U of T stargazers first to photograph planet

A group of University of Toronto astronomers have become the first to photograph a planet orbiting a star similar to our own sun. Using the Gemini North telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, the scientists were able to capture images of the pair, which reside over 500 light-years away.

Further tests will confirm without doubt that the planetary object is indeed orbiting the star. Despite recent discoveries of planets lying outside the solar system, none have been found alongside a companion star.

“This is the first time we have directly seen a planetary mass object in a likely orbit around a star like our sun. If we confirm that this object is indeed gravitationally tied to the star, it will be a major step forward,” said David Lafrenicre to the U of T Bulletin.

The discovery poses a new problem for astrophysicists. The distance between the two objects challenges theoretical models that dealt with the nature of planet and star formation.

“This discovery is yet another reminder of the truly remarkable diversity of worlds out there and it’s a strong hint that nature may have more than one mechanism for producing planetary mass companions to normal stars,” Professor Ray Jayawardhana told the U of T Bulletin.

Did you know that not all bees live in hives?

Solitary bees, more commonly known as mason bees, do not live in hives. Instead, they live in a nest constructed entirely by the female. Unlike social bees, solitary bees are able to live independently, which is where they get their name. They can provide shelter and sufficient food for their brood all on their own. All female solitary bees are fertile and carry out the roles that both worker and queen bees fulfill in a hive. Unlike honeybees, they do not produce honey or beeswax.

These bees serve a specific ecological role in pollinating many flowering plants. It is claimed that Albert Einstein said, “If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live.” This supposed quote still resonates today. Most species of non-solitary bees visit flowers in order to collect nectar, a process in which they accidentally pick up pollen. This leads to pollination of the next flower they visit. Pollinators are therefore a medium that flowering plants utilize for sexual reproduction.

Solitary bees purposefully collect pollen from various kinds of flowers. Compared to other types of bees, they transport a greater amount of pollen, due to advanced carrying structures on their bodies. These structures are extremely useful for this species; they often mix pollen with nectar to make a pollen-nectar paste, which is used to provide nourishment for their brood in the nest.

Instead of a hive, solitary bees nest in tubular spaces, such as holes in wood, hollowed out reeds or twigs, or underground tunnels. Female solitary bees lay their eggs in “cells” in the nest. They fill these cells with the pollen-nectar paste, which serves as a source of food for their larva. One nest may contain several cells, each nourishing a larva.

Occasionally, solitary bees are used in the place of honeybees for commercial pollination. They only sting or attack if they are physically threatened, since they have no hive to guard. This makes them a friendlier species, prompting gardeners to set out mason bee houses to attract them to their gardens as pets.

Welcome to the O.C.

The O.C., short for Osgoode Chambers, opened its doors Wednesday,

Sept. 10. Catering exclusively to York University’s law students, the residence is made up of 137 units, with bachelor, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom suites. Monthly rent ranges from $707 to $1,072.

Patrick Monahan, the law school’s dean, said the residence would help recruit out-of-province students and build the community.

U of T’s law faculty does not have its own residence. Students are invited to apply to the graduate residence, Graduate House.

Women’s rugby team give it a try

The Varsity Blues women’s rugby team launched their 2008-09 season on Sept 10 with a well-deserved victory against the York Lions, taming their opponents with a score of 15-10 on U of T’s back campus.

The excitement among the players and their supporters was palpable. The young, promising Blues stand to benefit from the experience and grit of their OUA all-star scrum-half, Megan Boyles, who will be hanging up her cleats after this season.

“Knowing that Megan is in her final year means that we have the opportunity to start developing other players into the roles she fills on the team—both as a player and as a leader,” said Blues head coach Shannon Smith.

In their opening game against York, the entire team shone on the field.

The Blues launched the opening salvo early when Sonya Kuziw pushed the ball across the goal line with dogged determination, giving the Blues a 7-0 lead. Dominating the left side of the field with sustained drives, the possibility of a blowout seemed likely. The Lions, however, fortified their backline defense, denying the Blues several opportunities to score a try. At the end of the first-half, the Lions probed into the Blues’ territory, yet remained scoreless.

