The Best of Australian Science: March 2013

Another month behind us with plenty of interesting and intriguing articles written by Australian Science authors, bloggers, and researchers, and it is time to recapitulate the most read stories and share them with you. I hope you’ll enjoy these articles.

Note: If you are interested in science blogging and contributing to Australian Science – contact us and check out the Editor’s note.


Combating the rise of the superbugs: The health and scientific challenges of antibiotic resistance by David Borradale

It’s hard to imagine the world prior to antibiotics, a world where even a deep laceration could frequently spell significant illness or even death due to infection. Thankfully, since the discovery of penicillin in 1929 by Alexander Fleming, we now have a range of potent antibiotics to treat many of the various types of bacterial infection.

There is a problem though, bacteria are great survivors and have been competing against other bacteria and microorganisms for billions of years. As  Professor Matt Cooper from the University of Queensland  puts it “Billions of years ago, bacterial species were engaged in an arms race against each other and the chemicals they developed to kill one another have been modified into today’s antibiotics”. Read more>>

Postcard from Spitzer: weather on 2M2228 is hot and cloudy by Kevin Orrman-Rossiter

Astronomers using NASA’s Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes have probed the stormy atmosphere of this brown dwarf, creating the most detailed “weather map” yet for this class of cool, star-like orbs. “With Hubble and Spitzer, we were able to look at different atmospheric layers of a brown dwarf, similar to the way doctors use medical imaging techniques to study the different tissues in your body,” said Daniel Apai, the principal investigator of the research at the University of Arizona in Tucson. But more surprising, the team also found the timing of this change in brightness depended on whether they looked using different wavelengths of infrared light. Read more>> 

Asteroids, extinctions, and biodiversity: Wiping the slate clean for new life to flourish by Markus Hammonds

The recent meteor strike in Russia has been a rather sobering reminder that Earth has been regularly battered during its history, by space rocks. Actually, the amount of meteoritic material constantly landing on Earth is startling – on average, over 100 tons every day which we don’t even notice. Now, most of that is in the form of tiny rock fragments and dust; with most being small enough to be vapourised as they burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, relatively few meteorites ever end up on the ground. The part which may make us uneasy, however,  is the fact that occasionally something larger crosses Earth’s path. Something much larger. We already know with some degree of certainty that a gigantic asteroid impact may have played a role in wiping the dinosaurs off the face of our world, and we also know it’s not the only such large impact in Earth’s history. Now there’s evidence of another huge impact – and this one was in Australia! Read more>>

Svetlana Savitskaya – Test Pilot and Cosmonaut! by Sharon Harnett

This article is the second in a series of articles in which I will profile every woman astronaut, cosmonaut and taikonaut who has been into space.  Last time we looked at the career of Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space.  Today I’m profiling cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya, the second woman in space. (The feature image above is a collection of drawings of women astronauts by artist Phillip J Bond.  You can find Phillip’s wonderful series on women astronauts here.) 

Svetlana Savitskaya is a record breaking Russian aviator and cosmonaut.

Svetlana was twice awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union and has two asteroids named for her (4118 Sveta and 4003 Savitskaya), and her record of 2683 km/h in a MIG-21 in the female category remains unbroken. Read more>>

The Story of a River by Danielle Spencer

Every now and then you do a lesson that sticks. ‘The Story of a River’ is a simple interactive demonstration lesson, yet it provides a provocative view on environmentalism and sustainable practices.  The original version “Who Polluted the Potomac”  from the Alice Ferguson Foundation, USA, has been adapted numerous times. In the original, the story begins with American Indians who, for thousands of years, lived sustainably alongside the Potomac. Everything changes with colonisation. Jump ahead a few years and Washington DC appears. The students are asked to pretend to be novelties of civilisation – such as farmers, gardeners, car washers, boat enthusiasts or industrialists and dump waste into the Potomac as it flows by. Read more>>

15 million mobile phones used to track malaria by Charles Ebikeme

We all know that mosquitoes spread malaria. What we never quite realise is that humans also spread malaria — and quite significantly. In some places, the spread of malaria is directly linked to the mass movements of human populations. The movements of infected humans seem to increase the dispersal of parasites beyond what would be possible by mosquitoes alone.

Fifty years ago, when we first tried to eradicate malaria, it failed — and among the main culprits (along with drug resistance and unsustainable funding) was listed movements of human populations. Historically, movements of infected people from areas where malaria was still endemic to areas where the disease had been eradicated led to a resurgence of the disease. As people and populations move, they can increase their risk for acquiring the disease, or increase the risk of transmitting it. Read more>>

Science Expo: Enrich, Empower, Explore by Jessie MacAlpine

The Science Expo Youth Empowerment Group (SEYEG) is a student run, non-profit organization which aims to connect youth to innovators and enrichment opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). SEYEG was founded by five students who met at the Canada-Wide Science Fair in 2009. In 2010, the first Science Expo, a 2-hour conference held in Guelph, Ontario, brought together over 200 students, teachers and parents. Today, SEYEG includes a student and teacher outreach program, an alumni mentorship program (EXPOtential) and a creative competition (meriSTEM) in addition to an annual conference. Read more>>

Work, Play & Learn! Using libraries for Social Learning, Impact and Collaboration by Danica Radovanovic

The digital information and knowledge paradigm in the 21st century requires skills such as digital literacy, critical thinking, problem solving, skills in communication, and collaboration for overcoming present social and digital inequalities. Those skills go beyond pure technological affordances and they could easily be obtained through collaborative learning practices and social interaction between individuals from different backgrounds and areas of expertise. Libraries, as environments for social learning and collaboration, present facilitators of education and knowledge. With accelerating dissemination of information in a digital age, libraries emphasise their activities on providing an information commons. In other words, an informal interactive learning place that encourages its visitors to communicate, contribute, participate, and engage with the library. This new dynamic leads towards a collaborative, social construction, and sharing of information and knowledge. Read more>>

Lake Vostok and the search for extraterrestrial life by Sharon Harnett

In the 1980s and 1990s, scientists discovered that microbial life has an amazing ability to survive in what we would consider extreme environments, niches that are blisteringly hot, dry, acidic, or even extremely cold.  The discovery of these microbes, known as extremophiles has shown us that the boundaries of where life can exist, and even thrive are far wider than previously imagined.  The image above shows a ‘black smoker’ hydrothermal vent – deep in the ocean spewing out water anywhere from 60 – 400 degrees Celsius.  Typically these objects are surrounded by life forms, including Thermophiles, microbes that thrive in extremely hot temperatures. Read more>>

It’s a small world after all by Markus Hammonds

Kepler-37b really is tiny. In fact, the whole Kepler-37 system is tiny – the entire system discovered so far can fit inside the orbit of Mercury! The innermost little world is under 100th the mass of Earth, it’s expected to have a radius of around 3867 km (assuming the same average density as the planets in our own solar system) making it smaller than Earth’s moon. One can only apprehensively wonder if this will spark yet another debate over how large an object has to be before it’s considered a planet. With such a tiny orbit, it also has a year lasting just 13 Earth days. Even though the star Kepler-37 is slightly smaller and cooler than the Sun, it’s still enough to heat the surface of tiny 37b to a roasting 700 Kelvin (nearly 430°C). Needless to say, while we all like stories which talk about potential alien life, this is unlikely to be a home for any lifeforms we might recognise. Read more>>