Monday 26 June 2006

The Shell Questacon Science Circus turns 21 - and its 5 years since 2001

The Shell Questacon Science circus, the most extensive science outreach program of its kind in the world, celebrated its 21st birthday with a gala event and a book launch in the Great Hall of Parliament House last week.

Each year, the circus sees over 100000 people, travels 25000 kilometres, runs professional development courses for 600 teachers and visits about 30 remote aboriginal communities as well as hospitals, nursing homes and special schools. The Circus is supported by the Shell Company in Australia, The Australian National University and Questacon, with the sponsors at the event confirming their support into the future. I’m a graduate from the class of 2001.

Canberra turned on a typical day for the occasion, with the top temperature of 5 degrees only being reached when the fog cleared at 4 pm. A crowd of 400 well rugged up guests, including members of parliament, past and present circus members, distinguished guests and school children from Evatt and St Thomas More’s primary schools, travelled to parliament house, where the circus had set up a number of interactive exhibits.

Questacon, the National Science and Technology Centre, was opened in 1980 by the ANU, and was then located at the former Ainslie Primary School in Canberra with only 15 interactive exhibits. However, there was a desire, in the words of founding director Mike Gore, that Questacon “should not simply be another building but that it must develop programmes that will reach out to all Australians – both in our cities and in the remote rural areas”. So Questacon got together with Shell, always looking to work on their public image, as well as focusing on science and education, and ANU, who provide the academic qualifications to those who run the circus, and in 1985 started the national touring program.

"The principal strength of the Science Circus, and the reason it has remained as one of the world’s leading science centre outreach programmes, is because of this partnership between two national institutions and the private sector," said Graham Durant.

Russell Caplan, Chairman Shell Companies in Australia, was pleased to announce Shell’s commitment to the circus for the next three years, "It is with pleasure that Shell commits to the future of this programme for the next three years so that it can continue to bring groundbreaking science experiences to regional and remote Australia."

ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Chubb was glowing in his praise of the circus, as well as of his own university. “More than 250 science communicators have graduated from the programme via ANU to make a contribution in media, government and the private sector. The ANU Science Communication course at the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science is very much at the heart of the Science Circus.”

5 years on from my own circus year, here are my not particularly sciencey, largely censored, in no particular order, and including everyone, top ten things I remember about 2001:

1.Team Speedball – James, Cristy and myself assembled Speedball, the exhibit where you throw a tennis ball at a speed gun, so many times in 2001 that we could do it blindfolded. That exhibit has also given me 5 years of physio on my shoulder – for the record my best was in the 120s, only beaten that year by an 8 foot professional baseballer, or at least that’s what I remember. We also entertained each other, laughed, cried, and saw aliens together on the remote aboriginal communities tour. I’m still searching for the video James made from that tour, if anyone has it.

2. Dave’s Bone – Dave had massive cow leg bone that he was to use in his structures show. We travelled with it all through northern NSW, until it was tragically lost. I’m not sure if Dave knows this, but Marcus found it and hid it for a while. You’re outed Marcus!

3. The moobs cake – Anita and Belinda decided I had male breasts, and so made me a cake on my birthday in far north Queensland shaped as such. Quite obviously, I do not possess such features. Although, as I am continuously told, I have lost weight since then (I’m all of 6 foot and 75 kg by the way, and was back then too!)

4. Balloons – Doing the balloon show with Olivia, and have one student leave in tears screaming "Not the balloon, noooo!" when I threatened to pop one. And how easy it was to amuse high school students with the big long balloon.

5. Eating and Drinking – The Cowra trip with Merryn, Deno and Pete contained some fantastic cooking from Pete. I also remember a Melbourne Cup themed evening with Lish in Victoria – I made Hors Doeuvres, get it??? – and end-of-the-foodbox dinners were always something to behold. It was easy to tell that Anita and Olivia sustained themselves on beans most of the time. Only two of us completed 100 shots of beer in 100 minutes when we decided to tackle that obstacle. One was myself; the other was Merryn, who has returned as coordinator in 2006 to teach them a thing or two. The next morning we had to find lost hire car keys – we did end up finding them in a wet sticking garbage bin at the bottom of a large skip. I apologise for not contributing much to the search. I didn’t lose them by the way, the culprit shall remain nameless.

