Friday 29 December 2006

The Beer Drinking Scientists - Promo 1

Join myself and Darren Osborne as we bring you a new series called The Beer Drinking Scientists. In these podcasts, Darren and myself talk all things beer and science topics of the day.

In this very first episode, we visit the James Squires Brew House in Darling Harbour, Sydney, sample the local ales, give them a good discussion and rating, before tackling the scientific topic of how humans perceive the temperature.

The theory behind these podcasts is, as Darren says, that the beer might kill off some of the slower brain cells and allow the smarter ones to get down to business on the weightier scientific topics. And, we have a great time talking science in a social context.

Enjoy - listen to the show directly here.

Tuesday 19 December 2006

Human Evolution

Humans are undoubtably still changing. Culturally, technologically, intellectually and emotionally, humans have always been evolving. But are we still biologically evolving? Or have our cultural, technological, intellectual and emotional advances stopped genetic selection and biological evolution? Early homo sapiens could not possibly have envisaged the world in which modern day humans live, or our amazing technological capabilities, but have our changes had anything to do with genetics, or simply our developing culture?

Check out the following story, and a panel discussion, on my podcast.

It is arguable that we are no longer at the mercy of natural selection. We are now born into an environment that is largely of our own making – thousands of generations before us have helped craft a habitat in which genetic selection is largely unneccesary for our survival. No longer are only the healthy or rich breeding, or the strong surviving – babies with genetic mutations now survive childbirth and those of us who can not chase down wild animals can buy food from the supermarket. Reproductive technology has allowed many more people to breed than in the past.
There is an argument that we are even causing "reverse evolution". Technology and medicine enables almost everyone to have children, preventing unfit genes from being purged from the gene pool.

"Relaxed selection combined with a high mutation rate is probably causing gradual deterioration of many functions, especially disease defences," Gregory Cochran, adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Utah, told New Scientist.

With this in mind however, we need to take a look at the 2005 discovery of two genes by Bruce Lahn of the University of Chicago, one of which may have emerged as recently as 14,000 years ago and is now carried by 70% of the world’s population. The other may be as recent as 500 years old and is carried by 25% of the world’s population. Another example of recent genetic selection is in some parts of Africa where there has been an increase in the frequency of a gene which offers some protection against infection with HIV-1. And another very interesting example is the increase of the dopamine receptor gene DRD4. It is interesting because it is associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and has somehow been selected for.

So it would seem that there are still genetic changes that are being selected for occurring within the species. These are very interesting findings, as racial and ethnic groups diverged somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago, meaning that various groups across the planet may differ genetically to various degrees. It could be a massive political issue if different world races were not bioligically equal – one would hope we are culturally evolved enough to deal with it.
But none of this should be much of a surprise. Our era of rapid technological progress, and hence a fast changing environment, is exactly the conditions under which natural selection should thrive. For example, the invention of dairy herding selected for a gene that gives adults the ability to digest milk sugars.

These days however, we are seeing more and more that human technology and culture help humans “adapt”, where to adapt in the traditional genetic fashion would take hundreds or thousands of generations. And with the ability of technology to deal with our troubles rapidly increasingly, this will be an escalating effect.

Given all this, where are we going to end up? Christopher Wills of the University of California, San Diego argues that our culture is the driving force in human evolution and has been driving the rapid evolution of the human mind. It began when it was the brains of our ancestors, as opposed to their physical attributes, that allowed them to succeed, and now Wills argues that in the modern world nobody can do everything, so the advantage lies in being good at something that not many others can do well.

"My prediction is that we are not simply getting smarter, we are selecting for more variability in our behaviours," he told New Scientist.

This is an interesting theory, as it means our culture is selecting for more variability within our gene pool, with this all pushing towards higher intelligence. Whilst Cochran thinks that we may be breeding out immunity to disease, he also thinks we may be selecting for intelligence – he recently published a paper claiming that natural selection has genetically increased the intelligence of Ashkenazi Jews in the past 1000 years, as they were forbidden to work in manual trades and had to make money in more ceregral activities (Journal of Biosocial Science, vol 37, p 1). Perhaps he thinks that our higher intelligence, combined with advances in technology, will more than make up for our increased vulnerability to disease.

We should also not forget the role of sexual selection in evolution – that is, how we choose our mates - but we have already discussed this in a number of articles on Mr Science already. And we have not yet even dealt with the role of computing and artificial intelligence in evolution. With our concepts of what we mean by free-will and consciousness racing to keep up with developments in artifical intelligence, this is one area that could completely change our concept of evolution and what drives it. There will be a time when we start genetically changing ourselves and incorporating technology into our bodies. There may be a time when we create artifically intelligent robots, and indeed we may well change other animals to have some form of intellect. Our environment will be entirely of our own making. Evolution will always exist, indeed probably progressing at such a pace in the future that we can not imagine it at the moment, but undoubtably, natural selection as driven by “traditional” means will not exist.

So where now for the human race? The October edition of Focus magazine published seven alternatives for the human race, some far sighted, some near sighted, some serious, some not. I suspect the future is a mix of all of them.
  1. Homo astronauticus – We colonise the universe, but travel between the planets we inhabit takes too long, so the selective pressures (environmental, sexual, cultural ect) of each planet takes hold and eventually various different species of humans inhabit the universe.
  2. Homo cyberneticus – Over time we enhance ourselves with computing parts. Eventually, nothing biological remains and our brains and consciousness are merely parts of a computing network.
  3. Homo hippocraticus – Casearean births have selected for babies with bigger brains and we have naturally become smarter. Eventually we correct genetic diformaties and become ultraintelligent and beautiful.
  4. Homo climatalogicus – We live in a world of rapid climate change, and that means we live totally enclosed in climate controlled glasshouses. Natural selection could not keep up with this change, but our technology could.
  5. Homo postapocalyptics – An asteroid hits the Earth, we blow up most of the Earth in a nuclear explosion, or there is some other catastrophy wiping out most of the population – only the strong survive on the post-apocalyptic Earth.
  6. Homo immortalus – Nanotechnology and genetic engineering combine to end all death. Will we live in an overcrowded world where we have to work forever, or has technology taken us to the stage where we no longer need to work at all, and we take massive risks, all in the knowledge that technology will save us?
  7. Homo tribalensis – Genetic engineering has made us a very vain race in which we select for beauty. We look good.
Listen to this story here

Sunday 10 December 2006

Movember Farewell - Time lapse and Memories

Here is my video remembrance of Movember - the month in which a few of us grew moustaches to raise money for men's health.

Yes, I realise that this is not particularly "sciencey", but its good fun. A big thanks to the other members of the team, who also feature in this video.

The time lapse is not perfect, but some of the reflections, and some of the work of the other guys, particularly Adrian, are pretty funny. I quite liked my moustache, I miss the little guy.

You can watch this below or download it here

Wednesday 6 December 2006

A couple of promotions

This is a message of thanks for a couple of companies.

First off, a big thanks to The Podlounge for featuring the Mr Science Podcast on their homepage. You can see this feature here. Lots of love back to you, podlounge.

