Saving Electricity at McGill – Saving the Planet?

In 1850, William Gladstone asked the scientist Michael Faraday why electricity was valuable. Faraday answered, “One day, sir, you may tax it.”

Indeed, electricity has become such a fundamental part of modern society. We use it for almost everything we do: from lighting up this classroom, to charging our phones, to sharing this powerpoint presentation with you.

But what many fail to see is that the generation of electricity has become so widespread that its environmental impact is simply not negligible anymore. Most electricity today is generated at power plants that convert some other kind of energy into electrical power. Each system has advantages and disadvantages, but ultimately, many of them pose environmental concerns.

Indeed, the majority of our electricity production is based on burning fossil fuels to produce steam, which is then used to drive a turbine that, in turn, drives an electrical generator.  In addition to being harmful to the environment, these are non-renewable and limited sources of energy on earth, so we must consume electricity in a conscientious and sustainable way in order to ensure our energy supply in the long term – for ourselves but also for future generations. Additionally, as Faraday predicted, electricity, and most importantly energy, is not free. The electricity bills add up, and the longer we leave our lights turned on for nothing, the more money we waste.

Hence, even a small amount of saved electricity can have a large positive impact on our environment, and at McGill in particular.

So what’s the solution? Taking it one step at a time. Starting small. The goal is to promote sustainability at McGill, and we can do so by installing automatic, motion sensor lighting in as many campus buildings as possible. The Schulich Library has already jumped onto the energy-saving bandwagon by installing such automatic lighting, but many buildings have yet to catch up, such as the Birks building.

McGill’s Birks building comprises four floors and is mostly used by the facilities staff and students of McGill University. It consists of classrooms, offices, hallways, staircases, a library and washrooms, as well as a chapel. The lights in the building are kept on for around 10 to 12 hours per day, 5 days a week.

Ultimately, these lights do not need to be turned on consistently for that entire period of time whilst a classroom is not in use, or whilst a staff member is not in his/her office. Similarly, lights in the staircases need not to be switched on when not in use. We have consulted with students and staff of the building and they informed us that the lights remain turned on in between classes, and are only rarely switched off if someone walks by and notices. Likewise, lights in the washrooms are kept on for a stretch of 10 to 12 hours per day even when they are not in use, ultimately resulting in an evident loss of energy.

Moreover, even smaller instances that we look over also have an impact on the consumption of energy. For instance, staff working in their offices may forget to turn off their lights before leaving for lunch. Furthermore, a massive amount is spent on lighting up the library and the staircases alone due to their sheer size.

Therefore, I believe that the installation of motion sensor lighting is the solution to all the problems mentioned above. After using the equation E = P*t, one can calculate that motion sensor automatic lighting can save an estimated 23,351 kWh of electrical energy per year – about 50% of its total energy consumption – as well as over $1,400 per year, assuming that electricity costs 6 cents per kWh.

Perhaps it is worth looking into… saving the planet is ultimately done one step at a time!

CEGSS conference

Dear all
This is a reminder for those interested in participating in the upcoming  21st annual CEGSS conference.
Whether it’s an oral presentation or a poster, please prepare an abstract and e-mail it back to
The deadline for abstract submission is March 28th, 2014. 
The conference will be held on MondayMay 12th9:30 am – 5pm at Thomson House.The conference is FREE for all McGill graduate students.

Try this: Altmetric it

Last year I posted on Altmetric for Scopus where you can find metrics, like tweets, blogs, and saves to citation managers, that are alternatives to the traditional citation counts. Altmetric now has a tool to allow you to see these metrics for articles that you are viewing in your browser. I installed this Altmetric bookmarklet to my bookmarks bar. Give it a try and let me know what you think.

Dropleton, A new Quasiparticle!

Just a few weeks ago, a new quasiparticle, known as the ‘dropleton’, was discovered. Scientists in the States and Germany discovered this new liquid-like particle when they were studying excitons and the effects that lasers have on semiconductor elements. Exciton, like dropleton, is another quasiparticle, and is a pair of an electron and a hole bound together by electrostatic forces. (As a sidenote, a quasiparticle is a collective excitation within a material that behaves like a fundamental particle.)

Researchers created this new quantum particle by firing high-speed lasers at gallium-arsenide quantum wells. These dropleton have a lifetime of 25 picoseconds (one-trillionth of a second), long enough to be scientifically studied properly. These quantum droplets are created when the firing lasers excite electrons to form a number of excitions which combine to form one whole quantum droplet system, the dropleton. These quasiparticles are stabilized by Pauli’s Exclusion Principle and have properties relate-able to those of liquids.

Liquid-like dropletons are supposed to reveal invaluable information on how electrons react to different stimuli in solids and eventually lead to a better understanding of the solid state, and better electronic devices.

