Archive for Science at Home

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!

Did I hear you right? McGurk and other illusions

// November 4th, 2011 // 2 Comments » // Science at Home

The other day I was chatting about muddled senses. Do we really see what’s around us, or do we just assume it’s the same as yesterday and fill in the blanks. How do we understand half-uttered mumblings we don’t properly hear, and when we think we’ve understood, have we actually listened to the other person or just heard what we want to hear?

It lead us to talk about some illusions that show how intertwined and untrustworthy our senses can be.

Case one: The McGurk Effect

What you see changes how you hear. Take the sound “ba”. When an audio recording of “ba” is dubbed over a silent video of someone saying “fa” – then “fa” is what you hear.

If the video silently mouths “ga” or “da”, while playing a “ba” audio – it turns into the harder sound “da.”

Close your eyes and the effect stops. Open them and it starts right back up again. No matter how much you try to hear “ba”, the visual information overrides the audio. Check it out.

Try it with your eyes open, then watch it again with them shut. Whaaaaa???

This BBC video has more of an explanation and the ba/fa illusion.

Nice, but what are the applications? Firstly, I should move my mouth more clearly when I talk to people instead of my usual pirate mumble-slur.

Second, if speech recognition software uses video as well, it could possibly become more accurate.

Green potatoes are poisonous

// September 9th, 2011 // 1 Comment » // Science at Home

Is this not the best potato ever? Image by courhome

So I was cooking dinner tonight and had a hankering for potato wedges. Unfortunately, in a fit of nonsense I had put my potato in the fruit basket to ripen. Ridiculous. So it had turned greenish.

Now I’m a pretty frugal, food-saving kinda person and hate throwing stuff out, but I had a feeling that this was one of those times. One of those “better safe than sorry” times, so I checked the interwebz and then threw it out.

If you’re ever in a similar quandary, here’s why not to eat green potatoes.

Potatoes make glycoalkaloids, chemicals that protects them from insects and fungi. They are especially fond of these chemicals when they are damaged or growing new plants, when they go green and sprout from their eyes.

One of these chemicals is called solanine, a poison made by deadly nightshide (a member of the same family, Solanaceae, along with tomatoes).

Solanine poisoning resembles gastroenteritis, so vomiting, pooping, and generally upsetting symptoms. The CSIRO says that, seeing as the symptoms are the same, some undiagnosed cases of gastro might be due to green potatoes. (So glad I didn’t eat them.)

I usually keep potatoes in the fridge, which is apparently also bad. At the chilly 2-6 degrees celsius of a fridge, the starch turns quickly into high levels of sugar, causing them to brown quickly during frying. So you’re supposed to keep them in a paper bag in a dark cupboard.

So much dinner-time learning! Oh – and the replacement meal, curried roast vegetable couscous, was delicious.

Photographs from the first day of spring

// September 2nd, 2011 // 1 Comment » // Science at Home

Spring has sprung here in South Australia, bees buzz in the blossoming trees and the air is warm and sweetly scented. So I took my camera for a stroll around my neighbourhood and took some pictures to capture the first day of spring.


Wattle – nothing says Australian spring so much as the smell and sight of these fuzzy yellow coated trees. The picture doesn’t do justice to the sound of all the bees collecting nectar and pollen overhead. Try to imagine the buzzing.

Trees which line a street just around the corner from my house. Gorgeous days like this remind me of a line from Moby Dick, Herman Melville, my favourite book:

The warmly cool, clear, ringing, perfumed, overflowing, redundant days, were as crystal goblets of Persian sherbet, heaped up—flaked up, with rose-water snow.


In among some rocks, I noticed a colony of ants going nuts! It was queen day, as I like to call it. When young princess ants fly away to start a colony of its own. There were a few drones, fertile male ants with wings who were smaller than the princesses. It was their nuptial flight.

princess ant

A worker ant helps a princess prepare for a nuptial flight.

Video game addiction – why I can never have an iPhone

// April 16th, 2011 // 3 Comments » // Science at Home

Before writing this post, I played Fruit Ninja for an hour. It’s a cute app on my partner’s iPhone where you slice fruit in half and try to get the highest score possible in a minute. My high score? 599.

This is why I can never have an iPhone – because I would play ridiculously repetitive games like this (and Runway, landing airplanes) all day and achieve nothing but a high score. Quite simply, I’m addicted.

Why is Fruit Ninja so addictive?

Bright colours, fun noises, extra points for hitting combos, it’s basically the pokies. A game of chance, the high score mostly depends on which fruit come up when. My mad skillz help, but it’s really just a gamble. And if I don’t get good fruit in one game, there’s always the next one, and the next one. One day, I’ll hit the jackpot (a frenzy and a freeze banana.)

When we’re talking gambling (or gaming) addiction, we’re talking dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to rewards. You caught a fish? Have some dopamine! That felt nice, didn’t it, keep on fishing. With fruit ninja, the reward is a high score, or in the early days, a new blade or background unlocked. Ice blade, fire blade, shadow blade, butterfly blade, I’ve got all but one…

Dopamine LOVES random rewards. If every time you throw in a hook you get a fish, it get’s less exciting. But if you only get one sometimes, it’s much better. It’s like the dopamine is saying – WOAH! You randomly caught a fish! What did you do? Do it again! Same with Fruit Ninja. Wait, that was a high score? How? Hell, I have to do that again, whatever I did. Random rewards from a repetitive task increases dopamine levels.

Dopamine also loves near misses. Oh, man, you almost caught a fish – so close, keep trying and you’ll get it next time for sure. While that might work when you’re fishing or hunting or in anyway being skilled – it’s nothing but a CRUEL TRICK. Woah, that was SO CLOSE to a high score, you’ll get it next time! Doubtful. It’s worse for the pokies, where there really is no skill. Almost winning does not increase the chance of really winning, but it still boosts the dopamine.

Do games know their addictive nature?

This Cracked article talks 5 creepy ways video games are trying to get you addicted, mostly talks about online mulitplayer games like WoW. There’s no question to me that it’s an addictive game. I’ve never played it myself (I don’t touch the hard stuff), but I know people who spend at least 20 hours a week, every week, leveling up and planning the next quest.

So, dear readers, I’m making a commitment to you now. I’m gonna give it up! No more iPhone games, I’m done, I’m out. No dopamine for you, brain.

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