Archive for Science Communication

A shameless plug for the #asc14

// February 2nd, 2014 // 1 Comment » // Science Communication

Australian Science Communicators are converging today for the ASC conference of 2014. I very much enjoyed the 2010 one in Canberra where I happened to be, and made a special trip to be at the 2011 conference in Melbourne, but unfortunately can’t make it to Brisbane this time around. Instead, I’ll be watching the action on Twitter – #asc14 – and I’m @CaptainSkellett if you want to chat.

Some events are being livestreamed and you can join in at the ASC Conference website. The conference is running from 2 – 5 Feb, plenty of time to catch something interesting!

As for me, I’m baking coffee scrolls and packing boxes for another move interstate, from Melbourne to Canberra. Hope to catch up with some friends at Questacon, the ANU and CSIRO while I’m there for the next few years.

I also feel like I need a new five year plan – perhaps I’ve spent too much time in the corporate world over the past year, and I’ve absorbed the desire for strategic direction through osmosis. Nonetheless, I think the big goal for the future is to focus more on writing and editing. I’ve been freelance writing (and doing a share of editing) for the past four years now, and despite the occasional stress of a creeping deadline, I still really, really enjoy it. I can certainly see myself making a lifelong career from it, which is something that’s been hard to picture in any of my other jobs.

So that’s a solid direction to be starting with. There’s a livestreamed ASC event on The Storytelling of Science beginning in an hour, and I’ll pop it on while I pack.

Talking endangered words in Adelaide

// July 23rd, 2013 // Comments Off on Talking endangered words in Adelaide // Science Communication

On Thursday I’m heading to Adelaide for the Australex 2013 linguistics conference at the University of Adelaide. The topic – Endangered words, and signs of revival.

I volunteer with a project to revive an endangered language called Barngarla, which was spoken by Aboriginal people in the Eyre Peninsula of South Australia. During the missionary days people weren’t allowed to speak their language or teach it to their children, and within a few generations it had all but disappeared.

Old documents written by missionaries recorded a Barngarla dictionary and grammar, and Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann, who’s also organising the conference, and a team are using them to revive the language. It’s ironic (in a wonderful way) that the missions wiped out the language while also preserving it and ultimately became key to reintroducing it. Barngarla is now being taught to people once more.

The Australex conference is celebrating 175 years of Lutheran Missionaries’ Aboriginal Lexicography (writing dictionaries.)

I find it interesting that linguistics shares so many words with biology. Linguists talk about endangered languages and hybridisation, while biologists have DNA transcription and translation. My explanation is the oft-used by imperfect analogy of DNA as a “recipe book” or “instruction manual” – placing it more firmly in the realms of language.

It’s actually a bit strange that we still think of DNA this way, that we haven’t updated it to, say, a hacked Wiki – sometimes edited by viruses. Hey, that’s not a bad analogy actually. Both are built up over time and the contributions of many, and aren’t exactly perfect but they do the job. Except that there’s not so much junk on Wiki’s as there is in DNA, but in both cases humans are pretty good at sorting the junk from the useful stuff.

I’m looking forward to the conference and meeting more of the people involved in reviving the Barngarla language, and hearing about similar projects in Hong Kong and Tibet. It should be an interesting few days, and I’ll try to keep you posted on what I hear.

Congratulations to The Tesla Science Centre – it’s going to happen!

// May 10th, 2013 // Comments Off on Congratulations to The Tesla Science Centre – it’s going to happen! // Science Communication

What a handsome chap! Tesla aged 36, photo by Napoleon Sarony.

What a handsome chap! Tesla aged 36, photo by Napoleon Sarony.

I was so pleased to see on The Oatmeal this morning that the Tesla Science Centre will be going ahead – they’ve purchased the land where Nikola Tesla’s old laboratory stood and still have $800,000 in the bank to start cleaning it up and building the interactive museum.

This is the best crowd-funded campaign I’ve ever seen, mostly thanks to The Oatmeal. If you haven’t seen The Oatmeal’s web comics, well hurry over and find out why Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived.