And also a thanks to itunes, who recently rated the Mr Science Podcast top of their Natural Sciences section in the Australian store, after recently featuring it on their podcast homepage. Lots of love back to you also, itunes.

Thanks again to those who subscribe to the show.

Monday 4 December 2006

Diffusion Science Radio - UP LATE

I was very lucky to host the Diffusion Science Show "Up late" edition last Saturday night. Myself, Matt Clarke, Jacqui Hayes and Vanessa Gardos wandered into 2SER at 11pm, and broadcast across Sydney live until 1am.

This gave us a chance to talk about the topics about which we always wanted to chat, without worrying too much about offending anyone.

This recording actually has quite a lot of static on it, and whilst I have tried to clean it up, it was impossible to clean up with the tools I have, so you may find this a little hard to listen to in some places. It sounds like listening to a badly tuned radio, so it might be OK to listen to in the car, on the train or on a plane. We still thought it important to get this episode out there, at least so we can all hear it again!

Grab the file from the podcast here.

The topics we chat about include (all in a science context):
  1. Cricket
  2. The future of humanity
  3. Neanderthals
  4. Elephants
  5. What if human disappeared over night
  6. Nudist beaches
  7. Consciousness
By the end, we're all a little over caffeinated and tired! If you can get through the static, its actually quite a fun show. I promise to get next week's episode out quickly in case this static is all too much for you! I have also left in all the music to give it that radio feel. Listen to this on your next drive in the country when you can't get the radio anyway!

Listen to this show here

Sunday 3 December 2006

The Cloning Debate - Part 2

A few weeks back, I republished an article I wrote in 2001, in which I asked a number of prominent Australians their views on cloning.

I have attempted to re-contact these same people to see whether or not their opinions have changed during these 5 years. I am pleased to have received 3 replies so far, although a few of my initial contacts have proved very hard to find, or have move out of the field (Prof. Alan Trouson). Their opinions have been very interesting. I intend to take a closer look at some of these ideas in the near future - especially the views from Clonaid, who I will interview, probably in early 2007.

Dr Paul Willis
One of Australia's leading science communicators, ABC Catalyst and radio Presenter, PhD in Palaeontology

I would say that my position has modified somewhat over the last 5 years. Therapeutic Cloning (TC) does offer the potential for cures to some pretty horrible diseases and, as such, ought to be pursued to see what it can really do. This should proceed at a research level. Once we know the true abilities of TC for various diseases, then we will be better placed to consider their implementation across society. But I am still concerned that we are looking at expensive medical treatments that will only really benefit a few, relatively rich people in the world. This particularly comes into focus when some of the more frivolous potential applications for TC are put on the table. Do we really need to spend billions learning how to make ego-copies of ourselves or developing complicated ways to avoid aging when that money could be more wisely spent saving many lives with much simpler, already proven medical technologies, treatments and basic public hygiene? This is an ethical problem with TC that is often ignored but should, in my view, be ahead of the more popular ethical issues such as embryonic destruction (which I think is a non-issue anyway because the embryos are destined for destruction anyway) or cross-species technologies (again, a non issue if there is no genetic material transfer between species).

Thomas Kaenzig
Vice President, Operations

More and more people u
nderstand the benefits of the human cloning technology. Being in favor of therapeutic human cloning has already become "mainstream" today and the same thing will happen soon with reproductive human cloning. The ridiculous "ethics" argument brought up by opponents to human cloning is simply a last-gasp attempt by deist conservatives and orthodox dogmatics to keep humanity in ignorance and obscurantism, through the well tried fermentation of fear, the fear of science and new technologies.
Luckily, nothing can stop science ....

Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja
Science and Research Portfolio, Australian Democrats

From her speech on the Prohibition of Human Cloning For Reproduction and the Regulation of Human Embryo Research Amendement Bill 2006 - Reproduced in part here after discussions with the Senator's office

I am a strong supporter of this technology (therapeutic cloning), in particular somatic cell nuclear transfer... Scientific endeavour has been an enduring area of interest to me. I have been particularly concerned with finding an appropriate balance between allowing the cutting-edge research and technology that we have to prosper and needing to protect our community through effective regulation of scientific activity...You need to understand how science progresses. It doesn't progress with a single step that means that you suddenly have cures. It moves incrementally towards a goal, and you gradually put in place bits of the jigsaw and solve various technical problems that are required... Those people who think that there is no moral problem with embryo research should be allowed to carry out that research and should not be prevented from doing so by the power of the law. Those people who think the research is wrong should be allowed to say so and to protest against what they believe to be wrong. And those who do not wish to participate in the treatments that arise from stem cell research should be allowed to avoid such treatments... Whether or not this technology will be progressed is beyond dispute. And if it does not happen here, it will happen elsewhere. Unless opponents are suggesting that we ban all imports of therapies derived using somatic cell nuclear transfer then Australians may well ultimately benefit from this technology, regardless of what happens here. But do we not want to be part of this? Do we not want invest in the potential and the hope that it presents us with? At stake is whether or not we want our research community to play the role that they are able to in this. If we allow this bill to pass, we can ensure that Australians benefit not only from the outcome but from the knowledge that is gained in the process and the increased speed with which progress may come about if Australias innovative prowess is allowed to be brought to bear on this challenge.

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Saturday 25 November 2006

Elevators, Chimps and Love? Plus a little live radio

This week on the Mr Science Show Podcast, we tackle the topics of:
  1. A 100,000 km space elevator
  2. Young chimp males like older chimp women
  3. Being tall and young makes you more attractive at speed dating
Also heard on this podcast are the sultry tones of Jacqui Pfeffer and the golden tonsils of Matt Clarke.

In other news, tonight (25/11/06) the Diffusion Science Radio Show is going live and up-late on 2SER between 11pm and 1am. We are taking the opportunity to produce some live and unscripted radio. Highlights from this show will appear on my podcast soon.

Grab this show here

Saturday 18 November 2006

North Koreans, Mammoths, Invisibility and what did not make it to air on the Diffusion Radio Science Show

This week on the Mr Science Show podcast, we are taking a look at a number of different science news stories, as well as what I could salvage from one of most out-take ridden episodes of the Diffusion Radio Science Shows with which I have been involved - we had a great time, and its all good science! I have the raw recordings should anyone want them.

Our stories are:
  1. Dodgy North Korean Scientists attempting to clone mammoths
  2. New developments in invisibility (also see this past Mr Science story)
  3. Black and White television not so black and white
  4. Women allergic to semen?
  5. Psychology and cricket
You will also hear the voices of Matt Clarke, Darren Osbourne, Tilly Boleyn and Lachlan Whatmore. Darren is also involved with Mo-vember, so feel free to sponsor us both!

Grab this show here

Friday 17 November 2006

Rebirth of the cloning debate

The issue of human cloning is one that has been with us for some time.

Recently in Australia, a bill which would allow scientists to clone embryos to extract their stem cells for medical research has passed through the Senate and now awaits a lower house decision.

