Archive for the ‘Future’ 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.


The 2011 World Solar Challenge has been run and won

October 20, 2011

They started under clear skies and blazing heat and finished in steady rain, but the winner of the 2011 World Solar Challenge has been decided. After 4 days of travelling, Tokai University (Japan) crossed the finishing line north of Adelaide today in the lead.

Tokai University's car crossing the line surrounded by team members

In the closest finish in the history of the WSC, mere minutes separated Tokai and second placed Nuon Solar Team from the Netherlands. Third placegetters University of Michigan (USA) were themselves only a short distance behind. The close finish is remarkable given the distance travelled and time spent on the road. Ashiya University, of Japan, and Team Twente, also of the Netherlands, are further behind vying for fourth place and expected to finish Friday, as is Team Aurora of Australia, not far behind Ashiya and Twente.

The World Solar Challenge is an epic 3000km solar car challenge, running down the length of Australia from Darwin to Adelaide. With unlimited regulations it is likely all the cars would be able to exceed the road speed limit and run for extended periods of time. Instead, the regulations deliberately limit battery sizes and solar collection area to prevent the ability for the cars to run at maximum speed for hours on end and hence to help promote the development of more efficient solar collector units and motors.

The main differentiator between the cars is the ability of the solar cells to collect energy from the sun and convert it into electricity. With limited battery sizes, the energy which can be held on board the car isn’t enough to allow unrestricted running. Instead, the speed of the car is dictated by the combination of the amount of energy being collected from the solar panels, and the efficiency of the motor using that energy. The faster a car runs, the more energy it uses and hence the more energy it needs to collect to replace that used. Quite simply, if a car’s solar panels aren’t efficient in collecting energy to replace that being used, the car will run out of electricity. So a balance needs to be found between energy collection and expenditure, with cars more efficient at collecting and using energy able to run at higher speeds.

Further adding to the challenge, running of the cars is restricted to certain hours of the day, with cars required to hold at positions overnight. To ensure that the cars do maintain these hold positions, and stay within the legal speed limits, a sophisticated tracking system is employed to monitor the progress of each team. This ‘Mission Control’ was this year based in the Science Exchange in Adelaide.

This year’s race was never going to break any records with the challenge suspended for several hours due to bushfires close to the race route. There was also another dramatic development on day 4 when a car from Team Philippines, having been parked for repairs to its battery system, suffered an explosion in its battery packs. Thankfully, no one was injured.

Another challenge faced by the teams competing in the World Solar Challenge are the outsized road trains which Australian highways are famous for. These extremely long and wide trucks normally require traffic coming the other way to pull off the highway to allow the truck to pass. However, according to Bruno Moorthamers from Nuon in an interview with The Register, a solar car’s steering doesn’t allow this manoeuvre. Instead, Bruno said he has to drive “a little under” the overhanging loads of the trucks.

Despite crossing the official finishing line Thursday afternoon, a late developing fault meant that Nuon would not enter Adelaide city until the following day, meaning that celebrations in the Victoria Square ceremonial finishing line were reserved for Tokai. Dutch supporter groups hoping to cheer home Nuon and Twente were left instead to congratulate the victorious team and wait for their teams to arrive on the Friday. Tokai certainly celebrated in the rain, and definitely showed their excitement at having won such a hard-fought challenge.

Tokai team members celebrating at the finish

Celebrating with sake

Zoz Brooks from the Discovery Channel meets the driver who brought the Tokai car across the line.

The winning Tokai University team

The team celebrates by jumping into the Victoria Square fountain.