The Blues resumed their strong driving game in the second-half, with crisper passing by the flankers, as well as cleaner rucks. To their credit, the Lions maintained a stubborn defense of their goal line, thwarting the Blues’ attacks. As the second-half progressed, the Lions’ offense improved. They moved the game away from the right touchline into the centre of the field, where they strung several passes into coherent plays.

Boyles sapped the swelling energy of the Lions by increasing the Blues’ lead to 10-0 with a deft penalty kick. Instead of submitting, York countered with a hard won try. With the score 10-5, the game became a back-and-forth battle between both teams. Eventually, the Blues’ Brittany Evans scored her team’s second try of the game, boosting their lead to 15-5.

The Lions roared, unleashing spirited but desperate runs. The Blues demonstrated that their backline could be obstinate, denying their opponents passage to their in-goal area. When the Lions’ offense came alive, it was too late. The game ended with the Blues winning 15-10.

A delighted Boyles gushed about the potential of the team. She described her fellow players as exhibiting commitment, intensity, and participation—elements that the coaching staff will be able to build on. Playing in her final year, Boyles hopes to contribute by helping teammates to build on these positives.

Coach Smith shares Boyles’ optimism. “I like the make up of our team this year,” said Smith. “We’ve got a very talented class of rookies and it makes selections hard. It’s great for the program to have players of a high caliber coming in and challenging the veterans for spots. It means everyone has to work hard all season long to earn that starting spot week after week. Right now we have about 22 ladies who would all be excellent starters on the field. That’s the exact position any coach wants to be in.”

While the Blues fell to the Laurier Golden Hawks 20-10 last Sunday, their season looks promising. On the strength of their optimism and talented players, the Blues will enjoy considerable success this season, especially if they adhere to the old adage—try, try, try again.

Not quite conservative

At a recent news conference in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Prime Minister Stephen Harper remarked: “the Canadian public has become more conservative.” He noted that, 15 years ago, ideas like free trade and fiscal restraint were still divisive. Nowadays, these ideas are more likely to find consensus among the Canadian public—indicating, in Harper’s mind, a more conservative tilt in public opinions. After facing criticism from his opponents Jack Layton and Stephane Dion, Harper qualified his statements: “At the same time, I don’t want to say the Canadian public is overwhelmingly conservative, or that it is necessarily as conservative as everybody in our party.”

Such assertions reveal certain things about the state of Canadian politics. For one, Harper won’t have much luck if he wishes to govern in a fashion that is closer to his party’s ideological underpinnings. Canada may have grown comfortable with NAFTA and balanced budgets, but the perceived effectiveness of such policies is more important than shifts in public opinion. During the 1990s, both Canada and the U.S. saw economic growth and prosperity coincide with an inundation of free trade agreements and fiscal reforms. In 1994, both countries signed NAFTA. A year later the World Trade Organization was born. In Canada, the Liberal Party presided over a fiscal surplus, while down south, Democratic president Bill Clinton signed into law the highest number of free trade agreements in the country’s history. Whether these policies actually contributed to the economic upswing is up for debate—they gained public approval because of the prosperity of the decade.

Current attitudes on free trade provide further proof of this theory of post-ideological efficacy. Over the last two years, the United States Congress welcomed a slew of populist politicians who’ve been critical of free trade. In Canada, Harper says that his opposition has returned to “a pre-free trade, Cold War kind of approach to the economy.” Impending financial collapse aside, both American and Canadian wages have stagnated while economic growth has skyrocketed. The globalization of labour and immigration put competitive pressure on less educated workers. Just as Americans and Canadians approved of free trade in the 1990s when they associated it with boom times, the appeal is lost with a faltering economy.

Evidence of an ideological shift towards free market values would be visible in more “sacred” institutions. Currently, Canadians show overwhelming support of their social safety net, as evinced by the near-permanent institution of universal healthcare. While there was talk of privatizing Social Security in the United States, this has been minimal in Canada. Income and sales taxes are both higher in Canada than they are in the U.S. Perhaps Harper added that qualifier because he’s promised to “make sure that it [the Conservative Party] continues to govern in the interests of the broad majority of the population.”

