Friday Fiction Facts: Ray Bradbury on Writing

Welcome to Friday Fiction Facts: sciency things that fiction writers need to know.

Ray BradburyThis is a different kind of Friday Fiction post, but in honor of Ray Bradbury’s birthday today I wanted to share his advice to fiction writers.

Yes, I know it’s long. An hour is like 100 years in internet time. But just give it 5 minutes…trust me ..


An Evening with Ray Bradbury 2001

Science fiction author Ray Bradbury regales his audience with stories about his life and love of writing in “Telling the Truth,” the keynote address of The Sixth Annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea, sponsored by Point Loma Nazarene University. Series: Writer’s Symposium By The Sea [4/2001]

Keep writing!

Plastic Bear Honey and the “Terroir” of Industrial Food

Photo: Flickr User bionicgrrrl CC BY-NC 2.0.

Photo: Flickr User bionicgrrrl CC BY-NC 2.0.

It’s August.  Welcome to the days of summer honey.

If you are only familiar with the mass-produced product in squeezable plastic bears, you may think that there is just one honey and that it is of uniform golden colour and singular mild flavour. That’s what I used to believe until I started frequenting farmers’ markets and talking to beekeepers – and most importantly, tasting the honey. As it turns out, in nature, no two honeys are alike.

You can read what makes summer honey so special (and so unlike plastic bear honey) in my latest post, Harvesting Sunlight, over at the Canadian Science Writers’ Association blog.

In talking about honey in that post I introduce the term terroir — a word  I had never heard before but which may be familiar to wine connoisseurs. Terroir  (pronounced tehr-wah) is a French word that comes from terre meaning “land.”  According to Oxford it refers to:

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Beautiful Sunday: Capturing the Skylark’s Ecstasy

Skylark (Alauda arvensis)  Sergey Yeliseev, Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Skylark (Alauda arvensis) Sergey Yeliseev, Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A song of light, and pierces air

With fountain ardor, fountain play,           

To reach the shining tops of day,

And drink in everything discern’d

An ecstasy to music turn’d,

              -From “Lark Ascending”, George Meredith


Some things in nature are so breathtaking, they move us to try to create something equally beautiful to express and share our awe. Ansell Adams strove to capture the brooding majesty of the North American west on black and white film. John Muir did the same through layer after layer of eloquent descriptive narrative. Poets through eternity have tried to do justice to flowers and birds, lakes and mountains, the moon and stars, but in the end, Kilmer probably had it right; we will never see a poem as lovely as a tree.

Birds occupy their own special place in the artistic interpretation of nature. Is it possible to expound the glory of the dawn chorus or the swirl of a million flamingos in a way that even comes close to equaling the events themselves? Let’s start with something simpler: a single bird’s song –

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Summertime Science Roundup

Yes, it's summer.  Photo:  Özgür Mülazımoğlu  (Flickr)  (CC BY 2.0)

Yes, it’s summer. Photo: Özgür Mülazımoğlu (Flickr) (CC BY 2.0)

What have you been doing this summer? Have you gone to the beach? How about fishing? Or do you prefer to stay home and garden? A few weeks ago I took a look through this summer’s Science Borealis blog feed to find stories where science overlaps with summer fun. Click on over there to read about the invasive fish that might land in your boat, swimsuits that repel water, what fireflies have to do with stem cells, and lots more summer science.

When you’re done, come on back and take a look at a few more summertime topics that have come up since I wrote that piece –

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Even Trees Need Their Mothers

This 200+ year old sugar maple is undoubtedly a mother tree.

This 200+ year-old sugar maple is undoubtedly a mother tree, slowly giving its remaining life to the youngsters sprouting up around it.

We tend to think of trees as individual entities, each one with its leafy or needled top and its own underground collection of roots. We now understand that the trees of some forests are linked below ground through networks of mycorrhizal fungi which serve to bridge the gap between one tree’s roots and another.

In an “obligate symbiotic” relationship, the trees and the fungi require each other in order to survive. The tree supplies the fungus with carbohydrate energy. In return the fungi supply the tree with water and nutrients gathered from the soil.

Most importantly, each network of trees is centered on “mother trees” — the oldest largest trees in the network. Not only do the mother trees serve as hubs to distribute necessary nutrients to younger trees via the mycorrhizal network, they also pass on their legacy after they die.

This research provides strong evidence that maintaining forest resilience is dependent on conserving mycorrhizal links, and that removal of hub trees could unravel the network and compromise regenerative capacity of the forests.  –Suzanne Simard


Watch as Dr. Suzanne Simard, professor with the UBC Faculty of Forestry, explains:


Read more here: Do Trees Communicate?