The Tokai team congratulate each other

Team Twente supporters at the finishing line

Supporters of Nuon Solar Team at the finishing line

Tokai celebrate in the Victoria Square fountain

The Square Kilometre Array – Australia’s final pitch

July 16, 2011

Last week saw the final pitches delivered by the two consortiums bidding for the SKA: Australia and New Zealand, and South Africa. These pitches were delivered at the SKA2011 conference in Canada and provided the final opportunity for each consortium to convince the selection panel that their region was the better site for the SKA to be situated. With anzSKA Project Director Dr Brian Boyle describing the SKA as a “Megascience project”, this is the largest, arguably most complex scientific apparatus every planned, and will be a massive boon not only for the hosting country but for science as a whole.


The two most critical aspects of the success of this project is the development of information technology, and energy generation, according to Professor Peter Quinn, Director of The International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research. The SKA will be at least 10,000 times more capable than any telescope before it, and as a result will generate unprecedented amounts of data. In fact, a single day of operation of the SKA will generate more data than the entire world generates in an entire year, which will be stored in a single, central, storage site. This makes the software developed for the SKA arguably the most critical component of the entire project, as it must be able to analyse and compile these monumental amounts of data. In fact the IT requirements of this project are so large that, according to Prof Quinn, the SKA will drive the IT industry for the next 10-15 years.


Green energy is another critical aspect of the SKA project and the Australian bid. The power requirements of the SKA telescopes, of which there will be around 3000, and central computing facilities will be considerable. Additionally, the SKA telescopes will be scattered throughout Australia and New Zealand, raising difficulties for the distribution of energy to the telescope sites. This makes it unviable to rely on regular electricity supplies, and if dedicated power generation facilities are developed, they must be sustainable to limit the effect of the SKA on the environment. This means that the development of innovative energy solutions is a critical step to bringing the SKA to fruition, as will technology to improve energy management, control and efficiency.


Senator Kim Carr, Australian Federal Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, was present in Canada for the final pitch. “This is a project of immense international significance” he told media, highlighting the government’s support of the SKA bid. In particular, he was excited by the benefits this project could have for technological advancements developed during the project which could flow through to everyday life. “In terms of high speed computing, advanced engineering, ICT, in terms of development of green power, there are a range of new technologies I believe will flow from this, as we have seen in the past new technologies flow from astronomical research.”


Senator Carr continued, “The Australian public will receive huge benefits from a project of this type.” He points that there will be “enormous employment opportunities…. and this is a project which will go for 50 years”, and also pointed to technological flow on effects from previous astronomy projects such as wireless networking, now used in nearly every computer in the world.


Australia and New Zealand’s bid has several strengths which should place it in a favourable position. The radio quietness – that is the extremely low level of background radiowaves – found in the Australian outback is a vital feature to maximise the sensitivity and accuracy of the SKA. In fact, a 500km ‘radio quiet zone’ has been established around the SKA sites to ensure that this radio quietness is protected and maintained. Australia’s land mass also provides flexibility in the siting of array stations, allowing the absolutely perfect location to be used for the telescopes. Dr Boyle also suggests the National Broadband Network is a particular strength in the ANZ bid, providing infrastructure for the transmission of data from the SKA outstations to the central data facility. Finally, Australia and New Zealand’s strength lies in its people, with a large group of very strong and reputable astronomy researchers already existing and able to take full advantage of the project.


According to Brian Boyle, the week provided “positive progress” for the Australian bid, and that both bid parties were satisfied that the decision making process in selecting the site was very robust and would lead to an outcome in the best interest of the project as a whole. Following these final bids, an independent expert committee is considering the two sites, and a final decision will be made in February 2012. Whichever site is selected, the SKA project will provide considerable opportunities to all countries involved, and will provide scientific discoveries which literally change the way we see our place in the universe. The building, management and operation of the SKA will also provide technological advancements which will potentially change day-to-day life, making this a scientific project which will have outcomes far beyond astronomical.


For more information about the SKA and the scale of this megascience project, see the previous articles:

SKA: Something Kinda Awesome

SKA: The technical aspect of a mega project

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

SKA: The technical aspect of a mega project

May 17, 2011

SKA is not only about astronomy. The technological advances just to bring SKA to fruition, never mind its operation, will have wide-ranging benefits for everyone.