6. Love - The rumour that Owen and Lish were secretly dating at the end of the year. Liz and Cristy coming all the way down to Victoria to cheer up me and James. Marcus and Nadya in FNQ. Sam celebrating her one-year wedding anniversary in a Hungry Jacks somewhere near Moree. And what happened in outback NT stays in outback NT.

7. Flight – Richard doing the flight show and throwing his plane into a fluorescent light, making it fall from the roof and smash. More than once do I remember Richard throwing that polystyrene plane into a roof or ceiling fan.

8. Truckie – Mick the truck driver. Nuff said.

9. Schools and Science – yes we must be a little serious and soppy and say that the actual experience of going to the schools was amazing. We sometimes did silly things (planes into ceilings, a smashed flask of liquid nitrogen), we sometimes did odd shows (did I hear someone say “light show” James?) but all in all it was a fantastic time that I think I am only appreciating 5 years out. It’s a pretty cool buzz you get from it, and the hours of travelling were totally made up for once we got to the schools. Seeing Mez and Deno putting in such a big effort now makes me think I should humbly apologise to Lish, Fletch and Pete for all the stuff I put them through. I might, later...

10. And to finish... Music – The continuous beat that surrounded Graham everywhere he went. However, this was not the musical highlight of my year – that honour falls to Scandal’us, that supreme band from Popstars 2, who Belinda and I met at Canberra airport. I also have strong memories of James singing Sheena Easton’s classic "My baby takes the morning train", and "Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz". Second in my musical highlights comes from the Marco show Marcus and I decided to put on, a show which revolved around two wizards, myself (the straight one) trying to help Marcus (the funny one) recover his voice, which had been lost in a failed experiment, and along the way turning him into a dog. At the end we form a band, as you do. Ah, what brilliant songs, and the one school we actually did the songs it in front of – we retired them after that show, although we continued to do the rest of it – loved it, even though we were rather embarrassed so ran out of the classroom at the end. I have recently uncovered the songs from the depths of my old computer – reworded versions of Eminem’s "Stan", and the Flintstones theme. I vividly remember saying to Marco during the show "Hey Marco, lets do the songs!" With Marcus saying, “No, I don’t think that’s a good idea” with his eyes saying "You idiot Marc! Don’t you even think about it." In any case, I won out and we did them – but only once.

My Nitrogen's gone cold, I'm wondering why it's messing with my senses
The morning rain clouds up my window, cause when warm air cools it condenses
And even if it didn't, it'd be a gas, but at minus 197 Celsius
It's a liquid and its not a gas, its not a gas

Dear Marcos, I wrote you but you still aint callin'
I watched your science show, it was enthrallin'
You know man when you got the chain and ball
And put it in the nitrogen it got small
I didn't get it, so why don't you call?

Sometimes I take notes too sloppy when I jot 'em
And the show was cool, but how it happened I forget 'em
I'm going to start my own band too man
I got the dances and the dance moves, just like you taught 'em
Guess what I’m going to call it man, I'm a name it Marco

I'm sorry to hear about Marco's finger
I hope it grew back, he's a good singer
I got a room full of your posters and pictures man
I know you probably get this every day, but I’m your biggest fan
Hit me back, just to chat, your biggest fan, this is ...........
PS We should be together too

Dear ...........
We meant to write to you soon sooner, but we've been busy
We hear you're forming a band, how far along is ya
Look, we're really flattered that you called your band that
And just remember, when things get cold they contract

And remember, when it comes to vibrations, slow is low
And when it comes to instruments man, home made is the go
So now you know
But we gotta split now, we gotta hit the road

Cause we gotta see all the schools
But you guys were really cool
You guys are a good crowd
Stay proud
We'll see you round
This is Marco

Our other song was from the Flintstones:

Nitrogen, liquid nitrogen
It's the coldest thing you've ever seen
It's a boiling liquid
At minus 197 degrees

If you put a balloon into it
You will see it shrink down quite a bit
We know sounds are caused by
Vibrations, yes vibrations
And if you do it slow
You'll get a low note
But if you do it fast
You'll get a high note

Ah educational, and fun.

