Posts Tagged ‘Science Blogs’

Fringe, Festival and Science in South Australia

// March 4th, 2010 // 2 Comments » // Just for Fun, Science Communication

For all me hometown South Australian readers out there, this be for you. It’s the best time of year to be in the southern state because the Fringe and the Adelaide Festival are both on at the same time and there is SO MUCH AWESOME about that, really, you’re spoilt for choice. Of course for the rest of the year there’s sweet F.A. to do in S.A.

The RiAus are hosting a most excellent event to celebrate. It’s quite bluntly called Pre-Coital, the Science of Dating. It has an even blunter, but very cute, picture. Truly a noble use of photoshop.

Science of Dating

There’ll be music, comedy and science demonstrations. Honestly, what more could you want in a show? I can’t think of a single thing that’s missing, except perhaps a big-ass explosion, some fire and a treasure chest.

It’s on from Thursday 11 to Saturday 13 March. You can buy tix for $15 for adults. If you see it, PLEASE tell me all about it! I’d love to see it, but I’m in the wrong stupid state that weekend.

If you know of any other science events happening for the Fringe and Festival, post a comment.

Meet telomerase, the enzyme that won a Nobel Prize

// February 18th, 2010 // 20 Comments » // Recent Research

As a pirate I am rarely afforded the luxury of meeting the rich and famous, but today I met Elizabeth Blackburn. She was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, making her the first first FEMALE Australian born scientist to win a Nobel Prize. (I also met the PM and Senator Kim Carr, just to round out my VIP day.)

Sadly the story didn’t make the news on TV… further evidence that science just doesn’t rate to the media.

Well, it rates to ME. So I’m dedicating this post to the research that nabbed the Nobel Prize, the discovery of telomerase, builder of telomeres, protector of chromosomes.

WTF is a telomere? Inside your cell you have 46 chromosomes, long strands of DNA that have ends. Chromosomes have telomeres for the same reason we shipfolk dip the ends of rope in wax – so the ends don’t fray. Instead of wax, we have the same sequence of DNA bases (TTAGGG) that repeat over and over and wrap around some special proteins to make a nice neat little end.

When it comes to that special time in a cells life when the mommy cell loves itself very much, it needs to make a copy of all its DNA so it can split into two new cells. Because of how the machinery works it needs some DNA at to hold onto before it can start copying, which means some DNA at each end is lost every time the cell splits. That’s another good reason to have telomeres, you can lose a bit of them each time and it doesn’t hurt your genes.

However you’ve only got a certain amount of telomeres, and once they run out two things can happen. One: the cell stops dividing. Two: Something bad.

Something bad is that the cell, keeps dividing and starts cutting into the rest of its DNA. Suddenly you have lose ends of DNA whipping around the cell like untied ropes in a storm. The cell freaks out and thinks “eep, my DNA strand has been cut! Must sew it back together!” and then attaches one end to another end, probably to another chromosome altogether. That’s actually okay, until it comes time to divide again. The chromosomes need to separate so they can go into the daughter cells, and oh noes they are attached to each other! Solution? Rip them apart, then sew two bits back together… somewhere… Oh dear…

Soon you have DNA that has been stitched together a bit like Frankenstein’s monster. Most of the cells will die (for obvious reasons), but some will survive, will become stronger, better, faster than before, will become the cancer.

So telomeres protect your cells, but usually run out over the life of the cell. Fortunately there’s an enzyme that makes more of those TTAGGG repeats, so you have more telomeres! That’s what Elizabeth Blackburn helped discover – the superdooper trooper enzyme TELOMERASE.

Most of your cells don’t make telomerase, but stem cells do – that’s why they can survive for your whole life. Having an active version of telomerase can help protect against that split/stitch cycle and prevent cancer forming… mice often have more telomerase in their cells, and longer telomeres – as a result they get different kinds of cancers to us.

Pretty nifty enzyme, hey. Don’t know why the media wouldn’t be interested in that… you know, protects against cancer, important part of stem cells… no, don’t put THAT on the news. Let’s have some hardcore sport and a weather feature or two. GORDAMMIT!!!

Australian Science Communicators Conference Day One

// February 9th, 2010 // 8 Comments » // Science Communication

Just got home after a massive day at #asc2010. Though I’m exhausted I’m feeling too excited to sleep, so instead I’ll give you my blow by blow account of the conference.

Welcome session
The day opened with a welcome from an Aboriginal elder who was not at all interested in science (actually, she said she hated it in school), but was nonetheless entertaining and welcoming. Later the minister did the “official” opening of the conference and also unveiled a new report on science communication policy called Inspiring Australia, which is in my bag to be tackled in all the free time I have. After opening the conference, he left, which was a shame. Guess he’s a busy man.

Plenary session #1
What is a plenary anyway? This was a panel discussion on the challenges for science communication with speakers from some major organisations, the NHMRC (National Health Medical Research Centre), the ARC (Australian Research Centre) and CSIRO. On the whole, it was great to hear from directors and managers from those kind of organisations, but a lot of it was beyond me… We talked a lot on what we SHOULD be doing for science communication strategically, but it seemed to lack that follow through of funding and prioritisation that you need in a business. Eh. It was definitely interesting, but not terribly relevant.

Sub-plenary
Described in the program as “the future of science reporting” I was really disappointed to find the session only heard from print media reporters… sure, it was interesting to hear their ideas about the future of magazines and newsletters, but the future of science reporting encompasses radio, television, blogs and STACKS more than print media. Plus one of the speakers actually said that newspapers were more reliable and accurate then blogs. Uh huh. Sure. Newspapers are accurate eh? Have you heard about Bad Science? And you think blogs are inaccurate? Have you even TRIED reading The Loom and Not Exactly Rocket Science? I’m sorry, but if you think blogs are bad and newspapers are good, you’re living in the past and it’s time to update.

