Archive for the ‘february 2013’ Category

Day 200. Nano-art

In february 2013 on February 28, 2013 at 2:09 pm


I have a post-card version of this painting by Del Kathryn Barton blue-tacked onto the side of my book shelf; I can see it when I work.

Entitled You are what is my beautiful about me, it depicts Del with her two children.

I saw the original in Sydney in 2008, the year it won The Archibald Prize.

It was memorising. And not just because the subject matter resonates with me, not just because I love the beautiful eyes, skin and hands of the subjects, not just because it features the beautiful Sturt’s Desert Pea.

Because it made me think about science. Nanotechnology in particular. The very, very finely-painted green, mottled background is reminiscent of tiny structures in gecko skin, in lotus leaves, in carbon nanotubes.

Strangely enough, it also reminds me of blue-green algae.


Day 199. National Geographic

In february 2013 on February 27, 2013 at 1:50 pm


A stack of yellow-spined National Geographic magazines never fails to excite me.

I used to pore over my parents’ editions back when I was about 13 years old; the photographs were electrifying. Like this 1985 cover of an Afghan girl.

Although I did love the photographs of animals and nature scenes, it was the images of people which sucked me in the most.

I recall one series taken in a Muslim country, perhaps Saudi Arabia, which showed an execution scene. I have not seen the pictures for nearly 30 years, and yet they are as clear in my mind as the image above.

Several photos were presented. The prisoner –  I believe it was a woman, as she was fully covered – was lead to a perfectly swept city square. Around the square were men, crowded at least 5 people deep, and waiting quietly. The executioner was in attendance, an enormous curved sword in his hand.

The woman was pushed down into a kneeling postion.

The next shot showed a crumpled body on the perfect grey tiles. A crowd member standing between the camera man and the prisoner obscured the neck and head of the deceased. The executioner held his sword aloft; it dripped red.

On the ground, a pool of dark, dark blood crept away from the dead woman. The next shot showed a larger pool, a river even, which had moved towards the men at the base of the picture.

I stared at the blood. Again, and again. Absolutely fascinated. Fascinated that a body could leak so much blood, but also that such an event could ever actually happen and people would prepare an arena especially, and congregate to witness it with no apparent shock or sense of horror.

One day, I sat down in front of the pile of magazines, but couldn’t find the one containing that sequence. I looked and looked, but it was gone. Maybe my parents hid it, a little afraid of my obsession?

Now, as an adult, I have subscribed to National Geographic on and off. Above my son’s desk, just to to left of mine, is a pile of magazines from 2006. The cover story in the January edition reads Who’s winning in Irag. Pages 20 and 21 show an image of a woman Hamina Khidhir Abdullah lying on a hospital bed, one leg amputated and stitched crudely just below the knee, the other leg with an open wound showing deep tissue injury. She stepped on a land mine whilst picking herbs in northern Iraq.

I caught my son staring at the picture.

Day 198. Water lingo

In february 2013 on February 27, 2013 at 12:01 pm


I’m writing an article on water sustainability.

In plain English, it revolves around the question:

How on earth can we divide up a relatively small bucket of water – which only gets refilled sporadically and perhaps even less frequently in the future given climate change – amongst all competing interests such as agriculture, household use, urban service delivery, manufacturing, mining and sustaining fresh water environments?

It’s a pretty complicated issue, not just because of all the sectors that rely on water, but also because regulation of water is controlled on many levels, such as federal, state and regional. There are also many terms thrown around when reading literature on water sustainability; terms which I’ve had to seek out and and define in my own mind just so I could wrap my head around it all.

In case you too are interested in water regulation in Australia, here are just a few of those terms and their definitions in workable English:

Irrigation: Farming based on the artificial distribution and application of water to land to initiate and maintain plant growth. Contrast with dry-land farming, which relies on rainfall alone.

