Visitor Count


counter for blogger

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Confucius Revisited

Tell me and I will forget
Show me and I will remember
Involve me and I will understand

I began being interested in Science Centers when my husband George became the first Director of the Centennial Centre of Science & Technology [now the Ontario Science Centre] in 1964. At that time there were very few Science Centers in the world and, because I was a scientist, I had the good fortune to be commissioned to accompany him to Europe to tour those that existed in Scotland, England, France, Germany and Russia. While George talked to the Directors and staff, I took pictures and made notes of exhibits that I thought were attractive and worth copying or adapting.

I was really in my element - having a good time I didn't have to pay for and doing something useful. I remember one occasion especially when I had a Eureka moment while visiting the huge Deutsches Museum of Science & Technology in Munich. That day I had wandered through a number of large galleries with models of boats and airplanes and submarines and large skeletons of mastodons with lots of long labels. The exhibits were all static and there seemed to be few visitors. Even though I was very impressed, I found I wasn't reading the labels and hadn't made a single note. Then all at once I noticed a little gaggle of people in one corner of a gallery and, attracted by their animation, naturally I had to investigate.

The group were engaged in dropping ordinary maple seeds down a big open ended glass tube and watching how they spun around as they fell and interfered with each other when several were dropped at the same time. It was such a simple experiment, but it was the only one in the whole enormously expensive museum that was hands-on - where the visitors could be involved in their own learning. I took a picture of that one, read the label and made notes. In my final report I wrote at the very beginning: All exhibits must be hands-on.

I may have read what Confucius said, but I didn't really understand how wise he was until my Eureka moment in the Deutsches Museum. Rie

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Grandmother effect revisited

When I talked in my last post on gardening about how children absorb practical knowledge from their mothers and grandmothers, it reminded me of a lovely theory about this very thing called the Grandmother Effect. It is about prehistory, so the theory doesn’t have a lot of evidence to back it up, but it goes something like this: The reason human civilization began to flourish thousands of years ago was because people were living longer. For men it meant that they could still father children and carry on as a hunter and provider for them, but for women though, when they lived into their 40's, they didn’t have any more babies and young children to care for, so they had energy and time to spend helping with the care of their grandchildren.

Being a grandmother is a beautiful role - you have all of the joy of your young grandchildren and little of the work involved. And your grandchildren sense your love and concern for them (they do carry some of your precious genes) and that you have time to 'play' with them. Being together so much, grandmothers had time to teach their grandchildren all sorts of practical things, like how to find and gather food, make pots, cook, sew and practical techniques and shortcuts they had picked up. Even more important, they told stories of what had gone before and passed on the accumulated wisdom of their family and tribe.

But why in the first place did we, of all creatures, have such a long period of life after our reproductive system shut down? Evolution favours factors that improve the fitness of the species, so it is logical that the older women must have made some significant positive contribution. I figure it had a lot to do with the fact that we humans had language. Those talkative grandmothers enjoying their grandchildren must have made a far more important and far reaching contribution than they could have imagined – in all probability they were a major factor in the beginnings of human civilization.

Hey Grandmothers, put that feather in your cap and keep talking. Rie

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Green Thumb revisited

First posted July 20, 2010

When I came in from the garden today I noticed that my right thumb was green. I had been pinching off the tiny growing tips at the end of the stems on my petunias so they would start growing new branching stems and be nice short bushy plants instead of long lanky ones. 'Ah Ha!' I thought to myself, 'I have a green thumb'. I certainly should - I have been gardening long enough. My mother loved her garden, and I started helping her when I was in my teens. It's how most girls learn to cook and sew and keep house - you just watch and absorb and, if you are lucky, have the pleasure of passing your knowledge on to your children and grandchildren, if they are interested enough to watch and help you.

I read a book years ago, called 'Square Foot Gardening' by ?Fitzgerald? (not the new book by the same name - the original is unfortunately now out of print). Surprisingly it was written by an engineer and it taught me some basic common sense about plants and started me thinking about plants in a new way. For instance, if a plant is being stressed by being very dry, it says to itself 'Oh my Goodness, if this drought keeps up I might die soon, so I better get busy and produce some seeds before that happens.' If you are a worried lettuce plant, you adjust your chemistry and get very bitter as you start to 'bolt'. Moral of story - keep your lettuce and leafy vegetables nicely watered.

But if now you think about a tomato plant - well, things are different. We welcome the formation of the seeds in tomatoes because they happen to be inside the beautiful redfruit. In northern climes where the season is short, there is nothing quite so good as a vine-ripened tomato warm from the garden in full summer. So, I encourage my tomatoes to set and ripen their fruit by pinching off all growing tips and new blossoms, and then add to the plant's stress by denuding it of half its leaves. It really works!

