There are a few dramatic climate-change related videos going round at the moment, frequently going after the shock factor. Whilst the shock factor is not always effective, this one below I think is very good, because it has a cognitive component – linking polar bears with your behaviour. No longer are they stuck on a melting iceberg, and this delivers a nice little way of thinking about your carbon footprint:


A rough version of a talk I’m doing at uni. Thought I’d try out recording it. Thoughts?

Thanks to WEIT:

With a bizarre feeling of witnessing the future, I have just read Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent piece in the New Yorker (dated 4/10/10!) on the problems that social networking will face in causing any social change. Over at Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer has published an excellent reply challenging some of the claims Gladwell makes. This is a fascinating debate and a wonderful source of interesting distractions when you are meant to be working.

Any how, I want to take a different line and ask a related question about this. What do the differences between strong ties and weak ties imply for science communication?  Read the rest of this entry »

The journey continues. After reading “What is this thing called science” by A. F. Chalmers, I got a rush of blood to the head and decided to take the plunge. It is fascinating stuff, and what is particularly interesting to me is that, as a geologist, I was born just after probably the most significant revolution in geology of all time – the plate tectonics revolution. It is an amazing story of the progress of science, one that should be told and analysed more (and if I have the time, I will!)

So now, the history and philosophy of science is firmly on my agenda. Here’s the recent additions:

Karl Popper, The logic of Scientific Discovery

Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Paul Feyerabend, Against Method

The astute reader will note the lack of Lakatos here. My mistake, let me get through these three first…

Also, this may take me a while – lacking a formal education in philosophy, some of these folks can be quite obtruse… but you get there in the end…

When I was a child, I had what some might describe as an unhealthy obsession with TV documentaries about the world and wildlife. My tastes were not particularly discriminating, I would watch shows with a conservation theme, then enjoy a fishing show (I used to fish a lot with my Dad). But I loved watching shows that presented animals in their natural environment, and that gave us that little bit more knowledge about the world around us (one such series is actually called “The world around us”). I lapped up shows by the likes of David Attenborough and Ben Cropp.

Having exhausted what was on TV, I convinced my parents to take me to the video shop to get more. There I first discovered Malcolm Douglas; although he was already one of the highest rating documentary makers in Australian history. This khaki-clad adventurer would leap around the top half of our continent, handling snakes, chasing lizards, helping to catch and relocate troublesome crocodiles. He’d get bogged in his 4WD, then get out again competently (if a little muddy). The end of the day would be celebrated with a lesson on how to survive and flourish in the bush. Through Douglas’ lens I got to see parts of my country that I’d not seen before, and saw the behaviour of strange and dangerous creatures in their natural habitat. I was particularly impressed with his gentle skill with the animals he showed. As with his peers (though those like Douglas have few) he instilled in me a deep curiosity in the natural world, and more than that, a desire to learn more and pass it on to others. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

At what point should a person move from explaining their scientific discoveries towards advocating their importance in policy development?  And is science communication simply a form of advocacy itself? These are some of the thorny questions posed to Michael Nelson, associate professor of environmental ethics and philosophy at Michigan State University, in “Do Scientists Have a Special Responsibility to Engage in Political Advocacy?” by Matthew C. Nisbit.

In the interview, Nelson refers to his paper, co-authored with John Vucetich entitled “On Advocacy by Environmental Scientists: What, Whether, Why, and How” in which he finds that “advocacy is nearly unavoidable, and that scientists, by virtue of being citizens first and scientists second, have a responsibility to advocate to the best of their abilities, to improve their advocacy abilities, and to advocate in a justified and transparent manner.”

It is still not an easy question though. Really it boils down to what we are prepared to accept in society from our scientists. Read the rest of this entry »

Over at Science and The Media, the blog of my university class (of the same name), a small debate is going on about balance in science reporting (obviously hot button because of climate change).

ScientistMags stated in reply: “I think it’s time to balance out the scales of critique by highlighting good science journalism. It would also be an opportunity to demonstrate critical thinking in practice to people who normally do not think about the credibility of what they come across.”

