Archive for the ‘Engagement and Education’ Category

Science of Doctor Who

November 8, 2011

When two bloggers join forces, strange things happen. Joined by James Byrne, we travelled to Natimuk, Victoria to host “Science of Fiction: Doctor Who”.

So is time travel possible? Well according to our panel of physicists, it is theoretically possible. Time is not straight, but rather “wibbly-wobbly”. So theoretically you can create a wormhole with a bridge to another wormhole, the problem being however that wormholes are typically extremely unstable. To help stabilise a wormhole you could explode it with anti-gravity. Does this mean that you can trvael to any time you wanted, as the Doctor does? Well no, you could only travel to the time when the wormhole at the other end was created, much to the chagrin of 7% of our audience who wished they could travel to earlier in the day and change their mind about going to the show.

Teleportation, however, was not as ‘easy’ as time travel. Our panel suggested that you could scan a body and transmit the data to another place, then rebuild the body. However, it was pointed out that this would entail destroying the original body which raises an ethical quandry, and besides would the rebuilt you really be you? Also, according to a back-of-the-envelope calculation there is around 3000 trillion DVD’s worth of data in the body, so transmitting that much data restricts the viability of teleportation.

The panel also talked life on other planets (“while there may be life on other planets, with our current levels of technology the chances of finding it are extremely slim, and even then it may not be something we recognise as a living being”), and robotics (when the audience found Billie Piper to be as creepy as a humanoid robot).

The event even had its own robot dog – K-9. And here is where it started getting strange. Despite having never seen an episode of Doctor Who, James started getting into the spirit of the weekend, to the extent that on our travels we decided to make a record of “The Adventures of K-9”.

K-9 arrives in Natimuk

K-9 was hugely popular at the show, with a number of people coming up afterwards asking for photos with him. So much so, when we left he thought he owned the town.

K-9 marking his territory

Just like a real dog......

Visiting Horsham

Exploring Nhill

K-9 meets a friend in Kaniva

In Bordertown

Visiting the mystifying Land Rover on a Pole in Keith

The Land Rover on a Pole is so strange even the Doctor came for a look.

This is not where Tin Tin lives, by the way.

Last stop, Tailem Bend.

Waiting patiently by the door of the Science Exchange, Adelaide.


Getting the sustainability message out through film

August 21, 2011

Over the past few weeks I’ve been involved in the organisation of public screenings for the 2011 SCINEMA Festival of Science Film.  The festival showcases science dramas, docos, animations and shorts, and in 2011 SCINEMA received over 400 entries from 35 countries including entries from professional filmmakers, amateurs, and student-groups, making it one of the foremost science film festivals in the world.

For me three films in particular stood out, and this blog post is based on their message – that we are way too wasteful, and unless things change things are going to get far worse.  Worse not only in terms of resource availability, but also in an economic sense that we’re getting ripped off by some very shrewd business people.

It is no secret that we are a wasteful society.  Humans now produce more waste than ever before, and while much of this can be recycled and reused, much is not.  Take for example metal, and iron in particular.  In 2008 the worldwide crude metal consumption was 1.4 billion tons, twice what it was in the 1970’s and nearly seven times the level of the 1950’s.  That makes sense, populations are increasing and just from an infrastructure point of view more metal needs to be used to support these increases.  However, despite the fact that metals can be recycled indefinitely around 70% of metals are used only once then discarded.  As a result of this rate, after 5 cycles only 0.25% of metal is still in circulation.  The rest forms the billions of tons of scrap metal around the world.

Such is the extent of our disposal of metal, we throw away enough iron and steel to supply all the carmakers in the world on a continuous bases.  Aluminium however – Americans dispose of enough to be able to rebuild their air force every 3 months.  When looking at environmental and energy efficiency, aluminium which is recycled uses 95% less energy than making the metal from scratch, meaning 20 aluminium cans can be made from recycled material for the energy cost of a single can being made from new material.

Taking all that into account, surely it makes sense to recycle metals more than we currently are. It doesn’t make sense to keep mining and refining all this metal given we already have so much available and able to be reused.

