It’s Not Rocket Science

Wikipedia has just surpassed the two-million mark in a number of English articles, approximately 15 times as many articles as the largest version of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Last-second essay writers are rejoicing the world over. (I just looked up Wikipedia on Wikipedia and it blew my mind).

Organism of the week: Rattus norvegicus.

Otherwise known as the common rat, this is one of a few organisms to have a truly worldwide distribution, discounting Antarctica of course. Its name means “Norwegian rat” but this is a misnomer as it most likely originated in China. Responsible for spreading the bubonic plague (with the help of fleas) through Europe during the 14th century, rats are capable of carrying and transmitting many other diseases as well. These spectacular pests are known to eat almost anything and are probably one of the best examples of omnivores known to exist. There is an upside, surprisingly—brown rats have been used to breed many strains of laboratory rats, which have been extremely useful in a wide variety of biological experiments. Their favorite foods? Macaroni and cheese, cooked corn kernels and scrambled eggs. Least favourite? Celery, raw beets and peaches. Should I find it weird that my culinary tastes are similar to those of the common rat?

How little we know

This piece from may reduce your confidence in the almighty power of science. It surveys thirteen glaring holes—ranging from dark matter to the placebo effect—in our knowledge of the universe. It’s a lengthy read, but worth the time and effort. After reading this article, I tore up my copy of The Universe In A Nutshell and wept for several hours. Link: article.ns?id=mg18524911.600&print= true

I need to get me one of those Science … it works, bitches t-shirts.

Anyone who can point me in the right direction gets a free pound of dark matter.

Supply and demand

(Whales owe the economy, big time): Iceland has decided to call off its whale hunt not because of pressure from other governments or environmental groups, but because there was simply not enough demand for whale products to justify it. Even better, Iceland’s whale-watching industry is estimated to bring in over $20 million per year.

Power of wind (I miss Captain Planet)

It feels good when another group recognizes the usefulness of renewable energy. As reported at ecogeek. com, the Bahrain World Trade Centre is installing wind turbines to take advantage of otherwise wasted wind flow at the higher stories of the giant structure. It’s like getting something for nothing (after a few million dollars of construction costs, that is).

If you like big holes (this is not goatrelated, you sicko)

Also from ecogeek are the Seven Largest Holes in the World. Five of the seven are man-made (apologies to eco-friendlies for the graphic pictures of open pit mines) and are a stark reminder of the power of humanity to shape the world we inhabit. The scariest one would have to be the 100-metre-deep sinkhole in Guatemala that opened up and consumed several homes. I am currently fighting the urge to visit some of these and throw a pebble down to the bottom. Link: http://deputy-dog. com/2007/09/09/7-amazing-holes/

With apologies to Carl Sagan

A weekly web-roundup column would be incomplete if I neglected to add a YouTube link. View for possibly one of my favourite Family Guy moments of all time. (Sure to get me a lot of angry e-mails from creationists). Link: watch?v=VYOYfG0QGG0&NR=1

In the year 2000

This collection of pictures from 1910 depict what French life could have been like by the year 2000—including flying firemen, automated barbers and (accurately enough) helicopters used for surveillance. While it’s probably for the best that heating with radium didn’t catch on, the futuristic school where books are transferred directly into students’ brains without reading them is an idea I wish was reality. The flying policemen are still kind of scary, though. Link: http://paleo-future.blogspot. com/2007/09/french-prints-show-year- 2000-1910.html

The Crazy Things We Used To Believe #1

Orthogenesis: Ever since Charles Darwin proposed the idea of natural selection in 1859 (with a little help from the spectacularly-bearded Alfred Russel Wallace), the field of evolution has seen controversy, debate and discovery on a regular basis. Although evolution is far from being fully understood, we have a fairly good idea of how it works, thanks to advances in genetics and evolutionary biology. At one point, though, it wasn’t so cut and dry. In the 19th century, the idea of orthogenesis had a large following in the scientific community. The hypothesis centred on the assumption that evolution is linear organisms evolving towards a particular goal. Under this model, species were thought to specialize by developing certain traits (say limb length or visual ability) towards perfection. This model had difficulty explaining extinctions, which by that time were known to occur. Those who defended orthogenesis argued that organisms could overshoot their goal and end up being unable to survive due to the over-development of a trait. The poster boy for this explanation was the extinct Irish Elk (see picture), whose giant antlers were said to be an overdeveloped advantageous trait. One major flaw in the theory was that it couldn’t find a driving force to explain linear evolution. In a famous critique of the hypothesis, George Gaylord Simpson harangued “the mysterious inner force.” Surprisingly, orthogenesis had hangers-on in the scientific community up until the 1950s. It only goes to show that the dumber the idea, the harder it falls (see: creationism).