I think this is a really good point that should be taken up. However, it brings up the hoary old MOP vs MOE debate. Measures of Performance in communication are relatively easy. We can objectively assess the number of good (basically correct and informative) media pieces versus the number of bad ones (sensationalised, wrong, misquoted, wrongly biased).

What are harder are Measures of Effectiveness. However, I suspect the risk of mis-educating the public through bad science is higher than the risk of no education at all from not reading good stories; that is to say, bad stories are probably more effective than good ones.

The highlighting of bad science sells books by the truckload, so we know that people are reading that. So, how do we measure the positive effect of good science (and science journalism) so that we can get out their and reinforce this work, and most importantly, measure its effectiveness?

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

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:

and here’s a little film about an exhibition with him:

his website: and particularly the dresses: and the evolution pages:

I am interested in the information that is lost as scientists proceed from experiment to publication. The real factors that slip through the cracks of expediency. What is more important in the communication of research, the method, or the factoid results that come from it? Are we too trusting in the scientific method? Has peer-review become a substitute for a wider interrogation of method?

These are just a few questions going through my mind as I read “Simplification in Scientific Work: An Example from Neuroscience Research” – a 1983 article by the late Susan Leigh Star. I was particularly struck by an early observation in the article that “published scientific conclusions tend to present results as faits acomplis, without mention of production of decision-making processes.” I am not sure that this is so true today, but I am intrigued by the possibility that it is exactly that loss of information (as research is presented with a higher degree of ‘granualrity’) that opens a door for skepticism in the wider community. When a large body of research by multiple scientific schools tends to agree on a matter, there is sometimes an impression given that they are all doing exactly the same experiments. Whilst the broad methods are the same, of course expedient decisions are made and this causes subtle differences. These are not always thoroughly explained, even if they are justified. I can’t help but think that something in this is relevant to the skeptical program in climate change. Is this what lets in the calls of “conspiracy”?

More to read, more to do. I have a few other things on my plate, but this is an intriguing line of research.

When you think of a scientist, you probably imagine a person dressed in a white lab coat, wearing thick glasses and adorned with white, straggly hair. Perhaps you think of Albert Einstein. The reality is quite different; scientists, overall, do not conform to this stereotype. They do not have a particular uniform, and they do not wear a badge. What makes someone a scientist?

The answer is in the way they think. They employ “the scientific method”. But what is the scientific method? The concept really boils down to a way of formulating ideas and testing them; a way of explaining the world through systematic observation and hypothesis testing. In short, a way of telling reality from fantasy. Read the rest of this entry »

Blogging was, until very recently, a highly self-indulgent exercise in hoping someone is listening. To be frank, I was doing it to practice my writing skills and see if I can elucidate the odd scientific or other concept well. Given that hardly anyone has read this blog, I’m uncertain as to the success of that idea!

However, enter August 2010 and I am enrolled in a Science Communication masters degree at the University of Western Australia. In one unit, I will have to do blog entries. So, my time has come for judgement. The number of readers of my work is to double, or triple (you can’t actually divide by zero, so I’ll just count myself as a reader of my own work). Lecturers, tutors and classmates will read me! I will rule the world. No, class is in fact likely where it will end. Nonetheless, I now have purpose. Whilst the unit only demands a couple of blog entries, I will attempt to throw up a few more here and track progress through the course.

A science communication course is a little bit of an enigma to me still. I am doing it because I am interested in doing it. I would also like a related career in it one day, but realistically, I don’t think such jobs exist. At least not readily and this contrasts with my ‘native’ qualifications in geology. Perhaps here I should state my ‘hopes and dreams’ along these lines. Say with a 10 year timeline. That’s not too ambitious or overly forward-looking is it?  Therefore, I humbly ask that within 10 years I have written a book on sciencey stuff and contribute regularly to some paid media, be that print or radio (perhaps). Oh and make millions of dollars. That is all.

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.