The SKA project will cost approximately $3 billion to build, and $150 million per year thereafter to run, with a projected lifespan of 50 years. Additionally, around $300 million dollars will be spent developing data networks to link the telescope sites and central processing sites. However, in preparation Australia has spent around $100 million building several pathfinder telescopes. Should the SKA project site be awarded to Australia, these pathfinder telescopes will be joined by the main SKA arrays starting in 2016, with initial data collection beginning in 2019. The building of SKA itself is not expected to be completed until 2024, however data collection and analysis can begin as soon as elements come on-line during the constructino phase. Obviously building a project on this scale will result in considerable employment, materials and transport needs during the construction phase.

CSIRO’s SKA trial ASKAP Antenna, March 2010. Image courtesy of the CSIRO

One of the most mindboggling statistics of the SKA project is just how much data it will produce. Every minute it is in operation enough data will be gathered to fill one million CD’s, which if stacked, would form a pile 1km tall. Another way of considering this data production is that the amount of data passing through the SKA network will be the equivalent of the amount of data flowing around the entire internet. To handle this immense amount of data new data networks will need to be built. A fibre optic network will need to be constructed to link all the SKA locations together for the sole use of the SKA. In fact the National Broadband Network being built in Australia will provide some of the infrastructure required for SKA, however should the NBN not proceed the SKA project will need to build their own network. Advances in the design and construction of these fibre optic networks are one of the potential non-astronomical benefits that SKA will provide as engineers find new ways to overcome any difficulties encountered.

Radio astronomy has helped develop data networks previously. It was through experiences with radio astronomy projects that researchers at the CSIRO were able to develop wi-fi technology which is currently used by nearly every portable device worldwide. SKA will likely produce similar advances in data networks which will feed into common use.

Obviously with this amount of data needing processing, considerable computing power is required. This is another area in which SKA will drive innovation and advancement, as the central supercomputers required to compile and analyse data will need to be able to process around 100 petaflops per second. This processing speed is 50 times faster than the current most powerful supercomputer, and the equivalent of around one billion desktop pc’s. Similarly, the immense amounts of data collected by each telescope will need to be refined before entering the data network. According to Peter Quinn from the Australia and New Zealand SKA project, this will require a supercomputer at each location just to carry out initial refining. As 3000 supercomputers would be prohibitively expensive, newer, faster and cheaper computer processors need be developed, technology will feed down into home computers.

An artist’s impression of the Pawsey High Performance Computing Centre for SKA Science at Perth’s Technology Park. Image courtesy of Woodhead/CSIRO.

Advancements in communications between sites will also need to be developed. Radios and conventional mobile phones would not be able to be used near the SKA sites due to the radio interference they would cause. Similarly, a rail line running near the sites requires new communications networks to allow trains to communicate with controllers. It is unrelated necessities such as these which sometimes throw up the most interesting challenges for engineers. When developing the Very Large Telescope in Chile, floodlights from a (relatively) nearby mine were being picked up by the extremely sensitive optical telescopes. To overcome this, the engineers from the telescope approached the mine and offered to redesign their lighting system. The result was no interference for the telescope, and a more efficient lighting system for the mine who were able to save money from reduced energy costs.

The advancements in technology from SKA won’t be limited to computing and communications however. The power generation needs of a project like SKA will be huge, far more than can be sourced from the current grid. Using conventional power generation will also result in considerable levels of pollution. Therefore, one of the challenges for the SKA project will be to develop green electricity generation facilities. Again, advancements in that field will flow down to common use. Simialrly, development of new processors to fulfil the computing requirements will include making them more energy efficient, technology which could potentially be incorporated into many home and office appliances.