Friday Fiction Facts: Poison or Venom? It’s all in the delivery

Welcome to Friday Fiction Facts: sciency things that fiction writers need to know.

Some spiders are venomous, but not this wolf spider. Photo: Chris Buddle)

All spiders produce venom, but most, like this wolf spider, are not venomous to humans.* (Photo: Chris Buddle)

Alright fiction writers, what’s wrong with these sentences?

“… indeed, who could distinguish the two little dark punctures which would show where the [snake's] poison fangs had done their work. ”  – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure Of The Speckled Band

“And it is observed, that the Pike will eat venomous things (as some kind of Frogs are) and yet live without being harmed by them” — Izaak Walton “The Compleat Angler” (pdf)

I’m sure my title gave it away. Snakes are venomous. Frogs are poisonous. Confusing these two things is a common mistake, but the difference between them is pretty straightforward. Put simply  –

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Why You Should Vote for the Longitude 2014 Paralysis Prize

I’m pleased to present this guest post by Megan Moynahan.  Megan is the Executive Director of the Institute for Functional Restoration, a non-profit organization with the mission to restore function to people with paralysis.

default-logo_0In celebration of the 300th anniversary of the original Longitude Prize, the BBC has recently announced that Nesta and the UK’s Technology Strategy Board have launched the Longitude Prize 2014, an effort “to help solve one of the greatest issues of our time.”  The catch is that British citizens first get to vote on which challenge area is “the greatest issue” worthy of the £10,000,000 prize purse.

The candidate challenge areas are all worthy causes, but here’s my plug for why you should vote for the Paralysis Prize, a challenge to restore movement to people with paralysis.

In the UK eight people become paralysed each day. — Paralysis Prize

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Why Crowdsource Conservation? Because, seahorses!

A photo of a lined seahorse taken by ‘citizen scientists’ Nédia Coutinho and Martin Roy. Photo: UW Distribution

A photo of a lined seahorse taken by ‘citizen scientists’ Nédia Coutinho and Martin Roy. Photo: UW Distribution

Do the math: There are 48 species of seahorse…that we know of.

They inhabit shallow coastal waters along every continent except Antarctica –hundreds of  thousands of kilometers of coastline.

Their range encompasses nearly every ocean and sea between 50 degrees north and 50 degrees south latitude.

Of the 48 species, 26 are listed as Data Deficient by the IUCN, meaning scientists don’t know enough about the animals to determine their conservation status; 11 are endangered.

Add to that, the fact that most divers have never seen one — seahorses are solitary or live in pairs; are small and can change color to match their surroundings; move slowly and seldom cross more than a few feet of open water.

And finally this:  In the whole world, there are fewer than 15 seahorse biologists studying the animals in the wild.

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Beautiful Sunday: Here there be dragons … dancing

These are Weedy Seadragons.  They don’t even look real, do they?


These two could teach Strictly Come Dancing a thing or two. Named for their uncanny resemblance to the plant life around them, a male weedy seadragon seduces a female with some very fancy fin work. Two months later, however, its the male whos left carrying the eggs

Living off the coast of south Australia, weedy seadragons (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus) are the only known species along with sea horses and pipefish – where the male carries the eggs. Although the eggs start out in the female, she lays about 120 of them onto the tail of the male where they are then fertilized and develop until they hatch.

Feeding on plankton, larval fishes and small shrimp-like crustaceans, seadragons resemble swaying seaweed making them difficult to find in their natural habitats, even though they can grow to about 46 cm in length.

From BBC One  – Life on Youtube. 

Fun with Taxonomy: On naming the animals .. and everything else

What else would you name this orange sponge but Spongiforma squarepantsii?  (Photo: Tom Bruns; CC BY 3.0)

What else would you name this orange sponge but Spongiforma squarepantsii? (Photo: Tom Bruns; CC BY 3.0)

If you had the opportunity, what would you name a new species …or nebula or gene? I’ve often thought about that and it always seemed a job of great responsibility; to endow something with a name that people will use forever.  I always pictured scientists poring through Latin and Greek texts or the archives of great scientists who have gone before them, looking for just the right name that will hold up for eternity.

Well it turns out this is not always the sober endeavor I thought it was. Species and other scientific objects are named for everything from pop stars and cartoon characters to political figures and cleaning products. Really, just about anything you can think of might end up in an official scientific name. For a fun romp through some of those names, check out my post over at Science Borealis,  Pop Star Taxonomy: What’s in a name?