Archive for the ‘Weird’ 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.

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

Research update

June 2, 2011

Science is ever moving and ever changing, and we’re always finding new things. In this article I’m revisiting some of my past topics with some recent research.

The structure of skin
One of my first articles on thatscienceguy discussed the structure of human skin and how the sun’s radiation affects it. Skin is the largest organ in the human body, and has a critical role in protecting our body from external threats and stopping excessive water loss. The outermost layer, called the stratum corneum, can actually act like a sponge and absorb quite large amounts of water depending on the humidity of the surrounding environment. This ability to absorb water means it needs to be quite flexible, however it needs to balance this flexibility with being robust enough to be able to protect the deeper layers of skin and organs underneath.

Researchers from the Australian National University examined the structure of the stratum corneum to try to understand how its structure allows these dual roles. They found that the keratin filaments which provide skin its structure have a remarkable three-dimensional weave which allows individual fibres to wind and unwind. While the fibres can individually wind and unwind, they do so cooperatively to allow the stratum corneum to breathe without losing structural strength.

The weaving of keratin in its condensed form. From Evans M.E. and Hyde S.T. 2011

The weaving of keratin in its expanded form. From Evans M.E. and Hyde S.T. 2011

Male motor skills
The study which I rated as the strangest of last year investigated the perfect male dance moves to attract women – they even produced videos which demonstrated these moves. Needless to say, it was quite a popular topic!

I explained the importance of that study by likening it to courtship displays by other animals – the males will put on a ‘show’ to demonstrate their prowess to the female, and in the case of humans, dancing may well be one of our courtship displays. But the question remained why exactly do animals (including humans) put on these courtship displays, what exactly are they exhibiting?

Studying the manakin bird, researchers from the University of California Los Angeles found that the female birds preferred to mate with males who performed the courtship display at greater speeds, and were able to tell differences measured in the milliseconds. The speed and energy exertion required by the male to do this courtship display means they have extremely fast heart rates. From this the authors suggested that the courtship display is actually a demonstration of the male’s motor skills, coordination and cardiovascular qualities, and so being able to do it faster shows that the male is stronger and has better quality genes.

And for those wondering what the manakin bird is, from QI:

Sexual attraction
Back at the start of April I blogged about the science of sexual attraction, and in the intervening two months new research has been released which is worth examining.

In the original articles I wrote about the effects testosterone has on males and their attraction to women, and attractiveness to women. Now, new research has shown that men who have higher testosterone are flirtier. Remembering back, testosterone is important for competition between males, so researchers increased men’s testosterone levels by making them compete in computer tasks. The men who showed the highest increases in testosterone as a result of the competition subsequently showed more interest in the woman, made more eye contact with her, smiled more and talked more about themselves. So the testosterone increases induced by competition makes men more attentive to women – maybe this means the best plan before a big date is to do something competitive.

Males have also been found to be able to distinguish whether a female is fertile just from looking at her face. Back in the original articles I wrote how oestrogen levels, which rise during ovulation, slightly change the shape of a woman’s face, making it more rounded and considered as slightly more attractive. Using macaques (a species of monkey), new research has shown that men can recognise these signs of a female’s fertility, but only in faces they are familiar with. Researchers showed male macaques images of females faces which had been classified as being pre-ovulation, during ovulation, or post-ovulation (they found these stages out from measuring the female’s hormones). The male macaques were able to tell the difference between the faces of during ovulation and pre-ovulation, however they could only tell the difference if they were familiar with the particular female. When showed images of an unfamiliar female, they couldn’t tell the difference.

Little is known about the molecular reasons for sexual preference, but research published recently in Nature has investigated how chemicals in the brain may affect who we find attractive. Serotonin, also known as 5-HT, is known to have a huge effect on mood – in fact the most common drug treatment for depression works by making serotonin last longer in the brain. The researchers found that male mice normally prefer female over males as mates. However, when the same breed of mice was modified to make them unable to produce 5-HT, the males lost their sexual preference. When these mice had their 5-HT production restored to normal levels they regained their preference of females over males. This research is the first to show that 5-HT may be involved in sexual preference, and raises the question of whether other brain chemicals are involved in sexual preference.