Harper’s minority government was voted in because it promised a competent and clean government in the face of Liberal corruption. Voters wanted to see what the party could deliver, not witness a mandate worthy of Barry Goldwater. Harper’s record shows: in the past two years, only the 1 per cent shaving of the GST bears any resemblance to small-government conservative economic policy. If Harper’s own projections are to be taken at face value, the election in October will likely bring Harper only continued minority status.

As the federal election dawns, we must remember one thing: for the time being, Canada is far from the fiefdom of Bush’s Republican America (to the chagrin of some and the relief of many others.). Until Harper attains a majority government and can successfully implement more “radical” conservative policies without bringing about his own party’s downfall, we should feel confident that Canadian political ideology remains mostly unchanged.

Three strikes, you’re out

The Toronto Blue Jays’ quest for the playoffs ended in Boston this past weekend in the most anticlimactic fashion. The Jays dropped three of four games to the Red Sox with a blowout and a couple of close games on paper. During the series, the Jays were outmatched and beaten badly in all of the finer parts of the game. They were unable to hold late leads and add insurance runs, setting Toronto apart from the superior contending teams.

Even before the Boston series, the Jays had a slim chance of making the playoffs. They needed to sweep the Red Sox and pull within 2.5 games of the wild card lead. To cement their playoff spot, they would have had to sweep the Sox all over again during their three game series this coming weekend at the Rogers Centre.

Despite the disappointment following the Red Sox series, there are things to note about the Jays’ past and future. To even get to a point where the Boston series held any meaning, Toronto had to pull off a 10-game winning streak over the preceding 11. While a 1.000 winning percentage over ten games cannot be translated to an entire season, the quality of the team’s performance is close to what many analysts predicted. If the Jays achieved that level of play during the entire season, they easily could’ve clinched a spot in the playoffs.

The Jays’ record over the past few weeks is troubling. Why does the team seem to flop whenever they need a strong series? To a lesser extent, why does the team excel when the pressure is off (and playoff hopes are crushed) late in the season?

Critics of Jays’ general manager J.P. Ricciardi offer an answer. They explain that the team, while balanced on paper, lacks the intangibles and killer instinct of the playoff contenders. On the flipside, the Jays’ blistering pace of 10 wins in 11 games couldn’t have continued much longer. The Boston letdown was more a product of circumstance and impossible expectations than overall weakness.

Heading into next year, the fate of Ricciardi is the team’s biggest concern. It’s worth noting that since ex-manager John Gibbons and nearly all of his coaching staff were replaced by Cito Gaston and his handpicked coaches this June, the team has had a winning record. If the Jays performed all season at the level they did under Gaston, they would finish the year with 95 to 100 wins—certainly playoff territory.

Arguably, the change in staff has allowed Ricciardi’s team to reach its full potential. Given the public criticism of former hitting coach Gary Denbo by some players and the remarkable change in play since the coaching switch, it’s impossible to pretend that the previous coaching staff was close to ideal under Gibbons. While Ricciardi was criticized for waiting so long to fire Gibbons, the Jays’ recent winning streak will give the struggling GM a much-needed lifeline.

Remarkably, Ricciardi has already publicly guaranteed the jobs of Gaston and his staff despite being unsure of his own fate. Perhaps the biggest impediment to Ricciardi’s return is the fact that president and CEO Paul Godfrey—Ricciardi’s biggest supporter in the organization—has indicated that he is considering quitting his post after this season and pursuing other avenues (perhaps even bringing an NFL team to Toronto.) Should Godfrey leave, his successor may have trouble dealing with an eighth-year general manager who has yet to make the playoffs.

The past two off seasons in Toronto have been exciting, and the subsequent results unequivocally disappointing. Yet the near-universal belief that the Jays have a talented roster can’t be far off-base. With Cito Gaston at the helm, who delivered the Jays’ only two World Series in franchise history, Toronto baseball fans can look forward to 2009.

The little engine that should

Try to imagine the streets of downtown Toronto without the acrid haze of car exhaust fumes or the drone of motorized traffic. You might hear birds chirping, or the sound of the breeze against the cityscape. It would be almost, well, Zen-like.