With this in mind, I have dug up an article I wrote for The Helix magazine in 2001 (editor Darren Osbourne). In this article I asked a number of prominent Australian's about their opinions on cloning, for some very interesting answers. I have attempted to track down these same people 5 years on to see whether or not their opinions have changed, and have had a couple of responses, so stay tuned for the 2006 results.

Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja
Leader of the Australian Democrats in 2001

Cloning is no longer about whether it will be done but when it will be done. It is time to start sorting out the boundaries of what our community deems acceptable—or unacceptable, as the case may be. Cloning has a role to play in many possible medical treatments, either as a therapy or as a diagnostic. The paramount requirement from legislators in the immediate future will be to ensure the new cornucopia of genetic tools is used only for our benefit and not to unfairly discriminate.

Senator Bob Brown
Australian Greens Senator for Tasmania and leader of the Greens party

Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob – isn’t cloning boring? Nature has sorted all our genes and we re-arrange this ecological prescription at the peril of losing diversity and ecological robustness. The Precautionary Principle should, at least, apply.

Jean-Francois Aymonier
Spokesperson for Clonaid, a company aiming to be the first Human Cloning Company

Cloning frightens a lot of people. Especially the people who believe in God. Because if we succeed in cloning a human being, it proves that we can create life scientifically and God might not exist after all. That God doesn't exist is very hard to accept for those who have always believed in God. They don't want to be proven wrong so for them it is important to stop scientists from cloning. That is why they try to frighten us by imagining many terrible things that could be done with cloning. But cloning can also be used very positively. We Raelians at Clonaid think that a long time ago extra-terrestrial beings created life on earth scientifically thanks to cloning techniques. The first humans they created were clones. So cloning is a wonderful thing since we are all here thanks to cloning. Not only cloning will help cure many diseases but it will also make us understand how to create life and become eternal using different bodies or body parts. And one day it will be our turn to create life on another planet. That's why cloning is so fantastic.

Adam Spencer
Then Triple J Morning Presenter, Comedian and Science Communicator

One of the most disturbing aspects of the cloning debate is that again science has arrived at the ability to do something well before society has decided where it stands on the issue. This is happening more and more as the rate of discovery is increasing in so many controversial fields. It is so important that we start discussing the morality of this sort of research as soon as someone suggests that "perhaps one day we could do..." rather than wait until the press conference where it is announced "well we've got a few in the lab now if you want to come and have a look!” Hopefully we will all learn from this, we have to make our feelings known on the big issues, earlier not later.

Associate Professor Catharine Lumby
Director of the Media and Communications Program at the University of Sydney, Journalist and Author

There is understandable public anxiety over the issue of cloning. I believe there are two reasons for this. Firstly, we live in a society where the speed of technological advances far outstrips our capacity to absorb their implications, let alone debate them in a considered manner. Secondly, cloning touches on an ancient philosophical conundrum - the relationship between the original and the copy. Plato expresses a concern that representations of real objects, if they are too exact, might be mistaken for the real thing - that images or copies have the capacity to trick the viewer. A similar kind of anxiety grounds the taboo in some religious orders against making likenesses of God (icons). A clone is essentially a perfect copy. The fear then arises that there will be no way of telling the original from its copy (or the human from its clone).

Professor Alan Trounson
World Leader in Reproductive Technology
Centre for Early Human Development, Monash Institute of Reproduction and Development

Cloning human people is not ethical because of the risks of deformities to babies and problems for mothers during pregnancy. We know this from our studies on cloning Dolly the sheep and many other animals. We are studying cloning of animals to try and understand what goes wrong and to see if we can correct this. If we are successful we may be able to use cloning for cows to produce more milk, milk that is better for little kids in poor countries and cheap medicine to help sick people all over the world.

Dr Paul Willis
ABC Catalyst and radio Presenter, PhD in Palaeontology

I think that we all need to take stock of the context in which cloning is proposed. It's all very impressive to be able to clone people, sheep or cattle but do we really need to? The biggest problem this planet faces is too many people so why exacerbate the problem by producing more? Further, the only people who will be able to afford cloning will be the rich who are also the worst offenders for wasting the resources of the earth. Producing more of them only makes matters worse. I really have no opinion on the ethics of cloning and can see arguments for both sides, but I think that the wider context of cloning is emphatic; we don't need more people no matter how we want to make them.

Dr Graham Phillips
Then ABC Catalyst Presenter, author and PhD in Astrophysics

I'm in favour of therapeutic cloning - creating cloned embryos that might one day allow replacement livers and kidneys for people. I know there are serious ethical problems with creating embryos purely for medical purposes, but I think there are even more serious problems by not doing this. In effect this means sentencing people who need the new organs to earlier deaths. As far as the other sort of cloning goes - creating cloned adults - I guess my attitude is it will eventually happen and it will turn out to be not such a problem. After all, biologically, a clone is just an identical twin. But I don't think we should be attempting to create adult clones any time soon - the techniques are simply not safe enough yet.

Brian Alexander

Then Journalist for US Magazine Wired –

The subject of human cloning has occupied the better part of one year of my life. In the process of researching and discussing human cloning for the U.S. magazine Wired, I have met a number of very interesting people, including scientists who say they would like to help clone a human being, people who would like to be cloned, and people who feel strongly that nobody should ever be cloned. After all this time, I have come to the following conclusion: human reproductive cloning does not really matter. Someday soon, the issue of whether cloning is safe will go away. Then, there will be a human clone. And that clone will be, simply, a baby. The world will not change. There will be no "Brave New World," no sci-fi mass-produced human beings. A very few people, probably men and women who cannot have a baby any other way, may choose to clone to have a genetically related child. Hardly anybody else will ever want to have children this way. The one lesson I think we can take away from the controversy is that we need to look at science in realistic ways, not as if we all lived in a movie.

Thanks to someone at itunes....

I was browsing around itunes the other day, and discovered to my pleasure that they had featured my podcast on the front page of their podcast section. But not only am I grateful for that, I was pleasantly surprised to find that they had done some graphic design on my logo. Usually my podcast logo is the goofy photo of me at the Summer Palace in Beijing, however someone at itunes had added my name in a rather funky manner and the podcast title. You can imagine my surprise when I saw my ugly mug staring back at me with my name in rather large letters! So thanks itunes, the number of downloads and subscribers has increased because of it - the vast majority of my subscribers subscribe through itunes.

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Monday 13 November 2006

Movember Week 1 Documentary

Here is my take on week 1 of Movember.

It may not be very sciencey, or funny, but hopefully it will help us raise some money for a great cause. Sponsor me securely here and check out our team progress here. For more info, check out last week's Movember story

Watch this here

Sunday 5 November 2006

MO-vember - the science of moustaches

This month on Mr Science, we are celebrating November, or more particularly, Mo-vember. That is, for a good cause, I am growing a moustache, or a Mo. You can sponsor me to do this, and check out our work team's progress and varying states of scruffiness here (Well done Adrian!) Mo-vember, my moustache, and the science of hair and men's health was the subject of a panel discussion between myself and the other members of Diffusion Science Radio, and can be picked up as an mp3 on my podcast here.