Lapping dogs
And finally, another update from the strangest research studies from last year, this time the study which examined how cats drank. They found then that cats used the back of their tongues, skim over the surface of the liquid, and then pull rapidly upwards into their mouth. The surface tension would lift the liquid with their tongue straight into their mouth. This seemed much more refined than the simple scooping method that dogs use.

But do dogs really just scoop liquid? It turns out that comment was premature, as new research has now found. Using high speed video it has now been found that dogs too use a very similar method as cats, picking up liquid with the back of their tongue and relying on surface tension and inertia to keep the liquid in place. The liquid travels with the tongue through the oral cavity into the oesophagus, with the tongue then pressing up against the roof of the mouth to prevent the liquid from falling out.

You can see it all in action in these videos:

This is a 300 fps video of a dog lapping. It seems to show spooning of liquid into the mouth but X-ray video tells a different story. From Crompton A.W. and Musinsky C. 2011

This video shows that, contrary to published accounts, dogs do not scoop liquids into their mouths with a spoon-shaped cavity that forms in the ventral surface of a backwardly directed tongue tip. As in cats, an aliquot of liquid adheres to the dorsal surface of the tongue tip and is transported into the oral cavity as the tongue is rapidly withdrawn. From Crompton A.W. and Musinsky C. 2011

The Sweet Taste of Science – Chocolate Week

February 14, 2011

I love topics like this; I can carry out my own “experiments” while I write the article. Many bags of Maltesers were harmed in the making of this series.

Chocolate is serious business, not only for an industry worth nearly $5 billion a year in the US, but also for consumers. In fact, people take chocolate so seriously it has even lead to riots. The Spanish town of Chiapa Real was so enamoured with chocolate that the locals were asking their maids to bring them chocolate during Mass at the local church. The bishop, who was strongly opposed to chocolate (as were several churches of the time), made moves to stop the practice, leading to swords being drawn in the church. The situation was only resolved when the bishop was suddenly taken ill and died – the suspicion being he drank a glass of poisoned chocolate.


So what is it about this simple food which makes people so fanatical? This series of articles will look at the science behind making chocolate, why people are so enamoured with it, and the health benefits it provides.


Welcome to “Chocolate Week”.


nom nom nom



Big thanks to my good friends at the RiAus ( for allowing me to crash their “Gluttony – The Science of Chocolate” lecture, and their speakers; Brendan Somerville, the chief taster from Haigh’s, and Dr Robyn Vast, postdoctoral fellow at the CSIRO. It was just lucky timing – I had planned to write about this topic before they announced their event

Weird Science – The top ten weird science stories from 2010

January 15, 2011

This is a list which I recently compiled for the Australian Science Media Centre. It could potentially also be called “What happens when scientists get bored”, as some of the stories seem the product of simply having too much time on their hands.

Chocolate, gunfights and dancing – just another year in science.

10. The science of chocolate. Scientists love chocolate, so imagine how happy they are when they can study it! This year’s chocolate breakthroughs included that small to moderate chocolate intake leads to a lower risk of heart failure. But for those who are watching their weight, scientists also found that just imagining chocolate is enough to satisfy cravings. Unfortunately it probably doesn’t mean you can daydream your way to a healthy heart.

I’ll be blogging about some of the science of chocolate in the future.

9. The maths of skipping stones. English mathematicians have developed a mathematical model to study how stones skip across water surfaces. Okay, this actually has more useful applications (like studying ice formation on planes), but now we know how to skip a stone like never before!

8. To quiet the mind after a tough choice, use soap. US researchers suggest washing your hands after making a difficult choice may help you live with your decision. Often after making a tough choice people will try to justify their choice, even to themselves. However, after washing or even just wiping their hands they no longer feel the need to justify the decision and feel less worry or concern about their choice. This effect is seen even when there was no moral dilemma in the choice.

7. Bad moods are infectious. American researchers have shown that positive and negative emotional states behave like infectious diseases between people in large social networks.