For more detailed information, do check out the original article, which was published in Nature 506,471–475 (27 February 2014).


Growing up in a small town, I was sure I wanted to go somewhere huge. When I was accepted into McGill, I knew this was the place I wanted to be- it was big, located in a metropolitan city, and totally different from my small town.

When I told my friends – most of whom chose to attend small liberal arts colleges – many were shocked. “Forty-thousand people?!” people told me, and I would just shrug them off like “Yeah, it’s a big place!” I would think about the number, but never actually process it.

But then I actually came here. And I realized something: there is a huge difference between imagining the number 40,000 and living surrounded by it. I knew it was a large amount of people, but being in classes of 1400 students, dealing with lab sections that fill up in a day, and having professors who don’t even know the name of a single student in their class really put it into perspective.

This is a big place.

I wondered why it never occurred to me just how large a number 40,000 was. After some research, I realized the reason this came as such a shock to me is because our brain is just not evolved enough to process large numbers. This idea is called “scalar variability”. It basically says that the larger the number you are processing, the fuzzier the estimate or visual representation you will get.

Try it! Imagine five people standing in a room. Really, it isn’t that hard of a feat. But now imagine a thousand people in a room. Are you really able to picture the magnitude of these people with the same clarity? It becomes much more of a challenge.

Now, try 40,000.

I can honestly say that the first few months of my transition from a small town to a gigantic university, like any first year college student, were very difficult. I was not used to the mass quantities of people in classes, in my residence, in the libraries, or even in the streets. I felt very alone at times.

However, while I was scared of the large numbers at first, I now welcome them. They have encouraged me to build my own community and surround myself with friends who I found through the different clubs I joined. They allow me to meet new people every day. And I know, once the class sizes shrink in upper years, they will give me access to some of the top professors in math and science research in the world.

While I found the huge number of people who go to this university intimidating at first, I realized it has allowed me to become more independent, and to surround myself with people and friends who I can truly say I care about and found on my own. Having that support from a smaller community within this large institution makes it all the more worthwhile. While my brain may never truly know what 40,000 is, the ten or so close friends I surround myself by are much easier for my brain to manage, and I don’t know where I would be without their support. And that is what has helped me deal with the transition to this huge university.

A Keyboard Without a Keyboard

keyboardWe all know there are apps for everything.  But now there is an app that can create something out of nothing.  Imagine typing up the next great novel by simply tapping your fingers on a desk.  Florian Kräutli is an industrial designer living in the Netherlands who has designed an app that can allow you to do just that.  His invention can literally turn any surface into a keyboard for your iphone.  For his master’s degree in cognitive computing from the University of London, he created the Vibrative Virtual Keyboard, an invention that is less like transmitting Morse code and more like playing air guitar.  Unlike similar designs that allow users to type onto a laser-projected keyboard, his app requires no additional hardware other than your nearest flat surface.  The app works by taking readings from the iphone’s internal accelerometer which measures vibrations near the iphone.  The user spends some time teaching the iphone what certain taps mean, and the software figures out the rest.  The app is in its early stages and the readings from the iphone’s internal accelerometer are not always spot on.  However, Kräutli claims that “if you made the accelerometer more sensitive you could improve the accuracy quite easily” (The Telegraph).  In the meantime, the app relies on a spell checker to get words right.  Here is the app in action.

How do you get your keyboard without a keyboard installed on your iphone?  The app is still in its proof of concept phase and has yet to be commercialized.  So for now, you’ll need some hardware or at least a pen and paper to get started on that novel!

Image from Goldsmiths, University of London

Welcome Grace!

AScreenshot_Graces April announced, this semester, the Turret will have a few new bloggers from the CCOM-206 class. The next new blogger I would like to welcome is Grace. She travelled from a small town in Alaska to Montreal. She will soon share with us her experience about this transition.

Superfast scientist

Associate Professor Bradley Siwick, a Canada Research Chair in Ultrafast Science, delivered a Cutting Edge Lecture in Science in January (I’m falling behind on my posts!): Lights, action, camera – Making movies of molecules and materials. I have a background in microbiology so I was keen to hear about some of the tools and techniques that he has been using in his lab.

During his talk he pointed out how the 20th century was all about the development of new tools, like the electron microscope (one of the greatest Canadian inventions, as voted on by CBC watchers, just six spots behind the poutine). In the 21st century we can expect to see scientists pushing the limits of these tools. His research is taking a novel approach to electron microscopy, using femtosecond lasers to produce ultrashort/ultrafast pulses.

Visit Bradley Siwick’s research site to learn more.

I highly recommend attending one of the upcoming lectures as well, if you get the chance.