The cause is male health, and research into depression, testicular cancer and prostate cancer. Men's health is an often overlooked topic, however when you look at it, men are far less healthy than women. The average life expectancy for men is six years less than females (presently 75 compared to 81). Men access health services 30-40% less than women, thereby denying themselves the chance for prevention and early detection of common diseases.

Money raised through this event go into the following areas:

Prostate Cancer in partnership with the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia ( because every year in Australia 2,700 men die of prostate cancer - more than the number of women who die from breast cancer. Find out more

Male Depression in partnership with Beyond Blue ( because one in six men suffer from depression at any given time but most don't seek help. Find out more

Testicular Cancer because it's the second most common cancer in young men aged 18 to 35. Find out more

Seeing my face is going to covered in an ugly growth for the next month, this week we are going to take a look at the science of hair. Facial hair is a secondary sex characteristic in human males. Most men develop facial hair in the latter years of puberty, whilst many women also have some facial hair, but generally after menopause and generally less than men.

Male pogonotrophy (beardedness) is often culturally associated with wisdom and virility. Excessive hairiness in women however is known as hirsutism, and is usually an indication of abnormal hormonal variation.

The amount of facial hair varies from individual to individual, and also between ethnic groups. For example, men from many East Asian, West African or Native American backgrounds typically have much less facial hair than those of European, Middle Eastern or South Asian descent.

But what is hair and why does it grow out of the side of our faces? Hair is a growth of dead cells protruding from the skin, and occurs in many animals, mainly mammals. However, in contrast to most mammals, humans do not have thick hair all over their bodies. While other great apes have relatively thin body hair and some bare areas, in comparison humans have very little. Theories about why humans, in comparison to apes, have less hair range from the idea that it was because early humans lived on African savannas and lost their hair in order to more easily control their body temperature, to the idea of neoteny, a form of sexual selection where one mate chooses another because of their youthful – that is, less hairy – looks. A more recent theory suggests that we lost our hair to reduce our vulnerability to fur-loving parasites.

There is a myth out there that hair and nails continue growing for several days after death. Often people have thought that others, previously thought dead, were still alive because of this. Sadly, this is untrue. The appearance of growth is actually caused by the retraction of skin as the surrounding tissue dehydrates, making it look like the nails and hair were growing. The skin was just shrinking.

As we age, hair becomes greyer as the pigment in the hair is lost and the hair becomes colourless. In general men tend to become grey at younger ages than women. I’m starting to get the odd grey hair and it scares me, I’m only 27!

But an interesting fact is that grey hair in itself is not actually grey – it is either white or dark –the head of hair appears grey because of these two colours mixing. As such, people who have blond hair when young usually develop white hair instead of grey hair when aging. Red hair usually goes sandy colour and then white.

But that’s only for the lucky ones who keep their hair. It is estimated that half of all men are affected by male pattern baldness by the time they are 50. This can also be seen in other primates and apparently has an evolutionary benefit – I wonder what that could be….

Hair thinkness ranges from 17 to 181 ┬Ám, and different parts of the human body feature different types of hair. From childhood onward, vellus hair covers nearly the entire human body. Rising levels of male hormones (androgens) during puberty causes a transformation process of vellus hair into terminal hair on several parts of the male body. Hair follicles respond to androgens, primarily testosterone, and this causes males to start growing thicker and denser body hair. Body hair grows for about 3 to 6 months before being pushed out by a following hair, whilst head hair grows at the rate of about 1.25 cm a month.

Check out for more information about this moustache growing spectucular, and if you feel like sponsoring me, go here or type “Marc West” into the sponsorship page and use your credit card. Its all for charity. Happy to do moustache requests, if it grows long enough, or to wear particularly stupid or outlanding clothes to the gala party, if sponsored the right amount!

Mo-vember, my moustache, and the science of hair and men's health was the subject of a panel discussion on Diffusion Science Radio on 2SER. You can listen here

Monday 30 October 2006

Diffusion Science Radio goes LIVE

Diffusion Science Radio went LIVE this week on 2SER, during 2SER's radiothon subscriber drive. In this podcast episode, I host the show - my first time doing live radio - and am joined by Vanessa Gardos, Tilly Boleyn and Chris Stewart, who also produced the show.

You can hear my own feature on Stephen Hawking - you may have previously picked this up on the Mr Science feed. You can also hear Diffusion's own New York correspondent Kachina Allen talking about the scientific dangers of showering!

This was recorded during Radiothon, which means there are alot of comments regarding members and prizes and such things - you can phone up and join 2SER anytime should you like, but for first time listeners, Diffusion is not normally like this - there is usually a bit more science and entertainment!

A big plug to Justin Zeltzer who wrote the new theme to Diffusion - this was its debut.

Listen to this show here

Friday 20 October 2006

Space Invaders Mind Control, Small Testes and Facial Expressions

Mind control over Space Invaders
A 14-year-old who suffers from epilepsy, is the first teenager to play a two-dimensional video game using only the signals from his brain, a unique experiment conducted by a team of neurosurgeons, neurologists, and engineers at Washington University in St. Louis has found.

And the game was one of my favourites from the 1980s, Space Invaders.

This type of work has implications towards someday building biomedical devices that can control artificial limbs, for instance, enabling the disabled to move prosthetic arms or legs by simply thinking about it.

The teenager had an electric grid placed upon his brain to record electrocorticographic (ECoG) activity - data taken invasively right from the brain surface.

Eric C. Leuthardt, an assistant professor of neurological surgery at the School of Medicine, and Daniel Moran, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, performed their research on the boy who had the grids implanted so that neurologists and neurosurgeons could find the area in the brain that causes epileptic seizures.

Leuthardt and Moran connected the patient to a sophisticated computer running a special program known as BCI2000 which connected Space Invaders to the ECoG grid. They then asked the boy to do various motor and speech tasks, moving his hands various ways, talking, and imagining. The team could see from the data which parts of the brain and what brain signals correlate to these movements. They then asked the boy to play Space Invaders by actually moving his tongue and his hand. He was then asked to imagine the same movements, but not to actually perform them with his hands or tongue.

"He cleared out the whole level one basically on brain control," said Leuthardt. "He learned almost instantaneously... He mastered two levels playing only with his imagination. This really was a symphony of expertise ranging from neurosurgery, neurology, neuroscience, engineering, and computer science which was years in the making. The end result is something we can really be proud of."

You might be horny, but you have small testes
Some interesting news now for the tough cocky muscle men among us. Professor Leigh Simmons of the University of Western Australia and US researcher Professor Douglas Emlen of the University of Montana have shown that there is an evolutionary trade-off between the ability to fight off sexual competitors - ie be really tough - and reproductive potency.

They found that beetles with the biggest horns have the smallest testes. There is a trade off between the ability to find a mate and the ability to fertilise her.

The researchers looked at beetles of the genus Onthophagus, dung beetles known for the size and variety of their horns.

"What we did was test a fundamental assumption underlying evolution ... that males face a trade-off between competing for access to lots of females and investment in gaining fertilisation with those females," Simmons says.

"They need to have big horns to win fights and get females and they need to have big testes in order to win in sperm competition.

"But they can't do both, so species which invest very heavily in their horns tend to invest less in their testes."

There are other examples in nature also. Bats trade the size of their testes for brain power. Stalk-eyed flies, in which eye span width is a measure of sexual desirability, trade testes size for the width of their eyes.

And clearly is known in humans - those with the most expensive cars with the loudest sound system, clearly have the smaller penises.

Inherited Facial Expressions
Do you look like your father when you're angry? Probably more than you'd imagined. Facial expressions may be inherited.

According to Israeli scientists, every person has a set of facial expressions that is unique to them, a signature of their identity that remains stable over time. Stable patterns of facial expressions arise before a baby is six months old, but until now, scientists were unsure whether these patterns were learned or innate.

"We were interested to examine whether there is a unique family facial expression signature," said lead author Gili Peleg from the University of Hafa in Israel. "We assumed that we would find similarities between the facial expressions of relatives."

The study, published in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, involved 21 participants who had been blind from birth, each with either one or two relatives who had normal vision. According to the researchers, blind individuals have no way of learning the facial expressions of their relatives by mimicry. The common perception that blind people touch other's faces to sense their expressions was revealed to be, in fact, very impolite behaviour.

The scientists induced six emotional states in each individual - sadness, anger, joy, think-concentrate, disgust and surprise - and then documented all the facial movements the person made while experiencing a particular emotion.

Forty-three different facial movements were recorded, including movements such as: biting the lower lip on the left-hand side; moving the lips while pressed together, as though chewing; rolling the upper lip inside the mouth; sticking out the tongue slightly while touching both lips; and pulling down the corners of the mouth while pushing the chin forward.

A computer program was used to allocate the blind individual to a family according to the types of movements observed and their frequencies. The blind individual was allocated to the correct family 80 per cent of the time when using information from all six emotional states.

"These findings indicate the existence of a hereditary basis for facial expressions," Peleg explained.

Listen to this show

Sunday 15 October 2006

The Science of Speed Dating - A gentleman does not kiss and tell...

We live in a fast paced world. And the modern approach to dating embraces this idea. This week we are going to tackle the science of speed dating.

My friend, and fellow Diffusion Science Radio team member, Vanessa Gardos and I travelled down to Canberra for a Speed Dating extravaganza. There we heard a talk by our friend, and communicator extraordinaire, Lish Hogge on the science of speed dating, and got lost in the whole speed dating experience.

This podcast contains our reflections on the evening and the science of speed dating, as heard on the Diffusion Science Radio show recorded and broadcast through 2SER in Sydney. This was live and unscripted, and so rather honest, although as a gentleman I can not divulge too much information from the evening! Ian Woolf and Justin Zeltzer take part in this discussion, and the segment was produced by Ian.

Following this, and a brief interlude by Jose Gonzales, I have included, with permission, an interview Lish did with Richard Aedy about the science of love and speed dating on the "Life Matters" show on ABC radio across Australia.

Here on the Mr Science Show website, we have tackled the science of love a few times:
Today I have included below an extract from Lish's run program for her National Library talk, discussing the science of speed-dating, how personality traits effect your chances, and what pick up lines to use. Thanks Lish!

What's Love Got to Do with it? (Lish Hogge 2006)

How do you get love really damn fast, because let’s face it, we haven’t got time to be fiddling about looking for love in all the wrong places when we could be reproducing our genes and bringing up off-spring so that they too can make our genes go further.

So, how to meet people you like more than yourself and want to spend the rest of your life with? There are several modern ways - online dating, mobile text messaging or speed dating.

Anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher has also bought science to on-line dating. She is one of a collection of scientists at (note the blatant use of science to sell product!) She has translated her work on neurotransmitters and hormones to discrete personality types. Her personality types are similar to the Myers-Briggs personality assessment tool that classifies people according to four pairs of traits: Introversion vs Extroversion, Sensing vs iNtuition, Thinking vs Feeling, Judging vs Perceiving (Marc: I’m INFP by the way, rather unscientist like).

Dr. Fisher found out that genes for certain hormones or chemicals are also associated with particular character and personality traits.

DOPAMINE – Associated with motivation, curiosity, anxiety and optimism. Maps to the EXPLORER personality type.

Genes for the metabolism of SERATONIN, another neurotransmitter, tend to modulate ones degrees of calm, stability, popularity and religiosity. Maps to the BUILDER personality type.

TESTOSTERONE is associated with being rational, analytical, exacting, independent, logical, rank oriented, competitive, irreverent and narcissistic. Maps to the DIRECTOR personality type.

OESTROGEN hormone is associated with being imaginative, creative, insightful human, sympathetic, agreeable, flexible and verbal. Maps to the NEGOTIATOR (or DIPLOMAT) personality type. uses a questionnaire to drag out clients ‘chemistry’ through looking at these traits.

There are some interesting genetic traits that are indicators for these personality traits. Take your left hand and have a look at the index and ring fingers. Which is longer? Would you look at someone's hands before into their soul? Elevated foetal testosterone determines the ratio of the second and forth finger in a particular way as it similarly builds the female and male brain. So by looking at someone’s hand you can get a fair idea if they are going to be a male or a female... or in those of us already born, whether we are a director (LONG RING FINGER) or a negotiator (SHORTER RINGER FINGER)

Some Characteristics That May Be Associated with Digit Ratio (from Manning, 2002)

Low 2D:4D ratio
High 2D:4D ratio

Presumably due to relatively greater foetal exposure to testosterone in the 1st trimester
Presumably due to relatively greater foetal exposure to oestrogen in the 1st trimester.
· More fertile
· Higher lifetime reproductive success
· More aggressive and assertive
· Greater proclivity towards homosexuality / bisexuality
· Higher musical and sports aptitude
· Higher risk of early heart disease
· Greater proclivity toward homosexuality/bisexuality
· More aggressive and assertive
· More fertile
· Higher lifetime reproductive success
· Higher risk of breast cancer

But why would we evolve to have longer fingers- there has to be a point – perhaps a longer ring finger gave more stability while throwing objects increasing accuracy – an inherent masculine trait – this was clearly important when we were hunters and gathers but now … what of those people who had a longer ring finger to index?

Another question: How often do you vividly imagine extreme life situations such as being stranded on a dessert island or winning lottery?

A: Almost never
B: Sometime
C: Most of the time
D: All of the time?

Someone who answers 'All the time' is a definite Negotiator," Fisher said. "High oestrogen activity is associated with extreme imagination."

According to Fisher, each response is correlated with one of the four personality types: Choice A corresponds to Explorer, B to Builder, C to Director, and D to Negotiator.

If you're a builder...
You are calm, dependable and thorough. You shine at all sorts of executive and managerial skills, both in the workplace and at home. People admire and respect you.

Dating suggestions for the Builder:

You can bring stability to someone who is impulsive and a risk taker. In return, you may find someone with the energy and imagination you admire.

If you're an explorer...

You love to discover new things, absorb yourself in new ideas and travel to new places, often on the spur of the moment. You are highly inquisitive and spontaneous. Because of this, all sorts of adventures come your way.

Dating suggestions for the Explorer:

When you find someone you are genuinely interested in, avoid other dating opportunities and focus your energy on this person.

If you're a negotiator...

You are intuitive and understanding — the quintessential "people person." You instinctively know how others are thinking and feeling. You can be enormously empathetic, charming and tactful.

Dating suggestions for the Negotiator:
Try not to overthink situations. Let your mate know your boundaries, needs and hopes. This way, he or she will be able to act accordingly to enhance the relationship.

If you're a director...

At times, you can be a genius. You are highly inventive. With your intense determination, competitive spirit, and lack of respect for convention, you have the potential to make major discoveries and be a dynamic leader.

Dating suggestions for the Director:

Your competitive spirit is productive and appreciated at work; but with your partner, you may want to practice relaxing so you can truly enjoy your "down time" with him or her.

But if you are still not convinced that science is the future when researching affairs of the heart then you can log onto thousands of other sites:

Good Genes: Helping Ivy Leaguers and similar well educated graduates and faculty find other with matching credentials

Millionaire Match
: Add a touch of romance to success and achievement

Single Fire Fighters
: The only place to meet fire fighters with out calling 000.

And then there is speeding dating, it is fast, furious and fake but it removes months if not years of traipsing around bars, joining clubs and taking long walks around sunset. Studies show that while speed daters are looking for all manner of important things like attitudes to religion, fidelity, education and intelligence, in 8 minutes all it comes down to is physical attractiveness – they put a value on their beauty and go for something of equal beauty – women went for men of medium build and men for thin women.

To uncover the best type of chat-up lines, researchers compared the conversations of participants rated as very desirable by their dates with those seen as especially undesirable. Those highly skilled in seduction encouraged their dates to talk about themselves in an unusual, quirky, way. The most memorable lines from the top-rated man and woman in the study illustrate the point. The top-rated male’s best line was: ‘If you were on Stars In Their Eyes, who would you be?’ whilst the top-rated female asked: ‘What’s your favourite pizza topping?’ In contrast, failed Casanovas tended to be far less creative, employing old chestnuts like ‘Do you come here often?’ or struggling to impress with comments such as ‘I have a PhD in computing’. Talking about travel was better than movies – anything that avoided conflict and men interjecting with hmmm and ah ha, and women with modulated voices, did much better.

Marc: Thanks Lish! Great story. The Mr Science show plans on featuring a few other guest writers in the future.

PS I'm a long ring fingered, Director INFP (Meyers-Briggs) - a weird combo.

Listen to this show here

New Podcast Host and lots more mp3s

The Mr Science Show Podcast has moved from Castpost to Libsyn. Castpost did a great job, however we needed to upgrade from their free service to the more comprehensive service of Libsyn.

Some of the benefits of this move are that now you can download the mp3s directly, instead of streaming them, and the feed is not limited to 15 episodes. So now you have access to all 36 Mr Science Show episodes that have been recorded so far, from the very first episodes recorded down the phone to China Radio International produced by my brother James, to those produced by Michael Li, to The Snorer, and those produced by myself on my home computer and in the 2SER studios in Sydney.

Click here to check out the podcast feed, to choose how you might like to subscribe (for example, through itunes) or to simply download the mp3s in which you are interested.

The podcast feed page remains:

Hope you enjoy the Podcast, thanks for subscribing if you are already a subscriber, welcome if you have just joined up and enjoy the mp3s if you are just casually browsing past.

Thursday 5 October 2006

Travelling broadens the mind and opens the bowels

I had imagined this particular story to be about the science of the amazingly developed city of Hong Kong. I thought it would make a fantastic tale to contrast the role of science in people’s lives between India, the Philippines and Hong Kong.

However, unfortunately, my experiences during my week in Hong Kong were largely confined to public toilets and the bathroom of my friend Aaron, with whom I stayed. But this in itself makes a good story, so this week on Mr Science, we are going to look at the diseases that my brother and I picked up during our tour of Asia, and how they were treated.

It is ironic that, having been so careful with the water and food in India, that my brother James and I should get sick from eating at McDonalds, but all the evidence is pointing that way. They probably made the Coke we ordered using tap water. James’s illness hit within 12 hours, with vomiting and severe dehydration. He was so dehydrated that he took in about 2 litres of saline drip in the Indian hospital before he even went to the toilet.

I did not react with vomiting, and perhaps because of James’s sickness, did not think much of my own until I’d left the country. It was on landing in Hong Kong, incredibly tired from the 3.00 am start, that it all hit. And it hit hard, and explosively! My body erupted, not from my mouth like with James, but from the other end.

With remarkable Hong Kong efficiency, the hospital prescribed me 5 separate drugs to treat the problem. They did not know exactly what the problem was, and without a proper examination, blood test, urine test and stool sample, they were never going to know. I had a plane to catch.

So, introducing the top 3 contenders for inducing sickness in the West Brothers:
  1. Giardia - Giardia Lamblia is a parasite that infects the gastrointestinal tract and gives you Giardiasis, a type of gastroenteritis that manifests itself with severe diarrhoea and abdominal cramps. Other symptoms can include bloating, flatulence, fatigue, nausea, vomiting and weight loss. In some patients, vomiting or nausea is the major symptom.
  2. Traveller’s Diarrhoea - Also known as Delhi Belly or the Ragoon Runs, traveller’s diarrhoea has a host of causes, and can have very mild symptoms or kill within hours. The most common cause is the bacteria e-coli. The reason this is not top of the list is that e-coli­ infection usually only causes diarrhoea for 3-7 days, and then the discomfort stops. Perhaps James had a severe case of this, however, the fact that my discomfort was must more prolonged and that I had had some e-coli­ preventative medication before I left, makes me think it is not the cause.
  3. Cholera - I believe that this is unlikely, as I had preventative treatment for Cholera before I left, however the symptoms of Cholera are exactly as I had. Also, the risk of contracting Cholera is very low and I would have hoped that had if either James or myself contracted such a potentially deadly disease, that the hospitals would have picked it up.

As for the cocktail of drugs that I was prescribed, I am still taking some of them in order to complete their course. They are:

  1. Lactol Forte - These pills contain Lactobacillus acidophilus, which is considered a probiotic or “friendly” bacterium. These types of healthy bacteria live in the intestines and protect against some unhealthy organisms. When L. acidophilus breaks down food, it produces lactic acid and hydrogen peroxide that make the environment hostile for undesired organisms. It can also out compete harmful bacteria by consuming the nutrients they need. Antibiotics will kill L. acidophilus, as well as bad bacteria, so often after a course of antibiotics you will need to take L. acidophilus to recolonise the gastrointestinal tract. It’s also used to make yoghurt from milk.
  2. Ciproxin - These pills contain Ciprofloxacin HCL, which is a broad-spectrum antibiotic. Broad-spectrum antibiotics are commonly used, and in my situation were used for the following reasons: a) Where there are many possible causes of the illness, but where delaying treatment to more accurately identify the cause could result in the illness getting much more serious; b) Where there are multiple bacteria causing the illness. Broad-spectrum antibiotics are often avoided as they cause bacteria to become resistant to treatment. However, as I was in Hong Kong for such a short time and needed the treatment rather urgently, in the absence of a more thorough diagnosis and to get me on the plane home, the broad spectrum was our best option.
  3. Profenil - The active ingredient in Profenil is Alverine Citrate, which is a smooth muscle relaxant. Smooth muscle is a type of muscle that is not under voluntary control, such as in the gut. It acts directly on the muscle in the gut, causing it to relax and preventing muscle spasms. Muscle spasms result in symptoms such as heartburn, abdominal pain and bloating, constipation or diarrhoea.
  4. Oral Rehydration Salts - This dissolvable powder contains mainly sodium chloride, sodium citrate, potassium chloride and Dextrose Monohydrate, and is possibly the most important mixture of my drug cocktail. Diarrhoea saps the body of important electrolytes, as well as causing dehydration – this is how diarrhoea kills millions in the third world each year.
  5. Biogesic - Biogesic simply contains Paracetamol, which we all use as a painkiller.
  6. Doxycycline - In addition to this cocktail of drugs, I had to continue taking my anti-malaria tablets to complete their course.

So for about a fortnight, I’ve had a little cup to hold all my medicine – I felt like my grandparents!

Thanks for joining me on my all-too-brief scientific tour of South Asia. The podcast for this story contains extra recordings from Hong Kong, a small commentary on my final thoughts of India, and a few extra musings attempting to capture my feelings at the time. You can my thoughts on Hong Kong hospitals and sicknesses in this episode, and James’s thoughts (sometimes with sickness induced incoherence) on their Indian counterparts in the previous episode.

Listen to this show here

Thursday 28 September 2006

Astronomical controversy

You expect controversy in politics. Every religious story comes served with intense debate. And you almost demand hullabaloo in sport.

But controversy in science?

Scientific controversies are actually quite common, and throughout history, within and outside the scientific community, battles have raged over many topics, from Galileo vs. the Catholic church over the motion of the planets, to Einstein not believing in quantum mechanics, and current debates over global warming, intelligent design and stem cell research.

But the controversy that we are dealing with today is astronomical in size, yet deals with the runt of the litter. Whatever do we do with Pluto?

A few months back, when we did a Mr Science show on Pluto, we all slept soundly in the knowledge that Pluto was a planet. But now things have changed, and Pluto has been demoted to a new class of heavenly body called a Dwarf Planet. Over the last month as I was travelling through India, I stayed up-to-date with the intense debate over how to classify a planet. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) was meeting in Prague, and as remarkable as it may seem, there has never been a universally agreed definition of what a planet is. The Union, which represents national astronomical unions and is the official authority for naming stars and other celestial bodies, decided to solve this problem.

At one stage throughout the debate, it was almost agreed that there would be 12 planets, with the addition of 3 new bodies – the newly discovered world 2003 UB313 (nicknamed “Xena” and now coined Eris), Charon (Pluto’s moon), and Ceres (the largest of the asteroids in the asteroid belt near Jupiter). However the final decision, which not only renounced this pronouncement but also demoted Pluto, upset school children and provided work for textbook publishers world over.

The IAU came out with the following rules that you must meet if you wish to qualify as a planet:

A “planet” is a celestial body that:
  1. is in orbit around the Sun,
  2. has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape,
  3. has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.
A “dwarf planet” or a planetoid is a celestial body that:
  1. is in orbit around the Sun,
  2. has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape,
  3. has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit,
  4. is not a satellite.
The reason that Pluto was classified as a dwarf planet is that it did not meet criteria (3) – it has not cleared its neighbourhood. The lead scientist on NASA’s robotic mission to Pluto, Alan Stern, contends that even Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Neptune have not fully cleared their orbital zones, and so if we are going to demote Pluto, we should demote these bodies as well. However, there is a substantial difference between the extent to which Pluto has cleared out its neighbourhood with its gravitation pull, and the amount of clearing done by these other planets. Indeed, the IAU debates clarified that criteria (3) refers to the process that happened during the formation of the planets and not to bodies that may have strayed into these orbits after the planets were formed. It is this debris that is now in the orbit of these planets, unlike Pluto, which did not have the gravity to clear its orbit of all other material during its formation – there is plenty of material out in the orbit of Pluto.

The 8 classical planets are all in the same plane, all travel in roughly circular orbits and were all formed by the accretion of solar system material. In contrast, Pluto’s orbit is highly inclined to this plane (up to 17° above it) and non-circular. Indeed, sometimes it is closer to the Sun than Neptune. Also, Pluto (and its moon Charon) is what is known as a Kuiper Belt object. The Kuiper Belt contains objects formed out in the far reaches of the solar system, or ejected there by the gravity of Neptune or Jupiter – they are different beasts all together.

One controversy lies in the fact that the definition was only voted on by a very small percentage of the 9000-strong Union. I like the idea that the new rules specify that the planet must have enough gravity to be spherical – that is, it doesn’t propose an arbitrary diameter for planet qualification. I also think that science is one of the most changing and dynamic disciplines this world has, and we should not fight decisions simply because we are afraid of change or upset that our favourite cartoon character now represents a so-called lower form of planet. Science is always changing, I’m sure we’ll see new definitions in the future.

For me, I like the change, but I’m not sure it was really necessary! Pluto was only a planet because it was the first of its kind discovered, but now we have new information, we should not be scared to change our thoughts about it. It doesn’t make it any less scientifically significant – indeed the New Horizons probe, due to reach Pluto in 2015, will provide us with a lot of information on Kuiper belt objects and how the solar system was formed. Anyway, I probably wouldn’t have spent all that money and time on making this edict, but rather let people decide for themselves how to designate “planet”. I like the following division of objects in our solar system – notice no mention of the word “planet”:
  1. Terrestrial bodies (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars) – the solar wind didn’t allow them to accrete very much gas
  2. Asteroid belt – thought by some to be the remains of a terrestrial planet destroyed by the gravity of Jupiter
  3. Gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune)
  4. Kuiper Belt Objects (Pluto, Charon)
  5. Scattered Disk Objects (Xena – between the Kuiper belt and the Oort cloud and probably formed by gravitational interactions between the Kuiper Belt objects and Neptune)
  6. Oort cloud – where comets come from
In any case, it’ll all change when we discover different solar systems and new celestial bodies. But debating this sure beats politics!

And in breaking news, Pluto has a new name: Asteroid number 134340. So now he's not even a cartoon character, and is just a number. Oh dear.

Listen to this show here

Wednesday 20 September 2006

Farewell Steve Irwin

Steve Irwin, probably one of the best known advocates for wilderness and animal conservation in the world, tragically passed away recently in North Queensland, Australia. He was arguably Australia’s best-known science communicator, although he was more popular overseas, particularly in America, than he was at home. His unconventional methods of communicating his work – some say he provoked animals to get them to attack on camera in order to bring viewers to his Crocodile Hunter television series – drew criticism from some and inspired others, yet it is unarguable that Irwin will have a lasting effect on the environmental and conservation movements in Australia and around the world.