There I was, driving at a regulation (according to site rules) pace from the old Onslow town site past the causeway, when I came across a flock of brolgas, Grus rubicunda. These birds are famous for their mating dances and yet, here, like a herd of cattle, were about 30 of them slowly making their way through the spinifex. They were not so much fazed by my car; rather, when I excitedly leapt out, camera with long lens in my hand, they were definitely startled by my high visibility clothing (another site requirement). I noticed then that it was not all of them. Some were on watch, others grazing. So I got back in the car and drove closer. They really are like grazing bovines! Mooching along the flats, picking out the finest morsels. Through the passenger window I aimed camera again. So unmoved by my presence, their heads hardly left the pasture. Frustrated with the focus of the lens, then frustrated with my subject, I sounded the car’s horn. There, a response! Several heads bobbed up in alarm, and those heads were in unison in needing to know the source.
I was in a car. A 20th century invention for humans. A mode of transport so foreign to a brolga that I might have been from outer space. So it was that it struck me that I was inconspicuous in the vehicle because it was a vehicle. A bright yellow-shirted human at least looks like it could be a threat. Not a white box moving along the ground. When the box made a sound however, it catapulted into their consciousness. What a wonderful thing to observe – the contrast that we humans have created in the landscape through our dizzying technological advance. Photos taken, I moved on, smiling, having just witnessed a little slice of natural bird behaviour. My encounter with a ‘herd’ of brolga had lifted my day. I think it had made theirs interesting for a moment too, who knows?
Grus rubicunda, not dancing!

North western Australia. A marsh landscape. A place to be filled and developed. It is hard to describe the feelings I had here. Best put, I felt a sense of impending loss. A creek flows through the marshes and the fish and kangaroos go about their business. The hum of nature is barely perceptable. One day, this will be filled with sand and a giant industrial facility will take it’s place. It will never look like this again. Progress, progress, progress. Unavoidable. How then to reconcile what’s lost? I am still to decide.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

You sit on the beach and grasp a handful of sand. Peering closely, you focus on one tiny grain. It is small, white and smooth. Bringing it closer to the eye, you notice tiny worn ridges and grooves, with even smaller silty grains in between. It’s quite unremarkable, this miniscule grain with its infinitesimal debris. There must be a million million just like it that you have ignored. Yet you examine more closely. Soon you see the variations in colour, remnants of its glorious sovereign existence before being lost in the morass. You inspect the variation in form, the undulations in its structure. Fraction by fraction, this cubic millimetre of Earth reveals itself to you, and begins to tell you a story.

It is a very long story. It is an account no campfire could contain. Where it begins is only part of the tale; a part shrouded in the error bars of science, clumsily approximated by crude machines. To start at the finish is the only option on hand. How did it arrive at you feet? You look at the sea, the surf lapping at your feet; the sand in constant flux; insight creeps in, the dawn of new understanding. There are many grains twirling around. Some of those scratches and striations are now explained – it has been a rough ride for this crystal of quartz, knocked around by a thousand waves.

Looking further afield, you notice the froth of a longshore current, battered by the surf, interrupted by rips. There is movement there, and it comes along the beach. You and your grain of sand walk against the flow, constantly aware of the opposing flow only meters offshore. Suspended sand swirls in the breaking waves and the turbulent water heaves. As the surf gets choppier, you find yourself at an entrance where muddy water surges out into the deep. It is a river, and it is flowing. The water is not clear, clays and silts cloud the current and obscure the ripples of sand beneath. You look upstream; it stretches out into a vast estuary, the hills and the headwaters in the distance. You cannot follow this grain’s prior journey any further; already you are far from your car, far from the comfort of civilization. Whence did this miniature grain originate?

Having walked the length of the coast to the river, you have reversed perhaps the most recent decades of the grain’s history. The span of time reaches back far, far further than that. You have merely glimpsed a small episode on a diminutive stage. Were you to travel upstream, you would begin to grasp the forces at work. Look again at that grain. It is translucent in the light, a shimmering signal of its illustrious past. Underneath the craggy exterior lies a former glory.

