Best of Australian Science: January 2013

It’s the time of the month when it’s good to look back and be reminded of all of January’s wonderful science and technology stories. The beginning of the year is a time for new beginnings and regenerations, and a time to wrap things up and recapitulate an exciting month. I hope you’ll enjoy these stories. If you are interested in science blogging and contributing to Australian Science – contact us and check out the Editor’s note.

 2013: The Year to Come by Charles Ebikeme

In 2013 expect the comet Ison to garner some column inches towards the back end of the year. In early 2013 October it will pass very near Mars and possibly be visible to rovers and orbiting spacecraft. The newly discovered comet could develop a spectacular tail, becoming as bright as the full Moon as it passes by our Sun. The comet is currently falling toward the Sun from between the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn. There is a chance it won’t survive this encounter. Whatever survives will then pass nearest the Earth in late 2013 December. Read more>>


The Higgs: An Unexpected Boson by Markus Hammonds

Physicists are interesting folk, and I’m sure some would be fascinated if this turned out to be something new. Fabiola Gianotti, director of the ATLAS experiment at CERN has appeared noticeably excited before by the prospect of new and unknown physics being discovered. However, the other thing about physicists is that by their nature, they need to be highly skeptical, particularly when it comes to their own work. Adam Falkowski, a Paris-based particle physicist, states what most researchers are probably thinking on his blog Résonaances – that the result is most likely due to a “a systematic problem”. In other words, a problem in the apparatus such as a poorly calibrated detector. To date, there is no explanation from CERN for the unusual data. So is it a glitch, or could there really be two particles being detected here? Read more>>


Ahead of his time: the genius of Nikola Tesla by Kevin Orrman-Rossiter

This was repeated in the next huge modernisation trend – the invention of the wireless transmission of information. By 1893 Tesla was demonstrating the transmission of electric power by wireless means most notably at the Chicago World fair. He delighted in amazing audiences with fantastic high-voltage discharge displays, passing millions of volts through his body and remote lighting of fluorescent tubes by radio frequency.

Already in 1891 he had discussed his “wireless telegraphy” and demonstrated the technology required in 1892. It was 1894 beforeGuglielmo Marconi would begin his teenage tinkering in the wireless field.  So why do we remember the name of Marconi as synonymous with radio? Why did he share the 1909 Nobel Prize with Karl Braun rather than with Tesla? Read more>>


The Search for Exoplanets by Sharon Harnett

As at January 15, 2013 a total of 859 such planets have been identified (details can be found here).  These are certainly exciting times for astronomers, but just how do astronomers search for exoplanets?

There are a number of methods used to detect exoplanets including astrometry, the transit method, radial velocity, gravitational microlensing, pulsar timing, eclipsing binaries, circumstellar disks and coronagraphy.  Each method of observation has its pros and cons, is used in different circumstances, and produces different results.  I will give an overview of each technique: Read more>>


The perils of space exploration: last flight of space shuttle Columbia by Kevin Orrman-Rossiter

Scientifically the mission was great success. The shuttle crew worked around the clock to ensure that maximum scientific value was achieved. Including an investigation of the web-spinning abilities of the Golden orb spider under low gravity. An experiment designed by students from Glen Waverley Secondary College, in Melbourne Australia. The morning of re-entry all appears calm and normal in the mission control room. As re-entry started the crew are seen to be in good spirits and looking forward to coming home.

Then while travelling at Mach 24.1, during the 10-minute fiery re-entry, when the leading edge reaches temperatures in excess of 1550 Celsius, the damaged thermal protection panels on the wing overheated – then failed catastrophically. The wing and shuttle disintegrating. Read more>>

Predicting the next epidemic by Charles Ebikeme

Flu is a disease very amenable to being searched and turning up in social media. Health-seeking behaviour — in this day and age, we google every ailment. However, diseases which are more serious probably won’t follow this social pattern.

The concept is essentially trying to “predict the present”. Google flu trends isn’t the only one to mine social data. Mappyhealth mines twitter data, tracking 25 conditions from around 200 health related terms. Searching for the spikes in activity from those certain key terms. Spikes in activity above the social noise, pointing to a significant event associated with the term. In some places it has been shown to be a good indication of the real underlying movement of disease.

But what of diseases that are not as commonplace as the flu? How would google or twitter act as an early warning system for diseases of a tropical nature?

Conversations With Google by Dan Petrovic

One of the biggest failures of classic science fiction and futurism is short-sightedness in relation to how information technology transformed our society. Now that we’ve experiencing the transformation we’re also discovering the biological bottleneck.

Human evolutionary path and series of adaptations have so far been gradual. As new technologies come on stage we attempt to fit them to our organic pattern. Early adopters and information addicts, for example, enjoy multiple streams of information in real-time but what is the true limit of human ability to effectively process information? We already seem to be hitting the brick wall.

In the far future search for information is deprecated in favour of instantaneous knowledge. Knowledge processing and the ability to absorb information quickly will eliminate the biological bottleneck and allow humans to keep up with exponentially advancing technology. Read more>>

Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman (in science) by Amy Reichelt

While the numbers of female students are high at undergraduate and postgraduate levels (in my undergraduate studies there seemed a 1:3 male to female ratio), the senior academic positions tend to be held by men. This discrepancy is certainly not a question of ability. It sadly appears that a large proportion of talented female students either abandon their career ambitions in favour of a non-academic job, turn down fellowships or accept jobs at less competitive universities allowing a focus on raising children and enjoying family life. Quite simply, it appears that many women in academia lose faith in being able to “have it all” – a family and career is viewed as incompatible and one must be sacrificed. A survey of female academics found that only 1 in 3 became mothers during their university careers. This is a bitter pill to swallow in many cases; the female academics in question have worked just as hard as their male counterparts, yet feel the sacrifice must be made on their part. Read more>>

Zorbing: Adventures in a Hamster Ball by  Kelly Burnes

Whether it’s an activity like zorbing, or riding roller coasters, biking, skiing or skateboarding, science is involved. Tools working in tandem with the human body for the benefit of amusement. How far you decide to delve into the science behind each is up to you. I believe that is how to keep science fun and entertaining and keep the kids coming back from more. Education could take a cue from zorbing’s playbook – just let go and roll down the hill. As for me, I’m glad I tried it; ticked the zorbing experience box. If you saw that episode of Modern Family where Phil does everything in his power to remain a roller coaster fanatic so he can retain that bond with his son, Luke; then you know what I’m talking about. Read more>>


Unknown Corals of the Deep by Markus Hammonds

While deepwater corals are known in other parts of the world, their appearance in the waters here was a surprise. At a depth of 125 metres, in dark waters where very little sunlight ever reaches, they found corals. Corals which had only been recorded at depths of 70 metres previously, giving Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, the chief scientist of the team, reason to suspect that the finding may be able to give a deeper understanding of how coral reefs spawn and grow.

Hoegh-Guldberg is also quoted as saying, “What’s really cool is that these corals still have photosynthetic symbionts that supposedly still harvest the light,” which is especially remarkable because the waters in which these corals have been found are so inky and dark that human divers would have trouble seeing without artificial illumination. Read more>>


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