To put it briefly: Tesla was genius who wanted to give all his inventions away for free, his story ended really sadly Edison took advantage of him, stole his ideas and refused to pay him, destroyed generators and blocked Tesla’s project to provide free wireless energy. That’s right. Free. Power. Wirelessly. We could have that right now if Edison wasn’t such a jerk.

And to top it all off – history has mostly forgotten him. Just like it has forgotten Alfred Wallace, who worked out the Origin of Species at the same time as Darwin – from the jungles of the Malay Archipelago. On that subject, I highly recommend watching “Bill Bailey’s Jungle Adventure,” which follows his magnificent adventures catching flying frogs and malaria.

Tesla demonstrates wireless power.

Tesla demonstrates wireless power.

Well, he’s forgotten no more. A museum will boldly stand where Tesla was planning his wireless communication and energy transmission tower in Shoreham, New York.

Now that the land has been purchased, there’s a massive clean-up underway. Apparently there are believed to be tunnels underground that might contain some of Tesla’s original experiments, so they’ll need to be secured and explored. There are also rumours of a giant underground resonance chamber…

To celebrate, there’s hopefully going to be an event in New York over the Summer – with more details to be posted on The Oatmeal as they’re confirmed. I would go, if getting to New York was a remote possibility for me, because The Oatmeal owns a Tesla coil and is going to fry up bacon sandwiches with 20,000 volts of pure, unadulterated science awesome.

It will take time and more funds before the Science Centre is open for business, and be sure I’ll blog about it when it is.

Congratulations to the not-for-profit Tesla Science Centre who are now the proud owners of the site. In the words of The Oatmeal:

“Mr Tesla. We’re sorry humanity forgot about you for a little while. We still love you. Here’s a goddamn museum.”

Check out the happy news on The Oatmeal for more information and to donate or volunteer.

Visiting the Royal Institution of Great Britain

// March 4th, 2013 // Comments Off on Visiting the Royal Institution of Great Britain // Science Communication

This story has been a month in the making, and I should have just posted it back then! I’ve been really busy with visiting Hong Kong and coming back to Adelaide and seeing friends and family again, excuses excuses. Still, here ’tis, better late than never.

One of the things I was most excited to see on my trip to London this month was the Royal Institution of Great Britain. Over 200 years of science history are within those walls, where Michael Faraday toyed with electricity and magnetism in the basement.

Today the basement is a museum, but it still has Faraday’s lab down there – at least a recreation – right opposite a mini modern lab all sterile white and bright. Personally I loved Faraday’s soft yellow lamplight on parchment and sprinkling of dark carbon… the old lived-in laboratory, where the mind is encouraged to jump between ideas and tinker with equipment. Give me a well-stocked garage over a chrome kitchen any day! I hate bright lights *hiss* *hides in the shadows*. I may be part vampire. I hear that’s trendy right now.

The museum wasn’t terribly interactive, but it was brilliantly nerdy – as in “ooh, this is the actual journal Michael Faraday wrote his results in.” That was cool actually, they had one journal full of experiences from taking different drugs (like laughing gas) where the scientist described what it felt like to be under the influence. There was a lot of drawings of Isaac Newton’s name (like a teenager might doodle in love hearts) – apparently he was an inspiration.

It’s a terribly fancy establishment, a nod to the days of top hats and cravats in illustrious May Fair. Right from the moment you walk through those big wooden doors you feel like you’ve stepped into a manor house, with proper marble busts of notable minds beside the staircase. If a cluttered desk of a scientist hides the lofty ideals of science, the Royal Institution sees to it that the art is esteemed and valued.

Painting by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd (1793-1864)

Nonetheless it’s not a stuffy sort of place, especially not in December when they hold the Christmas lectures – which are more like shows for students with explosions and bright colourful demonstrations. As much as it values brilliant minds, it values young ones too. Children are encouraged not just at Christmas time but in the standard lectures too, I’ll get to that shortly.

Apparently the beautiful building and new conference rooms and updated lecture halls have come with a hefty price tag, that has now put the RiGB into several million pounds worth of debt. There’s now an online petition for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills to purchase the building (for 60 million pounds) to allow the RiGB to stay in their historic building indefinitely.

