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ScitTech has the answers. (April Barrett / McGill Tribune)

Ask a Scientist: What Is “Ask a Scientist”?

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Since this is the first instalment of this column, there are not yet questions to answer. But, not to worry! The first question we’ll answer will be: “What is Ask a Scientist about?” In answering it, SciTech hope to drum up enough interest and enthusiasm from you, the readers, to have plenty of questions to answer in future instalments.

Every year The McGill Tribune brings McGill students the best in science and technology journalism in the form of articles, interviews, and podcasts from the heart of the world-class research institution that is McGill University. Each week our intrepid reporters risk their lives and their GPAs to get the scoop on the latest on-campus research, international scientific developments, and all-around neat stuff going on in the worlds of science and technology at McGill and beyond.

In addition to stand-alone articles, we have a number of recurring columns, offering content along a certain theme or from a particular contributor. From the BrainSTEM is our science-flavoured opinion column. Fact or Fiction explores and explodes common myths and misconceptions about science. Research Briefs and Student Research offer insights into the amazing scientific work done right here at McGill by students and faculty alike.

But is it enough? We here at the Tribune think not.

That’s why, this year, we are officially bringing back Ask a Scientist, a recurring column in which you, the reader, submit questions to me, the Scientist. Please ask the Scientist about the mysteries of life, the universe, and everything. The Scientist will search for answers to those scientific mysteries you’ve always pondered and never asked.

There are many—scientists cannot even estimate precisely how many—great questions to Ask a Scientist! We’ll make it easy for you to answer all your burning questions in one reliable place. As you send us your best and worst ideas, here are a small handful of examples to consider, along with brief answers from the Scientist:

Q: Dear Scientist, have you heard about this whole SETI mysterious signal thing? Radio astronomers detecting a powerful radio emission from a suspected-habitable star in the constellation Hercules doesn’t sound like small potatoes. Does this mean aliens are trying to contact us?

A: Absolutely, I’ve heard of SETI, it’s super cool! Unfortunately, the recent energy surge detected is almost certainly not friendly aliens, and is even probably from Earth. Since no one else detected the signal and there was no pattern, only a single pulse, most astronomers credit terrestrial interference—a satellite or other source a bit closer to home. This sort of thing has happened before: The Soviet Union almost cracked the “Aliens!” champagne too, before realizing that a detected signal was actually coming from an unlisted satellite from their own space program. So no confirmation of extraterrestrial intelligence (yet!), and a minor blow to the prospect of terrestrial intelligence, as well.

Q: Dear Scientist, why does toast always fall buttered-side-down?

A: Either due to basic Newtonian mechanics or because your breakfast nook is cursed. Toast actually does fall flat on its butter statistically more than half the time, but it’s not a fundamental property of the toast . . . it’s a property of the table. Tables vary in height, but just about anywhere someone might sit down to eat breakfast affords a drop just high enough for a piece of toast to rotate 180 degrees—that’s one-pi radians, but who has one pie for breakfast?—give or take. Since the butter is generally on top before everything goes crumpet-to-carpet, the slice doesn’t have time to complete a full turn and lands butter-down more often than not. If there are any other queries from the burgeoning field of Breakfast Science, you’re in luck. I just so happen to be the world expert on cheese danishes.

~ If you have any questions for the Scientist, send them to [email protected], with the subject line: Ask a scientist . The Scientist awaits your queries! ~

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