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I recently moved to Canberra, the capital of Australia, to take up research in geology. Canberra has a pretty amusing reputation culturally in Australia. It’s either thought of as a complete hole, or, ‘nice, but why would you?’ or as people often say, the problem with Canberra is it’s ‘full of politicians’. And I can’t say I’ve been swept away by glistening cultural and social happenings since being here, although it does have arguably Australia’s top-ranked university, which is why I am here.

One thing Canberra does have, apart from the seat of government and a spooky monument to USA-Australia relations at the Department of Defence of an eagle atop an obelisk, is Australia’s largest art gallery, The National Gallery of Australia.

Currently touring is an exhibition of JMW Turner’s works from the Tate Gallery in London. And what an exhibit it is. Chronicling his career all the way up to his later works (often involving the sea and maritime disasters), the show not only highlights his skill as an artist, but forcibly demonstrates his power.

Read the rest of this entry »

Its been a busy 18 months or so, and I am no longer writing about science, really. Photography has taked over to a large extent, as alluded to by a previous post, fuelled by my own personal journey. So if you want to follow that, my other blog, “Sublimation”, is the place to go. I may return here from time to time though because I am never far away from science, science communication, and rational things in general.

Yours in rational thought,

Mike

Cloncurry River

My work and my photography have displaced this site nearly completely. I’ve come back here to caress this blog gently; remind it that it is still wanted. It must feel like an unloved child, bereft of attention.

Work – I am in full swing back in exploration looking for copper-gold and silver-lead-zinc deposits. The work is in outback Queensland, and has involved a range of exploration strategies, from basic geological mapping (what is it and where does it lie in space?) through rock chip sampling (is it worth anything anyway?) up to actual drilling (ok, is there really anything there?). The breadth of science that goes behind exploration is amazing; from physics – the physical properties of the different rock-types give different responses when subjected to different tests, which allow them to, roughly, be distinguished from each other – to chemistry in its central role – it is the minerals that we look for, and only a lab can really tell us how much is there – and then right up to the frontier, where biology has a role to play – the trees themselves suck up elements in the groundwater, and this gets deposited in their leaves, which then fall to the ground. All in all, it is a practical scientist’s playground. The money’s good too.

Play (serious play) – photography. It has become an obsession (like it wasn’t a little bit of one already). What started with a digital SLR a couple of years ago, has morphed into several film cameras, a home developing set up, a film scanner, and various other bits and pieces. All that and it’s only a hobby really. My passion in photography is more for the artistic side. Whilst I am a self-confessed sciencey person, I like my art to be artistic! I’m not a macro-photography kinda guy. That said, I do like macro shots, just don’t do it myself. I prefer to wander about the place, looking for interesting corners and angles, searching for the play of soft light; composing an interesting frame. I think it stems from my love of modernist art and architecture - I am a fan of brutalist architecture for instance (there – go look that up on wiki!!). The actual science behind a photograph is very interesting, but I don’t think about that at all in my photography. I suppose that is part of its appeal?

I finally got around to establishing a photographic portfolio site, and it also will now serve as another outlet – for my ‘artsy side’.  Have a look – mkrobinson.com

 

So long for now, hope to be back a bit sooner next time…

A little embarrassing to share one’s own poetry, but as I am about to move back into minerals exploration, this seemed appropriate. I wrote this the last time I did fly-in, fly-out exploration; something I am unlikely ever to do again.It’s not all that good, I’ll warn you!

Weary site, weary home

Drilling, drilling, drilling on.
Catch a sulphide, cast it out.
See a speck, move about.

Move on now, more to do.
Live the dream, spirits high.
There’s no disappointment; why?

So now to execute the plan.
See the rods go down, turn,
And the metres burn, burn.

A budget tried; the geo lied,
There’s more in the assay,
Well that’s what they say.

And then, while much is had,
Back at home, things are sad,
The other half is away,
And it seems that he’ll stay.

The results come in, a hopeful grin.
Much is forgotten,
As we drill what’s rotten.

Sun setting, a forlorn pit,
As noone thinks to ask,
What will become of it?
Wallowing a weary task.

Mast at angle,
Offsiders wrangle,
The spoils aren’t in line.

And so the call is come,
The metres are all done.
The Geo rests his head,
Will he lie straight in bed?

Cat flap opens in empty home,
As the wife walks lonely in,
The food bowl empty, quiet moan,
Reward a forgotten sin.

