Archive for the ‘December 2014’ Category

Top 10 + 1 #science365 Christmas gifts

In December 2014 on December 22, 2014 at 12:37 pm


Kirsti: I am not really into buying lots of crap….errr, I mean material things.*

In lieu of purchasing further material possessions this Christmas, I suggest you consider giving experiences, education or donations to science projects. Experiences can really grab our attention and help us form emotional connections with concepts and ideas. It’s our emotional experience that will keep us coming back to science, and that’s surely a good thing.

I’m also a big fan of this rule for buying Christmas presents: something to read, something to do, something to share and something to wear. It is akin to rules across the internet for giving gifts to children, like this one at SimpleKids.

So, to the details! Here are Science for Life.365’s top 10 + 1 science gift ideas for 2014!

  1. A visit to a science centre

Australia has a science centre in nearly every major city, except Darwin. Plus there are heaps of great smaller regional centres, like the Discovery Science & Technology Centre in Bendigo, the Science Centre & Planetarium in Wollongong and the small Zoology Museum at the University of New England in Armidale (where I’m based).

Australia’s national science centre, Questacon, has holiday workshops and some fabulous shows and summer exhibitions on. Get there if you can. In Melbourne head for ScienceWorks or the Melbourne Museum; in Sydney the Powerhouse and Australian Museums; in Brisbane the Queensland Museum; in Adelaide the South Australian Museum (Sarah might even meet you there!); and in Perth, get to Scitech.

Giving a little ticket for a day’s outing to one of these mind expanding venues would be a welcome envelope under my tree.

  1. Donation to a crowd funded science project

Crowd funding sites Pozible, KickStarter and IndiGoGo are securing much needed money from interested and passionate citizens for some phenomenal projects, including using 3D printing in educational settings, getting into remote PNG mountains to discover rare and endangered mammals, and a ridiculously comprehensive board game on ANTS!

If you want to see science succeed in the face of budget cuts, changing national priorities and intense competition in academia, contribute to a project yourself. There are many and varied rewards to be gained, including the satisfaction that you’ve helped a project that might not otherwise have been undertaken get off the ground.

Power to the citizens….

  1. Subscription to COSMOS, New Scientist or Australasian Science

Magazines represent lots of things for me – time to myself, acknowledgement of my own interests, and my desire to keep up to date with what’s going on in a particular sphere; in this case, science.

Whether it is a digital or paper subscription, this is a gift that will keep on giving for as long as the subscription lasts. You can receive COSMOS magazine bi-monthly, New Scientist or Australasian Science once a month or the magazine of your choice whenever you want it.

Remember to keep them in an easily accessible location. Hell, keep whole sets if you own them. Remember when National Geographic magazines used to be a centre piece of every 1980’s bookshelf? Hours of entertainment! You never know when a school project will require a trip to the magazine rack.

  1. DNA artwork

Check this out! You can have your very own DNA on your wall at home. The DNA and fingerprint portraits are really snazzy, and teamed with the right colour scheme, oh darling…I’m almost feeling like an interior decorator!

  1. Laboratory beaker mug

Mugs are a classic gift. Let’s face it, mugs are not only good for Christmas, but birthdays, teacher presents, Valentine’s Day, Mum and Dad days, leaving present….. you get the picture. They hold coffee, tea, water, juice, flowers, nuts, soup, pens & pencils, chemistry experiments….

THIS glass mug that doubles as a beaker….. or, a beaker that doubles as a mug….. is just perfect for your science loving, tea drinking coffee connoisseur. Just keep it on your desk rather than in the tearoom cupboard. It may go missing.

  1. Some more DNA to play with

Anyone with kids will be familiar with K’NEX – modular building shapes that create anything from fantasy creatures to accurate DNA replication models. There’s a huge online international community dedicated to K’NEX building, and includes competitions and ideas for new structures all the time. Kid engineering heaven.

So why not invest in a DNA replication and transcription set? As well as being used as a teaching tool, the pieces can be connected and contorted with your imagination to make quite literally anything.

  1. BOOKS!

George Aranda of Science Book A Day has got literally that – a science book a day for over a year, and he’s only just getting going! This is a blog that — if you’re into science, reading, and anything related to reading science — you MUST follow.

There are interviews with authors, reviews and ratings of science books from across disciplines, and for a real diversity of interests and age groups. From the blog, all you really need to do is log onto your favourite online bookstore and place your order. I know it’s possibly a bit late for this Christmas, but I guarantee you will be bookmarking this site for future reference.

  1. Jewellery

Our world is made up of molecules, so why not bling yourself up with your favourite mood enhancer?! At Made With Molecules, you can choose between caffeine, serotonin, vanillin, water, dopamine, ethanol, theobromine and many many more.