Schrodinger’s cat up for adoption

No takers yet.

Are U of T’s stocks bombing?

This month, the two gun clubs at Hart House will effectively be shut down, due to an administrative decision in June that said implements of violence had no place in universities.

Rini Rashid found this ironic, since the university has almost $2 million in stocks and bonds with Lockheed-Martin, an aerospace and advanced technology manufacturer cited by Defence News as the largest defense contractor in the world by revenue.

Rashid, vice-president of Investing in Integrity, a member of the rifle club last year who never found time to go shoot, is quick to point out that U of T has investments with a manufacturer of F-35 rifles widely used in armies and militias, but bans sport .35 rifles.

The University of Toronto Asset Management corporation manages the university’s $2.5 billion of investments in a roster of companies, including Lockheed-Martin, Chevron, and ExxonMobil.

Rashid claimed U of T’s investments would be more sustainable if they preferentially bought stock in companies with good environmental, social and political practices.

I in I works under the auspices of the Responsible Investment Working Group, an advocacy group composed mostly of law students at U of T, who are working to put forward a proposal for a new investment policy that would involve all stakeholders—that is, university staff, faculty, students and alumni, in the university’s investments.

According to a RIWG report, the university administration agreed to review its policies “to explore its role in promoting corporate social responsibility” in a meeting with the group in 2005.

Since then, the university has decided on a process for divesting its $10.5 million holdings in tobacco and tobacco-related companies, following pressure from the campus tobacco control group E-BUTT. However, it still has stocks in companies like Chevron, responsible for an ecological disaster now known as the Rainforest Chernobyl, in which some 18 billion gallons of crude oil were leaked into the Amazon.

Rashid emphasizes that the university must revise its policies mostly for to its own financial well-being. “By ‘responsibility,’ we do not only mean the moral kind,” says Rashid. “Bad governance will get you unsustainable business results.”

Bonds: chemical agent

Home run supremacy, or debauchery to a beloved record and athlete?

When Barry Bonds hit his 756th home run on August 8, surpassing Hank Aaron’s all-time leading record, baseball fans were divided, on an ethical level, about whether Bonds’ feat was “legitimate.”

756 is what it is. No matter how you feel about the man, the numbers speak for themselves. Fans may still regard Hank Aaron as the homerun king, but to deny the historic event that was 756 is just ludicrous.

Still, enthusiasts remain split on Bond’s alleged steroid use, particularly outside of San Francisco where interest in the accomplishment varied from apathy to disdain.

When Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chased Roger Maris’ record for most home runs in a single season, it garnered plenty of media interest, for the right reasons. The same could be said of Bonds’ surpassing the same record years later. But with steroid stigma casting a dark cloud over baseball, few really gave this historic moment its due– not even Major League Baseball.

Around this time Major League commissioner Bud Selig was in New York, attending a meeting, ironically, about steroid use and its policies. The man whom Bonds surpassed, Hank Aaron, had already stated his poor opinion of Bonds with a congratulatory video, showcasing his obvious disappoint concerning what had transpired.

The historic home run was hit on August 8, in San Francisco, Bonds’ only refuge from the slurs and innuendo. With two months to pad his record beyond reach, few fans would be able to tell you the correct number of home runs the athlete has reached. The number is 762 and counting, yet it’s barely reported in sports media today.

Seven years ago, when Mark McGwire surpassed Roger Maris’ single season home run record of 61, the home run ball fetched 2.7 million at Guerney’s Auction House to an anonymous bidder. This year, the man who caught Bonds’ 756th dinger, New Yorker Matt Murphy, started bidding at 500,000 U.S. Sports in recent years has alienated itself from its fans. Maybe we too often look back on previous eras with nostalgia-after all Shoeless Joe Jackson inspired the movie Field of Dreams primarily because of his exit from baseball as part of the 1919 Black Sox Scandal. To a cynic, baseball will always be tainted by the so-called steroid era it is currently under. While the record books will forever show that Barry Bonds is the homerun king, the history books will tell a different story, exposing the man Bonds really was.