If you don't already have one, your thumb is bound to turn green if you consider your plants' feelings. Rie

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Looking back

Looking back to my first post, I revealed then that I was becoming more and more conscious of my own mortality and that I felt I was living on ‘borrowed time’.  Since then, I’ve had two more years of precious time and they have, unpredictably, seen me become a regular blogger.

I said in that first post that I wanted to write in order to leave some sort of legacy of my life and thoughts. However, I had had that idea for a long time and realized that, like most people, I didn’t have enough discipline to actually do the writing. I needed some sort of incentive to keep at it and hoped that posting blogs would give me the nudging along that I needed. It has!

Blogging has been an interesting and compelling experience that I have enjoyed. It often gives me the stimulus to do enough research to really understand a concept so I can write clearly about it. Having taught for years, I was well aware that it takes time and effort to understand a subject well enough to be able to teach it clearly and I’ve found the same is true of writing.

As a beginner, another thing I have found about writing is that having a my own vague ideas about a subject isn't good enough. To sort out what I really think is not a trivial exercise – actually it is often so difficult, it sometimes takes several revisions of what I write to get it right. So looking back, I see that the blogs I meant to write about my personal philosophy, old age and even on dying, are few and far between.  Mostly my posts are science or travel related – two of my passions - and they come more easily. 

Unlike the cartoon I am never at a loss for ideas to blog about and I plan to continue but summers are short and are a time for other things. We are at the cottage and with its big gardens, many visitors, lots of reading and even kayaking, I’ve decided to take a break. 

Lately I’ve noticed that some of my earliest posts are not so available online and, as is often the case with radio, where the best of winter fare is repeated in the summer, I think I’ll do the same thing with some of my earliest posts.  So I’ll still post every Sunday and be back in September when my resolution then will be to give more of my personal views on life, philosophy and getting old.    Rie

Sunday, July 1, 2012


I remember back in the early 1980’s, when personal computers were just becoming common, that a friend asked me a simple sounding question: ‘How do computers work?’  She wanted to know what was happening inside them to make them capable of doing what we asked of them. I didn't have a very good idea myself so when I tried to answer, I couldn't seem to get anywhere - it was a combination of my ignorance and her lack of any scientific background. It has kind of bothered me ever since and now that I have a rudimentary knowledge and can use links to the internet to fill in gaps, I have the temerity to try to at least throw a little light on the subject once more.

First, all computers run on electricity and work by means of switches that can either let electricity go through [that is represented as a 1] or turn it ‘off’ [that is represented as a 0]. So to understand what goes on inside a computer we must use the so-called ‘base two’ number system or ‘binary’ system. That means there are only two symbols for all numbers, 1 and 0. In the decimal system that we are used to, there are ten numerals - from 1 to 9 and, of course, 0.  We need 0 as a ‘place saver’.  Try adding 8 + 2.  There is no numeral for ten so we write     8 + 2 = 10 where the 1 in the second place means one ten. With that in mind, dealing with only two numerals is really the same.  Add 1+1, there is no numeral for 2 so we write 10 where the 1 in the second placed mens 2. You can click on the link for binary system for more of a tutorial. Not only numbers but letters and instructions can be programmed into computers as groups of 1’s and 0’s.  For instance when you press the letter 'a' on the keyboard the electricity is routed through to the agreed symbol for 'a', which is 01100001.

Next come transistors that are used as a switches in the computer.  The diagram to the right is like a transistor where the blue water represents the electric current. The water cannot flow from C [the collector] when the black plunger is blocking its way [the 0 position] but if water is forced into B [the base] it pushes the plunger up and lets the current [water] flow into E [the emitter]. The more we push water into B, the greater the flow into E.  The invention of transistors was key to the development of modern computers.  Without these tiny reliable devices, the integrated circuits used in powerful computers and smart phones would not be possible.

Lastly – at the heart of the computer are the electronic circuit boards or Integrated Circuits [IC].  They are made up of thousands of transistors, as well as resistors, capacitors, inductors and diodes. These electronic components are all connected by tracks that conducts current.  The combination of components allows all sorts of complicated operations to be performed and data to be moved from one place to another.  In an Intigrated Circuit the components are very small and interconnections are formed on the same material, typically crystalline silicon, often called a silicon chip.
Hope this throws a glimmer of light on a computer's inner workings - if you're interested in how computers work from a user's point of view, click on this highlighted website.     Rie