The Best of Australian Science: August 2013

This month, we’d like to welcome our new writer Buddhini Samarasinghe, who is a molecular biologist, with experience in cancer research. Some of her upcoming stories will be bringing us fascinating contributions about the molecular mechanisms of cancers.
As well, here is our usual monthly roundup.  A wonderful variety of science and technology stories, covering astronomy, education, technology, health, environment, and more!
Stay curious and scientifically passionate!


Life of an epidemic: Australian dengue by Charles Ebikeme

It is always a bad sign when crowds gather. On the morning of Wednesday March 21 in the year 1900, a crowd began to gather in Sydney. A thousand people had gathered outside the offices of the Board of Health in Macquarie Street. They had gathered because bubonic plague had broken out. People had already started to die from the Black Death. Panic was the only course of action.

The Government had stockpiled Haffkine’s serum (named after the Russian bacteriologist that developed it in a makeshift laboratory in a corridor of Grant Medical College) — a new plague vaccine, and had used it to inoculate front‐line health workers, new plague victims and anyone who might have come in contact with them. Read more>>



Schrödinger’s cat: the quantum world not so absurd after all? by Kevin Orrman-Rossiter

Since Erwin Schrödinger’s famous 1935 cat thought experiment, physicists around the world have tried to create large scale systems to test how the rules of quantum mechanics apply to everyday objects. Scientists have only managed to recreate quantum effects on much smaller scales, resulting in a nagging possibility that quantum mechanics, by itself, is not sufficient to describe reality.

Researchers Alex Lvovsky and Christoph Simon from the University of Calgary recently made a significant step forward in this direction by creating a large system that displays quantum behaviour, publishing their results in Nature Physics. Read more>>


Astronauts And Some Australians Get Lonely. How To Fix? This Robot Could Be A Start by  Elizabeth Howell

Living alone can be an isolating experience, whether you’re in a remote area of the Outback, in a condo in downtown Sydney, or floating in the International Space Station. In the latter spot, to be sure, there are other astronauts on board and Mission Control is only a radio call away. Still, however, you’re away from family in a dangerous environment.

Japan has just sent up a cute robot, called Kirobo. It talks in Japanese and is intended to be a sometimes companion to astronaut Kochi Wakata, who will arrive on station in November if the schedule holds. The cargo spacecraft, with Kirobo on board, is en route to the station and should arrive Aug. 9. Read more>>


 ArduSat: Kickstarting a new era in space education by Jessica Smith

I was awake at stupid o’clock last Sunday morning to watch NASA’s livestream of the launch of the HTV-4 resupply vehicle. At precisely 05:48:46AM AEST, JAXA H-IIB F4 launch vehicle lifted off smoothly en route to resupply the International Space Station (ISS). The 5.4 tonne payload comprised all the usual suspects: water, replacement and upgraded electronics for various ISS systems, spares for major station components, and new equipment and supplies for experiments.

Nestled in amongst the other cargo were four tiny ‘CubeSats’, two of which were funded by a Kickstarter project: ArduSat. These tiny satellites are the first example of crowdfunded space operations, and represent an exciting new development in the recent popularisation of ‘citizen science’. Read more>>


Women in Space: Judith Resnik by Sharon Harnett

This article is one of 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 Sally Ride. Today I’m profiling astronaut Judith Resnik. (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.)

When the space shuttle Challenger was due to launch in the middle of the night (Australian time) on the 28th of January of 1986 – I was in the middle of a standard teenage baby sitting gig.  The kids must have been 6 or 7 years old and we were all very excited by the upcoming launch, but disappointed by the late hour.  As I tucked the kids into bed I agreed to wake them up during the night so we could watch the launch.   We didn’t get up during the night, I don’t remember why – maybe I didn’t set the alarm, maybe I decided not to wake them, maybe I just forgot.  When I woke in the morning and turned on the TV, the images of the Challenger exploding a minute into launch were so horrifying they still affect me today. Read more>>



Should Australia have its own space agency? by Elizabeth Howell

Despite its lack of a space agency, Australia has a rich space heritage. Its telescopes, many of which are set up in desert areas, provide excellent views of the nighttime sky. It has dishes that stay in touch with NASA spacecraft (perhaps most famously,  as the first lunar landing crew worked on the surface.) There also are many professionals that work in space, whether in astronomy, engineering, various sciences or other fields.

This month, Andrew Dempster (who is the director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research, as well a sa professor at the University of New South Wales) published an article in The Conversation . Read more>>


Connectomics: a window to the mind by Kevin Orrman-Rossiter

The human brain has 100 billion neurons, connected to each other in networks that allow us to interpret the world around us, plan for the future, and control our actions and movements. Mapping those networks, creating a wiring diagram of the brain could help scientists learn how we each become our unique selves. Understanding the brain and all its connections is Connectomics – a word soon to become as familiar as ‘genetics’. Read more>>


Hyperloop – A Reality for Commuters? by Kelly Burnes

As many of you may have heard, Elon Musk – founder of Tesla Motors, PayPal and SpaceX – released his plans for an extraordinary new mode of transportation, the Hyperloop.

Whether they are ‘his’ plans, and if it is a ‘new’ idea, is up for debate. But we’ll leave it there and focus on the idea itself. So what is the Hyerloop? Remember those pneumatic tubes that transport capsules stuffed with paperwork in older buildings or drive-thru banks? Read more>>


Tear Down These Walls by Buddhini Samarasinghe

Two remarkable characteristics distinguished the Royal Society from the other nascent scientific societies of its time. It was genuinely international, and being of noble birth was not a requirement for membership. It aspired to the ideal of meritocracy. External factors such as nationality, race, gender and wealth did not matter. This basic premise of science, that it is and must be open to everybody, began with its founding and should continue today. While the ability to practise science now requires a formal education in scientific theory and practice, access to science should not depend on nationality, wealth, geographical location or scientific training.

Two things stand in the way of public access to science. The first is obviously the paywall: the second is something that I describe as the ‘jargon-wall’.  Read more>>


 Carbon emissions trading schemes – do they work? by Alisa Bryce

Kevin Rudd’s plan to scrap the carbon tax in the name of an emissions trading scheme has spurred debates over which carbon reduction system is better. I use the term ‘better,’ as discussions seem to be focusing on costs to Australian families rather than which system is more effective at actually reducing carbon emissions.

The new emissions trading scheme will reportedly ‘ease the pressure’ on Australian families. But the average Australian family pays only $380/year with the carbon tax, less than a standard mobile phone bill for a single person. Rudd should, therefore, be focusing on the bigger picture – the effects of carbon in the atmosphere and which system will actually reduce carbon emissions. Read more>>


Don’t forget to check the Weekly Science Picks #40Weekly Science Picks #41Weekly Science Picks #42,  and Weekly Science Picks #43.

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