Carleton clocks out

Less than one week into the school year, 700 office staff, technicians, and other workers at Carleton University in Ottawa are on strike, demanding pay raises to bring their salaries on par with those working similar jobs in the community. Both the Carleton University Student Association and the Graduate Students’ Association have declared their support for striking CUPE local 2424 members on campus, demanding a fair deal for members of the workers’ union.

Complicating the issue is the fact that the presidents of both student unions sit on Carleton’s Board of Governors, which BG chair David Dunn believes restricts them from supporting the strike.

Dunn has questioned their right to publicly comment on the strike, even going as far as suggesting to CUSA president Shelly Melanson that she should step down from BG unless she falls in line with the university’s position.

Jen Hassum, who recently concluded a term as president of UTSU (then SAC) to become chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario, deplored Dunn’s contention.

“The reality is that the whole idea behind having student positions, and positions for staff and positions for faculty on the committees, is that they represent the interest of the constituency that elected them.”

On Sept. 11 the student unions staged a rally to show their support for CUPE 2424. Despite rain, more than 200 students took part. Some protestors said they viewed CUPE’s and Carleton’s failure to reach an agreement as a blunt negotiating strategy on the part of the university.

“A lot of students, particularly in the upper years, are starting to see this kind of behaviour and tactic of bargaining repeated”, said Melanson.

Many important services and facilities campus-wide, including libraries and registration, have been reduced because of the strike.

“As the semester progresses and we start tests and towards midterms and paper- writing time it’s going to become increasingly problematic.”

Wiz Long, a spokesperson for CUPE 2424, noted the two sides are still far from agreement on many issues, including wages, sick leave benefits for older workers, and the right to have union representatives present at preliminary disciplinary meetings.

Carleton has proposed a two-tiered system for sick leave benefits, with separate procedures for workers over 65. Long pointed out that the average staff worker retires at 62, with most of those who continue to work doing so out of financial necessity.

“We are looking upon this as an attack upon the very vulnerable,” she said. For the past week negotiations have been at a standstill, though the union has backed down from its hard stance on wage increase equity.

“[Carleton’s] last offer was essentially same as their previous one. We don’t consider that bargaining,” said Long.

Meanwhile, tempers at the student unions are short over Dunn’s warning to Ms. Melanson and Oren Howlett, the president of the Graduate Students’ Association.

Dunn told Melanson that he had been contacted by members of the BG frustrated with both CUSA’s stance alongside strikers and Melanson’s comments to the press. Dunn told her he considered it inappropriate for her, as a member of BG, to speak out against administration in a labour dispute.

“I will not step down,” Melanson said. “I was elected to represent students and represent their interests.”

If it ain’t broke…

Disgruntled about your student loans? Tell it to the man.

The man, in this case, is Human Resources and Social Development Minister Monte Solberg, who has invited students, parents, and general citizenry to air their views in online consultations from Sept. 7 to Sept. 28. The forum is part of a review of the Canada Student Loans Program announced in the government’s 2007 budget.

HRSDC’s annual surveys say that student borrowers’ satisfaction levels have ranged between 63 and 75 per cent since 2002. Detractors of CSLP, however, are vocal about the program’s shortcomings.

Common complaints include high interest rates (2.5 per cent above prime for variable rates or a whopping 5 per cent above prime for a fixed rate) and harassment from collection agencies ($450 million, or around 56 per cent, of defaulted loans are handled by private agencies and the rest are collected by the Canadian Revenue Agency).

U of T alum Leena Sharma said that, of all her debts, she’s repaying her OSAP loans last because they have the lowest interest rate. “I’m glad I had the help at the time, but I’d stress more grants and scholarships,” she said. “Students should leave school with less debt.”

How long till Sharma finishes repaying her loans? “Maybe a few years,” she conceeded. Christina, her co-worker, had a drearier outlook: “Forever, until I die. At my funeral, they’ll be the ones robbing my grave.” Christina declined to give her last name, under fear of “blacklisting” by U of T.

