Archive for the ‘July 2013’ Category

Day 354. First love

In July 2013 on July 31, 2013 at 2:11 pm


Many of you will know Tanya Ha as an environmental campaigner, from her days on TV reporting for ABC’s Catalyst or on Twitter as @Ha_Tanya.

At the moment, Tanya juggles ‘green stuff’ with motherhood and part-time study towards a Master of Environment degree. She also keeps a finger in science communication, working with Science in Public.

Testament to her love of recycling, when Tanya saw that I welcomed guest posts on ScienceforLife.365, she felt inspired to revamp a piece she originally wrote for the Catalyst production blog, (which is no longer online).

The post  – entitled ‘First Love‘  – describes how Tanya first fell in love with chemistry:

One Saturday in August 2011, I was lying low (thanks to those pesky rhinoviruses).

Rather than feeling sorry for myself, I surfed the Net and ended up on the Catalyst Facebook page, and saw a post related to National Science Week which started with the following question:

“What made you fall in love with science?” 

This got me thinking.

I’ve always been curious and interested in the world around me. I was one of those kids that followed up What’s that? with Why is it like that?

With my own children I’ve seen the seemingly inbuilt fascination humans have with the world around them – animals, trees, the moon and stars at night, and so on. I often wonder if we’re born natural scientists, but then the rat race intervenes and throws a wet blanket over curiosity.

Although the start of my love for science in general is vaguer and deeper, I can trace my love for chemistry specifically to a single thing… the September 22nd, 1982 issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly!

women's weekly

80s flashback: Tanya’s treasured clipping, and the cover of the Women’s Weekly issue it came from. 

Somewhere in a box in my garage I have this clipping. I’ve carried it from house to house – it’s moved from Melbourne to Adelaide and back to Melbourne again.  It represents to me both the wonder of science and how influential science in the media can be.

Although in the past few years I haven’t managed to locate my original cutting, I managed to track it down in the National Library of Australia’s cultural archives. It was from a story about an exhibition of microscope image photographs by Dutch photographer Volk Mol. Volk Mol is from a family of chemists, which seems appropriate, given his surname. You can see the original story on the National Library of Australia’s Trove website, starting here.

My favourite image from the story is the bottom right silver feathery-looking picture of magnified acetylsalicylic acid – better known as ‘aspirin’. It took my breath away when I was a very young lass. I love the fact that something so common-place and ordinary can look so beautiful!

I’ve never forgotten my chemistry first love, and was glad to have found the article again.

Now Tanya – and I – would love to her from you. Post a comment below and tell us: what made you fall in love with science?

A ScienceforLife.365 guest post by Tanya Ha. You can find Tanya on twitter as @Ha_Tanya.

[image credit to Volk Mol]


Day 353. Sci-ku

In July 2013 on July 30, 2013 at 11:24 pm


As part of National Science Week 2013, The Royal Institute of Australia is conducting a competition in science poetry: Sci-Ku.

Guided by the statistics/mathematics theme, here are a few examples I’ve come up with using the 5 syllable-7 syllable-5 syllable rule which normally applies to haiku:

Not just for classrooms

Maths will give you tools for life

Life is maths in action.


Is what I see real?

Can I measure what I see?

Yes, and what you can’t.


One scientist counts

Her numbers are repeated

Everyone agrees.

Day 352. We like fish

In July 2013 on July 29, 2013 at 9:31 pm

fishy kids

In my family, we like fish.

We like to eat ’em. We like to catch ’em. We like to learn about ’em.

And we worry about sustaining ’em.

Hence nobody was more thrilled than me to welcome Maylynn Nunn to the helm at RealScientists this week.

Maylynn is the Senior Fisheries Assessment Manager, Asia Pacific at the Marine Stewardship Council, a role which sees her combine her skills and training in fisheries science, economics and international policy. She oversees independent assessments of fisheries sustainability carried out by scientists around the world, as well as advising fisheries in Australia, NZ and the Asia Pacific and developing new policy and best practice fisheries management.

Last night Maylynn educated me (and the other 4800-odd followers of @RealScientists) on the Marine Stewardship Council ‘blue fish tick’ which is awarded to fisheries which have met sustainability standards following independently assessment by experts against science-based performance indicators.