Off topic, it just occurs to me that a lot of Aboriginal Australians lost their historic land, and 60 million pounds would buy quite a lot of it back. Guess that’s not relevant though.

If you’re keen, you can read and sign the petition to save the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

I feel sure the government won’t let something as historic and important as the RiGB to simply be sold and moved. It would be such a waste. Even if they don’t buy the whole building, I’m sure they would sort something out.

On a snowy Friday night I was lucky enough to attend one of the monthly lectures, which was on biology and quantum physics titled “Quantum life: how physics can revolutionise biology”. It was one of those topics which is incredibly hard to wrap your head around, because the quantum world is so counterintuitive and downright weird that even Niels Bohr said “if you aren’t confused by quantum mechanics, you haven’t really understood it.”

For example, the speaker Prof Jim Al-Khalili said that during photosynthesis an energised electron will appear to take multiple paths through a cell to its destination, find out which is the most efficient, and then rewind time and decide it took the most efficient route all along. Say wha???

The part I most remember was a kid, probably 10 years old, asking at the end of the lecture whether a particle moving faster than the speed of light would constitute a paradox by Einstein’s theory and rip the fabric of space and time. No joke, a 10 year old. Mind. Blown. Everyone applauded, and Al-Khalili agreed it would, but fortunately that neutrino particle travelling faster than light which was announced a couple of years ago actually wasn’t, there was a mistake with the equipment. So the fabric is intact, no paradoxes have yet been found.

Since I’ve been back in Adelaide I’ve visited the sister institute, the RiAus a couple of times for Fringe events. It’s great to see it’s still going strong and thankfully a financially independent group that isn’t suffering the same issues as the RiGB. Though the RiAus is a bit smaller, I prefer the casual atmosphere it has and the fact that speakers are encouraged to mingle with the audience after a show. Just that fact is what makes science more accessible to the public, because it pulls down the boundaries and invites dialogue. I quite wanted to speak to Al-Khalili after the quantum life event, but he was taken into another room behind a curtain, and if he reappeared later I didn’t see it.

Transit of Venus – it’s happening tomorrow!

// June 4th, 2012 // Comments Off on Transit of Venus – it’s happening tomorrow! // Science Communication

Transit of Venus. Credit:

Unless I’ve got the time difference wrong, the Transit of Venus is happening tomorrow! That’s where Venus crosses between us and the Sun, the rarest of all eclipses. The next one happens in 2117, over a century away, so don’t miss this one.

Australians can see it on 6 June 2012 in the morning until about 2 pm. Like a Solar eclipse, you can’t look directly at the Sun to watch it happen, you need special glasses or to look at the shadow. Alternatively, watch the livestream on the RiAus website.

Everything you need to know is at this page on the ABC website.

Australians get a sweet view of the transit this time around, and I’m totally bummed to be in South America right now – it’s the worst place to see it! I’ll be living vicariously through your Aussie eyes…

The transit of Venus has a special importance to Australia, as Captain Cook first came to the area on scientific mission to record the transit from Tahiti. His second, secret mission was to search for the Great Southern Continent.

Cook’s data and pictures allowed astronomers to measure the distance between the Earth and the Sun, getting a sense for the first time of how immense our Solar System is. Back in the 18th Century, it was all a bit of a mystery – one worthy of an Apollo-level international solution.

People were sent around the world to get a different view of the transit, noting down when the transit started and when it ended. Then the data was compared, and used mathematically to see how far Venus was from the Sun.

This is similar to pointing at a far away object with your finger, then recording how the image looks when only your left eye is open, and then how it looks when only your right eye is open. Go on, try it! Then try doing the same thing, but with your finger much closer to your face. Did you do it? Spoiler alert: Your finger seems to move much more when your finger is close-up.

Substitute your face for Earth, your finger for Venus, and the distant object you’re point at for the Sun – and you have a pretty good idea for what they were going for. ‘Cept they used more maths!

Man, I really wish I could see the transit tomorrow! I’ll watch the livestream instead, it will be weird to watch the Sun over Australia while it’s midnight in South America…

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