Archive for Science Communication

SKA decision announced, split between Aus and South Africa

// May 29th, 2012 // Comments Off on SKA decision announced, split between Aus and South Africa // Recent Research, Science Communication

Members of the SKA Organisation have just announced the locations – there’s two of them – for the square kilometre array, which will revolutionise astronomy with the world’s most sensitive radio telescope peering into the dawn of the Universe.

South Africa was chosen to host most of the SKA, including all the dishes and mid-frequency aperture arrays. Western Australia and New Zealand will host the low-frequency aperture arrays. Construction is scheduled to start in 2016, and Phase I will cost around 1,500 million euros.

Astronomer Dave Reneke was excited about the news when he spoke on ABC radio yesterday – and as he says this is still a big opportunity for Australia, with more jobs for scientists, engineers and loads of other people involved in setting it up.

I’m excited too! Will the SKA find extraterrestrials by listening to their radio waves? Even if it doesn’t, it’s one of those big scientific endeavours that captures my imagination. A big international quest to explore the unknown. And there will be experts on the site just a shortish plane trip from home!

I heard the news via facebook from a friend who posted this awesome comic.

Big Science

Comic by Firstdog, click thru for link

Feminist and Aboriginal science with Lillian Dyck #AAASmtg

// February 28th, 2012 // Comments Off on Feminist and Aboriginal science with Lillian Dyck #AAASmtg // Science Communication

Hon. Lillian Dyck, first female and Aboriginal senator in Canada, took the stage at the AAAS conference to discuss western science, feminist science and Aboriginal science.

Subjectivity is inherent in the western scientific method, she said. We use inductive reasoning, interpret data, and models that are not ideal (eg. animals). A hypothesis may be generated by hunches, mistakes, or serendipity, as well as logical questioning. This, she said, is something we don’t usually acknowledge.

In fact, people try to hide it. In writing up a paper, the sequence of experiments and even the thinking process can be adapted to fit the prescribed, logical process of SCIENCE. We leave out illogical sources of ideas, even if they were important. We remove ourselves by using the third person, and our experience by using the passive voice.

Thus we perpetuate the notion of purely rational, logical science.

However, facts do not exist in a vacuum. Scientists are subject to cultural bias. Though numbers don’t lie, we do interpret what they mean.

Her example of bias in scientific thinking was the Thrifty gene hypothesis describing genetic causes of diabetes in First Nations people. For a long time it was believed a faulty genetic ability that stored extra calories in case of famine was responsible for the disease. Actually, there wasn’t any proof of it at all. You can read the story at “How the diabetes-linked ‘thrifty gene’ triumphed with prejudice over proof” from Globe & Mail, Feb 2011.

How can we correct the bias in science? She says, by knowing and acknowledging it, even taking advantage of human bias.

Feminist science does this, she says.

Feminist science
– is openly biased (doesn’t pretend to be unbiased)
– exposes male bias and the patriarchal nature of western science
– is non-hierarchical
– is by, with and for a community, collaborative
– this pdf article Can there be a feminist science? may be a useful reference.

She says feminist science has changed science as a whole, moving it to a point where collaborative, team research is now the norm.

What about different ways of thinking in different cultures? Not only do different cultures have particular traditional knowledge of areas like astronomy and medicine, they also have particular processes to gain knowledge.

Her heritage is Chinese and Cree, and she mentioned ways of knowing that emphasised listening skills, elders, and a holistic world view (rather than analysing pieces at a time.)

People have claimed only people with Indigenous minds can solve the problems of quantum physics, she said, then pointed out that person was Aboriginal. I recommend reading Dialogues between Western and Indigenous science if you’d like to know more.

Opening ceremony of the AAAS 2012 conference

// February 19th, 2012 // Comments Off on Opening ceremony of the AAAS 2012 conference // Science Communication

AAAS opening 2012

Scale: Earth globe = size of my hotel room

The Vancouver Conference Center sure is an imposing place. High ceilings and wall-length windows gazing to cloudy mountains and cold waters. Up above, strung in wooden beams, are three golden eggs.

It’s a fitting spot for the first annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, pronounced not aaaass, but triple ay ess) to occur outside of the US. A huge number of people are in attendance, filling the seats and lining the corridors.