Although we buy very little fish that hasn’t been caught locally, I did spend some time looking through the tins of tuna at my local supermarket this afternoon. I didn’t manage to find a tick yet – I was hampered by the wriggling of a 3 year-old I might add – but I’ll keep looking.

Tune in to hear more from Maylynn on the @RealScientists twitter account this week. She’s already having such interesting conversations with scientists and non-scientists from around the world.

Day 351. Damn you, science!

In July 2013 on July 29, 2013 at 2:33 pm


I too have a story about science, parenting and grief.

This time the story is about a pregnancy. A pregnancy that – despite the best physiological tricks played by my body – actually wasn’t a pregnancy.

At the eleven week mark of my first pregnancy, a scan revealed a gestational sac with no embryo.

It’s actually not that unusual, and results when a fertilised egg manages to implant and generate the early tissues of the placenta but not an embryo. It probably results from genetic problems with the egg, hence the common term ‘blighted ovum‘.

My whole momentum, the mood that I had created which was based on looking forwards, ground to a halt. No more key pregnancy milestones. No more due date guestimations. No more planning of where in Australia to deliver, and when to return to Jakarta (where I was living at the time).


As a scientist, I understood what had happened. I knew the statistics – it was common. I was not a freak. I would almost certainly conceive again, and deliver a healthy baby (three actually, the numbers now show).

But the knowledge didn’t help. For the first time in my life, I actually felt powerless.

I was grieving, yes. But I was also feeling damned angry. Frustrated that the rules of nature had fooled me, had tricked me into trusting them.

Dammit science, how dare you apply yourself to me!

Looking back, it was a very fine lesson that I needed to learn. It was Step 1 in me becoming a less selfish person, and an important graduation towards being a parent.

[image thanks to Caitlinator on flickr]

Day 350. I can’t explain that

In July 2013 on July 27, 2013 at 1:03 pm

freddy copy

Yesterday my friend and science-y colleague Heather made me cry.

A few days earlier, we had agreed that she would write a guest piece around science communication for this blog. But then something far more important happened.

Here’s what Heather wrote:

This is not the post I was going to write* for ScienceforLife.365.

But last weekend my son’s guinea pig got sick from pneumonia and died in our arms. It seems like such a little thing in the scheme of things, but it was my son’s first real experience with grief and loss.

As a scientist, I understood all too well what was happening.

My own PhD was on pneumonia in pigs.

I knew Frederick, or Freddy for short, just wasn’t right on Friday night and by Saturday morning I could see that he was working to breathe, and breathing and eating simultaneously was difficult for him. I remembered seeing the same thing in my research.

Off to the vets we went (even though we’d got a clean bill of health at a check up 4 days before) and they said he was quite ‘flat’. After he’d had a shot of antibiotics and an anti-inflammatory, we chose to treat him at home rather than hospitalise him over night. I was warned that little guys like Freddy could go quickly.

As a scientist, I was prepared for that.

Sunday morning I was almost surprised and optimistic to see Freddy still with us, but I could see him getting weaker as the day progressed. I was giving him his second lot of medication when it all became too much for him.

As a scientist, I had known that it was inevitable.

Later that night, after the tears and the quiet sitting together, and the backyard funeral, my son asked if it was too late to see Freddy’s body again.

As a scientist, the idea of my son being curious about death, perhaps even being generally curious about decomposition, didn’t bother me.

But I knew it wasn’t about that. This was that incredibly human disbelief that something you love is gone and will never be seen again. The grief that makes you cry out “I wish I could see them just one more time”.

As a scientist, I can’t explain that.


* The one I was going to write was all about why I don’t think I’m doing journalism when I communicate science and why I put myself towards the education end of the education –science communication – journalism line. I had even drawn a diagram.

A ScienceforLife.365 guest post by Dr Heather Bray. You can find Heather on twitter as @heatherbray6

Day 349. In the beginning

In July 2013 on July 26, 2013 at 11:26 am


In early August 2012 I had announced myself to be a freelance science writer.

Funnily enough, I wasn’t actually doing a hell of a lot of writing. I knew this had to change.

