Edward Willett

Author's posts

The mystery of the missing mass

The Mystery of the Missing Mass is not, as you might first suppose, the title of an Agatha Christie novel about a church service that failed to occur on schedule. It is, rather, one of the hottest (or coldest, depending on which theory you subscribe to– never mind, I’ll explain later) issues in the study …

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Disease

In the 14th century, bubonic plague–The Black Death–swept Europe, killing 25 million people, one quarter of the population. In the 18th century alone, smallpox killed 60 million people worldwide. Measles kills 900,000 people annually, mostly in developing countries. Respiratory infections such as influenza kill up to two million people annually. Intestinal infections such as cholera …

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Measurement

A few weeks ago I wrote about the bicentennial of the metric system. This week I want to return to the topic of measurement because I had such an overwhelming response to that column. Our ability to measure sets us apart from, say, llamas and horned toads, because measurement is the process of counting how …

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Luminescence

Glow, little glow-worm, shimmer, shimmer . . . Have you ever wondered why glow-worms shimmer? Probably not, especially if, like me, you wouldn’t know a glow-worm from a tapeworm and wouldn’t care to meet either one. But maybe you’ve seen fireflies dancing in the dark, or, on a more practical note, been thankful for the …

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Microscopes

For Christmas the year I was seven years old my parents gave me a microscope, and I’ve loved microscopes ever since. There’s nothing like your first look at a drop of water teeming with microscopic life, or for that matter your first look at dozens of other everyday things, like salt and hair, magnified a …

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The metric system

Two years ago, France marked the 200th anniversary of its revolution. It’s no coincidence that just one year later we marked the 200th anniversary of another kind of revolution: the birth of the metric system. Whether this is a reason for celebration or mourning depends on how you feel about the System Internationale d’Units, the …

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Earthquakes

There’s something inherently horrifying about earthquakes. Probably it’s because we are accustomed to thinking of the ground beneath our feet as being, well, “rock-solid.” When that ground gets the shakes, it gives us a pretty good case of them, too. Earthquakes are defined as “a fracture or implosion beneath the surface of the Earth, and …

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How Does Your Garden Grow?

Part of the Saskatchewan Science Centre’s mandate is to demonstrate that it is possible to excel in the world of science “even” in Saskatchewan. The quotation marks are intentional: it’s the attitude embodied in the use of that word we would like to dispel. The fact is, top-notch, world-class science and Saskatchewan are not mutually …

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Fusion

Nuclear fusion as an electrical power source is rather like some people’s plans for after they win the lottery. They’re sure it’s coming, and they’re sure it’s going to be great, but somehow it never seems to happen. Actually, that’s not a very fair comparison, because nuclear fusion really does seem to be on the …

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Fission

We sometimes talk about living in the Nuclear Age, because it has only been in the last 50 years that we have managed to harness the power expressed by Einstein as E=mc2. But strictly speaking, uranium fission, which is what we think of when we think of nuclear power, isn’t new. About 1.78 billion years …

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DNA

Our 26-letter alphabet often seems like a model of efficiency. Look at how much information can be encoded and passed on with it. Look at what Shakespeare accomplished with it. I’m particularly fond of it because my ability to manipulate it is what pays for my food and lodging and other necessities like new CDs. …

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Lasers

Last year (1990) marked the 30th anniversary of an important event that somehow did not result in any parades or speeches or days off work–and no, it wasn’t my birthday. But it was a birthday of sorts: the birthday of the laser. On May 15, 1960, a cylindrical rod of synthetic ruby placed inside a …

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