A Toronto-based automaker has already entertained this utopian vision. The Zenn Motor Company is the proud manufacturer of the Zenn low-speed electric car, whose name is an acronym for Zero Emissions No Noise. The name is fitting considering the vehicle’s inherent environmental benefits, and the fact that—to quote Rick Mercer—“Zen is also the kind of meditation you have to use when dealing with a bureaucracy that refuses to support this made-in-Canada car.”

While the vehicle has been approved for on-road usage in the provinces of Quebec and British Columbia, 46 of the 50 U.S. states, and throughout Europe and Asia, Ontario Transportation Minister Jim Bradley won’t approve the Zenn car in its home province due to safety concerns. This summer, it was announced that Ontario would embark on an independent study towards developing safety standards for low-speed vehicles (LSVs). However, the project’s vague timeline suggests that the likelihood of seeing Zenn cars on Toronto roads anytime soon isn’t looking so good, and no one seems to know why.

Designed to reach maximum speeds of 32 to 40 km/h, LSVs such as Zenn are certainly not highway vehicles—a salient point for long-distance commuters. In the U.S., these cars are specifically referred to as “Neighborhood Electric Vehicles” (NEVs), denoting their intended use (residential areas rather than busy urban ones). Some cities, such as the eco-obsessed Lincoln, California, have constructed separate NEV lanes for their speed-challenged electric cars. But in Ontario, these cars are confined to provincial park roadways and private estates.

According to Jim Bradley, the issue has largely to do with speed: Zenn cars fall short of meeting Transport Canada’s safety standards for conventional cars because LSVs are slower. Yet this is also true of motorized bicycles and mopeds, which are allowed on Ontario roads.

One could argue that the Zenn car’s appearance poses an additional danger—the vehicles can be mistaken for higher-speed conventional cars while on the road. This is easily solved by enforcing the use of “slow moving vehicle” flashing lights and LSV-specific decals—solutions that have proven successful in parts of the U.S. If Zenn’s low speed is the best excuse Bradley can come up with for keeping the clean little car at bay, perhaps this isn’t an issue of safety so much as fear of change.

According to the Zenn Motor Company’s product overview, the car costs about one penny per mile to operate, with a gasoline equivalency of about 245 miles per gallon. They typically sell for a reasonable $12,000 to $16,000. It’s too bad we won’t be able to drive them.

Employee testing doesn’t cure drug use

The TTC is considering random drug and alcohol testing for employees who hold “safety sensitive” jobs such as drivers, mechanics, and maintenance workers. The idea arose from a recent report detailing almost 40 instances of intoxication among TTC employees, including Tony Almeida, who was killed by a subway car on the job; post-mortem analysis revealed that he had been smoking marijuana during his shift.

TTC Chief General Manager Gary Webster, believes that it is necessary to test employees in order to ensure the safety of the general public. Amalgamated Transit Union President Bob Kinnear feels that drug testing violates the privacy of employees.

According to Statistics Canada, the rate of marijuana-related crimes has increased by at least 34 per cent since 1991. Cocaine offenses are also on a steady rise. Drug overdoses account for the deaths of nearly 1,300 people per year, and half of all reported cases of HIV infection occur among drug users.

These statistics show that substance abuse is not a an issue confined to the TTC, but a societal dilemma. Launching a drug and alcohol testing program for employees in safety sensitive jobs will not cure the evils of drug use in our society.

Ensuring the safety of our citizens is a top priority, but our biggest concern should be whether or not drug testing will bring an end to drug use. There should be a zero tolerance policy towards intoxicants on the job. Drug use is not acceptable under any circumstances, whether one is employed by a transit company in a major city, or working a job with less public importance. The principle behind this drug testing initiative (i.e., eradicating drug use on the job) suggests that drugs are acceptable, as long as employees are not on duty. Additionally, defining a job as “safety sensitive” is problematic. Safety is a major priority with every job, regardless of the institution.

Our society needs to approach drugs in a different way, and employer-enforced drug and alcohol testing won’t eradicate the billion-dollar illegal industry thriving in the Greater Toronto Area. The TTC drug testing initiative seems to condemn drugs only when they compromise work safety, but illicit drug use is wrong at any time.