That email was by an anonymous source,” U of O’s communication director Andrée Dumulon told the Citizen. “At this time, we have no evidence that the sender of the emails is a member of the university community,” Dumulon added. “We will not comment further.”

The prof named in the emails is a part-time instructor at the university’s criminology department. The Citizen reported the senior administrators had received copies of the email.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers agreed with U of O’s stance. “What a faculty member does in their personal life is irrelevant,” CAUT communications officer Kerry Pither told The Varsity. University hiring should only consider a faculty member’s teaching ability, Pither said, adding that even if the allegations are true, prostitution is not illegal in Canada.

FDA recognizes healthy trans fats

It turns out that not all trans fats are bad for you. This past summer, the Food and Drug Administration decided to allow manufacturers to use a specific type of trans fats in their recipes. While the idea of unhealthy trans fats has been ingrained in the minds of consumers, most are unaware of the potential health benefits associated with conjugated linoleic acids (CLAs)have. CLAs are a natural type of trans fat which has several isomers. Some of these isomers can help fight cancer, weight gain, diabetes, and arthritis, and were previously only available to consumers as dietary supplements. CLAs were first noticed in 1979 when scientists were looking for mutagens in hamburgers. A mystery substance in hamburger meat was found that actually inhibited mutagenesis. Despite the potential health benefits, CLAs are still high in calories. As Michael Pariza of the University of Wisconsin-Madison advises, they should mainly be used as a substitute for unhealthy fats.

Source: Science News

Professor slain after death threats

The St. Thomas University campus in Fredericton, New Brunswick, was shut down today in memoriam of the late sociology Professor John McKendy who was murdered last Friday. McKendy died after he was struck with a blunt object.

After a brief investigation, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police closed the case after finding the prime suspect, Nicholas Wade Baker, dead in a rental car in a Moncton parking lot. Baker had been married to McKendy’s daughter since December 2007. He had previously been accused of fraudulently using a family member’s credit card and sending a series of threatening emails to the family. The RCMP has declared Baker’s death accidental.

McKendy’s colleagues and others have criticized the way police handled the series of threats McKendy received prior to his death. In an interview with CBC Radio’s Information Morning in Fredericton, sociology professor, Sylvia Hale, called for a public inquiry into the murder. She said the RCMP should have taken action at the time of the threatening emails, which occurred in early October.

Hale found allies in The Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research, a group based out of the University of New Brunswick. The Fergusson Centre cited the RCMP’s reluctance to release information regarding the case, and urged the provincial government to take action on Tuesday.

The RCMP has denied that the police had evidence that Baker would become violent. corporal Claude Tremblay, the lead investigator on the case, has divulged few details and denied reporters’ requests for an interview regarding the RCMP’s criteria for a viable threat.

The university urged the public to remember John McKendy’s spirit of peace- making, providing counseling services and a brief break from classes to allow students to come to terms with the sudden death.

McKendy’s colleagues also cite his ideals of free inquiry and the search for truth. As his colleague Professor Michael Clow posted in an online forum, “protecting those in clear and present danger of becoming potential victims of domestic violence requires removing them to a place safe from the effective reach of those who might harm them.”

“They are willing, as a matter of policy, to write off the lives of domestic violence victims,” Clow added. “Are we?”

Arctic mercury levels increasing

Mercury is rising in the arctic, but not for the reasons one might assume. Levels of mercury in arctic marine mammals have jumped ten fold in the last 100 years, despite the stabilization of global mercury emission. Scientists from the Canadian research ship the Amundsen, a $40 million dollar project, are trying to find out why. Funded by the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, scientists and universities across Canada collaborate to investigate the effects of climate change on Canada’s Arctic. These researchers believe that the elevated mercury levels are linked to the melting of polar ice, which releases “frozen” mercury deposits. Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that causes neurodevelopment delays , damaging the central nervous system. It poses a danger not only to the sensitive Arctic eco-system, but also to Canadians who eat a traditional northern diet, which includes marine mammals. Health Canada has already detected mercury levels in the population of Nunavik to be potentially dangerous.

Source: PLoS Biology