Murray Darling Basin: an area comprising Australia’s three longest Rivers – The Darling, the Murray and The Murrumbidgee – along with tributaries and over a million square kilometres of land which extends over areas of Queensland, new South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Canberra in the Australian Capitol Territory.  The basin produces over one third of Australia’s food supply, and contains more than 75% of all the irrigated crops and pastures grown in Australia

Water allocation: a volume of water from a water system – such as the Murray Darling Basin – which is legislated for and provided or owed to a farmer using irrigation. Water allocations vary state to state.

Water buy-back: government payment to an irrigator in exchange for a water allocation which can then be used to service other sector relying on water eg the environment.

Water for the Future Initiative: A federal government strategy with four key priorities:

  • Taking action on climate change
  • Using water wisely
  • Securing water supplies
  • Supporting healthy rivers

More information on the Federal government’s approach to water management can be found here.  Good luck deciphering it all.

Day 197. Ripe for the Picking

In february 2013 on February 25, 2013 at 9:40 pm


In front of the rain tank at the bottom of my garden is a gnarled old quince tree.

In winter, it looks on death’s door. During spring, delicate green leaves and pinky-white blossom burst from the dark limbs. By November, juvenile fruits start to form at the base of each flower,  and these slowly swell to become green/yellow and fuzzy, with a strange, subtle odour. Fortunately, the birds don’t like them much – not until they’re overripe at least.  This which means we usually get full value from the crop, as I pick them in March whilst still relatively firm.

The photo above shows the quinces as they look at the moment – I simply love their appearance, and the promise of all the stewed fruit, jellies, cakes and crumbles which shall soon be created in my kitchen.

My favourite way to cook quinces is a la Stephanie Alexander: peel, chop, throw into an enamelled cast-iron pot filled with light sugar solution/vanilla/lemon juice/lid on and then cook in a slow oven (130 degrees centigrade) for about 8 hours. At which point they emerge as glistening segments of garnet surrounded by blood-like syrup.

The red colour emerges as a class of chemical compounds called anthocyanins are converted from their colourless, astringent precursor cousins the leucoanthocyanins during cooking.

Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen says it best,

The combination of heat and acidity causes the subunits [of the precursor molecules] to break off one by one; and then oxygen from the air reacts with the subunits to form true anthrocyanins: so the tannic, pale fruits become more gentle-tasting and anything from pale pink to deep red.

The final colour depends on the pH (acidity) of the cooking fluid.

Anthocyanins are also what make blueberries blue, red cabbage red, blackberries black, eggplants purple and blood oranges bloody. According to some experts, we may get cardiovascular benefits or even cancer protection from eating more anthocyanins.

Day 196. Unusual inspiration

In february 2013 on February 24, 2013 at 8:44 pm

Inspiration comes from the strangest places.

About 8 months ago I started following Defined Image on Facebook, a community page run by personal styling-and-then-some guru Natalie Tucker.

Natalie has the knack of communication. Every day, she posts an image of herself, and tells a simple but effective tale –  how her outfit has been pulled together and what sentimental value some of her clothing items hold. With apparent effortlessness, Natalie always pulls me in to read her stories of styling and life.

When I started ScienceforLife.365, I applied two techniques that I learnt from this amazing lady:

  1. The power of a fantastic image;
  2. People want to read about people, and hear their stories.

Today I attended an afternoon workshop with Natalie, and met her for the first time. She is a true professional, and runs a business founded strongly on the perfect combination of training, acquired knowledge and confidence in her abilities.

Not unlike the practice of science, really.

[image thanks to Seth1492 on flickr]

Day 195. Recommendation

In february 2013 on February 24, 2013 at 9:15 am


Do you ever get frustrated trying to have multi-person conversations via email?

A little something like this perhaps:

One person has a good idea, emails a few thoughts to a group of colleagues. A second person replies. A third voice chimes in with something controversial and before you know it 15 people are hitting ‘reply all’, putting in their two bobs worth. Eventually, everyone’s forgotten how the thing began. And no-one can be bothered to find the original email, or check the veracity of previous comments.