Listen to this show here, and hear me sing (oh dear)...

Wednesday 14 June 2006

Footy Science

You might think that the last thing going through a soccer player’s mind would be science. It’s difficult to imagine a striker contemplating the current nature of the universe just before game time, or the coach giving a short tutorial on statistics for inspiration. Soccer may be the beautiful game, but what of the science behind the artistry?

With the soccer world cup currently being played in Germany, and with the great Australian team performing exceptionally well, it is a good time to take a look at the Science of Soccer.

Excitement Plus:
Many football fans probably know this, but now science has proved it. Soccer is not only the most popular sport on the planet, but it is also the most exciting. Eli Ben-Naim, Sidney Redner and Federico Vazquez at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico took a look at a range of sports to find out which one had the most upsets – that is, when the underdog, the team with the worst record, actually won. They reckon that the more often a score line is unpredictable, the more exciting the sport. The team analysed results from over 300,000 games of hockey, American football, baseball, basketball and soccer. Their results showed that the frequency of upsets was highest for soccer, followed by baseball, hockey, basketball and finally American football. This suggests that soccer is the most exciting sport on Earth.

And the winner is….
There are some scientists out there who think they can predict the winner of the World Cup. Decision Technology, a firm of prediction experts who claim to be the best predictors in the world, has invented a computer program that boasts a better record than any bookmaker. The computer has studied the score lines of 4,500 games between 200 countries since 2002 and come up with forecasts for every initial group match in the Cup. It has correctly predicted 53% of English Premier League games since 2002, compared to newspaper tipsters, who predicted at 43%. For what its worth, they predicted Brazil to win followed by France, Germany and Holland. The fact that it didn’t pick Australia to win tells me that it can’t possibly be accurate!

Red cars go faster
Could the colour of your jersey really make a difference? Russell Hill and Robert Barton from Durham University in the UK tracked the winners of boxing, taekwondo, Greco-Roman wrestling and freestyle wrestling, and found that in these sports where the athletes do not wear national colours, but are randomly assigned either red or blue, the red competitor won over half the bouts. But it was in close matches where the red garb really mattered – the red side won at 62% in these encounters. Such effects may be due to instinctive behaviour. Perhaps human competitors experience a testosterone surge while wearing the colour, or feel submissive when facing a maroon opponent.

Don’t get me offside
But in some bad news for sports fans, scientists in the Netherlands have found that it is almost impossible for linesmen to keep their eyes on the players and the ball at the same time – meaning that bad off-side calls and terrible goal judgements are inevitable – and anyone who saw the Japanese goal against Australia knows what I mean. Raoul Oudejans from the Free University of Amsterdam asked three professional linesmen to assess 200 potential offside situations, and found that they got it wrong in 40 of those cases. They think that this is because of perspective error caused by the linesmen having to work on the sideline, and they suggest that they should work from the stands where such problems can be countered.

Head problems
And in more bad news for soccer players, heading the ball has been linked to various peculiar head and spinal injuries, whilst it has also been linked to an increased chance of motor neuron disease.

Fight for your right to party
But just be careful partying if your team wins. Studies suggest that crowds are more unruly when their team wins than when it looses. Mind you, with games on at 3am in the morning, I’ve been too tired to party. Go Australia!

See for more science of soccer stories.

We are publishing this one early due to recording constraints with CRI.

Listen to this show here

Monday 12 June 2006

Look into my eyes, look into my eyes, not around the eyes....

Ever seen people clucking like chickens, pretending to be Michael Jackson or doing other outlandish things, supposedly under the influence of a hypnotist? Does staring at a swinging watch really make you fall into a trance-like state where you are so susceptible to suggestion that you think onions taste like apples or that you can see everyone in the room naked? And does hypnotism have anything to do with zombies?

