Doomed satellite made a name for Canadian aerospace science

As we wait for an aging satellite to crash, few remember what the Ottawa-built instrument on-board that satellite taught us: that the air above us has tides, wrote Postmedia News Sept. 22.

Big tides. Tides in the ocean rise and fall a metre or two; the upper atmosphere rises and falls an incredible seven kilometres once a day.

All this was unknown in 1991, when NASA launched the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite. It carried a $40-million Canadian instrument, the Wind Imaging Interferometer, or WINDII (pronounced Windy) for short.

Space is a harsh place of intense radiation. The satellite was designed to last three years but lasted 20; scientists gathered to reminisce on Sept. 12, its 20th anniversary.

And WINDII was a star of this show; it revealed secrets of the atmosphere that experts said it could never see, and opened the way for Canada to design many more precision space instruments, hitching a ride for our country on the satellites and unmanned space probes of other countries.

Gordon Shepherd, a veteran space scientist at Toronto’s York University [Faculty of Science & Engineering], led the project. “We learned that tides were huge in the upper atmosphere, around 100 kilometres altitude,” he said. “People hadn’t known that before. In fact, when we asked the experts, they said we wouldn’t be able to see the tides. “And it turned out to be the biggest thing we could see, just absolutely dominant.”

Why study tides?

"If you don’t, then you don’t know how the atmosphere works. You have to know what the energy sources are, how the energy is propagated, where it goes, what it does,” Shepherd said. "We didn’t know what we were going to see but we knew it would be new. The region hadn’t been explored before.”

Combined, the 10 instruments on the UARS satellite studied ozone chemistry, winds and temperatures in the stratosphere, and energy input from the sun.

Space experts – including the Canadian Space Agency – agree WINDII made a name for Canadian space hardware, leading to a line of later equipment for satellites and probes to other planets. "This opened the door. It proved that Canadian industry could do that,” Shepherd said.

  • Gordon Shepherd, research professor emeritus in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering, spoke about the imminent re-entry of NASA’s UARS satellite, on AM640 News Sept. 22.

Canada needs realistic approach to cannabis, study finds

Alan Young, professor of law at York University, said the current political climate presents another barrier to changes in public health policy, wrote The Canadian Press Sept. 23, in a story about Canada’s policy’s on medical cannabis.

No public health questions can be addressed at the provincial level, where they usually reside, until the federal government decides to release control of the substance and either decriminalize it or regulate it, Young said. The Conservative government’s hardline crime policies make this unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future, he said.

The current climate stifles many potential benefits to public health, he said, adding medical marijuana use has the potential to ease the burden on the country’s health-care system.

"It may be that cannabis is a valuable therapeutic product. Right now the criminalization of cannabis is preventing it from being fully explored," he said. "If you do acquire a public health perspective, that should open the door to a much more informed approach to medical cannabis."

  • Young’s comments were also heard on radio and television stations across Canada, Sept. 22.

Promises lost on many voters

Testing the viability of one candidate compared to another using campaign platforms is not black and white, according to York University political science Professor Robert MacDermid, wrote the Aurora Banner Sept. 22.

"I think any reasonable person would say that when circumstances change, directions should change as well. I think citizens expect a good government to govern according to conditions and not be bound solely by what they said at the last election," MacDermid said, adding sometimes governing according to conditions does not match what was outlined in campaign platforms.

But circumstances aren’t the only reason voters may want to think twice about holding parties and candidates accountable for their campaign platforms. Part of the problem also lies with the parties themselves. "They (parties) can be outrageously irresponsible in seeking to win votes. They’ll make promises which seem to have little chance of being carried out," MacDermid said.

Key among those problems is parties don’t develop long-range views on policies, opting instead to try to sway voters with hot-button issues, he said. "It would be good to think through issue positions, have a public discussion on what positions they are going to take in advance of going into an election, rather than it being a product of polling and public relations backroom people just trying to, in a brief time, catch the attention of voters and play on their fears," MacDermid said.

Montreal using speed-reading signs to tame wild drivers

Digital speed-reading signs are sprouting up across the city [of Montreal], and with them comes a radical new approach to trying to get speeders to slow down, wrote The Globe and Mail Sept. 23.

Instead of punishing them with fines, it tries to use behavioural psychology to improve their performance.

On one level, the machines operate on the simple principle that drivers, distracted by cellphones, lattes and chattering passengers, simply don’t notice that they’ve exceeded the speed limit. "They may not be aware how fast they’re actually going, and this presents the information to them in a dramatic way," said David Wiesenthal, a York University psychologist [Faculty of Health] who specializes in driver behaviour. "It can indicate to drivers that they’re taking a higher level of risk than they had intended."

But the machines work on another level – after all, who doesn’t sometimes have a sneaking feeling they’re being heavy on the gas pedal but doesn’t do anything about it?

They offer motorists a so-called feedback loop, letting them compare their performance to a goal, and then work toward that goal. It’s the same principle behind monitoring your progress on a StairMaster at the gym, or stepping on a bathroom scale. "It’s information that allows you to change your behaviour," Wiesenthal said.

Hunt is on for rest home alternatives

There is some activity afoot to create new living arrangements for an aging demographic that doesn’t want to suffer fools or brook condescending authority figures, wrote Victoria, BC’s Times Colonist Sept. 23. The trend is called senior co-housing and a Danish architect, Charles Durrett, is considered the father of this movement.

One of the driving forces behind [the Sooke, BC] project is Margaret Critchlow, a York University anthropology professor [Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies] with an expertise in housing co-ops who retired to Sooke a year ago and has taken on this project.

Critchlow has also launched a non-profit society and a website called Canadian Senior Co-housing. "I must like what I do," she said, "because in retirement, I’m still doing it."

According to Critchlow, evidence suggests that seniors who live in co-housing arrangements often remain for up to a decade longer in their own homes. She calculates that means a saving of about $50,000 per year per person.

Grade 8 students to dance for dollars

More than 50 Grade 8 pupils from the Lester B. Pearson School for the Arts will be strutting their stuff for a fundraiser this Saturday at the Paul Davenport Theatre, wrote The London Free Press Sept. 23.

The pupils will perform a dance choreographed by Danny Grossman, who founded his own dance company in Toronto in 1977 and is an adjunct professor in dance at York University [Faculty of Fine Arts]. His pieces often focus on social justice. At the Art Harvest the dancers will perform Grossman’s The Human Family.

On air

  • Pat Armstrong, professor of women’s studies in York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, spoke about the importance of women’s work in health care on CBC Radio’s “Metro Morning” Sept. 22.