Archive for the ‘September 2012’ Category

Day 49. Science myths

In September 2012 on September 30, 2012 at 7:09 am

Have you heard the one about the female praying mantis eating her male counterpart immediately after or even whilst they are copulating?

It’s largely a myth, and apparently it’s still doing the rounds (I noticed it posted under the titillating headline Still a Better Love Story Than Twilight as recently as yesterday on ScienceAlert).

The tale came from an centuries-old observation of mantises under stressful laboratory conditions. As Michael Doughty reports on the SerendipUpdate blog, the real story is that,

Although the praying mantis is known for its cannibalistic mating process, in actuality it only occurs 5-31% of the time.

And he quotes scientific observations and data to support his statement, taken from this paper:

 “In nature, mating usually takes place under cover, so rather than leaning over the tank studying their every move, we left them alone and videotaped what happened. We were amazed at what we saw. Out of thirty matings, we didn’t record one instance of cannibalism, and instead we saw an elaborate courtship display, with both sexes performing a ritual dance, stroking each other with their antennae before finally mating. It really was a lovely display”.

For more busted myths about animal behaviour, see here.

[photo thanks to Alex Popovkin on flickr]


Day 48. Chasing balls

In September 2012 on September 29, 2012 at 7:57 am

It’s the last Saturday in September and that means the Australian Football League Grand Final.

The telecast of beautiful young men chasing an oblong ball around an enormous grass field will steal the hearts and minds of many of our loved ones this weekend.

If you too love balls, you might like this clip, posted by the technology editor at Scientific American magazine. The machine depicted is constructed entirely from lego, took 600 hours to make and moves small toy balls around a 31-meter-long pathway. Why? It’s all to do with the Great Ball Contraption project, a community dedicated to “Lego Technic or Mindsorms creations that all have a single task in mind—moving balls around!”

C’arn Sydney Swans.

Day 47. Wildlife

In September 2012 on September 28, 2012 at 12:34 pm

Last night a spring trip to Henley Beach for a play on the sand followed by salty fish and chips had a touch of the documentary about it.

In addition to observing multiple throngs of teenagers performing elaborate mating rituals, I found these beautiful conical shells. Their size is shown relative to a grain of basmati rice (bottom of the photograph).

My trusty tome Sea Shells of South Australia is en vacances at Yorke Peninsula at the moment, so I’m unable to identify them. Can anyone help with a positive ID?

Day 46. Sciencegrrl

In September 2012 on September 27, 2012 at 11:05 am

Did you ever see this promotional clip for the Science, It’s a Girl Thing program?

To say it attracted criticism across the globe would be somewhat of an understatement: damning commentary was published in Europe (see Guardian article), the United States (see Salon article) and in Australia (see The Punch article, with titillating teaser If gyrating, giggling girls pouting amid suggestive splashes of pinkness and wetness doesn’t turn boys onto science, what will?).

Yesterday I happened upon a new website called sciencegrrl, created by,

‘a network of (mainly) female scientists who are passionate about passing on their love of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to the next generation’.

The sciencegrrl team seemed to be pretty peeved about not only that clip referred to above, but the way women in science are portrayed in general. They plan to to something about it. Currently in production is a ScienceGrrl Calendar 2013; proceeds from its sale will be invested in projects that enable girls and young women to engage with STEM role models, to encourage their aspirations and open their eyes to the range of potential futures available to them within STEM.

‘The calendar will feature 13 stunning images of female scientists from a diverse range of backgrounds, showcasing a variety of science-related careers. Three engineers on a London rooftop overlook a striking cityscape, showing the structural impact of STEM all around us. A medical physicist explains her work to a busy group of colleagues and a patient in University of Manchester’s PETCT scanner. In Bristol, an epidemiologist is surrounded by a blur of pedestrians as she examines data for a link between cannabis-smoking and mental health. And there are many more…’

Launched on 18 October 2012, the calendar is available for pre-order now:

I’m looking forward to seeing the calendar and watching how this idea develops further.

[image thanks to centralasian on flickr]

Day 45. A letter

In September 2012 on September 26, 2012 at 1:04 pm

I’m reading The Help.

Yesterday, one of the main characters ‘Skeeter’ received this letter:

Dear Miss Phelan,

I am responding personally to your resume because I found it admirable that a young lady with absolutely no work experience would apply for an editing job at a publisher as prestigious as ours. A minimum of five years in the business is mandatory for such a job. You’d know this if you’d done any amount of research on the business.

Having once been an ambitious young lady myself, however, I’ve decided to offer you some advice: go to your local newspaper and get an entry-level job. You included in your letter that you “immensely enjoy writing”. When you’re not making mimeographs or fixing your boss’s coffee, look around, investigate and write. Don’t waste your time on the obvious things. Write about what disturbs you, particularly if it bothers no one else.

Yours sincerely,

Elaine Stein, Senior Editor, Adult Book division.

I love it because it’s timeless advice, given for free and with good, unharnessed intentions. To be a writer, you must write. It’s one of the reasons I started this blog.

[photo thanks to mrsdkrebs on flickr]

Day 44. Don’t panic!

In September 2012 on September 25, 2012 at 11:49 am

If you saw any news headlines this past week quoting a recently published research paper linking genetically-modified food or weed killers with an increased risk of cancer, my advice would be,


The paper, published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, contained statements suggesting that cancer in rats increased when they were fed genetically modified corn and/or water spiked with the herbicide Roundup.

Now I don’t have a subscription to that particular journal, and because the paper has been hidden behind a paywall ($31.50 for a single publication, you must be kidding me Elsevier! – for more on that see this Guardian article), I can’t do an analysis of the data myself. But  Australian cancer researcher Ashley Ng has, and he presents a compelling argument as to why the paper is close to useless from a scientific perspective.