Third-year student Daniel Kim, meanwhile, has no idea how he’ll repay his OSAP loans. “I’m not even thinking about it,” he said. “It’s good that they don’t have interest until we graduate, at least. It’s ok, it’s better than nothing.”

Registered Education Savings Plans are also due for an overhaul; the budget will increase the lifetime limit from $42,000 to $50,000 and eliminate the annual limit.

24 hour primate people

Renowned primatologist and conservationist Jane Goodall made a quick stop on her round-the-world lecture tour to speak with journalists on Wednesday morning, before jumping on a plane to Saskatoon. When Dr. Goodall returns to Toronto, she’ll give a lecture, “Gombe & Beyond”, to a sold-out crowd in Con Hall.

The morning of the impromptu press conference marked the 50th anniversary of Goodall’s arrival in Tanzania’s Gombe Nation Park to start her pioneering work with chimpanzees.

“We missed our chance, but this is the anniversary,” she remarked before moving on to discuss the work for the Jane Goodall Institute that brought her to Toronto.

“There’s no point in exhausting ourselves doing conservation work if we aren’t also trying to raise the next generation to be better stewards than ourselves,” she said.

Those aren’t idle words. Roots & Shoots, JGI’s youth program, involves over 9,000 groups in 100 countries. On Sunday, Goodall will meet with some of these young people from Toronto groups, when Victoria college hosts the Roots & Shoots festival from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.

Goodall’s Con Hall lecture will discuss conservation strategies for Africa, including microcredit lending to women, scholarships to allow villagers to get higher education, fair trade farming practices, and HIV/ Aids education, alongside fostering a love of nature in youth worldwide.

“You have to ask people ‘what do you care about,’ and try and direct them within those areas,” she said.

Dr. Jane Goodall’s public lecture “Gombe & Beyond” is scheduled for Saturday, September 15 at 7:00 p.m. in Con Hall. A book signing will follow.

Pekka packs up

Pekka Sinervo, U of T’s dean of Arts & Science, has announced he is leaving the university next June, a year before his term as dean expires.

The U of T graduate, who joined the faculty as a plucky assistant professor of physics in 1990, rose quickly through the ranks, making full professor in 1995.

When Carl Amrhein vacated the dean’s chair in 2003, U of T’s then-president Robert Birgeneau quickly appointed Sinervo, by then vice-dean of Arts & Science and no longer wet behind the ears, to the faculty’s top job until the university could choose a more permanent replacement. Five months later, U of T picked Sinervo as that replacement. His term began in January 2004, and was to last until June 2009.

During his term as dean, Sinervo test-drove a new set of duties as the university’s first vice-provost of first-entry programs. The post, created last year as part of U of T’s program to improve the student experience, saw Sinervo speaking for Arts & Science, U of T at Mississauga, U of T at Scarborough, Applied Science and Engineering, Music and Physical Education and Health.

Sinervo will instead depart early for Geneva, Switzerland, to pursue his research at the Large Hadron Collider apparatus.

Quirky Courses

With the books selling well over 100 million copies and the film trilogy earning billions in revenue, it would be an understatement to declare that there is a steady renewed interest in the works of one J.R.R. Tolkien. With the popularity of this beloved author in mind, this year U of T has included an introductory course on the fascinating world of Frodo, Sam, and the wizard Gandalf.

The Lord of the Rings: A Journey Through Middle Earth is a humanities course that will discuss the characters and events of Tolkien’s namesake trilogy and continue on with student projects explaining the history of Middle Earth, explanations on its peoples and languages and how various alliances and active mobs shaped the great War of the Rings. Other course topics include Tolkien’s inspiration for the trilogy and the author’s sources as well as the themes of good and evil, the idea of “free peoples” and the role of “higher powers” in Middle Earth.

Interestingly, one topic of discussion for this class is the enduring appeal of the three novels, which is sure to include talks on the complicated process of adapting such a popular novel to a major blockbuster film of great cultural impact.

The Lord of the Rings: A Journey Through Middle Earth is a first-year seminar course taught at Woodworth College by Professor J. Browne. It is a full-year course open only to new students at University of Toronto.