These, and other advancements in technology, materials and engineering will all flow from the SKA project. Even if Australia is not awarded the right to host SKA, it is likely they will still be able to contribute in these other areas, as well as being an integral part by providing the scientific knowledge required for maximising the value of the data output. There is very little risk of the hardware becoming obsolete either, as the entire project is designed to be able to be upgraded throughout its lifespan to become more sensitive, more efficient, and more adept at processing data.

The SKA project is one of the most important scientific undertakings in history, with the potential for the results to be far more significant than those produced by the Large Hadron Collider. This project will expand our knowledge of the universe, our place in it, and how we formed unlike any project before, and do so while developing technology which will greatly benefit our day to day life. It is, quite simply, one of the most important scientific experiments ever attempted, and one which we should all be excited about.

SKA: Something Kinda Awesome

May 16, 2011

Astronomy is one of the oldest sciences, with pre-historic civilisations examining the sky and the motion of stars and planets. Since then the technology has improved constantly, but now an ambitious project will truly push the boundaries of our understanding of the universe by building the world’s largest telescope. This telescope won’t be a single telescope – instead over 3000 individual radio telescopes will together form a telescope on a scale never seen before – the Square Kilometre Array. The SKA project is an international collaboration which is currently made up of 10 members (but is expected to grow), with a select committee from the International Council of the SKA currently deciding where to host it. The two options are southern Africa and Australia and New Zealand, with a decision expected by the end of 2011.

There are 3 types of telescope used in astronomy, optical, radio and infrared, with each type of telescope needs to be located in specific areas which provide the perfect conditions. Optical telescopes, for example, need to be located in a region which has no outside light sources such as the glow from cities. They are also obviously best suited in regions which have clear skies with few clouds to obscure the images. A further complication is that the atmosphere of Earth actually distorts the optical image, so ideally optical telescopes are placed as high in the atmosphere as possible to reduce the amount of distortion, such as on top of mountain ranges. The Hubble Telescope takes this concept to the extreme by being placed outside of the atmosphere, allowing it to take incredibly detailed images.

The main requirement for the location of a radio telescope is for very little background radiation, such as telecommunications or radio and television transmissions. This means they must be placed far from civilisation, and the deserts of southern Africa or Western Australia are ideal for these reasons. During preliminary assessment of the locations for the SKA testing revealed that the background radio transmissions in the WA deserts were extremely low, significantly less than those in Africa in fact. According to Peter Quinn, one of the senior members of the Australian SKA bid, this should put the Australian site at a distinct advantage.

What radio astronomy measures
Stars release radiation over the entire spectrum of wavelengths, meaning they need to be detected by all three types of telescope to form a whole picture of the universe. Radio astronomy measures the high frequency wavelength radiation released by stars.

CSIRO’s SKA trial ASKAP Antenna, March 2010. Image courtesy of Phil Dawson, CSIRO

There are several basic measurements radio telescopes can achieve. If radiowaves being released from a star are being measured constantly, dip sharply, then return to their previous levels, it is highly likely that there is a planet orbiting that star. This dip in radiation is the point when the planet moves in front of the star, temporarily shielding the telescope from the radiowaves emitted from the star. Using this basic principle, astronomers are able to measure the size of planets, the speed they are travelling, and how long it takes for them to complete an orbit of the star.

Galaxies can affect each other similar to tides in the ocean. When they approach each other, move away, or merge, they can change the shape of other galaxies through massive magnetic forces. These changes in shape result in differences in their radiowave emissions, allowing astronomers to understand the structure and shape of galaxies, as well as how they interact, and understand more about these magnetic forces which shape the universe.

Using radiowaves and the Doppler Effect, astronomers can also examine the movement of objects in the universe. The Doppler Effect says that the frequency of waves, whether they are radiowaves, soundwaves, or visible light waves, changes as objects move. As an object approaches, the waves are closer together, however once the object passes the waves become spread out. This is why a siren on emergency vehicles is high pitched as it approaches (short wavelengths), and then the sound changes to a lower pitch as it passes (long wavelengths). The speed at which an object is travelling changes the distance between the waves, with a faster object causing longer wavelengths. Astronomers apply this principle to measure the speed of objects in the universe. If an object is moving away, by measuring the wavelength of the radiowaves coming off it they can calculate the speed of the object. From the speed it is moving, they can then measure the distance from the telescope, allowing precise measurements of the size of solar systems, galaxies, and the universe as a whole.

