Category Archives: National

Weighing a new option


Weighing a new optionAs with so many yo-yo dieters, the weight of a kilogram is constantly in flux—at least at an atomic level. But Ottawa researchers are hoping to get the kilo’s waistline permanently in check by changing how it’s measured.

The kilogram is currently defined by the International Prototype Kilogram, a golf-ball-sized cylindrical weight made out of platinum alloy. Because a kilogram is a physical object, it constantly releases and collects atomic particles, meaning its mass—and the mass of all kilograms—is always changing. ““If [the IPK] moves up or down the others have to follow,” says Barry Wood of the National Research Council in Ottawa. “It’s totally artificial.”

Wood and his team are heading up a movement to measure kilograms against the charge of an electron, a natural constant, using a type of specialized motor called the watt balance. “You can lift mass with a motor,” he says. “If I know how much current I’m putting into the motor, that tells me details about how much I’ve lifted.” Since the NRC purchased the watt balance (pictured below) from the British government two years ago, Wood has been using the room-sized metal machine to determine exactly how much current is needed to lift a kilogram. The data, which has so far cost $2.5 million to collect, is compared to two other watt balances in the U.S. and Switzerland, and used to calibrate the devices to make their results consistent.


Wood estimates this will take about four years, and then the International Bureau of Weights and Measures will redefine the kilogram using the electric standard. It won’t mean much for dieters, but will have a big impact on the scientific community. “This new process will stay the same for the next thousand, million years,” says Wood. “That’s a characteristic we value.”

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The two faces of Col. Russell Williams

Portrait of an accused predator

by Tom Henheffer, Martin Patriquin, and Michael Friscolanti on Wednesday, February 10, 2010 9:35pm

Years before Col. Russell Williams was an accused double murderer, he was a rookie instructor at the Canadian Forces flying school in Portage la Prairie, Man. He was such a standout in the cockpit that his boss, Major Greg McQuaid, selected him for the farewell flight of “Musket Gold,” a now-defunct air force demonstration team that peaked in the 1970s. “I handpicked him because of his skill,” McQuaid told Maclean’s. “I knew he would do a good job. I liked the guy, he was sharp, and he had all the characteristics of a good military officer and a good pilot.”

It was 1992, and the four-man team spent two months training for the big finale, practicing turns and formations in their bright yellow, single-engine TC-134s. Musket Gold’s last hurrah was captured on VHS video, and it was Russ Williams, then a young lieutenant, who edited the footage, added some background music, and gave it to his fellow flyers as a keepsake. When McQuaid first heard about the shocking charges against his old friend—two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of sexual assault—he immediately thought of that old VHS tape. “He showed no indication that he could do something like this—zero, absolutely none,” he says. “He fit in well and got along well with everybody, and was respected by everybody.”
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A cure for the energy crisis

Shale gas could one day replace coal in power plants and gasoline and diesel for cars and trucks

Getty Images/ MetroWest Newspapers

Mike Markham used to hold a match under his faucet and light the tap water on fire. He’d get a small blue flame or an explosive orange fireball, depending on the day. “I had to check to see if I still had a moustache,” he says. Markham lives on an 80-acre farm in Fort Lupton, Colo. There are about eight natural gas wells within a few miles of his property, which he says are causing methane gas to migrate into his water.

The problem, which also affected about 100 of Markham’s neighbours who get water from the same aquifer, ended this year when the drilling companies changed pipe infrastructure and introduced filters and holding tanks to remove the gas before it entered household sinks. The aquifer is still contaminated, but local concerns about water quality aren’t going to stop the nearby drilling. That’s life on the front lines of what might be the biggest energy revolution in generations.

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‘Keep out of my fridge’

An Ottawa man is fighting for the right to slaughter and process meat for his friends

David Gonczol/Ottawa Citizen

Four squad cars squealed into Mark Tijssen’s yard with their lights blazing, just after dark on a cold November night last year. Tijssen, who was having dinner with his nine-year-old son at the time, politely showed the officers around his Ottawa property before being charged with several crimes under the Ontario Food Quality and Safety Act (OFQSA), including killing uninspected animals and distributing meat without a licence. It was all because he had slaughtered a pig and given a friend some of the meat. “I didn’t set out to be an activist or a revolutionary—I grew up on a farm,” says Tijssen, 48, a Canadian Forces major. “There was no need for this.”

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Concordia “floaties” welcomed home

Shipwrecked students survived on rainwater—and Disney songs

Photo by Tom Henheffer

Carrying a fluffy pink blanket and wearing a gigantic smile, Shelley Piller was up long before dawn, waiting on an empty concourse at Toronto’s Pearson airport for her daughter Elysha to return home.

“I’m going to cover her in this blanket and I’m going to take her home, and give her a bath and feed her as much as I can possibly feed her.”

Elysha was one of 48 students on the S.V. Concordia, a sailing ship that doubled as a travelling high school and university. A microburst, a sudden massive gust of wind, toppled the three-masted boat off the coast of Brazil late last Thursday evening. It sank in minutes, leaving every soul on board to fight for survival in leaky life rafts for two days and nights.

“We’re just so happy that they’re all okay. It’s a miracle,” says Piller.

After pulling each other from flooded classrooms and cutting the life rafts free, the students and crew were forced to bail constantly to keep shin-deep water from sinking their small boats. As they fought to collect rainwater and survive on rations, many became sick from dehydration, but they managed to keep their spirits high by singing Disney songs.

“There were low points and high points,” says Mark Sinker, the ship’s history and English teacher. “When there was water in the rafts and people were shivering, morale was very low. But overall I think people kept their spirits up.”

Piller, her husband Tony, and three sons, Lucas, Sam and Trevor, stood waiting, wearing their scarves and winter coats, with sleepy grins and hands in their pockets. A few other families were scattered around the airport, holding coffee and sitting at shops with metal gates still drawn shut.

Brent Tripp waited for his brother Jamie, a world traveller who was working as a crewman on the Concordia. Early Friday morning Brent got a call from his mother—at first all he could make out was the word “sink.” He was always afraid something would happen to Jamie, and thought the worst might have finally happened. Eventually his mother told him everything was okay, and his brother called Sunday morning.

“I pick up the phone and there was a quick delay, then ‘hey brother’ came across” says Tripp, his voice quivering slightly. “Both of us had a huge little breakdown.” He added that although he knew his brother was safe physically, it was worrisome to think what psychological toll the accident might have taken. “The next thing we went into was Olympic men’s hockey. So it was kind of nice to know that my brother, the guy that I love so much, he was still there.”

He said he plans to take it easy once they’re reunited.

“I would just like nothing more then to cram in the back seat of our little four door car and just take him to a little restaurant, buy him some lunch and have a beer.”

As the minutes ticked by the concourse started to become a hub of activity. Alumni from previous voyages arrived, holding bristol board signs declaring “Welcome Home Floaties” and “S.V. Concordia Forever.” Dozens of reporters began rushing back and forth. The families were ushered into a secure area, and a mob of camera’s surrounded the door. Cheering could be heard from inside. Emboldened with the spirit their travelling school was meant to instill, the alumni sat in front of reporters, forcing them to back up about 10 steps so they would have room to greet their friends.

In the end, the parents and children decided not to meet with the media, and went out through side gates. But  Nigel McCarthy, CEO of the Class Afloat program, did eventually address the crowd.

“Today is a day of celebration,” he said. “There’s been lots of tears and there’s been lots of joy. There have been children jumping up into their parents’ arms. It’s a beautiful day.”

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