See there, in the freedom bird,
Novel resting in his hand.
His situation is absurd,
He resolves to make a stand.

A stranger to no longer be
In a house of his own.
To only recently see,
So many times lost, groan.

Reconciled, together again,
Weeks lost; catch up required.
There at heart shall his home remain,
What exploration inspired.

Wait! A new way may be found,
Heart and home in one place.
His feet firmly on the ground.
But results come, stealing space.

Cycle, cycle, cycle again,
Flights leave off, and hopes are lost.

 

Mike Robinson, July 2009

Some time ago I mentioned that I was interviewing Gary Cass about his work, especially his work teaching school students science and creativity. He uses an artistic approach to educate in some fairly complex scientific areas. I wrote more about him here.

Well, having interviewed him, filmed him and edited the film, here it is. He is a remarkable man, and it just goes to show that there are people out there who not only value the intersection of art and science, but teach it as well. Creativity + science = win!

Much as it took some work, I really enjoyed every aspect of making this film, from talking to Gary, filming and even the editing. I hope to do more of this some day (that is if anyone will let me after seeing this!). I hope you enjoy it and I’d like to send out a big thanks to Gary, the University of Western Australia, and the girls from Shenton College who appear in the film.

I suspect that when religious types have a spiritual moment that they really do feel like they are in the presence of God. A sense of awe, rapture and love not achieved normally in everyday life. I think also that many of the great communicators of science (most of whom are atheists) have had exactly the same feelings when contemplating something wonderful that science has revealed to them.

Myself, I get this too. It comes in a few different flavours, and this depends largely on the subject of my awe and wonder. Love, awe and even rapture really are emotions that I feel (not all of me is a scientific robot). But my subject is reality and the natural (or at least my perception of stuff, lets not even go down that psycho-philosophical path!).

Sometimes, I look out into the cosmos on a clear night, and I am struck with my puniness on that vast scale. I am almost overwhelmed with the span of time that it all represents. That light, that speck of illumination that teases the rods in my retina; it has been on such a spectacularly long journey that it seems almost whimsical that I should be there to see it. To think that after their journey of millions of years my eye is a few photons’ final resting place.

Other times, I have looked down through a mineralogical microscope, and have simply been amazed at what a few crystals have to tell, heaved through the Earth in that grand geological story.

I even sit in my garden and watch the wind rustle the leaves of a nearby tree and contemplate the brief little example they provide of the forces of nature at work.

If it were simply beauty that moved me, there would surely be enough in all that to sustain me. But there is more! As those photons excite my eyes and the electrical impulses course through my neurons to alert me to all the activity in the world, I am doubly moved by my ability to understand. To understand what is going on. That knowledge, itself made from the stuff of my brain, is an additional layer of beauty. An embellishment of wonder that has no parallel. My education, and particularly the discoveries of science over the ages that have fed that education, is the source of that wonder, that understanding. How can I not be moved by this? How can I want for more, other than to escalate the majesty through more knowledge and more understanding? It is not overstating the matter to say that this is the stuff of poetry; the very core of wisdom to be had.

So now, as we celebrate Carl Sagan Day, in honour of one of the great communicators of science, a man who brought the cosmos into the living room, I want to quote part of Pale Blue Dot, and I know I break no new ground here. However, it bears repeating. Before I do that though, I want to grab a little part of The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s at the end and it shows how its not just science that understands, but art also. Lest there be any idea that science and art are not good bedfellows, compare the two passages and see how, in literary mode and in scientific mode, we are united by a sense of the unknown, and a sense of what might be known.

And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

And from Carl Sagan:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Amen to that!

Edit: I had to remove the link which started this post (it was a reply to another post on another blog with which I have some association, but I wish to state that I have no association with that post which has now been taken down). However, the general points remain true to my thoughts on the matter. I cannot comment further.

Blogging will not replace other forms of media. This is not its goal anyway. Certainly for me, it was a way of practicing and practising writing. Doing this in a public way was designed for me to ‘commit’ to the task. Feedback would be an additional benefit. Blogs, do, on the other hand, provide a good analysis of various issues, and in many cases in the scientific blogosphere anyway, they are highly accurate and treat the subject in greater depth than any of the traditional media. So we can agree that they are valuable. Perhaps more valuable than they appear to most people, as Scott Rosenberg discusses in this fascinating piece on blogging, empowerment and the ‘adjacent possible’. I am certain I will return to that post again and the intriguing ideas therein.

