Shining a light on basic science

Image: Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press Gary Goodyear, federal minister of state for science and technology, responds to questions as National Research Council of Canada president John McDougall (left) and Senator Claude Carignan look on during a news conference in Ottawa.

Image: Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
Gary Goodyear, federal minister of state for science and technology, responds to questions as National Research Council of Canada president John McDougall (left) and Senator Claude Carignan look on during a news conference in Ottawa.

This article appeared in the Guelph Mercury in 2013.

The pronouncement Tuesday from Gary Goodyear, the minister of state for science and technology, about the National Research Council has left scientists across Canada — normally a mild-mannered and rather placid bunch — sputtering with disbelief and even anger.

The National Research Council is no longer a place for fundamental science, we’re told. It is a place for “commercially viable” science. It is now a servant of Canadian industry. Canadian industry will create wish lists and its minions at the research council — paid on the taxpayers’ dime — will do their best to fulfil them.

Research and development is a risky business, because a good idea isn’t necessarily always a profitable one. Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has a solution. Instead of incentivizing industry to do their own research and development, let’s just have the government-funded National Research Council do it for them. It’s quintessentially Canadian. Socialize the risk. Privatize the profit.

Goodyear, the MP for Cambridge, was all gregarious and well-intentioned this week, with a message spun sweet as cotton candy. What could possibly be wrong with an initiative to make the research council useful, even profitable?

The problem is, Goodyear isn’t a scientist, and if this new policy is any indicator, he genuinely and truly doesn’t understand how science works.

First, let me tell you how science doesn’t work. Continue reading

Book Review: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

denisovichThis book is minute-by-minute account of one day in the life of Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, a prisoner in a Soviet prison camp in Siberia in 1943 – from reveille (the harsh tapping of a hammer on stone) to a scuffle over a pathetic breakfast, to line-ups and strip-searches, jostling and morbid joking, stealing time, stealing bread, to warming up by hard toil in the Siberian snow. His life has become a single arduous task: to stay alive on a thin diet of groats, a mysterious substance called “hot skilly” and very little else, all the while engaged in the back-breaking work of constructing settlements in the Siberian wild.

“Here, lads, we live by the law of the taiga.  But even here people manage to live.  D’you know who are the ones the camps finish off?  Those who lick other men’s left-overs, those who set store by the doctors, and those who peach on their mates.” Continue reading

Travel: Three days in Granada, Spain

Photo from

Photo from

The fragrances of Granada are what I´ll remember best – sweet musk roses in the Alhambra and sizzling stewy platefuls of food in the Plaza Nueva. Granada is one of the jewels of Andalusia, the southernmost province of Spain famous for its bullfighting, its beauty and its flamenco dancing. But Granada is more than merely beautiful: it´s easy but not boring, bustling but never close or chaotic. It´s no wonder that the place teems with foreigners who came for a visit and stay on for weeks or months, hopelessly in love with the place.

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Travel: I didn’t really like Venice

veniceThis article is nominally about Venice, but it’s mostly about money, because money is truly the currency of Venice. There is a good reason for this. Venice is less a city than it is an ornament: pretty to look at, but not very functional. The same magnificent history that gave rise to the splendid patchwork of narrow footpaths and canals has also damned Venice to uselessness. Venice, with its 117 islands, hundreds of bridges and zero motorways, isn’t especially well suited for anything but tourism, and the locals know it. It’s the biggest tourist trap in Europe, and possibly the entire world. Tourist ‘trap’ probably doesn’t do it justice, actually. It’s a full scale ambush. Continue reading

Book Review: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

These are the tales of Mr. Sherlock Holmes, a world-famous detective who lives on Baker Street.  Sherlock cares for nothing but solving crimes, so the task of lionizing him falls to Mr. Watson, a doctor whose awe for his friend is boundless.  All of the Holmes adventures are catalogued in what is essentially Watson’s diary.

Sherlock Holmes is a drug addict with Asperger’s.  He is mawkishly attached to his old roommate Watson, and calls him over for tea and opium at any hour of day.

Sherlock does all of his best work when he is blitzed out of his skull.  According to Watson, one hit of opium sends Sherlock into a state of intellectual frenzy, his brain clocking operations at breakneck speed. Indeed,  one might even say that it kicks into high gear.  Ha ha.

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Travel: Iran’s other side

Tehran at nightOriginally published in the Toronto Star on August 5, 2003:  The Iran that CNN doesn’t show us – the daily existence of a country in flux.  No booze, but Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman, dubbedin Farsi.

I am suspended in an airplane somewhere between Toronto and Tehran, and my ignorance covers me like a chador.  My Eastern complexion has in the past camouflaged me as a full-blooded native Iranian, but in this cramped and noisy box I am quickly betrayed by my flat Canadian vowels.

Last summer, I embarked on my first visit to Iran, the country of half my heritage.  Bereft of tongue and custom, I possess little of the rich inheritance that is my birthright.  The Iran of National Geographic is an exotic wonder, or it is a stifling desert with gracious peasants.  The Iran of CNN is a horde of turbaned men, often Islamic fundamentalists, sometimes terrorists, always hostile.

The Iran I am about to experience is a very narrow Iran.  It is the country of the affluent few percent.  My great-grandfather was one of the richest men in the Northern provinces, and the remnants of his astonishing wealth still tinkle faintly in the purses of the second and third generations.  I will see neither the poor carpet-weaving villagers, nor the bluish opium addicts, nor the blazing skies of the Southern deserts.  Not this time.