But why is our consumption increasing so quickly? Well partially it is a result of planned obsolescence.  Believe it or not, the lifespan of a light bulb in 1920 was longer than it was in 1950.  The humble light bulb was the originator of planned obsolescence, when manufacturers make products wear out quickly so that people have to purchase more.  In fact during the 1920’s and 30’s, there was an international cartel of light bulb manufacturers who banded together and deliberately set a limit on the lifespan of the light bulb for this very purpose.  Should any of the member companies exceed this life span they were fined heavily.  This cartel also controlled distribution and sales, increasing prices and ensuring competitors would not gain market share.

There is another type of planned obsolescence though, not through technical means like artificially shortening lifespans, but through marketing means.  Quite often manufacturers seem to release new model products with little or no improvement over the outgoing model, and through marketing convince the consumer they need to upgrade to this newer product.

This is done purely for economic purposes, to boost sales and company income.  However it has the flipside of increasing the production of waste.

So what can we do about increasing recycling?  It requires both an industry action to reuse more metals in manufacturing processes, and also consumer action to recycle and provide more access to materials which can be recycled.  In Australia only around 50% of recyclable waste is actually recycled.  However, in South Australia that level is closer to 80%, with the reason being that SA has a recycling deposit scheme – consumers are paid to recycle.  Manufacturers have previously fought against such schemes, and recently when SA increased their scheme several multi-national companies resisted the move.  However, it cannot be argued that providing a minor incentive does improve public behaviour.  50% of our recyclable waste is a considerable amount of needless landfill. Surely being smarter about what we throw away is only a benefit?

We as people can do so much to reduce consumption and landfill.  Just improving our own recycling and disposal of goods can make a huge difference, and it takes minimal effort and little or no cost.  But increasing sustainability can also go beyond just what we throw away, and again it is only beneficial.  Growing a small amount of vegetables or herbs will be cheaper than buying them from the supermarket, and will probably be tastier too, while the effort to maintain them will probably be less than having to duck out to the supermarket when you realise you’ve forgotten to buy something.

The public can make a significant effort through making basic changes to our lifestyles.  However these changes won’t take us backwards, in fact they’ll take us forward into a society where we have the same quality of life but produce less waste and spend less money.  Surely that is an improvement.

So which three films from SCINEMA did I find particularly interesting and were the inspiration for this blog post?

The winner of the 2011 SCINEMA Best Film was The Light Bulb Conspiracy, by Cosima Dannoritzer of-Spain.  An investigative piece, LBC details how “planned obsolescence” is incorporated into just about every product we buy.  This includes not only a technical planned obsolescence – where products deliberately have a limited lifespan to make customers purchase more and more products, but also a psychological planned obsolescence, where customers are induced to buy the newest product, despite being in some cases no better than their old product.

Going right back to the 1920’s and using the humble light bulb as an example, LBC follows planned obsolescence throughout its history, and shows how manufacturers are contributing to the wastefulness of society solely to make money, including revealing insights from one of the Philips family members – the family which established the Philips electrical goods manufacturers.  But, as LBC shows, the public is starting to fight back.


Despite not winning any prizes, Waste Not by Ruth Hessey of Australia, is a fantastic film about recycling and sustainability in our everyday lives. With some fantastic cinematography – they even make the processing of rubbish a visual spectacle – this 25 minute short film talks with people involved in every step of the sustainability movement, from scientists and policy advisors, to the garbo’s who collect our household rubbish and those people who actually work at recycling plants, and even the head chef from one of Australia’s top restaurants, Tetsuya’s.  The overriding message from all of those people is that we need to improve the way we recycle and reuse, because what we’re doing at the moment is just so wasteful, and making those improvements does not have to be difficult, or expensive.  As one of the interviewees remarks, “saving the planet is not about going back and living in a cave… this is actually about progress.”  And while documentaries on this topic in the past have been, to be honest, boring, Waste Not is captivating; the story is told by regular people and really does inspire the viewer to make a change.