So, to pick apart a few points sometimes made about blogging:

Easy to start, hard to maintain.

Yes, and no. Writing a blog is not simply about writing. One must have subject material and that means “research”. However, if you are a regular across news sites, research journals, current affairs and other blogs (that is to say if you are a fully paid-up geek) then finding stories is not too hard. And if you do blog, you’re probably already the kind of person who feels compelled to write about the stories and information you find! Still, it requires effort and this may not fit in with your lifestyle and interests.

“Maintain” is an interesting choice of word. They don’t require a lot of maintenance once set up well. Sites like WordPress and Blogger make this possible. But you still need to write for your blog. Your blog becomes like a little corporation that employs (dictates?) you to write for it. Yes, it gets a life of its own as you contribute the pieces and the ‘general public’ delivers some feedback. You may even end up engaged in a public discussion on a particular issue. Rather like this post really. What a wonderful thing to be a part of.

Need to keep it constant updated otherwise you lose potential  followers

Frequent/regular posting is important, but arguably quality is more so. On this blog, I still get hits on the better posts (in my opinion anyway) weeks after I posted them. Yes, the hit rate drifts if I don’t post for a while, but it quickly recovers when I do. This is because I promote new posts via twitter and Facebook etc., so my followers (I don’t have all that many unfortunately) know if I’ve posted. New followers come from being active in the online community. It is very rare to have someone simply stumble onto your site and then choose to follow it. These people are not likely to be harsh on you for infrequent posting anyway.

Engaging with the online community through twitter, Facebook and especially through hosting and contributing to things like blog carnivals is what gets people interested in your blog. It establishes ‘capital’ in your blog and that lingers for some time after each post, sustaining the blog between posts.

Thoughts into words

Writing is not that hard with practise. If you can speak coherently, you’ve got the basics of writing coherently. In fact, you can practice writing when you speak – next time someone asks you an ‘important’ question, think about how you will craft your next sentence a bit more than usual. Sure, spoken and written language are different, but clarity cuts across both domains. Practise is what is needed. Writing will help you clarify your thoughts too. Add to that some constructive feedback and you have a brilliant combination of original thought, considered opinion and flowing writing.

Credibility and the ol’ anonymity chestnut

This has been done to death. Anonymity no more suggests inaccuracy than having a name implies factual correctness. Seriously consider it. There are idiots writing for newspapers who put their name to their work. Having the name there obviously does nothing to improve the tripe they concoct. And I do find it irritating when anonymous writers make critical observations on anonymity online. There may be many reasons for concealing your identity, e.g. so your employer doesn’t know, so people can’t find you (especially if you’re providing a whistleblowing function), the list goes on. The desire to spread rubbish is not the only reason (though I can’t deny some do, I still return to my point that people do the same under their own name, so who’s kidding who here?)

Oh, and this issue with making it possible for “just about anybody to write anything”. Is anyone seriously suggesting this is a bad thing? Now, of course, how one reads all these random ramblings in cyberspace is important. Note that carefully because it warrants repeating: it matters how you read blogs – you have to take care in what you accept as true or correct. This applies to newspapers too; and TV; and magazines. Hell, even refereed academic journals are not immune.

Sorry, post has nowhere near the impact following revision. The link that remains at the top remains an interest of mine though, worthy of follow up.

A great poem over at Science and the Media by CWeightman:

Ode to the Science Magazine

Newspapers and internet, these things just aren’t my scene.

But what I love instead is the science magazine!

Some whisper “obsolete”, it’s the age of kilobytes

I disagree: no better way to start days, fill nights.


Cosmos, New Scientist, take them as you find,

Built on ads and feedback columns, patiently aligned.

When needing of the latest scientific fable,

Look no further than the toilet, or coffee table.


Marvel at the graphics which fill the glossy pages.

A filler piece says “Einstein’s wrong”: will it last the ages?

So long as never broken remains the golden rule -

Always write on global warming, or else be the fool.


Here’s a checklist: archaeology, astronomy,

Conservation and health, the research economy,

Physics: particle and astro, sometimes even chem,

Geology, geography, must not forget them!


Articles on chaos theory, no one understands,

Thankfully there are diagrams giving us a hand.

And update me on L H C, save me a google

Tell me what I need to know, let me be time frugal!


