Canadian scientists create virtual “functioning” brain

UNDATED – Chris Eliasmith has spent years contemplating how to build a brain.

He is about to publish a book with instructions, which describes the grey matter’s architecture and how the different components interact.

“Then I thought the only way people are going to believe me is if I demonstrate it,” says the University of Waterloo neuroscientist.

So Eliasmith’s team built Spaun, which was billed Thursday as “the world’s largest simulation of a functioning brain.”

Spaun can recognize numbers, remember lists and write them down. It even passes some basic aspects of an IQ test, the team reports in the journal Science. Continue reading


International science ‘superstar’ walks away from $10-million grant

Published: November 14, 2012

Diabetes researcher Patrick Rorsman gave up $10-million research post at the University of Alberta and returned to England. Credit: UofA

By Margaret Munro
Postmedia News
A European scientist widely described as a “superstar” when he was lured to Alberta with $10 million from the federal government, has aborted his Canadian experiment.

After just seven months at the University of Alberta, Patrik Rorsman returned to England, forfeiting his $10-million Canada Excellence Research Chair.

Rorsman was one of 19 foreign men awarded lucrative deals at Canadian universities in 2010 as part of a $190-million Canada Excellence Research Chair program, the federal government’s ambitious science talent drive. Continue reading

Federal scientists uncover evidence that oilsands contaminants travel further than expected

Published November 13, 2012

Federal scientists report polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, are building up in lake sediments up to 100 kilometres from the oilsands operations. PHOTO: POSTMEDIA NEWS FILES

By Margaret Munro

Postmedia News

UNDATED – Federal scientists have uncovered evidence that contaminants wafting out Alberta’s oilsands operations are collecting on the bottom of remote lakes up to 100 kilometres away.

The chemical “legacy” in the lake sediments indicates that oilsands pollution is travelling further than expected and has been for decades.

“The footprint of the deposition is potentially larger than we might have anticipated,” says Derek Muir, a senior Environment Canada scientist, who will present the findings Wednesday at an international toxicology conference in the U.S. where the oilsands are a hot topic. Continue reading

‘Rogue climate hacker’ Russ George raises storm of controversy

Published October 18, 2012

By Margaret Munro

The Ocean Peal, shown here flying the flag of the Old Massett First Nation, left a rusty trail behind the ship as it travelled through this waters off Haida Gwaii this summer spreading iron in the sea.
Photo Credit: HSRC

VANCOUVER _ Russ George doesn’t think small.

He got the Vatican to buy into a venture to reduce its carbon footprint by growing a forest in Hungary.

He sailed off to the Galapagos Islands in 2007 with a grand plan to scatter iron over a large swath of the South Pacific.

And now George is leading the world’s largest ocean-fertilization experiment off the B.C. coast, which was widely denounced this week as shoddy science and a violation of international rules.

George is the kind of can-do entrepreneur – or “rogue climate hacker” as he was described this past week – that makes some worry about unauthorized experiments putting the planet at risk.

It’s the ocean this time, and the experiment will likely do no serious damage, says Ken Denman, an oceanographer at the University of Victoria. Next time, he says, it could be some multimillionaire or “rogue” country shooting sulphate aerosols into the atmosphere to block incoming solar radiation in a bid to slow global warming.

“That’s the big worry,” says Denman, a former Fisheries and Oceans Canada scientist who has spent years working on international efforts to better protect the global atmosphere and oceans. Continue reading

Arctic Ice “Rotten” to the North Pole, scientist says

Published: September 21, 2012

By Margaret Munro

NASA handout image shows how satellite data reveals how the new record low Arctic sea ice extent, from September 16, 2012, compares to the average minimum extent over the past 30 years (in yellow).

When David Barber first headed to the Arctic in the 1980s, the ice would typically retreat just a few a kilometres offshore by summer’s end.

Now he and his colleagues have to travel more than 1,000 kilometres north into the Beaufort Sea to even find the ice.

And it’s nothing like the thick, impenetrable ice of Arctic lore.

This year the ice is “rotten” practically all the way to the North Pole, says Barber, a veteran Arctic researcher and director of the Centre for Earth Observation Science at the University of Manitoba. Continue reading

University of Toronto researcher censured for ‘self-plagiarism’

Published October 23, 2012

By Margaret Munro

Postmedia News

A leading University of Toronto researcher has been censured for self-plagiarism – and “severe abuse of the scientific publishing system” – after a software program revealed his group had been recycling text from previous studies.

Stephen Matthews and two colleagues in the university’s faculty of medicine “self-plagiarized” text from five other reports in a 2005 paper in the journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, says a retraction notice published by the journal this month.

“This article represents a severe abuse of the scientific publishing system,” says the notice.

Matthews was not responding to interview requests Tuesday.

“He’s busy,” said Lloyd Rang, executive director of communications at University of Toronto’s faculty of medicine, who depicted the case as a copyright squabble over a paper that was always intended as a “review.”

“Under the strictest definition of copyright it had to be original, but there are only so many ways to describe the research landscape,” Rang said of Matthews’ report that now has “retracted” stamped across it in bold red letters. Continue reading

Saving Banff’s grizzlies

The Wild Side, Part Five

Published September 2, 2012

By Margaret Munro

BANFF, ALTA. _ The craggy peaks of the Rocky Mountains dominate the landscape, the turquoise waters of the Bow River sparkle in the afternoon sun. But Colleen Cassady St. Clair is not here for the view. She is getting a feel for the increasingly constrained life of grizzlies in Banff National Park.

The University of Alberta biologist and her graduate student Benjamin Dorsey take off their boots, roll up their pants and step barefoot onto an electrified mat straddling the Canadian Pacific Railway track. They jump right back off, yelping as a jolt runs up their legs.

“Just what we’re after – intense, fleeting pain,” says Cassady St. Clair.

A specialist in human-wildlife conflict, she is game to try almost anything to help animals co-exist with people — even if it entails a bit of short-term discomfort for the grizzlies in Canada’s premiere national park.

Wildlife conflicts don’t get much more dramatic, or intractable, than the one involving the iconic bears, an iconic company, and Canada’s most iconic park. Continue reading