Posts Tagged ‘Science’

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!

Christmas chemistry, the science of holly

// December 21st, 2011 // 5 Comments » // Poisons

pudding with holly

Chocolate orange icecream pudding with side of holly. Image by webmink

Green and red, classic Christmas colours, adorn the spiky holly shrub. A sprig may garnish puddings, but garnish nibblers like me must hold back on holly for it is poisonous in large doses – though some leaves can make a tasty beverage!

Holly includes about 400 species in the genus Ilex. The cultivated species is Ilex aquifolium, and about 20 or 30 of those bright berries can kill an adult. Poisonings are more likely in pets or children, and about five berries will make a kid feel sick.

It’s the usual suspects in symptoms – sleepiness, sore tummy, vomiting, diarrhoea. Larger doses cause paralysis, kidney damage and death.

Chemically, they contain a cocktail of active ingredients. Among them are the triterpenes, precursors to steroids which are cytotoxic (kill cells), steroids and a nitrile called menisdaurin.

Traditional medicines use holly for fever, gout and chronic bronchitis.

Holly, image by 4nitsirk, flickr

A couple of species native to North America, I. vomitoria aka yaupon and I. cassine, make caffeine and were used to make “black drink”, a stimulating brew also used as a vomit-causing emetic.

South American species I. paraguariensis contains as much as 1.6% caffeine (five times more than the above species) and some of the cocoa chemical theobromine in their leaves, and tasty tannins.

Also called yerba mate, I. paraguariensis is brewed to make mate tea, which is delicious. It’s pronounced MAH-tay, but be careful not to put the emphasis on the second syllable. Wikipedia says that makaes mah-TAY, which means “I killed” in Spanish.

So it’s fine to have a sprig of holly in the house for Christmas, just don’t make a holly pie out of it!

Vampire squid on Occupy Wall Street, biology of Vampyroteuthis infernalis

// December 14th, 2011 // Comments Off on Vampire squid on Occupy Wall Street, biology of Vampyroteuthis infernalis // The Realm of Bizzare

Occupy Wall Street protesters took up arms – eight of them – in their march on Monday. Carrying craftastic models of vampire squid high above their heads, in homage to Matt Taibbi’s description of the bank as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money” in Rolling Stones, 2008.

Harsh words, right? I mean, vampire squids are totally awesome!

The vampire squid inhabits the cold, high-pressure environment of the deep sea. Light is absorbed by the water, making it perpetually twilight. A vampire in twilight, that’s not horrifying, that’s dreamy, amiright? Don’t hit your head if you swoon.

We don’t know much about these little dudes because they dwell in that most mysterious of spots, the deep sea. Vampyroteuthis infernalis means vampire squid from hell, but it’s not even technically a squid. Or an octopus. It’s got an order all of it’s own.

They have a consistency similar to a jellyfish, quite gelatinous. Like many jellyfish, it swims by shooting out a jet of water behind it to propel it forward, but it has a couple of fins for manouvering. It has eight arms and two extra arms which hide in its ‘pockets’ and can extend the length of its body when needed.

This National Geographic vid is pure pirate gold for high quality images of the creature.

They hold the title for the largest eyes relative to their body. An individual about six inches long has an eye an inch across, about the same as a full-grown dog. All the better to see you with, my dear. They also have a receptacle behind their eye for spermatangia, the tough sac of sperm ejaculated from the specialised arms of a lover. Just imagine date night

The most brilliant behaviour is their bioluminescence. These guys glow!

When startled, squid may shoot out ink to confuse predators. That’s not much good when you live in twilight, so instead the vampire squid shoots out glowing balls that dazzle and confuse. Over a thousand discrete bright particles within a matrix of mucous. Picture that, you’re out looking for a snack late at night, feeling pretty hungry, you think you smell something good and suddenly there’s some wacko waving glowsticks and snot in your face!

Another defensive ploy is to go into pineapple pose. Turning their bell-shaped tentacles over them, they completely change their shape (going kind of inside out). They light up some spots on their head which animals may take for eyes, which glow and then shrink as if the animal has swum away. Even if you didn’t buy that the animal was gone, looking at the videos, you wouldn’t want to eat that.

Stephen Fry gave respect to these sweet deep sea entities in this clip from QI. Hat tip to Dr M at Deep Sea News.

Oh… and about that quote Occupy Wall Street are marching for. The vampire squid’s diet seems to consist of molluscs, fish and crustaceans. As far as we know, it’s not a blood sucker, and Tree of Life. describes the funnel as absent. That must make it hard to stick said metaphorical blood funnel into anything, whether it smells like money or not.

Recommended links

In the QI link, they say the bioluminescence explosion is like John Barrowman! You might know Barrowman as the immortal Captain Jack Harkness from Dr Who and Torchwood, but blow me down, that captain can dance!

Still got time for more videos? Here’s David Attenborough talking about the deep ocean.

The majority of this info was from Tree of Life.

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.






Buy me a Beer!
    If you don't want me to mention your donation just check the box above.
  • $ 0.00
Twittarrr
Follow @CaptainSkellett (572 followers)