The Best of Australian Science: July 2013

It’s the time of the month once more, when we look back and and remind ourselves of July’s wonderful variety of science and technology stories, covering space, technology, health, environment, education, and more. I hope you’ll enjoy these stories.

Contact us if you’d like to join our team of science and tech bloggers and authors – please read the Editor’s note.

Until next month’s Australian Science review, stay curious and scientifically passionate.


Australia’s evolving drug landscape by Charles Ebikeme

Last month, the Australian Parliament was debating a bill on patent law and public health called the Intellectual Property Laws Amendment Bill 2013. It is said that the legislation gives Australian governments greater powers to exploit patents without authorisation from the patent owner via stronger provisions for Crown use and compulsory licensing. Perhaps something more along the lines of what Thailand enacted in 2007. Thailand played the global system to their advantage, exploiting a clause in the 1995 World Trade Organisation agreement on intellectual property that gives governments a large amount of freedom to bypass patents on drugs if they face any kind of health crisis. Read more>>


Are Australians Really Getting Dumber? by Magdeline Lum

The Australian Academy of Science has found that when it comes to science Australians are getting dumber in its latest report on science literacy. Compared to three years ago, less people in Australia know that the Earth’s orbit of the sun takes one year. Among 18-24 year olds 62% surveyed knew the correct answer, a fall from 74% three years ago. Other results would also send scientists into a tail spin of despair, with 27% of respondents saying that the earliest humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs, though an improvement from 30% of respondents in 2010 who thought this.

What does this all say? If you take the face value of the press release and the ensuing media coverage, Australians are getting dumber.  I’m a scientist who dedicates a significant proportion of time to science outreach activities and announcements like this get sent my way. They get sent my way not because I moonlight as a science journalist but because people genuinely want to know what I think and feel about such a survey. Read more>>


  Could Australian Terrain Help Train Future Mars Explorers? by Elizabeth Howell

How do you rehearse for a Martian space trip? Simulations can only bring astronauts so far when they’re figuring out a mission. A typical person training for the International Space Station can expect a combination of classroom work, spacewalk rehearsals in the water, and robotic arm training using articles that are very close to the real deal. Exploring another world is a complex problem yet again. Astronauts in the Apollo mission received hundreds of hours in geology training, for example, and flew to areas ranging from Meteor Crater in Arizona to the site of a huge crater in Sudbury, Ont. Read more>>


Pluto’s new moons named: Spock still homeless by Kevin Orrman-Rossiter

The dwarf planet, Pluto, can still generate plenty of public interest – if the naming of its two recently discovered moons is anything to go by. After their discovery, the leader of the research team, Mark Showalter, called for a public vote to suggest names for the two objects. The on-line contest, aptly named ‘Pluto Rocks!‘, concluded with Vulcan as the outright favorite, after aWilliam Shatner led push by Star Trek fans. The names Cerberus and Styx ranking second and third respectively.  The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has announced that the names Kerberos and Styx have officially been recognised for these fourth and fifth moons of Pluto. A decision that is probably correct, even if it proves not to be the most popular. Read more>>


Talking Carbon, Talking Solutions – Australians Want Action by Kelly Burnes

The issues of climate change and carbon pricing have been caught in a purgatorial pinball game over the past 12 months. No wonder there is confusion, doubt and general misunderstanding on climate change among the populace considering the political battle lines drawn between parties in state houses, parliament buildings and capitols worldwide. But a recent study put forth by The Climate Institute, titled Climate of the Nation 2013: Australian attitudes on climate change, seeks to elevate the dialogue. The authors of the report actually talked to people to get their views on climate change. They asked questions, they listened and they documented the responses. Perhaps politicians could add that tactic to their constituent playbook. Read more>>


 Pacific plant could be good news for anxiety sufferers by Markus Hammonds

A clinical study on kava, a Pacific plant, has found that it has properties which could be extremely useful in treating the symptoms of anxiety. The plant has been used recreationally in Pacific societies, in places like Polynesia and Hawaii, for a long time but this is apparently the first proper clinical study of the plant.

Now, I must admit, I’m writing this story because I have some anecdotal experience with kava (piper methysticum) myself. Simply, I’ve been an insomniac on and off for most of my adult life. It can be an inconvenience, but I mostly have it under control. Read more>>

‘Rockin’ it and learning and the same time’ by Danielle Spencer

“Theory in science gets tricky.”  “Theory is boring.”  “Who cares about the theory?”  These are common complaints from children in our classrooms. However, theoretical knowledge is important. At times you need the students to have some theoretical knowledge before they perform experiments so they can apply it in different contexts.  Theory can be taught in a didactic teacher-driven approach but my favourite instructional method for teaching theory is to use music.

Not many would disagree, listening to music is enjoyable. Educational research and best practices claim there are multiple intelligences and teachers should use multiple modalities of instruction to cater for difference and to aid learning. Read more>>


Australian scramjet test illustrates the importance of suborbital research by Elizabeth Howell

The University of Queensland plans to launch a scramjet aboard a suborbital rocket. This type of engine, which can be used in hypersonic speeds, is expected to reach 8,600 kilometres an hour during its launch from the Andøya Rocket Range, a Norwegian launch site 300 kilometres inside the Arctic circle.

“We have been working with our project partners to test the components of this scramjet in the laboratory with wind tunnels and simulations for the past three years, but testing the scramjet in real flight conditions will be the ultimate test,” stated Russell Boyce , the hypersonics university chair who leads the “Scramspace” project. Read more>>


New technology to measure soil carbon by Alisa Bryce

Carbon is a hot topic at the moment, particularly with Rudd’s plan to move from the Carbon Tax to an Emissions Trading Scheme. But while the politicians argue over the economic implications, researchers at the University of Sydney have developed an instrument that could help drive policy to deal with the environmental impacts of carbon. The Carbon Soil Bench measures carbon levels in the soil, cheaper, faster and more accurately than current methods. Read more>>


Lake Vostok: life beneath the ice by Kevin Orrman-Rossiter

Imagine, Lake Vostok is covered by more than 3,700 metres of Antarctic ice. Devoid of sunlight, it lies far below sea level in a depression that formed 60 million years ago, when the continental plates shifted and cracked. Few nutrients are available. Yet scientist, led by Scott Rogers, a Bowling Green State University professor of biological sciences, have found a surprising variety of life forms living and reproducing in this extreme environment. A paper published June 26 in PLOS ONE details the thousands of species they identified through DNA and RNA sequencing. Read more>>


Don’t forget to check the Weekly Science Picks #36Weekly Science Picks #37Weekly Science Picks #38,  and Weekly Science Picks #39.

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