Yale-educated scientist-turned-artist Raven Hanna is inspired by nature, and donates at least 1% of her profits to science education and environmental non-profit organisations.

  1. Ant iPhone cover…

OK, so this one is a bit self-indulgent. Ants are everywhere, have adapted to a huge diversity of environments, are important ecosystem engineers and will no doubt inherit the Earth. Remind people of this as often as possible with this awesome RedBubble iPhone case!

  1. A day of citizen science

Citizen science is the new black. You can do science. ANYONE can do science. Families can do science. Together! So perhaps one of the experiences you earmark for the summer holidays is a citizen science project together, or maybe a whole swag of projects. It is fulfilling to have contributed data to a real scientific study. Furthermore, in my experience, participating in these sorts of activities empowers kids and adults alike to ask questions about their immediate environments, homes and communities, and sometimes endeavour to answer them.

In Australia there are some fabulous online biodiversity libraries that you can contribute to. RedMap allows you to upload photos and observations of marine creatures you come across, and the Atlas of Living Australia and BowerBird sites do the same thing for land and water based creatures and plants. You might also want to discover what ants are in your backyard with the Australian School of Ants.

You can choose from a plethora of US-based projects like web-based investigations at Zooniverse, including transcribing old field naturalist notes and searching for planets to finding or more about the wild life of your own bodies at YourWildLife. Swab your belly button for bacteria or read stories about the invisible world of our homes, bodies and whole lives.

  1. A piece of Mars

Yes, you can own a small piece of Mars. ThinkGeek, an online store for themed gifts, have done it again with authentic 2mg particles from space. Unearthed from Northwest Africa, these Mars rocks from Martian shergottite NWA 4930, 4880, 4468, 998, Tissint and others come in their own protective shell and with their history.

So if you don’t get a chance to live on terraformed Mars in your lifetime, be happy with the knowledge that Mars came to you.

*But I will admit to coveting a beaker coffee mug, serotonin necklace, plenty of those books and that iPhone cover……

[photo thanks to Slimmer_Jimmer on flickr]

Resilience: it’s nothing to laugh at

In December 2014 on December 15, 2014 at 11:00 am


Sarah: One of the best things about science is the people you meet. My regular blogging pal Kirsti recently introduced me to Sonja Dominik, a top quality scientist, gold-medal winning gymnast and all round lovely person. To add another task to her already busy life, Sonja was keen to write a blog post for Science For Life.365 — and here it is! 

Sonja: It’s like the start of a joke: two agricultural quantitative geneticists* meet with other scientists and farmers from across the pig, cattle, sheep, oyster, barramundi and Atlantic salmon industries to conduct a workshop.

What on earth do they talk about? What could they possibly have in common?


Is this part of the joke? There are resilient oysters and pigs?

‘Resilience’ and ‘resilient’ are terms that pop up a lot these days. For example, ‘flat tires are a thing of the past with resilient technologies such as airless tires’, and ‘your child will need to develop resilience to survive the school playground’.

But resilience is also a key characteristic of persistent ecological and social systems.

So what is it? Here’s a good definition (taken from the workshop book Breeding Focus 2014 – Improving resilience, available at

 “Resilience is the ability of an organism to recover quickly from adverse events such as illness, change in environmental stressors or other, possibly unknown, antagonistic effects to the biological system. Characteristics of resilience rely on simple building blocks and dynamic processes which are highly flexible and able to modify the organism or system in order to bounce back from set-backs.”

But what does this mean in plain English? Let’s go back to the example of resilience in the playground: if your child learns ways to express and communicate frustration experienced in the playground, he or she will be equipped with tools to respond to and resolve many other difficult situations in life. Experiences at school then lead to a kind of ‘post-sandpit resilience’.

Getting back now to the scientists and farmers: during the workshop preparations we drew a lot on Andrew Zolli and Anne Healy’s book “Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back”. It’s a great read for anyone who wants to dive into the complexities and importance of resilience to so many aspects in life.

So did the workshop participants share our enthusiasm for the topic? They certainly did. Dean Jerry from James Cook University talked about resilience to water temperature in barramundi and the issues and opportunities that climate change will bring – wow, fascinating stuff. We looked at how results from mathematical models can help breeders to improve records for disease resilience on farms. Sounds dry, but wasn’t at all – thanks to the great presentation skills of Andrea Doeschl-Wilson from the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute in Scotland. We also re-ignited Australia – New Zealand rivalry, with help from Mark Young, Beef and Lamb NZ Genetics, who claim that their sheep are facing much tougher environments than Aussie equivalents.

But the highlight of the workshop was the depth of discussion brought about by the diverse audience members. They really moved scientists and farmers alike out of their comfort zone… No one asks curly questions like a practitioner!