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Climate change: Kilimanjaro weeps

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

Originally published in the Toronto Star on July 12, 2006.  As  the ice caps melt on the mountain tops, politics is defeating intelligence in the debate over Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth.  If you haven’t seen it, here’s a quick synopsis of An Inconvenient Truth, the global-warming movie that has ignited a firestorm in the U.S. and inexplicably nothing in Canada Al Gore says that carbon dioxide levels are going through the roof on account of fossil fuel burning. He correlates carbon dioxide levels with hotter temperatures, and calls it “global warming.” Continue reading

Travel: How not to see Rome

The imperial palace on Palatine Hill.

The imperial palace on Palatine Hill.

“I hate it here,” said the immaculate beauty in front of me, in Russian.

She was referring to the Colosseum, which I personally think looks fabulous for its age – roughly 2000 years old.  Her much older, shorter but thunderously angry husband roared back, “You killed me to come to Rome. Now we’re here, and all you do is complain!”

It’s a familiar story. Rome is the grand dame of the Grand Tour, but it’s the European destination that people love to hate. It’s too big, sniff the naysayers, too expensive, too hot. All wrong: it’s magnificent,and here is my riposte to the six most common moans about Rome. Continue reading

Book Review: Barney’s Version by Mordechai Richler

barneyHave you seen the movie Barney’s Version (starring Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, Minnie Driver, Rachel Lefevre and the beautiful Rosamund Pike)?  If so, were you baffled that an entire trio of lovely and accomplished women managed to fall for Barney, a tubby slob?  I wasn’t.  That’s because I’ve read the book, which the rather well-intentioned and well-acted movie transformed into a bit of a mess.  Mordechai Richler’s book is one of the finest Canadian novels ever produced, and his Barney is a huge character:  brash, full of bile and bitter humour, a man who is passionate about business but is also capable of falling “truly, seriously, irretrievably in love in love” and “pulling surprises out of a hat”.  Barney may be a loutish, bigoted cigar-smoking quasi-alcoholic, but he is also  the loudest, funniest most charming man in the room, a man who seduces women and fundraisers alike. Continue reading

Travel: The “Authentic” Tourist

suitcaseI idolize Japanese tourists. I’ve been in Europe for three weeks now, and whenever I get lost I simply stalk the nearest pack of them. They have a sixth sense for landmarks, and all the best cameras (I don’t know what I’ll do if I ever go to Japan. Go into a tailspin, probably). I also like Japanese tourists because they are the antithesis of the odious breed I like to call the Snooty Tourist. Continue reading

Poem: King Lear…an odyssey in rhyming couplets

lear imagePrecisely as advertised.  This is my formulation of Shakespeare’s King Lear, set to rhymic couplets in more or less iambic pentameter.  Unfortunately it is a work in progress.

The Ballad of Reading Lear
by Showey Yazdanian

Once, long ago, was a silly old king
Who played with the world at the end of a string.
His name was King Lear, a fierce Brit was he
And haughty and stubborn, as proud as can be.
Now, the royal King Lear was aged more than eighty
When he decided his kingship had become rather weighty
So he gave up the duties to which he was written
And decided to divy the Kingdom of Britain.
He called his three daughters to his gold, kingly post
And loudly demanded, “Kids, who loves me most?” Continue reading

Copenhagen conference: An open letter to Rex Murphy

This letter is a response to a programme on Cross Country Canada, a radio programme hosted by Canada’s famous curmudgeon Rex Murphy.  The topic of the programme was the Copenhagen climate conference, and it originally aired in December 2010.  The message of my letter was this:  sometimes one does not have the right to an opinion. Rex never replied. Continue reading

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

pahmukMy Name is Red opens fairly early on with a murder, and the remainder of the five hundred or so odd pages is essentially a murder mystery set in the 16th century.  All of the primary characters are miniaturists – this was particularly appealing to me because I am a devoted admirer of miniature art.  Half of my pleasure in this novel was the rich trove of detail about the artists’ workshops and techniques – the way each artist’s work was so thororoughly marked by his personality.  The most interesting parallel plot describes the tangled love affair between a lovely and brave widowed mother-of-two named Shekure and Black, one of the artists.

The novel is unusually structured – the narrative adopts a different point of view (with multiple repetitions) in each mini-chapter.  Even inanimate objects are given their say.  This is certainly very entertaining. Continue reading

Fiction: Where did the title “Life is Perhaps” come from?

forough2The title of my book Life is Perhaps was snatched from “Another Birth”,  a poem by the most famous female poet Iran has ever produced – the tragic and sublimely talented Ms. Forough Farrokhzad.  The following is excerpted from a biographical sketch by Melissa Barnhardt in Rozaneh Magazine:  “The modern Iranian Poetess Forough Farrokhzad (1935-1967) virtually “opened the windows” of Iranian poetry to real relationships and the real world. While Persian poetry had already been somewhat liberated by the free verse of the 1920s, her frank presentation of feelings about loving, sexual relationships was revolutionary. She did the unthinkable, not only writing about intimacy in a predominantly Shiite Moslem society, but writing about it from an utterly honest, utterly feminine point of view. Without fear, she said what had always been forbidden, inwards that had never before appeared in a literary work… Continue reading

Travel: Ancient Assisi still in the pink

The walls in Asissi are pink!

The walls in Asissi are pink!

Originally published in the Toronto Star on September 24, 2009 .  ASSISI, Italy–As you might expect from a place that five Catholic saints have called home, Assisi doesn’t have much of a nightlife. There’s no nightclub, no movie theatre and the young people in evidence are prone to grab their guitars and spontaneously burst into hymn.  In short: for art, alcohol and high animal spirits, stay in Rome. For a day or two of tranquil views of Van Gogh-like landscapes and the occasional brush with a Franciscan friar, come to Assisi. Continue reading