Session Three – Denialists, sceptics and quackery
The panel included the president of the Australian Skeptics. It was described in the program as TACKLING these kind of viewpoints. Damn it if we didn’t just describe the damn problem in a self-rightous way! Yes, I KNOW homeopathy, chiropractics and the anti-vaccine lobbyists say some whacko stuff and have a scary amount of followers, but how do we REACH those believers and talk to them about the actual science? I’m already aware of the problems, I want to talk about solutions, and sadly we barely hit the very tippy top of the iceberg in this session. I’d like to come back to that idea later in this blog while I’m still in swashbuckling scientist mode.

Session Four – Freelancing
“Be a media slut until you can get paid!” No… I actually found this professional development session really worthwhile. Their “get published anyway you can” approach was, I think, good advice to someone starting out. I am certainly keen to start writing for anyone and everyone to garner up a folio of clippings! Ideas included writing for a uni newsletter, contributing to refereed websites, writing for local newsletters, and getting involved with community TV and radio. Yep, I can do that.

Session Five – Determining Junk Science
Our speaker was like Ben Goldacre for peer reviewed journals. OMG the things he said were scary! Over 50% of published journals mess up their statistics or do not explain their error bars! That’s just bad science! Worse than that, a basic knowledge of Poisson distribution should show reviewers when results have been fudged, because the given standard distribution is insanely narrow for the cell counts they are doing. Worst of all are the western blots, who under pretty rudimentary scrutiny by increasing contrast are shown to be cut and pasted, in some cases duplicated or mirror images used later on – basically results completely fabricated and falsified to create results that are flawed in their flawlessness. This session was an eye-opener, and it was good to remember the old stats homework and find some use for them.

Overall though, a conference is about networking, and I met some great people who are doing fantastic things with science communication. If you met me at the conference and scored a business card (yes, I have those now!) then it was lovely to meet you. It was also great to hang out with the gang from the RiAus, who were my SciComm pals in bonny Adelaide and are still doing some amazing things there. Wish I could attend the conference Tuesday and Wednesday, but sadly study calls and I must answer the siren song of commitment.

St Elmo’s Fire

// January 31st, 2010 // 5 Comments » // How Things Work

Some sailors regard it with fear and amazement, others see it as an omen of things to come, but when I see St Elmo’s Fire burning on the masts above I am struck with curiousity for this most bizarre natural phenomenon.

St Elmo’s Fire appears as a blueish glow gracing the tips of masts and other pointy objects (lightning rods, swords, staffs, unusually long noses) during thunderstorms. You may have heard of it before, it’s been mentioned in such classics as Tintin in Tibet, Terry Pratchett’s Nation, and Moby Dick.

Despite the name, it’s not fire. It’s actually plasma, just like lightning – except instead of travelling from a cloud to the ground it just… well.. glows. It works a bit like neon lights do – energy from stormy weather (rather than a powerpoint) collect on an object and discharge. When the discharge is strong enough, it ionises gasses in the air which makes them glow. It mostly happens on pointy objects because electric fields are strongest on curves – the curvier the object, the stronger the field.

The colour is blue simply because oxygen and nitrogen glow blue when they ionise (how’s that for a circular argument? I’m sure it’s got more to do with molecular spectroscopy *shudder* more than I want to go into tonight, but if you’re curious drop me a comment.) If our air was full of neon it would be all orange, and how cool would that be?!

St Elmo’s Fire was originally named for St Erasmus – the patron saint of sailors – but whoever came up with the name should get a prize because it sounds great. Off the top of my head I can think of three fantastic things which have stolen the name. It was the title of one of the Teen Power Inc books of my childhood. As a teenager I saw the awesome 80′s movie about the twenty-somethings who tackle life and relationships after leaving college. And lately I have been listening to the old song by John Parr… I can never pick up the words except for the titular line “in St Elmo’s Fi-yar!”… I have no idea what it means in this context but for some reason (probably the science) it really resonates with me. Click through to the lyrics.

I can see a new horizon
Underneath the blazin’ sky
I’ll be where the eagle’s
Flyin’ higher and higher
Gonna be your man in motion
All I need is a pair of wheels
Take me where my future’s lyin’
St. Elmo’s Fire

Ohhhhh YEAH! St Elmo’s Fi-yah!

Weighing anchor and moving interstate

// January 26th, 2010 // 2 Comments » // Jibber Jabber

Even though exciting things are happening in science, such as slime moulds being used to design railway systems, I have been otherwise occupied. What has harnessed most of my attention of late is my imminent move interstate.

Pirates have a certain inclination to horde treasure, and as such my cupboards are filled with nifty trinkets and almost empty boxes of crackers. No joke, I once had people over for dinner and out of the three boxes of Jatz on the counter, one was a quarter full, one was completely empty and the other had one cracker left. This measly appetizer was followed by a salad graced with a single olive – all I had left in the jar. My kitchen is full of stuff like this. Not cool.

Right now I have seventeen boxes sprawled about, the hallway has become an obstacle course and every single toe on my foot has been stubbed. Thank the stars my other leg is wood. I feel as uncomfortable as this little gingerbread guy looks.

Though the packing is painful, I’m heaps excited about the reason for the move – I’ve been accepted into a course to study Science Communication for the year. Having a chance to do science stuff full time will be in-freaking-credible.

So exciting times ahead! Expect a higher caliber of science posts this year, but until I get a bit more settled in they might be irregular and rushed. It depends on when I get me mitts on some internets. See, I was going to buy a macbook pro before I left, but I’m waiting in hope for them to unveil a new model in their next unveiling day thing, which I heard was tomorrow.

Exciting times ahead! Now where’s that packing tape… dammit all I need a nap.






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