The scientists found that the likelihood of feeling happy is increased by 2% for every happy friend you are in contact with, while the likelihood of feeling unhappy is increased by 4% for every unhappy friend you are in contact with. In other words you can catch someone else’s mood, so best avoid that grumpy friend of yours.

6. How cats have perfect drinking manners. For three and a half years a team of researchers from US universities studied just how a cat drinks milk. Rather than unrefined slurping or just using their tongue like a scoop like a dog, they use gravity and inertia – they skim the surface of the milk with their tongue before pulling it back, creating a little column of milk which the cat closes its mouth around (see picture below). To do this a cat’s tongue moves at around one metre per second. Let’s see dogs beat that!

P M Reis et al. Science 2010;330:1231-1234

5. The physics of the “wet dog shake”. Physicists have defended the pride of dogs by examining how animals shake themselves dry. Using a range of video techniques, including looking at the animal’s skeleton using x-rays, they found that larger dogs don’t have to shake as much to dry themselves as smaller animals. To remove water from fur, it needs to have force applied to it. Because bigger animals are bigger, the speed they need to move to apply this force is less than the speed small animals need to move.

Yes there’s a video.

We wait with bated breath for the next round of dog vs. cat studies.

4. Going up stairs makes you older. Einstein came up with many theories, one of which said that gravity has an effect on time. This theory says that objects which are above the surface of a body with a gravitational field (such as earth) experience a relative increase in the speed of time compared to those on the surface. US scientists used incredibly accurate clocks to show this can happen at very small differences in height, less than one metre in fact. This does actually mean that you age faster when you stand a couple of steps higher on a staircase, relative to someone at the bottom of the stairs.

So why is this important (except for the building industry)? Well it shows that Einstein’s theory of relativity was correct and can be measured at distances far shorter than previously found. It also has importance for scientists who study hydrology or geophysics, or indeed any research which measures the Earth.

3. “Go ahead, make my day”. A study directly inspired by Hollywood movies has investigated why the cowboy who draws his gun second wins the showdown.  UK researchers found that people move faster when reacting to something than when initiating the same movement. In fact, people move around 10% when reacting to a situation than when they initiate the same situation. This can be linked to survival instincts, where an animal which can react faster is more likely to survive. So there you go, there was a scientific reason Clint Eastwood would provoke his foe into moving first.

2. The world’s oldest shoe discovered. Everyone hates losing their shoes. The world’s oldest leather shoe was found this year in Armenia, dating back around 5,500 years. This makes it 1000 years older than the Pyramids of Giza and 400 years older than Stonehenge. And like when you are looking for your own shoes, they only found one of the pair…….

Shoe design seems to have improved somewhat as this shoe was merely leather wrapped around the foot, however it was shaped to the foot to provide some support and protection (pictured below). While this is the oldest shoe found, there have been shoes found in other regions from similar times which showed the style of shoe varied depending on where in the world you were.

Pinhasi R, Gasparian B, Areshian G, Zardaryan D, Smith A, et al. (2010) First Direct Evidence of Chalcolithic Footwear from the Near Eastern Highlands. PLoS ONE 5(6): e10984.

And my weirdest science study of the year:

1. Bust a Move – The science of male dancing. Every weekend guys are in bars and clubs hoping to attract ladies with their dance moves. Now scientists have found the sure-fire styles! Using computer-generated models they showed which body movements are associated with female perceptions of quality male dancing.

So why is this important? Well in nature the quality of the courtship display reflects the quality of the animal as a potential mate – animals with better genes or who are stronger will normally have a better courtship display. And in this case, humans may very well be the same. The scientists filmed male dance moves and found that there were 11 moves in particular which were thought of by women as a good dance move. Even better, they found that the speed of movement of the right knee, and the amount of movement of the body and neck were the key parts which split good dancers from bad.

What does that all mean? Watch these videos to find out!

“Good” dancing

“Bad” dancing

You can definitely list me under “Bad”.

Courtesy of the Australian Science Media Centre

Links to the studies: