Edward Willett

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“Musseling” in on the glue industry

Since all of my science columns are online, I frequently get questions out of the blue about past column topics. This week, for example, I received an e-mail from a mother whose nine-year-old had decided to do a third-grade science project on glue. They'd found my column on the topic from a decade ago, and wanted to know what kind of glue is the strongest. Like usual, I had to explain that, alas, writing a single short column on the topic did not make me an expert, and I couldn't answer the question. But though I wasn't able to help with the science project, it helped me: it prompted me to re-read my old column, which in turn primed me to ...

Posted by Edward Willett at 17:42, April 12th, 2005 under Blog, Columns, Science Columns | Comment now »

The next X-Prize

Remember the X-Prize, the $10 million (U.S.) reward offered to any team that could create a privately funded-and-built spacecraft capable of lifting three humans to a sub-orbital altitude of 100 kilometres on two consecutive flights within two weeks? Of course you do. One of the 23 competing teams, the daVinci Project, was supposedly poised to turn Kindersley into a spaceport...but alas, SpaceShipOne, designed and built by legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites, Inc., got there first, and took home the cash. But the competition was so successful it sparked a whole new interest in prizes for various technological advancements...or, maybe, revived an old interest. The X-Prize drew its inspiration from the hundreds of aviation prizes offered between 1905 and 1935, including ...

Posted by Edward Willett at 19:15, August 1st, 2006 under Blog, Columns, Science Columns | 3 Comments »

Unreal science

My wife and I spent the weekend at ConVersion, Calgary’s annual science fiction convention. Featured this year were David Weber as Guest of Honor, Larry Niven as Special Guest of Honor, and R. Scott Bakker as Canadian Guest of Honor and Jeremy Bulloch, who played Boba Fett in the original Star Wars trilogy, as Media Guest of Honor. What was lacking was the usual Science Guest of Honor. But the lack of real science just got me thinking more about unreal science. David Weber’s Honor Harrington novels take place in a far future in which hundreds of worlds have been colonized and formed into “star nations.” Since his novels are Horatio Hornblower-like stories set in outer space, there’s a lot of combat involving ...

Posted by Edward Willett at 5:01, August 15th, 2006 under Blog, Columns, Science Columns | 2 Comments »

The curious case of Dr. Carefoot

Bob McDonald, director of membership and legal services for the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Saskatchewan,, recently tipped me to the strange case of a Dr. Carefoot, disciplined by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of the Province of Saskatchewan in the 1920s for diagnosing and treating patients using an Abrams Machine.“A what?” you may wonder. As did Bob, and as did I.Dr. Albert Abrams of San Francisco earned a medical degree from the University of Heidelberg, became professor of pathology at the Cooper Medical Institute (later the Stanford Medical School) and president of the San Francisco Medical-Chirurgical Society in 1893, and had a string of respected publications. But as the 1900s began, he ...

Posted by Edward Willett at 4:32, October 24th, 2006 under Blog, Science Columns | Comment now »

The Biology of B-Movie Monsters

I can't believe I hadn't come across this until now (but then, the World Wide Web is a rather large place [if it's a place at all (and how many paranthetical [like this] statements can one put in a single sentence, anyway?)]): Michael C. LaBarbera, a University of Chicago biologist, has taken a scientific look at The Biology of B-Movie Monsters. (Via MedGadget.) Now, not too long ago I talked about the silliness of using science to disprove the existence of vampires and ghosts. So why do I like this one? Because vampires and ghosts are supernatural--that is, they are conceived to exist outside of nature and therefore are not subject to nature's laws, but rather to a different ...

Posted by Edward Willett at 21:36, November 6th, 2006 under Blog, Columns, Science Columns | Comment now »

The 2006 Ig Nobel Prizes

Scientists have a pop-culture reputation as either a) boring or b) mad. That they are not necessarily the former (although, based on the evidence, the jury is still out on the latter) was proven once again last month with the annual awarding of the Ig Nobel Prizes “for research which first makes you laugh, then makes you think.”The formal theme of the evening was “Inertia,” but I think a better theme might have been “Annoying Things.”After all, the Ig Nobel Peace Prize went to Welshman Howard Stapleton for inventing something specifically designed to be annoying—to teenagers.His “teenager repellant” emits an annoying high-pitched noise most people over 25 can’t hear. Younger people find it ...

Posted by Edward Willett at 17:51, November 7th, 2006 under Blog, Science Columns | Comment now »

Movie monster biology

Not long ago I wrote an article emphasizing that science fiction is, first and foremost, fiction, and that a little fudging of the science for the sake of the story is expected and accepted.Having said that, however, I must also admit that nothing warms the cockles of my heart (what exactly is a cockle, anyway?) like a big juicy article pointing out silly science in movies, and that’s just what Michael C. LaBarbera, a biology professor at the University of Chicago, has provided.His article (much too long to go through in detail: you can read the whole thing here) starts off with a discussion of size.Giant critters have been a mainstay of ...

Posted by Edward Willett at 18:14, November 14th, 2006 under Blog, Science Columns | Comment now »

What’s real, and what’s pretend?

My five-year-old daughter just received her first visit from the Tooth Fairy. Soon, of course, she’ll be visited by Santa Claus.Being the scientifically minded parent that I am, I’m always providing my daughter with information about things like why it’s dark now when she gets up in the morning when it used to be light and why the sky is blue. But not everything I tell her has, shall we say, the same basis in reality.No, I don’t lie to her...exactly...but I sometimes tell her certain traditional childhood fables without necessarily making it clear they are, in fact, fables. And so, naturally, I wonder, just how does she distinguish between reality and fantasy?Jean Piaget, ...

Posted by Edward Willett at 16:49, November 21st, 2006 under Blog, Science Columns | 2 Comments »

It’s déjà vu all over again

It's the strangest mental phenomena most of us ever experience: the feeling that we've already done or seen something that we're really doing or seeing for the first time.This week an interesting new aspect of the phenomenon came to light: for the first time, researchers have reported a case of a blind person experiencing déjà vu.Since déjà vu is French for “already seen,” that might seem like a contradiction in terms. But the blind man in question (and presumably other blind people, since there’s nothing special about him) had déjà vu triggered, not by sight, but by undoing a jacket zipper while hearing a particular piece of music, for example, or hearing a snatch of conversation ...

Posted by Edward Willett at 19:32, November 28th, 2006 under Blog, Science Columns | 1 Comment »

Building a better Christmas with technology

The march of science and technology can be breathtaking, can’t it? Just consider these recent developments in the all-important field of Christmas-related...um, stuff.First, there’s the Lightset Repair Gun.If you have a string of mini-lights that isn’t working, it’s probably because of faulty shunts. Designed to prevent a whole string of lights wired in series from going out when one bulb fails, shunts join the two posts inside the bulb at the base. The shunt’s coating gives it a higher resistance than the filament, so normally the current flows through the filament. If the filament fails, though, the current flows through the shunt, heating it up, burning off the coating, and reducing the resistance so the ...

Posted by Edward Willett at 3:43, December 5th, 2006 under Blog, Science Columns | 1 Comment »