Travelling upstream, you would find larger grains with the telltale reflectance of partially worn crystal faces. These are your grain’s younger cousins. Quartz is very tough; a great deal of abuse is required to wear down a noble crystal face. There would be other grains too, of different parentage. Feldspars, birefringent, coloured with earthen hues; flakes of mica, sparkling in the sunlight, flittering away in the flow. You have travelled back in time, seeing your grain in younger days, perhaps a thousand years ago.

Climbing the shores, boarding an all-terrain vehicle, you traverse the steep slopes of an increasingly incised valley. Returning to the bank, you see not sand, but pebbles, and boulders, huge, lumbering hunks of rock. Immovable for man, toys to the forces of nature. Focusing closely at a rounded stone, you are struck with the diversity. All the cast is there, but in varying states of disrepair. The feldspars are softening, the micas peeling off. But there, there like glass, is your quartz. Steadfast in adversity. Rubbing your finger over the specimen, crystals of quartz fall into your hand, splendid crystal faces twinkle in the rays. You are close to the source. Ten thousand years.

Gazing further up, you can see the granite dressed hills of the headwaters. You are drawn inexorably towards the majestic vista. Hiking boots on, you tramp up the slopes. Here, in the furthest reaches of this guiding stream, you find a large rock face. It shows its age, the skin peeling like an old onion. The crumbling face reveals beautiful perfection beneath. A batholith, older than the very hills it supports. Drilling in, you retrieve a core of sparkling granite. There, there in that smooth exposed surface, you see the players in their heyday, ready to act out the next scene, anticipating an audience. Yet there has been a pause. Time frozen in the act of crystallization. The quartz crystals are perfect, the feldspars lustrous pink, dark mafic minerals teasing for identification. You are at the chrono-crossroads, where time has stood still. This rock has been like this for six hundred million years, waiting unwearyingly for the next act. Pushed and heaved through the Earth, your grain’s distant cousins have remained firm, with only the slow decay of atoms for company.

Before even that ancient crystallizing moment, those grains had another story to tell. Granite to migmatite, migmatite to metamorphosis; metamorphosis to diagenesis, and then on to sedimentation before one day, on a beach, near a river … it is a story for another day. We have reached back some half a billion years, and yet there is another four billion to go. Cycle upon cycle, these minerals have seen it all. They will see it again. How privileged we are to comprehend the journey for but an imperceptible stretch of time.

The recent story whipped up by the Australian Sex Party regarding restrictions on, amongst other things, small breasts appearing in pornography in Australia (on grounds of them appearing child-like) highlights some of the subtle problems that exist in Australian political life. Whilst it concerns the independent classification board, this story has stirred commentary from politicians. Most Australians would find the censorship ridiculous and a little abhorrent. We do not like censorship per se, believing that freedom of expression, properly used, is a cornerstone of democracy. On the other hand, we have a strong underlying discourse on “family values”, much of which is born out of a Christian heritage. Read the rest of this entry »

Ahh, the national day. A time to have a day off, relax, have a barbie, do whatever. Maybe enjoy how lucky you are to be living in a prosperous country on a warm summers day. The cricket on telly, a few beers, great stuff. Back to work the next day feeling a little seedy, but ready finally for another year.

Well, that’s how I remember it, “back in the day”. I don’t remember cars festooned with the flag and stickers with “Love it or leave” written on them. That wasn’t part of Australia Day. In fact, it has always been a rather awkward public holiday – one that you just enjoy without having to think hard about anything. Which makes it different from ANZAC day, which commemorates a tragic episode in our history where to some extent, the nation called Australia was “born”. Read the rest of this entry »

Human history is blessed with many great thinkers who have enlightened us with their observations and theories about the world. Darwin and Wallace discovered for us our place in geological time, Copernicus our place in the solar system, Einstein our place in the universe. One theme that emerges from what we now know is the smallness of our existence. We really do occupy but a molecule of water in a vast, never ending ocean. But what we do with our time can be brilliant, as great artists and scientists have demonstrated. The video below is moving because it represents our place in the cosmos, taking you away and then back again. You feel the nostalgia as you explore, and the elation upon return. Well done to the American Museum of Natural History.

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