The problem of multi-layered, multi-responder conversations is a something Twitter copes with well.

Here’s a theoretical example:

Person 1 has an idea, and tweets a first contribution using the hashtag #loveSaturdays (to denote a statement about enjoying the 6th day of the week).

Making cakes and licking the bowl #loveSaturdays

Person 2 notices the tweet, and adds their own idea:

Sleeping in, and having coffee and toast in bed at midday #loveSaturdays

Person 3 adds some spice:

Just woke up next to Shane Waren. Hello! #loveSaturdays

Bang! The conversation goes nuts and people around the world join in. Instead of a long stream and back-and-forths which are nigh on impossible to track unless you sit in front of the computer in real time, each contribution is:

    • Brief (only 140 characters) and hence to the point;
    • Trackable due to the use of the hashtag;
    • In temporal order thanks to the Twitter setup;
    • Associated on screen with the person who tweeted it – since Twitter posts appear under user avatars; and
    • In a public space, and hence accessible by anyone interested in finding it.

Here are a few conversation hashtags that I follow via Twitter, and which would be completely unmanageable in an email setting:

#protectresearch : political conversation around maintaining/improving public funding for science

#scio13 : science communication conversations around the ScienceOnline conference and related topics

#seemyscience : denoting photographs and commentary of the day to day practice of scientific research

Twitter. I recommend it.

[image thanks to SrLigYnnek on flickr]

Day 194. Kung Hei Fat Choy

In february 2013 on February 22, 2013 at 1:51 pm


In Australia, as in most other countries, we use the Gregorian calendar – also known as the Western, or Christian calendar – to guide civil activities.

Named after Pope Gregory XIII, who first introduced it in February 1582, it is strictly solar in that it is structured around the movement of the Earth around the Sun. A common year consists of a 365 days divided into 12 months of irregular lengths. Every 4 years an extra day is added to February to cover a quarter-of-a-day error not accounted for in the prior 3 years.

New Years Day in the Gregorian Calendar is January 1st.

Many Australians, as well as millions of others around the world, are currently celebrating Chinese New Year, the date of which is determined by The Chinese Calendar.  Because this calendar is lunisolar – it is based on exact astronomical observations of the sun’s longitude and the moon’s phases – the date when described in Gregorian terms varies year to year (similar to the way that Good Friday and Easter Sunday vary annually according to phases of the moon).

According to, The Chinese calendar does not count years in an infinite sequence. Instead, each year is assigned a name consisting of two components within each 60-year cycle. The first component is a celestial stem:

  • Jia (associated with growing wood).
  • Yi (associated with cut timber).
  • Bing (associated with natural fire).
  • Ding (associated with artificial fire).
  • Wu (associated with earth).
  • Ji (associated with earthenware).
  • Geng (associated with metal).
  • Xin (associated with wrought metal).
  • Ren (associated with running water).
  • Gui (associated with standing water).

The second component is a terrestrial branch. It features the names of animals in a zodiac cycle consisting of 12 animals, listed below:

  • Zi (rat).
  • Chou (ox).
  • Yin (tiger).
  • Mao (rabbit).
  • Chen (dragon).
  • Si (snake).
  • Wu (horse).
  • Wei (sheep).
  • Shen (monkey).
  • You (rooster).
  • Xu (dog).
  • Hai (boar/pig).

News Years Day this year was Sunday February 10th, but celebrations are still ongoing (based on the number of functions my China-loving husband continues to attend). We are now in the year of the Water Snake.

Kung Hei Fat Choy!

Day 193. 2050

In february 2013 on February 21, 2013 at 9:22 pm


In the year 2050 I will turn 78 years old.

I hope to be in good health, still physically active, of sound intellect and with family and friends a strong focus of my daily life. If I’m lucky, all those options will still be within my grasp, accessed via my personal choices.