Soul searching, brainstorming, self analysis, whinging and whining….then, I had a lightbulb moment.

This email trail between myself and friends/mentors Kristin Alford and James Hutson records what happened.

From me:

Hi Kristin and James,

So I had an idea. It’s now turned into this.

Am I crazy! Is this dumb? OPINIONS WANTED

Thanks 🙂


From James:

I like it.

Internet darling Jonathon Coulton did Thing a Week and went from programmer to full-time musician on strength of it, so I love projects like this.

(But you could/should occasionally force friends to guest post so you can have break or get flu or similar – though that said, flu would be interesting science).

I’d also post to website as well as Facebook.

From Kristin:

I also approve. Not stupid or dumb, and could turn out to be a good reference or even a book, like a Mrs Beeton’s for science in everyday life.

Unsolicited advice: You may even be able to automatically post between wordpress/Facebook or view the Facebook entries on wordpress to save double posting.

And follow Prakky’s advice in terms of setting up a plan now so that you have ideas in advance. I’d write up a calendar and post ideas that tie in with the rhythm of the year – holidays, seasons, etc as well as covering chemistry/biology/physics/earth sciences/others so that you appeal to wide range of audiences.

Great, great advice.

As a result, the original idea of just creating a ScienceforLife.365 Facebook page was expanded to include this wordpress site. This offered a degree of safety in case Facebook suddenly collapsed, or changed terms of use changed with little warning. It also gave me the opportunity to present the posts to two (mostly) separate audiences: wordpress readers are generally attracted through twitter and the wordpress notification system. Facebook readers are my friends and family, and connections which have formed through those networks. I’ve loved having such a diversity of readers and associated feedback through these two platforms.

From the outset, I created a calendar to map out ideas for a whole year of blogging. This was most valuable for preparing posts such as the ScienceforLife.365 12 Days of Christmas, Easter, Melbourne Cup and Chinese New Year to name a few.

Although I have pulled in the occasional guest blogger, the vast majority of the writing was performed by me. But I did cut myself some slack as required. On days where I was unwell, had a sick child or other commitments, I posted photographs or brief ideas, or delayed blogging for a day and posted twice the next day. Topics have been extremely diverse, although I must admit to tending towards the biological science, and steering away from physics.

Thanks Kristin and James, for your past and ongoing support.

[image of me wearing a Bridge8 T shirt, logo designed by James and taken from the Critical Thinking series of animations]

Day 348. Happy birthday Rosalind

In July 2013 on July 25, 2013 at 11:39 am


Today would have been scientist Rosalind Franklin’s 93rd birthday. She died in 1958, a victim of ovarian cancer at only the age of 38.

Rosalind is best known for her groundbreaking studies in the use of X-ray diffraction – a kind of early imaging technology – to study biological molecules, including viruses. In the early 1950s, Rosalind created unique diffraction images which hinted at the then-unknown structure of DNA. Yet she was not acknowledged in Watson and Crick’s world-changing 1953 publication describing DNA’s double-helix molecular arrangement, despite the fact that the two men had viewed her images and clearly used them to further their own advancing theories.

Rosalind was apparently a remarkably clever and driven woman, with a passion not only for science but also for languages, travel and hiking.

Thanks to Mia Cobb, this morning I was alerted to the following phrases from Rosalind at age 20, taken from a letter to her father in 1940:

“Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.

Science, for me, gives a partial explanation of life. In so far as it goes, it is based on fact, experience, and experiment.

In my view, all that is necessary for faith is the belief that by doing our best we shall come nearer to success and that success in our aims (the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future) is worth attaining.”

These words fit perfectly into my Science for Life philosophy.

Happy birthday Rosalind.

You can read more about Rosalind Franklin in Brenda Maddox’s excellent biography Rosalind Franklin The Dark Lady of DNA

[image thanks to Droid Gingerbread on flickr]

Day 347. When to stop asking ‘why?’

In July 2013 on July 24, 2013 at 9:55 am


In science, hypotheses are explored under controlled conditions and using groups of experimental subjects: the higher the number of subjects (referred to as ‘N”) the better.