The SKA will also be able to search for intelligent life throughout the universe. This can be accomplished by detecting and examining the formation of Earth-like planets. Additionally, the sensitivity of the SKA may allow the detection of extremely faint radio transmissions being released by other civilisations. Our Earth gives off radiowaves from human activities, and it may be possible that other intelligent civilisations also release similar radiowaves.

Artist's impression of dishes that will make up the SKA radio telescope. Image courtesy of Swinburne Astronomy Productions and the SKA Program Development Office.

Possibly one of the most interesting applications of radio astronomy is understanding the formation of the universe during the big bang. This concept of essentially looking back in time seems confusing to many people, but is based on quite a simple principle.

Imagine you are looking at a person standing right in front of you. The time it takes for the light (which is what you see) to go from them to you is extremely short. If you then take a step back, it takes slightly longer for light from them to reach you. The further back you stand, again, the longer the light takes to travel from them to you. Now if you were to stand an incredibly long way away, the light would take a long time to reach you, however the image you see would be how they looked when that light left them on its way to you. In the time it has taken to travel that extremely long distance however, the person will have aged, but you will still be seeing them as they were when the light first began its journey. So, you are effectively looking back in time – you are looking at an image when they were younger than they actually are due to the length of time taken for the light to travel across the distance.

The same principle applies in astronomy. An object an extremely long distance away will have released radiowaves an extremely long time ago, but because of the time it takes for those radiowaves to travel across the distance, we are only receiving them now. So what is being detected now was released from a star many millennia ago. If you can detect radiowaves which were released from further away, the older those radiowaves are, and essentially the further back in time you are seeing. It is possible that radiowaves which were released during the big bang, or as astronomers refer to the time just after the big bang, “First light”, are only being received on Earth now from objects extremely far away.

By measuring these extremely old radiowaves we will be able to form a picture of the events which shaped the universe. The further back astronomers can detect will provide more and more information, however they are hopeful that a project on the scale of SKA will be able to detect radiowaves from “First light”, and resolve just what occurred during and just after the big bang to form the universe.

To measure objects further away, the telescope needs to have a larger collection area. However, the distance away you can measure and size of the collection area aren’t a direct relationship; rather they exist as an exponential relationship. This means that to measure something 10 times further away, the collection area of the telescope needs to be 100 times bigger. This is where the SKA comes in to play. With 3000 telescopes each of 15 metres diameter the SKA has a collection area, as the name suggests, of one square kilometre. In short, this is substantially bigger than any telescope project ever built before, and will give astronomers unprecedented sensitivity.

Artist's impression of dishes that will make up the SKA radio telescope. Image courtesy of Swinburne Astronomy Productions and the SKA Program Development Office.

By spacing the telescopes further apart astronomers can also increase the resolution of the images they produce. Having telescopes placed far apart, but still linked, will give incredibly sensitive and high-quality images. The proposal siting SKA in the WA outback will have outstations positioned as far away as New Zealand. The proposal siting SKA in Africa cannot match this spacing, and therefore would not be able to produce images of as high quality.

Potential SKA array station placement in Australia and New Zealand. Image courtesy of the CSIRO

The SKA is one of the most ambitious science projects ever attempted. Next article will talk about some of the technical requirements for such a project, but we’ll leave the final words of this article to Peter Quinn, who when discussing what effect SKA will have on our understanding of the universe said “I think we’ll be surprised and find something we never expected.”

Thanks to my friends at the RiAus and Peter Quinn from the Australia and New Zealand SKA project. More information is at