Jet lag still nibbles at the ragged edges of my mind, not quite satiated by coffee though I’ve certainly drunk my limit. I’ve been here since Saturday, and been busy with work and museums and squirrels – SQUIRRELS! – and identifying coins and notes (the five and ten are, in size and colour, opposite to in Australia.)

The program is as multidisciplinary as it is multinational. From culture to computing, from food to forest fires.

After a welcome from Chief Jacob – who sang a song with his niece, accompanied by drums, and it was totally awesome – the AAAS president Nina Fedoroff spoke for around 40 minutes on her life.

Vancouver conference of AAAS 2012

Giant golden eggs outside the ballroom

She had her first child when she was 17, then went back to school and her partner left her. Single, working mother she made her way through uni, and had another child and a husband a few years later. Then she started working in labs – and back then it was HARD for women in science. Hell, I think it still is.

Guess my age is showing, but I find it strange to think that obvious, even blatant discrimination was happening just a few decades ago. Perhaps it wasn’t so bad in Aus? (Anyone?) Despite that, she did a hell of a good job studying plant genetics, became an expert in the field and was awarded a prize for science in the White House.

It’s nice to hear stories like that – real stories, you know? Bumpy, unexpected journeys that grip success by not only skill, but determination. I’m sure many other stories like hers are out there, and people could really benefit from hearing them.

After that, there was food and drinks in the foyer, but I dashed out to the reporters gala (a GALA, oh my), and missed the lighting of the Olympic torch.

Well, that was day one, and I’ll leave it there for now.

Call out to Aussies! Watch transit of Venus on the tall ship Endeavour

// February 3rd, 2012 // Comments Off on Call out to Aussies! Watch transit of Venus on the tall ship Endeavour // Science at Home, Science Communication

HMB Endeavour in full sail

True blue replica of Captain Cook’s tall ship HMB Endeavour is circumnavigating Australia and dropping into me home town Adelaide for a spell. Australians can sail the tall ship replica Endeavour in June 2012 to watch the rare transit of Venus from Lord Howe Island, Cook’s real reason for mapping the east coast of Australia and claiming it for England. Read on, Macduff…

You know how they say when one door closes, a window opens? For me it’s the opposite. I closed all the windows to open the door, and an opportunity has flown SMACK into the glass. I can’t go on the HMB Endeavour, ‘cos I’m leaving Australia soon! Bummed out doesn’t begin to describe it.

For you peeps still in Aus, here’s the lowdown.

Cook’s Endeavour is currently sailing with a full, hammock-napping, rigging-climbing, star-gazing crew about Australia.

Over halfway through its yearlong trek, it’s docking in Adelaide from 16-23 February 2012 to open to those of the public keen to run their hands across the varnished wood and polished brass and marvel at the many ropes. Swoon. Details here.

If you, like me, want a closer inspection of the vessel and to get in those hammocks yourself, here’s your chance.

From end of May to mid June, the Endeavour is sailing from Sydney to Lord Howe Island to observe the transit of Venus on June 6. It’s a prime viewing location, and one of the first spots in Australia to see the rarest of eclipses.

Cook travelled to Tahiti in 1769 to view the transit, part of a global movement to find out the size of the solar system (specifically, how far Earth is from the Sun, an astronomical unit) by watching the transit in different locations around the world. Worked pretty well, too!

All Australia is in a good spot to see the transit, when Venus moves between Earth and the Sun and looks like a small black dot on our bright sun disk.

Don’t actually look at the Sun, will you, ‘cos you’ll damage your eyes. Use eclipse glasses or shadows. Though I do find eye patches rather fetching…

Transit of Venus, credit NASA/LMSAL

Transits of Venus happen in pairs eight years apart, but each pair is separated by over a hundred years. This is the last one in the pair, so if you miss this transit – that’s it until 2117 when we’ll probably be dead or robots.

This is another opportunity that has faceplanted into my closed window. I’m going to be in South America during the transit, one of the few places where you get to see zip, zilch, zero. Bummer…

So I’ll be living vicariously through you, dear Australian readers, so make the most of it! See it at home, or hit up the Endeavour and make a trip from it. The voyage in June is $4000, so quite pricey but a trip of a lifetime! Crew will be selected by ballot, and you need to enter here before 10 February 2012 – which is really soon. Do it now. Are you doing it? Go, right now, click here, live my dream. Take a pirate hat!