But will these choices be available to me by then? What sort of external challenges will I face in my world by 2050? What will the main economic drivers? How will people live together, communicate, work stuff out? What environmental pressures will we feel – will land, water, green space, clean air, fresh food be plentiful or only available to some?

These are all important questions, and the subject of a new book launched today from The Australian Academy of Science.

Negotiating our future: Living scenarios for Australia to 2050 proposes tools and approaches to ensure Australia’s social, economic and environmental sustainability to 2050 and beyond. The book sets out approaches for the whole of society to work together to determine what a future Australia will look like, and how to get there. It includes tools for approaching sustainability from a range of perspectives, including:

  • Resilience in the face of shocks;
  • Climate change and energy pressures;
  • Population issues;
  • Economic uncertainties; and
  • Social justice and equity.

Futurist and Bridge8 Founder/Managing Director Kristin Alford – with whom I used to work and enjoy many a morning coffee – was lead author on Chapter 3: Social perspectives on sustainability and equity in Australia (available for download here).

I asked Kristin why the release of this book was so exciting. Her answer suggested that a consideration of the future required starting with thinking about the present:

“We need to have a conversation about the future for Australia.

This book draws on an considerable effort by cross-disciplinary researchers to map out the present, and to think about how we might find pathways to a desired future.

It kicks off a conversation that we need to have – how do we live? How do we create environmentally sustainable and socially equitable futures?”

How do you think about your future? Will it be just an older you, living in the same world you see now? If you think not, perhaps you could play a role in creating, or at the very least anticipating, the kind of future which is most likely.  The book, and its companion volume, are available for free here.

Day 191. How does your ovary grow?

In february 2013 on February 20, 2013 at 11:18 am


Ovaries are important.

They’re not just the place where eggs develop in women, but they are also the source of hormones including estrogen and progesterone. Such hormones regulate many tissues and organs in women and are important for normal health – whether or not she has, or plans to have, children.

While scientists have a good idea of what adult ovaries look like – in other words, what the important types of cells are in terms of egg and hormone production, and how the cells arrange themselves into a defined,workable structure – they hadn’t really known how the adult set-up comes about during fetal development and childhood. What goes wrong in the ovary when conditions such as Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (known as PCOS) or ovarian cancer develop had been mysterious as well.

New research from Adelaide’s Robinson Institute is expected to change this.

Professor Ray Rodgers and his postdoctoral colleague Dr Katja Hummitzsch have discovered a new cell type in ovaries, and used it as a handy identifier to track how ovaries develop and form adult-like structures during normal development.

You can read more details about Ray and Katja’s work in my latest article, published today on the Robinson Institute’s new Science Stories blog.

[image is of a plush ovary – yes really – available here]

Day 190. Mozzies and fairies

In february 2013 on February 18, 2013 at 5:31 pm


“Unless they help fairies to sing and dance, my wife will demand mozzie genocide”.

Yes, this quote comes from a conversation about science.

It came about when insect specialist Dr Cameron Webb tweeted from the @realscientists account, describing his work tracking mosquitoes in wetlands around Canberra.

RealScientists offers science-qualified professionals the chance to describe their daily work in the public sphere that is Twitter.

So what?…you might think. How interesting could it be?

Well, in the hands of a good communicator it can be absolutely fascinating. See for yourself – here are some samples of conversations in which Cameron participated, including the bit about dancing fairies:



For the full record of tweets to and from Cameron, see here (compiled by yours truly on behalf of the RealScientists instigators).

Do these conversations seem out of reach to you? Actually, they’re not. Anyone can send questions to the @realsscientists account. And all sorts of questions are welcome. Tweeting right now is Dr Paul Willis, ex-ABC Catalyst presenter, fossil-lover and Director at the Royal Institute of Australia. Tell him I sent you.

[image at top shows one of Cameron’s mozzie traps: dry-ice in “billy can” with battery operated fan sucking mozzies into bucket below]