His reasons can be summarised thus:

  • Inappropriate choice of study animals – the researchers worked with a strain of rats that is highly susceptible to cancer even under normal conditions;
  • Poor monitoring of and reporting about animals in the control group – you need to know what the health status is of animals which are not exposed to the test agent under analysis, so you have a baseline to compare with;
  • Failure to conduct statistical analysis of the data comparing number of deaths in the control groups to those in the groups eating the modified corn or drinking the spiked water. Statistics give data credibility – they allow scientists and independent observers to say with confidence the study conditions had an effect on numbers of deaths which was over and above that which may have occurred under normal conditions or by chance alone; and
  • Exclusion of some of the study data for argued reasons of space. You can’t just leave data out – the full story must be told. This begs the question why didn’t you show the full data set?

Unfortunately bad science sometimes sneaks through the peer-review process. It’s only via public, informed analysis of new publications that sensible conclusions can be drawn.

[photo thanks to Nate Steiner on flickr]

Day 43. A postcard to Durham

In September 2012 on September 24, 2012 at 4:26 pm

Today I mailed the postcard featured in this photograph. Written on the back was the following:

Dear Karyn and the ScienceOnline team,

Gudday from Adelaide, Australia!

We’re thrilled to be a part of the ScienceOnline global community, and are looking forward to participating in #scio13.

One day we may meet in the flesh, but in the meantime see you online.

With best wishes from

@scioADEL @sciencesarah @kristinalford @heatherbray6 @JB_blogs @realkez @fang and our interstate colleagues @scientistmags and @upulie

Why? It’s ScienceOnline Project Postcard!

Because ScienceOnlineAdelaide is gathering momentum.

Day 42. Foil

In September 2012 on September 23, 2012 at 1:59 pm

The box around my roll of aluminium foils states,

“covering stainless steel dishes with aluminium foil is not advisable”.

Why? Time for some research. Professor Google to the rescue once again.

I found some very complicated information at the Anodizing World blog, and have boiled it down (boom! tish! kitchen pun) to the following basics:

  • Aluminium foil is not pure aluminium, but instead has a fine layer of aluminium oxide on its surface;
  • In the presence of water, a chemical reaction occurs between the aluminium oxide and the stainless steel (which itself is a combination of several elements, including chromium);
  • The reaction, which involves movement of elections, results in degradation of the aluminium; and
  • Discolouration or even holes may form in the layer of foil.

There you have it. Science in the kitchen, and not just in the chemical reactions of cooking.

[image thanks to top quark22 on flickr]

Day 41. Communication

In September 2012 on September 22, 2012 at 2:25 pm

“How can scientists communicate to the public if they can’t even explain their work to each other?”

This great question comes from a blog I’ve just discovered: The Skeptics Book of Pooh-Pooh.

The author expresses her dismay at the apparent inability of scientists at a multidisciplinary conference to move outside of their specific area of expertise, and focus on one of the fundamentals of communication:

–> What is your audience, and how can you refine your content to suit its needs? 

This applies to science just as it does to any other sphere.

As a postgraduate student I was forced to think about the needs of at least two difference audiences every time I presented my work. As I explain in longer form here,

Being immunologists in an obstetric and gynaecology department was a blessing in disguise. Whenever we presented our work to members of our own department, we had to clearly explain all the immunology background so they could follow the story. Likewise, whilst describing our projects at immunology conferences we needed to provide clear and simple information on the reproductive system, assuming that most of the audience would have no background in this area. Good communication was critical.

I think this history and framework strongly shaped my love of communicating science.

The Australian Health and Medical Research Congress comes to Adelaide 25-28 November 2012, and includes over 60 research societies. I am hoping to attend; it will be interesting to see just how many of the cross-disciplinary presentations keep the needs of their mixed background audiences in mind.

[photo thanks to Warren Pearce on flickr]

Day 40. Time to think

In September 2012 on September 21, 2012 at 5:02 pm

Today is the last day of term 3 2012, and I suspect the next two weeks may offer only short blogs posts with the 3 wee ones about the place a bit more.

As a result, today I’ve been pondering the concept of ‘time to think’.  Earlier in 2012 I managed to sneak off with some girlfriends for a weekend away: it was the first real opportunity I had to think through my decision to commit to being a more frequent and hopefully a better writer. Inspired by my friendships, a painting (shown here and called The Pinny Girls, artist unknown) and a walk, I wrote this.

Me, her and you.

There’s a shrine at the peak of a steep hill overlooking the ocean at Lennox Head. Below the cards and flowers, dark rocks and sliding mud lead down to the sea. The wind pushes you back, away from the edge.

Here a teenage girl leaped to her death a few months ago.

Twenty odd years ago we were that age too; fortunately, our lives and minds never knew that kind of despair. As a group of eight educated together, we faced the world with a quiet confidence and sense of unity. We didn’t know then that ahead lay failed relationships, career crises, the illnesses and deaths of parents, unborn babies and countless days of desperate parenting tiredness.

And yet now that all that has indeed happened, we are alright. Mostly, we are happy. We look forward.

We meet for three nights away from reality and to celebrate the year of turning 40. Old group habits are hard to throw off. Hours are spent styling hair, applying makeup and choosing outfits prior to dinner and drinks at local venues. We wonder how the men in the local pub manage to control their certain urge to flirt with us. Rejected, we stagger back to the beach house to swap more tales of celebrity sightings, social media tricks and the soap operas created by our extended families.

Amongst us is a first pregnancy. A new baby girl will be born in several months, and we’re all trying our darnedest to pass on the one solid piece of advice which will prevent heartache. Deep down we know there is nothing we can do or say which can deliver such a guarantee.

But rest assured the Pinny Girls will be there for the ride. Laughing, crying, watching; there.

Me, her and you.