The topic of hypnosis is a controversial one. Some scientists charge that hypnosis is simply pseudo-science with no credibility, whilst many therapists use it for medical reasons, and evidence exists for its use in pain relief. People have been pondering and arguing over hypnosis for more than 200 years, but science has yet to fully explain how it actually happens. What we do know is that it is a process by which a person induces an altered state of awareness in another person. It is not the same as sleep, however, and you do not lose control over your mind or feelings. Despite popular belief, you do not weaken or surrender your will to any other person. You are fully conscious, but you tune out most of the stimuli around you, as you do when intensely reading or driving.

In conventional hypnosis, you approach the suggestions of the hypnotist as if they were reality. If the hypnotist suggests that the onion you are eating tastes like an apple, you’re brain will think that it does indeed taste like an apple. If the hypnotist suggests that you are drinking a beer, you'll taste the beer and feel it cooling your mouth and throat. But the entire time, you are aware that it's all fake, like when you’re watching a movie. You tune out your normal worries and doubts and become engrossed in what you are seeing. You are also highly suggestible, however a hypnotist can’t get you to do anything you don't want to do.

One theory of how hypnosis works has to do with your subconscious. In your everyday life, you are only aware of what’s going on in your conscious mind – like thinking of the right words to say to that cute girl, thinking about a problem at work or how much pepper to put in your stir fry. But your subconscious mind is also helping you make these decisions by doing all the behind the scenes thinking. It accesses a vast reservoir of information stored in your brain that helps you solve problems. It puts together plans and then takes them to your conscious mind for a decision. When a new idea comes to you out of the blue, it's because you already thought of it unconsciously.

Your subconscious also takes care of all that stuff you do automatically, like breathing. Your conscious mind could not handle it if you had to think of having to breathe all the time. Also, you don't think through every little thing you do while driving a car – a lot of that is left to your subconscious.

Psychiatrists theorise that hypnotism can calm the conscious mind so that it takes a less active role in your thinking processes. In this state, you're still aware of what's going on, but your conscious mind takes a back seat to your subconscious mind. Effectively, this allows you and the hypnotist to work directly with your subconscious. Without the conscious mind to think through everything you do, you may be open to the suggestions of the hypnotist.

But what of zombies, creatures apparently risen from the dead and desperate to eat brains? There have been sightings of zombies across the world, and one theory was that these were people so hypnotised that they had lost complete touch with reality. It may defy belief however, but zombies have been actually proven to exist in real life, but their hypnotism is the result of some incredibly potent drugs and not the work of a hypnotist.

Zombies have been discovered on the Caribbean island of Haiti. They are people who have been almost killed by a mixture of toad skin and puffer fish, which makes the victim soon appear dead, with an incredibly slow breath, and an incredibly slow and faint heartbeat. In Haiti, people are buried very soon after death, because the heat and the lack of refrigeration makes their bodies decay rapidly. So you have to dig them up within eight hours of the burial, or else they'll die of asphyxiation.

When raised from their burial spot, they are made mad, by being force-fed a paste made from Datura, or Jimsons Weed, which breaks your links with reality, and then destroys all your recent memories. So you don’t know what day it is, where you are or who you are. The zombies are in a state of semi-permanent induced psychotic delirium. They are then sold to sugar plantations as slave labour.

Thankfully, your local doctor can’t put you into this type of state with everyday hypnosis!

Listen to this show here

Tuesday 6 June 2006

The Networked World

These days you can do almost anything on the internet – there’s everything from internet banking and internet dating, to music and video downloads, both legal and illegal. Most busy people see more advertising on the bottom of emails and on pop-up internet ads than on the TV or the radio. And why use a travel agent to book a holiday or a work flight when you can do it from the comfort of your own home or office? This week we will take a look at where this technology came from, and where we might be heading in the future.

The history of the internet, along with that of the microwave, hang-gliders and smoke detectors, can be traced back to the cold war between the US and the USSR. When the USSR launched the Sputnik program to demonstrate that artificial satellites could be launched into orbit around the Earth, the US realised that the USSR had developed the capacity to rapidly exploit military technology. So in response to this, in 1958 they created the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to try and wrestle back the technological lead.