Unlike so many other “wacky and zany” science communicators – and there are plenty of them in Australia – Irwin was so genuinely passionate about his cause that he bought millions of dollars of land worldwide in the name of wilderness and animal conservation. How many people can you name that have become famous to some degree through their television persona that have taken the next step and invested a large percentage of their rewards in their cause? I can barely think of one other. And nothing he ever did on screen was fake – he loved what he did and this shone through in everything that he did – whether it was on his television show, in interviews or just when he was being himself. He was genuinely passionate about what he did and was not afraid put his money where his mouth was. Personally, I admire his passion and wish that I had had the chance to meet him.

I must admit my viewpoint here is slightly informed by having met other well-known science communicators in Australia who bank on their personality rather than their in-depth knowledge of science – even Irwin admits he was not the smartest bloke around – who off-camera are still “wacky and zany” but are in no way nearly as passionate about their cause as Irwin was. I can not imagine Irwin fobbing off a young person passionate about conservation by saying “its all too hard to get into this industry”, which has happened to me more than once with high profile communicators. Indeed, Irwin employed over 500 people at the amazing Australia Zoo (which I visited this year) and was constantly encouraging people to take up his cause in whatever way they could. He never said it was all too hard.

His belief was that in order to educate, you need to get people excited. The following quote is from an interview he did with Scientific American:

I believe that education is all about being excited about something. Seeing passion and enthusiasm helps push an educational message. That's the main aim in our entire lives is to promote education about wildlife and wilderness areas, save habitats, save endangered species, etc. So, if we can get people excited about animals, then by crikey, it makes it a heck of a lot easier to save them.

Some say that he deliberately provoked animals into attacking him to make good TV. I have not analysed his whole body of work, so it is probably not for me to comment. But in any case, David Attenborough gets chased by elephant seals and does not have to say “Don’t try this at home”. The reason Irwin was popular was not because he made animals attack (if that’s what actually happened), it is because he got into people’s hearts and minds. Australian’s sometimes did not like the cultural cringe that came with him, but who cares?! He was funny, passionate, called great ugly crocodiles “beautiful sheilas” and inspired millions of people world wide to take an interest in animal habitat conservation. It takes all kinds of communicators to effectively convey science to the public, and Irwin fantastically fitted his section.

Indeed, a lady from Brisbane was able to save her son from a snakebite because of what they had watched on his show – now that’s effective science communication!

And finally, I would like to also make mention that the RSPCA in Brisbane called him a modern day Noah because of his conservation work. “His loss will be felt by animal lovers not just in Australia but all over the world”, said RSPCA Qld chief executive Mark Townend. RSPCA Queensland spokesman Michael Beatty, who first worked with Irwin when Irwin was just 15, said Mr Irwin's contribution to society would only truly be recognised in the years ahead.

“He put his money where his mouth was”, Mr Beatty said. “Other people talked about it, Steve did it.”

If there is any organisation in the world qualified to comment on whether Irwin’s methods were cruel to animals and whether he became popular through less than noble means, it would be the RSPCA. Yet they are calling him a modern day Noah. I hope that into the future we realise Irwin’s legacy and pay tribute to a man who, although he didn’t appeal to everyone, has made a tremendous difference to the environmental and conservation causes around the world. My deep sympathies also for his family, as his other passion was clearly for them. His is truly a tragic loss.

It is not the critic who counts - not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of deeds might have done better. The credit belongs to the one who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood… Who strives valiantly… who errs and comes short again and again… who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause - and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

Theodore Roosevelt’s "Man in the Arena" Speech (April 23, 1910)

See the Enough Rope interview with Steve Irwin

Listen to this show here

Friday 15 September 2006

India - Mr Science continues being the travelling scientist

India - the 2nd in my travelling scientist series, and the second stop in my all-to-brief tour of South Asia. I have edited together my recordings from India into a 30 minute feature about science in the developing world.

India is a fascinating combination of developed and developing worlds, and this contrast was seen on my very first day on landing in Delhi. Simply comparing Old Delhi with New Delhi set me up for an amazing tour of an amazing country. I also gained a little bit of insight into the types of illnesses one can encounter on the subcontinent. Some of the serious, and not-so-serious, topics dealt with this week include:
  1. A storm in a coke bottle - the Indian political debate over minute levels of pesticides in soft drinks - whilst most of the country does not even have clean drinking water.
  2. How to make the "Mother of Satan" bomb, and other Indian takes on terrorism - a real day-to-day issue for the country.
  3. Travel bugs - helping my suffering brother through Indian hospitals.
  4. Maharaja scientists.
  5. Sun burn makes you crazy.
  6. Music and HIV.
  7. The Taj Mahal's own "Da Vinci Code" -esque intrigue.
  8. Bollywood.
We also take in some India music, interview ex-pats and locals, ride elephants and suffer at the hands of dodgy rickshaw drivers.

Listen to this show here

Saturday 9 September 2006

Thank God for Camera Phones

This post is a follow-up to a couple of the stories we have recently run on Mr Science. This week, I have had the good fortune to meet a couple of superstars, directly related to our Mr Science topics.

We have done a couple of stories in the past on the science of music:
  1. Can scientists predict your music taste, and
  2. Music and Science on the brain
I was fortunate this week to meet one of my all-time favourite artists, Ben Folds, after his concert with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. I also managed to make a fool of myself in front of his wife, by commenting to my friend Laura, "You dressed up for Foldsie", and then when Mrs Folds, who was in front of us in the line, turned around, Laura said "Are you a Foldsie too?" meaning something like "Is your name also Folds?", whilst I exchanged smiles with her friend, who I thought at the time maybe liked me, but was clearly smiling at my stupidity. Then when we looked around from our seats a bit later, we commented when looking at the best seats, "That's where Ben Folds would seat his family, where Foldsie is sitting." It then sunk in that Foldsie was actually Frally Hynes, wife of Ben Folds and subject of many songs. Good one Marc.

We recently did a story on the science of soccer, and this week I had the fortune to meet the highest profile football player playing in Australia of recent years, and all-time great, Dwight Yorke. When a group of us wandered over to the local field for a game of soccer at lunch time, this big black 4WD pulled up, the window wound down, and the driver said, "Can we have a kick around with you, its your chance to play with a superstar." We were all thinking, "Who is this guy", until we looked passed him to the passenger seat, to see the diamond ear ring and gleaming white teeth of Dwight Yorke. When the 4WD finally returned, Dwight had changed into his sporting gear, and was accompanied by two lovely ladies and a minder, who went off to buy him prawns and whatever else he wanted. Dwight turned out to be a great guy just wanting to have a kick around before his long-hall flight back to English football.

Thank goodness for camera phones, otherwise I'd have no proof of these celebrity encounters (I have now got myself one too - these were taken by others - thanks to one of Dwight's lady friends, and to Laura's mum).