It’s an approach which is clean, reproducible and reliable, and helps scientists feel confident in their ability to draw reasonable conclusions from their experiments.

Entirely the opposite experience to having a baby. My sister Anna explores this question in her guest post below, which she created as part of her participation in the recent Social Media for Scientists course.

N.B. post may also be relevant to the current experiences of Duchess Kate and Prince William, if someone could please let them know

I read James’ guest post on Science for Life. 365 about how ‘his people’ – including his 4-year-old son – are scientists and continually ask ‘why’ at the world.

Well my people are scientists too. With my husband, I have recently added to my people: a daughter, who is nearly 6 months old.

In my professional life, I ask why relating to the neural control of the respiratory muscles. And – consistent with the theme of this blog – I also ask why at all sorts of everyday things. However, in relation to my daughter and her sleep habits, I am wondering if it is time to stop asking why.

Why did she wake up only 30 minutes into her usual 10 hour long sleep?

Was it because she was hungry?

Was it because she needed a burp?

Was it because she hit her foot on the cot?

Was it because she was over tired? (This paradox relating to babies kills me BTW!)

These questions and more run through my head every time my baby does something out of the ordinary or doesn’t stick to the ‘ideal’ plan for the day/night that I have in my head.

I think this is because I tend to think about her and her sleep like a science experiment. One of the first things we scientists learn is that you have to control your variables. And in a controlled setting, we make observations and draw conclusions from a group of cells, animals or human subjects.

Therefore, for my daughter, we have a bedtime routine, we control the environment, and we put a worn t-shirt of mine in the cot so she can smell my pheromones (yes we even use science to try and fool her). We follow a methodology.

However, there is one variable we can’t control: the little person in the cot! N = 1 is doing her own thing and has her own little brain and personality. And I am coming to realise that there may be one reason for why she does something one day and another reason for why she does it the next.

So although asking why stimulates my brain, allows me to contribute to Australian medical research and health care, and pays my bills; this is one occasion when I need to stop asking why so much and go with the flow.

And then, when she is older, we can ask ‘why at the world’ together.

A ScienceforLife.365 guest post by Dr Anna Hudson Price

Day 346. Tree

In July 2013 on July 23, 2013 at 10:07 am


Educator and science communicator George Aranda (on twitter as @PopSciGuyAus) prompted me to use the word TREE to write approximately 100 words from my own science perspective.

Here goes:

As I stand at the base of the tree and look up, I see branching.

The solid trunk splits to become several arms, and then branches of smaller and smaller diameter spread towards the sky. Finally, small twigs – the most numerous of the woody tree elements – form the perimeter of the tree. The aim of the branching is to give every single leaf on that tree the best opportunity to become exposed to light, hence fuelling the growth of the tree overall. The leaves also absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and release oxygen as a waste product of photosynthesis.

Picture an image of a perfectly formed tree, and now flip it 180 degrees. This is what your lungs look like. The trachea leads from your voice box down into the chest, then branches twice and then further to form passageways of smaller and smaller dimensions. Bronchi give way to become bronchioles, and then finally alveoli. The alveoli are the leaves. But instead of access to light, these teeny tiny pockets are all about access to blood. Across microscopic cell membranes, oxygen crosses from the air in the alveoli to your blood, and carbon dioxide from your blood crosses back to be breathed out.

Trees have been called the lungs of the world due to their production of oxygen. But the two structures also have a design element in common.

{word count – 230} 

[image thanks to bptakoma on flickr]

Day 345. Got science in your life?

In July 2013 on July 22, 2013 at 8:56 am


I’ve been thrilled to present several ScienceforLife.365 guest posts over the past year.

I’ve loved these posts as they’ve presented a different voice and perspective to that of my own.

Have you ever encountered a little science in your life, and thought it would make a nice blog post? Even just a paragraph or two? Maybe you’ve taken a photograph that left you wondering?

As I move towards the second year of this blog, I’d love to start posting more ideas and reflections from people other than me.

Scientists and non-scientists alike, we’ve all got a bit of science in our lives. Please be brave and let me know if you’ve got a post simmering away in your mind. I’d love to present it as a part of ScienceforLife.365, with your name credited as the author.

[image thanks to alborzshawn on flickr]