Not taking anything away from the sheer power in the way it delivers its message, or the winner for Best Cinematography at 2011 SCINEMA (Where the Wild Things Were, Amber Cherry Eames, Scotland), this would in fact have been my pick for that award.


Another film which hits hard and delivers its message particularly powerfully is 99% Rust, by Nenko Genov of Bulgaria.  Using a very simple narrative style, black and white photographs with captions and haunting music courtesy of New Order, it rams home how wasteful society is.  Just why do we have so much scrap metal lying around when it could easily, cheaply and efficiently be recycled and used indefinitely?

99% Rust by Nenko Genov

99% Rust from Nenko Genov on Vimeo.


On a completely unrelated topic, one of the most popular films shown during our screenings was Worm Hunters, produced by Chris Carroll of Australia, and winner of the Special Jury Prize.  Taking a light hearted look at several groups of scientists, the film follows the groups as they travel the world literally hunting worms, hoping to find species that have never been seen before.  While that may sound dull, we received more comments from filmgoers about this film than any other, it comes together into a really great fun film which children in particular enjoyed immensely.

New ways to communicate science – Science-Rap

June 17, 2011

This fortnight I thought I’d do something a little different. Rather than a normal article, I thought I’d draw your attention to a group of science communicators who definitely have their own style. These people are part of a burgeoning group of science rappers.

Oort Kuiper
Jon Chase, aka Oort Kuiper, is a science communicator from the UK. Often working with another communicator Mark Brake, Jon takes his unique way of communicating science into the public by performing at schools, libraries and other community centres. Jon has been commissioned by organisations such as NASA to create science raps, and has performed at notable institutions such as the London Science Museum, the Royal Society, and the Royal Institution (GB).

With a background in aerospace, science and science fiction, his raps tend to focus more on human’s place in the Universe and how life relates to it. He gained some exposure for his 2008 rap Astrobiology, commissioned by NASA.

His other notable works include Life – An Autobiography, a six and a half minute journey through life on Earth.

A Better View reveals the world we live in through science and technology.

However Jon’s discography also includes topics as diverse as rain and genetics.

One of the most well-known science rappers is Kate McAlpine, otherwise known as Alpinekat. The Michigan State University graduate was working as a science writer at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland when she first recorded Large Hadron Rap, featuring her and a number of CERN colleagues rapping and dancing as only scientists can. After being posted on YouTube, Large Hadron Rap has gone on to be viewed over 6.6 million times.

Despite initial scepticism from CERN management, Kate received permission to perform and record the video in and around the LHC. After viewing the finished product however, they were won over. “We love the rap, and the science is spot-on”, CERN spokesman James Gillies told National Geographic.

AlpineKat has gone on to make more science rap videos, including Rare Isotope Rap, and Black Hole Rap, below.

Tom McFadden
Tom, an instructor from Stanford University in California, approaches his science rapping a little differently. Not afraid to use technical details, his raps contain many more scientific terms and jargon, so they do require some prior knowledge. This makes them more useful for university students and scientists than the general public.

Nevertheless it is impressive he manages to rap around the jargon, and for those with a cell biology background, they’re quite entertaining.

For example, Put Some ACh Into It explains the two sides of the autonomic nervous system – the signalling system that the body uses to unconsciously control the body. The autonomic nervous system controls things such as heart rate, digestion, breathing rate and perspiration, as explained in the video.

Get Taq explains several commonly used biotechnology tools, such as replicating DNA, connecting pieces of DNA together, producing custom proteins, and even genetically modifying mice to investigate what role particular proteins play in an animal.

These three artists aren’t the only exponents of science rap, but they’re amongst the ones to keep an eye on. And as science communicators forever look for new ways to engage with the community, they’re the ones at the forefront of a new way to connect with the public.

Check out Jon, Kate and Tom’s raps, plus others at

Bloodhound – World’s Fastest Dog?