I travelled on the Young Endeavour back in me younger days, another replica tall ship used as a training sail vessel, it’s one of those memories that just sticks with you. Like seeing Stonehenge or being in a circus. Ballots for that are open too, but only available to people 16-23 years old. If that’s you, check it out and apply now!

Looks like I’m missing out on the sailing action in Australia this year, but I’ve got some pretty sweet plans myself. I’m heading out that door and leaving in just over a week for Vancouver, Canada, where I’m hitting the AAAS annual meeting. I’ll tell you all about it!

Science behind the headlines – beyond seven billion people

// December 9th, 2011 // 1 Comment » // Science Communication

We reached a big milestone last month as the world’s population exceeded seven billion people for the first time. Looking behind the headlines was Paul Willis at the RiAus and a panellist of scientists and journalists on Tuesday (event details here.)

In the 20th century we added five billion people to the Earth. Before that, we had only added two billion in total. Part of the reason is a decreased death rate, due to better medical facilities, coupled with an increase of food made possible by the Haber process that produces nitrogen fertiliser from nitrogen in the air. The chemistry makes it possible to, on some level, make food from air.

But population increase is not exponential. The UN expects the population to level off at 10 billion in the next fifty years, after a dramatic decrease in fertility, which no one anticipated.

“It is unconscionable to have a policy to increase mortality!” says Graeme Hugo, Director of the Australian Population and Migration Research Centre at the University of Adelaide. “The only way forward is to decrease fertility, that’s the only thing on the table.”

The world has done very well to reduce fertility, halving it since the 1970’s.

However, in some areas of Africa and isolated pockets in Asia it is not dropping as fast as expected. Two years ago East Timor each woman was having around eight children. The continued high fertility may be because we’ve taken our foot off the pedal when it comes to efforts like increasing contraceptives, women’s education and emancipation.

Beyond numbers

But it’s not all about the numbers, and that was the key point the scientists spoke about on Tuesday. Population is a complex issue, and has to be considered in connection to age and spatial distribution and consumption of goods.

The cost of looking after an aging semi-majority (the baby boomers) is a worry for some political movements. Balanced age groups are important to ensure the number of dependents and the number of workers is stable.

Migration may not change the global numbers, but it’s important for people are spread out in the right way. That means considering how many people a local environment can sustain in terms of food and water.

Consumption is also critical. One baby born in the United States consumes the equivalent of 30 babies born in Africa according to Udoy Saikia, School of the Environment, Flinders University (here’s a relevant link.) “People in developed countries should limit their consumption,” says Hugo. “In many developing countries, consumption needs to go up because they’re not consuming enough to be healthy.”

One way for more developed countries to limit consumption is to go vego. A more vegetarian diet is able to support more people for the same number of resources. Bring on the lentils!

This Tedx talk on the topic, I can’t recommend it enough.

Magic bullets

Scientists agreed that coverage of the seven billion people story has been pretty good overall, far better than stories about migration.

One issue they mentioned was the trend to look for a magic bullet, fixing just one thing to solve the whole population problem. It’s also hard for journalists with limited inches to talk about all the factors in a complex issue like population science.

Stopping population growth won’t work unless you take consumption into account, as well as the other factors. There needs to be a holistic approach. That doesn’t end (or even start) with policy – everyone needs to make a decision to change their consumption.

Australia

How many Australians should there be? There is no magic number where everything will fall into place. There are definite demographic problems regarding aging populations and dispersion (or lack thereof).

The scientists agreed we need a policy that allows for sustainable growth. They said it would devastate Australia if we stopped population growth tomorrow, but it would be also devastating to have uncontrolled growth.

“Every day we waste about 40% of the food (in Australia),” says Saikia. “There is some hope that the 10 billion population can survive very well, depending on distribution and consumption.”

Paul Willis summed up by asking whether Australian’s should “be concerned, not alarmed.” It’s not the end of the world, but we do need major changes and responses to population dynamics, says Hugo. “Be concerned, AND alarmed – about consumption,” says Saikia.

This post was also featured on the RiAus website.






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