Resilience is a highly-discussed concept for so many aspects of everyday life, and this workshop highlighted that this theme also rates very highly with farmers. They know too well about challenges to their business, including disease, climate change and consumer acceptance.

I hope that these discussions provided information and helped set up social and professional networks to help breed resilient livestock and aquaculture species.

Resilient agricultural communities are something we all need to support if we expect this sector to continue to meet the global demand for food.

*that’s our job title and no we don’t clone animals; no, we never set foot in a laboratory; yes, we are the nerdy computing number crunching types that design breeding programs for livestock.

[image thanks to Phil! Gold on flickr]

Mosquitoes. What have they done for you lately?

In December 2014 on December 8, 2014 at 10:28 pm


Sarah: My daughter is a mosquito magnet. If there’s a mozzie within a 5km radius* of her bare skin, it will track her down and feed with fury.

For her, twilight games of backyard cricket require physical barriers in the form of long sleeves, leggings and socks. Not ideal in the heat of an Australian summer.

This morning she spotted a little winged drone as we drove to school holiday activities — inside the car! With the window rapidly thrown open, she managed to flush it outside. And sighed.

“Mum….do mosquitoes actually do anything good for our environment?”

I knew just the bloke to ask. Proceed direct to twitter. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.

A quick tweet from someone at a science centre on the San Juan Islands provided my first bit of new info:

Bat food! (among other things) — Kwiaht (@Kwiaht) December 8, 2014

Then up popped Dr Cameron Webb.

As well as good for frogs, fish, birds, bats and lots of insects they may also be pollinators of some plants! — Dr Cameron Webb (@Mozziebites) December 8, 2014

Another tweeter was also interested, evolutionary biologist Steven Vamosi.  

Any hard data on meaningful impairment to ecosystem function when they are excluded/absent? — Steven Vamosi (@smvamosi) December 8, 2014

Basically he was asking, ‘Are there any measurements of ecosystem health in places where mosquitoes have been removed?’ In other words, do we even know how important mosquitoes are to our world? Cameron replied:

Steve again (ty is twitter shorthand for thank you): 

Ty & indeed, but urgent need for data like that, as we present case to public about imp. of biodiversity — Steven Vamosi (@smvamosi) December 8, 2014

And Cameron agreed right back: 

Yes, information important for balancing environmental protection and human health in mosquito control too — Dr Cameron Webb (@Mozziebites) December 8, 2014

So there we had it. In short, my dear daughter, mosquitoes do make a positive contribution to our environment. But we need more information to understand this better. And we particularly need more information when it comes to the kinds of mosquitoes that spread not just itchiness but deadly diseases like malaria.

We can achieve this through scientific study. As an example, here’s some more reading from Cameron’s blog about how he has performed studies looking at the importance of mosquitoes in bat diets: what do bats eat more often, mosquitoes or moths?

*probably an exaggeration

Murder on the dance floor

In December 2014 on December 1, 2014 at 2:08 pm

kirsti country races

Kirsti: I spent a great day at the picnic races recently. Dolled up and sipping champers with my man and new friends, we watched in awe as horses pelted down a dusty race track on private property in the New England Tablelands. It was the quintessential Australian country experience.

But that’s not the story here.

My tale started that same night, at the post-races ball. We enjoyed a lovely meal and company, and enough wine to give us the nerve to steal the cup from the winning lads — who were sculling beer from it just behind us. You know, all that stuff you normally do at country races. Then a couple of us headed inside.


The tracks pulled around 20 people to the dance floor, and the lively 100-120 beats per minute (BPM) were perfect for post-races, post-dinner shenanigans. Everyone was smiling and shaking their booties.

Then the tempo changed. Actually, it died.

We stopped, readjusted our dance steps, and attempted to push through the soulful beats that were around 75-80 BPM. But we just couldn’t do it. The vibe was gone! We were mortified!! So we left the dance floor. This scenario played out a few times more before I lost faith in our DJ and called it a night.

Most of us inherently know that keeping dance floor music upbeat and consistent (often through a technique known as beat-matching) is important for happy dancers, a happening venue and increased bar sales. But there is more to the story. Research tells us that certain BPMs motivate us very differently, and modify our behaviours. For example, listening to self-chosen motivational music while running can improve pace by reducing perception of exertion, and increasing heart rate. Listening to a steady 66 beat per minute track can reduce anxiety, and both low- and high-tempo music are associated with more risky gambling behaviours.

There is so much more research to be done on how music and BPM affect our cognitive processes. But already music therapy is helping thousands of physically and mentally ill people improve their lives. The Australian Music Therapy Association has some really interesting links if you’re interested.

If there’s any research happening on how beat-matching affects dance floor participation rates, I’M IN! The next DJ that murders my dancing is gonna get it…..

kirsti empty dance floor