May 1, 2011

Richard Noble has the need. In 1983 he built and drove the car Thrust 2 to a new world land speed record at Black Rock Desert in Nevada, at an average speed of 633mph (1019km/h). Powered by a jet engine from an English Electric Lightning jet fighter, this record stood for 14 years when, in 1997, a project lead by Noble again set a new land speed record mark. This time driven by ex-RAF fighter pilot Andy Green, Thrust SSC was the first car to officially break the sound barrier clocking an average speed of 763mph (1228km/h), the largest jump in the land speed record ever recorded. But Noble and Green aren’t content with their efforts with Thrust SSC, and have developed yet another program to again raise the mark – carrying the curious name Bloodhound SSC.

Bloodhound SSC's badge. Copyright Bloodhound,

The origins of the project
While some may wonder why Noble and Green want to take the risks involved in beating their own land speed record, it is much more than a case of simply being restless or the desire to make more of a name for themselves.

Noble tells the story of being in the British Houses of Parliament, only to be followed across the public lobby by a policeman who eventually caught up and cornered him. Fearing the worst, Noble waited to hear why the policeman had chased him – had his outstanding speeding fines caught up with him? “Sir, I would just like to congratulate you and your team of breaking the Sound Barrier back in 1997… My son wanted to study media at University, and he was so taken with the Thrust SSC project that he switched courses and is now an engineer.” This chance encounter showed Noble just how influential and inspiring a land speed record project could be.

In 2007 Noble met with Lord Drayson, himself a part-time racing driver and the UK Minister for Defence Equipment and Support and later Minister of State for Science and Innovation. During the meeting Drayson outlined how the Ministry of Defence, indeed Britain as a whole, was short of engineers. One way he proposed to rectify this shortage was to create a new iconic project which would inspire school students to study engineering. This had worked in the past with aerospace projects like Concorde and others, however when the inspirational projects were completed, engineering study rates dropped. Noble realised that a new attempt on the Land Speed Record could be that new iconic project.

Richard Noble, Project Director of Bloodhound with a model of the car. Copyright Bloodhound.

It wasn’t enough just to create the project and try to inspire people, if he was going to do this properly Noble wanted to involve the public as much as he could. With a land speed record attempt there is no need for secrecy, the open technical regulations mean that any competitors may be taking a completely different approach with their car and that any technical advantages may not be applicable to their design. “Unlike Formula 1 we have no secrets – Bloodhound is an educational project.”

From the very beginnings of the Bloodhound project it was designed as an educational program, and Noble and Andy Green developed four objectives:
“1. To create a national surge in the popularity of Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects
“2. To create an iconic project requiring extreme research and technology whilst simultaneously providing the means to enable the student population to join in the adventure
“3. To achieve the first 1000 mph record on land
“4. To generate very substantial and enduring media exposure for sponsors”

Andy Green, Driver of Bloodhound SSC. Photograph by Cpl Smith RAF.

After talking with the Schools Minister, Noble secured the support of the government and the assistance of the department responsible for education in putting together a school education program. According to Noble, this was vital to meeting the aims of Bloodhound, “We need to create the most advanced car we possibly can and to share all of the technology on the web and via specialist curriculum-valid courses for schools – this is the only way we can inspire a new generation of engineers and meet our objectives. We’re involving schools, colleges, universities. We’ve involved so many people in so many parts of the country, it’s a unique and wonderful challenge. And the benefits for students are just fantastic – a whole new generation of engineers will learn new skills and techniques.”

Lord Drayson explains his support for Bloodhound, “Quite simply, no previous project of this kind has ever put education on top of its list of priorities and made such a commitment to involve students at every stage. There are great opportunities here to engage young people as they study maths, physics, geography, chemistry, human biology.”

The education program doesn’t conclude once the car has been built, Noble adds. “When the car runs in 2012 we will have 500 data channels streamed onto the internet. What a terrific learning opportunity for students.”

Bloodhound are planning to run on the Hakskeen Pan in South Africa sometime during 2012 or 2013. While it may be a British project, it is something which will inspire people all around the world, and any project which is this focussed on communicating science, involving the public, and inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers is something we should all throw support behind.

Return throughout the week to find out just what it takes to go 1000mph on land