So take away my dollars, as long as every week

I get fed a pulpy dish of science at its peak.

Now tell me, fellow readers, what in your heart you feel,

When I say “science magazines”, do they have appeal?

Thanks to WEIT:

Finally, I have a film to submit for UWA Science Communication! It is still to be submitted, but as soon as I am able I will get it out into the world.

In the meantime, here is the first 12 seconds!!

I thought I would comment on some lessons learned. This has been a great experience, and I hope to do more of this.

1. Write a good storyboard, but be prepared to ignore it. Get to know your talent’s work/background before you interview him/her. Revise the storyboard after having an intro discussion with your talent, and use it as a running sheet during your interview. Again, it still may go out the window in the editing.

2. Audio, Audio, AUDIO! Use good mics and watch for background noise. Its a killer. I used a decent shotgun mic and I still had noise problems. It just goes to show why professionals use lots of expensive gear (oh, if only uni provided…)

3. Get as much material from your talent as possible. Everything, stills, videos, random stuff. You never know how you can use it, and a good library of it is essential during editing. Read the rest of this entry »

In the coming month I will be producing a short film profile of Gary Cass, a scientific researcher in the soil science/agriculture section of the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Western Australia where I am studying a Masters in Science Communication.

Red Wine Dress, Micro'be. Photo Ray Scott, courtesy of Bioalloy.org

He is famous for the Red Wine Dress. He used to work in a vineyard and he noticed a thin film of slime that developed on red wine when Acetobacter infected it and turned it to vinegar (a wine-maker’s worst nightmare). Being an artistic person, he wondered whether it would be useful as a fabric. The film was in fact threads of nanofibre-scale cellulose that is the ‘poo’ of the bacteria. So he got together with an artist and developed the world’s first “Red Wine Dress”. As creative as that was, what he’s realised is that the same cellulose fabric is potentially useful in other applications. He’s now involved in further research into these materials.

The great thing is that all you need is wine, sugar and the bacteria to produce it. It can even be used to produce biofuels. In other words, we could have a multi-use biofuel technology – wine, fabric and fuel all from the one crop. It’s far more land efficient than sugar cane for instance. The spooky part is what a colleague of his is doing in the States – he’s taken gene’s from the Acetobacter and put them in cyanobacteria, so now these little bugs photosynthesise to produce the same cellulose. All they need is water, sunshine and carbon dioxide!

I spoke to him yesterday and he is passionate about creativity in science. One of the things he does is teaching at a school here, Shenton College. It’s a program he developed where he gets the kids (year 11s) to learn earth history, biology and genetics using artistic methods. So for instance, one kid coded a musical score from his basic DNA sequence. Another group of girls put the process of abiogenesis to dance! The reaction has been very positive and he’s now getting international attention for his approach. He thinks that creativity is an essential part of scientific progress (really shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone, that, but it does challenge traditional ideas) and that for too long science education has stifled that. Art is a natural medium to reintroduce it, and the strong boundary between art and science has been unnecessarily created. He struggles somewhat with the question of whether he’s an artist or a scientist! He did agree however, that really it’s depends on the work he’s doing – when testing hypotheses, he’s a scientist, when developing creative ideas, he’s more of an artist.

My film will be a profile of him with a focus on the Shenton college program, with some background about the red wine dress.

A few links about him:

http://www.news.uwa.edu.au/business-briefing/grow-your-own-dress-uwa

and here’s a little film about an exhibition with him: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-F2RD1KZT4

his website: http://bioalloy.org/o/ and particularly the dresses: http://bioalloy.org/o/projects/micro-be.html and the evolution pages: http://bioalloy.org/o/projects/bioalloyevolution.html


24051005
Originally uploaded by MK20D

We live in a world of signs. A life surrounded by instructions and rules with which we must comply. Sometimes we struggle to know whether to stop, go, reduce speed or keep left. Sometimes we are asked to do several of these things at once. Occasionally, we are struck with a sense of control, that we are being led down a path in life that is not fully chosen. At other times, we realise that we choose paths in response to an external, carefully built up set of social norms that make us behave in acceptable ways. Old items make way for the new, despite both having the same basic function. Our worldview colours our choices, highlights the important things. We act, we deny, we reach terrible states of cognitive dissonance, we choose. At all times we move from one moment to the next, one upgrade to another, never stopping, living our lives in the moment, one eye on the future, beholden to the past.

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