DARPA started to investigate the idea of linking computers together to share information, and so they started to network radar systems across the US. JCR Licklider had the vision that the universal networking of computers could potentially be a unifying human revolution, however it would be many years before this vision came to fruition.

Robert Taylor, the head of the information processing office at DARPA, intended to realise Licklider's dream, and with Larry Roberts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he started up a plan to build such a network. This network, called the ARPANET, had its first link established in 1969 between the University of California, Los Angeles and the Stanford Research Institute, and following links to the University of Utah and the University of California, Santa Barbara were added during the same year. By 1981, the ARPANET was growing rapidly, with the 213 hosts, and would become the technical core of the future Internet. By this stage, all US National Laboratories were also connected for scientific research purposes.

In 1983, the US National Science Foundation constructed a university network backbone that was opened to commercial interests in 1995. This networked merged into other pre-existing networks such as Telnet, and somewhere around this time, the word “Internet” came to describe the global network that we know today.

During the 1990s, the internet truly gained public acceptance. In 1991, the research organisation CERN made the "World Wide Web" project public, and in 1994 there was growing public interest in the Internet, which was previously seen as largely technical or academic. The growth of the internet is often attributed to the lack of a central owner, which means that the network can grow without bounds and without any one company exerting too much control.

But what of the future of the internet? Many people in recent times have been talking of "Web 2.0", which refers to the second generation of services available on the World Wide Web. These allow people to collaborate and share information more easily online. So instead of having a static website at your finger tips, the web will be more dynamic and interactive, with new concepts such as blogs, wikis, podcasts and RSS feeds abounding. Check out the CRI website for CRI blogs, and even Mr Science has a podcast at

Whilst not everyone aggress on what Web 2.0 means, the basic idea is that users generate content, rather than simply consume it from an unchanging website, and that open programming interfaces let users add to a web service and easily get data from it. Users tag pages they like, so that instead of a company deciding which news articles you should read, the most popular and highly ranked sites from that day are displayed. You could also add to the content by modifying it yourself – the idea behind wiki pages – or create your own blog. Advertising is more targeted towards the user by reflecting the content of the page you are currently visiting, and the pages you have visited in the past, as well as what you have previously searched.

So get our there, create a blog, post on forums, listen to podcasts, and contribute to the not-so-brave, but slightly cool, world of Web 2.0.

Listen to this show here

Friday 2 June 2006

Podcasts and Producers - Mr Science goes Web2.0

And now a few words of thanks to the marvellous producers of the radio show, and to China Radio International. The spot started out of an idea my brother James and I had when I visited China in January. The first show, of which unfortunately we have no audio, was about genetic engineering and ears growing out of the side of a mouse. James produced the first 10 or so episodes, and brought along with him exceptional production values, as well as slipping his favourite music into the background.

When James decided to leave CRI for greener pastures, although no one could ever take his place in the hearts of CRI fans, he was ably replaced by Michael Lee, a dedicated producer and big science fan. Michael also puts his favourite music behind the show, comes up with interesting topics, and always calls on time! And thanks to CRI for continuing to host the show. The picture at the top of this post is from a fan day CRI had recently. They are quite popular!

Thursday 1 June 2006

Community Radio

This week I was privileged join the Diffusion Science show team on 2SER 107.3 FM Community Radio, and host this week's show. The Show has a broad mix of Science - new science, hard science, pop science, historical science and very silly science, and is run by a great bunch of guys and girls.

The show, formerly known as Discovery Science before the Discovery channel threatened a law suit, is recorded in the Sydney studios of 2SER, broadcast on 107.3 FM and streamed over the web at 9am Thursday mornings. We are broadcast on the Community Radio Network via CBAA and picked up by seventeen stations around Australia (that we know of).

The show can be picked up on podcast at:

There are old Discovery feed listeners, and new Diffusion podcast listeners, and has been the third most popular science podcast in the country, something of which Mr Science can only dream, although I'm sure there are untold millions of Chinese barred from visiting blogger listening in to the show, fantasising about podcasts!

You can email the team at: