Monday 26 February 2007

Blog of the Day Award

This was pretty cool.
The Mr Science Show was Blog of the Day on Sunday 25th Feb.
Thanks guys!!

Blog Of The Day Awards Winner

Monday 19 February 2007

Hobbits and Interviews, but its not all about science

Something new I'm doing on Mr Science this year is reviewing various scientific books, podcasts and websites.

Book Review
Title: The discovery of the hobbit : the scientific breakthrough that changed the face of human history
Author: Mike Morwood and Penny van Oosterzee
Publisher: Random House Australia 2007

There are not many books that combine world-changing scientific discovery with political intrigue, soap opera relationships and international fueds.

Mike Morwood and Penny van Oosterzee take us on an amazing journey, detailing the astonishing discovery of a hominid species which lived as recently as 12,000 years ago, long after homo sapiens emerged from Africa and colonised the rest of the world. The hobbits of the Indonesian island of Flores were only a metre tall, hunted pygmy elephants and giant rats and were hunted by fierce komodo dragons.

The Discovery of the Hobbit, by Professor Mike Morwood from the University of New England and Australian co-leader of the discovery team, kept me intruiged and entertained throughout my 7 hours stuck in Townsville airport recently. And although I paid an airport price for the book, $35 for 7 hours entertainment, considering my options, is probably worth it.

Morwood, who co-wrote the book with science writer Penny van Oosterzee (famous for Where Worlds Collide: The Wallace Line and Dragon Bones: The Story of Peking Man) took a diary throughout the archaeological dig, and details not only the scientific discovery, but gives an insider's account into the personal relationships and ego clashes across international borders that threatened to destroy the scientific evidence, take credit from the researchers and leave the hobbit bones in the bottom of an Indonesian university.

The authors tell of how Professor Teuku Jacob, the father of Indonesian paleoanthropology, took the bones, much to Morwood's disgust, and whilst in his care, were irreparably damaged. The relationship between Morwood and Jacob was clearly not good, and Morwood reveals how Jacob almost took over the operation and all the credit not long after the bones were discovered.

It was these conflicts, based more around ego and ideology than science, that threatened to bring down the discovery.

Morwood, normally a teetotaller, took up drinking and smoking home-grown Indonesian products such was the stress caused by Jacob, the claims by Australian scientists Dr Alan Thorne and professor Maciej Henneberg, that the hobbits were just deformed modern humans, and the spiriting away to Germany of some remains for DNA testing without permission.

There were disputes between Morwood and colleague Professor Peter Brown over the nickname Hobbit, bureaucratic bungles and cultural hurdles to overcome, and this was even before any robust scientific discussion could be undertaken.

Morwood gives a fascinating explanation of his theories of the human evolution that brought about the homo florensiensis - that indeed it was an ancient hominid species that had undergone generations of island dwarfing (of which Morwood also gives an interesting account), rather than homo sapiens, or even homo erectus.

A fascinating book that balances a wealth of scientific detail with great story telling - something rare in a science book. It doesn't treat the reader as a dope or make science unapproachable, nor does it trivialise the astonishing discoveries for the sake of story telling.


Podcast Review
Science Talk Australia
Producer: Darren Osborne

I should declare at the start that Darren is a friend of mine, and we've worked together on Diffusion and The Beer Drinking Scientists (which is soon to get its own podcast, thanks for the feedback, stay tuned), but that said, as a previous editor of The Helix magazine among other science and science communication qualifications, he knows what he's talking about.

Science Talk Australia is one of the few science podcasts that actually asks the researchers about their work. Each episode generally centres around an interview. The topics are all breaking stories, and Darren not only covers the scientific research angle, but also teases out from the researchers why we should care about their work - what is the context of their results, how does it effect us? This is something I like!

Its very listenable, approachable, informative and has recently been expanded to include breaking science news and a quiz. It appears in my itunes fortnightly, and at the time of writing is one spot ahead of mine in the Australian itunes science list - the bugger!

Recent interviews include conversations with Dr Severence MacLaughlin from University of Adelaide about how a mother's lifestyle before conception can affect her offspring and Dr Russell Keast of Deakin University who found that caffeine does not have the flavour enhancing qualities claimed by soft drink manufacturers.


Website Review
Author: Eva and sometimes Ed

As is probably obvious, I really like science resources that make science accessible and put science in a social context - because, let's face it, science is interesting, relevant and fun. I stumbled across through random conversations over at myspace, and now its a mainstay of my feed reader.

The mission statement of the site is:

Science is involved in everything we see and do, and likewise, there is an aspect of non-science in all scientific research. points out both sides of the story, by highlighting the science behind news items or everyday things, or by pointing out the social or artistic aspects of science.

How cool is that? The site tackles various topics, with my favourite tags being arts & crafts, Caffeine, Chemistry, communication and music. They also do reviews, and I must admit this spurred me on to finally do some reviews over here. There's also plenty of links to other sites.


Speaking of reviews, feel free to leave comments on this site, on itunes with regards to the podcast, drop me an email, or even digg the podcast. Digg is great as I can see what episodes people like, what other science podcasts are popular, as well as getting great exposure.

These reviews will be out on the podcast this week - mp3 here

Tuesday 13 February 2007

Love love love....

Puppy Love
Originally uploaded by westius.
It's that time of year again, so I'd like to wish a HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY to all.

To keep you in the loving mood, head over to the Mr Science series on love, The Loving Scientist.

If you are single and looking to get the attention of that one special person, The Mathematics of Looking Beautiful, The Science of Speed-Dating and Scientific Dating Tips are for you.

If you are lucky enough to be waist deep in romance, then check out some of the reasons why we fall in love and how this is a chemical process in the brain. Perhaps you're interested in older ladies, or even risky sex....

And if you think this whole love and sex thing is just one big joke, then perhaps the idea that those who are more sexually appealing may be dumber might be up your alley.

So to all of you out there, to those special someones in your lives, and they know who they are in mine, have a wonderful Valentine's Day. I can't get e-nuff of your love! Now go read up on your Loving Scientist, hire Love Actually from the DVD store and take from this day whatever you will. I know Hallmark and flower companies love it, but its still fun and worth embracing (if not for purely scientific purposes, of course)!

Thursday 8 February 2007

Turbulent Townsville

Sometimes, the weather just doesn't work in your favour. Whether its raining out weekend sport or a BBQ, bringing an early end to the snow season, or simply melting the polar caps, raising sea levels and displacing millions of people, it can often be a minor inconvenience.

But on other occassions, it can be truly annoying.

I am currently sitting in the airport lounge in Townsville, North Queensland, awaiting my extremely delayed flight and hoping beyond hope that I don't have to stay here any longer. Townsville is a town that is built around James Cook University, the Army and the North Queensland Cowboys Rugby League team. However, univerisity hasn't gone back, much of the Australian Army is deployed overseas, and its not rugby league season yet, so suffice to say, there is not alot to do. Although, I'm not sure whether I would be tempted by that combination of attractions in any case...

No, to be fair, Townsville has its fair sure of beautiful attractions and lovely people. I'm just grumpy - that grumpiness that only airports can bring out of you!

Northern Australia is currently in the grip of cyclonic weather conditions. Cyclone Nelson has cut off much of the north by road, and caused massive flooding. This is a very strange thing to see coming from Sydney, which like much of the rest of the country, is drought-striken and in a water crisis.

So for my flight to be delayed is not surprising. However, for my flight to be delayed because the plane is late from Sydney because of Sydney storms, whilst it is perfectly clear outside here in Townsville, is rather infuriating! (Marc - I'm adding this 6 hours after we were supposed to leave, and we're still here. Each hour they delay the departure time by an hour.)

OK, time to stop complaining, and make something sciencey out of all this. One of the "features" of the trip up, and considering the weather conditions probably the trip back, was turbulence. Turbulence is air movement that cannot normally be seen and whilst many people enjoy this aspect of flying, I struggle with it!

There are a number of ways that turbulence can come about:

Thermals - Air rises when it is heated by the sun, and cold air sinks. So if one mass of air heats up, this can cause air flow causing turbulence.

Jet streams - At high altitudes, there are fast air currents. These can shift, causing a disturbance in the nearby air.

Mountains - Air passes over mountains and causes turbulence as it flows above the air on the other side.

Wake turbulence - If you are flying near the ground, a passing plane or helicopter can set up small, chaotic air currents.

Microbursts - A storm can cause a strong downdraft close to the ground.

The danger with turbulence is that it cannot always be predicted. The cockpit suffers least from turbulence, whilst the rear of the plane cops most of the disturbance. You don't need clouds for turbulence, however I usually notice it most when flying through them. On the way up, the pilot tried to stay below the clouds that were causing the turbulence. However, after a period of time, the clouds got lower and lower, and the plane couldn't continue to stay below them. However, the pilot said we were too heavy to fly above them - so we flew in the clouds for the best part of the flight, and it was a bumpy ride!

Aircraft radars can't detect turbulence. Turbulence is the leading cause of in-flight injuries, so remember to keep those seat-belts done up! It can range from very mild, to the extremely dangerous (but rather unlikely) case of the plane being totally out of control with massive changes in altitude. Between 1981 and 1997, there were 342 reports of turbulence affecting major air carriers. Three passengers died, two of which were because they were not wearing seat belts. 80 suffered serious injuries, 73 of these were also not wearing their seat belts.

One example of turbulence was a flight from Singapore to Sydney with 236 passengers on board, as well as and 16 crew. The airplane encountered turbulence over central Australia when it hit an air pocket and dropped 100 m. Nine passengers, including one pregnant woman, and three crew members suffered neck, back and hip injuries, with one of the passengers requiring surgery. They were all not wearing seat belts.

I'll get this out on the podcast soon, assuming I get back..... (mp3 here)

For more info and some examples of turbulence incidents, see: Civil Aviation Safety Authority
For a fluid dynamics explanation, see here.

Thursday 1 February 2007

50 Mr Science Episodes!

This week sees the Mr Science Show Podcast turn 1 year old and clock up 50 episodes!

About this time last year, my brother James and I sat down in the China Radio International Beijing studios and recorded the first show - then nameless - on genetic engineering. James had the idea of a science series, and the announcers started to say that James was interviewing "CRI's very own Mr Science", and the name stuck.

We continued doing this for a number of week's down the phone until James moved on to bigger and brighter pastures and Michael Li started producing. I grabbed these episodes off the CRI stream on the net and created the podcast to go with the early Mr Science website. Not long afterwards, I started producing the podcast episodes myself on my own computer, or in the 2SER studios, although the interviews down the phone to China still continue - you'll just have to stream CRI to hear them! The recording quality of the podcasts has improved over time, as naturally the early one's down the phone aren't as clear as home produced recordings, which in turn aren't as crisp as studio recordings. I've forked out some money for home recording gear now, and Christmas was also kind, so hopefully the sound quality will be quite good in the future.

A big thanks to James for making this happen, to Michael for helping it continue, and to the guys down at the Diffusion Science Radio Show.

So to the show, and this show takes in my Top 10 Science Stories of 2006 as from the previous post, as well as a number of other tidbits and reflections from the year including family interviews from Christmas about their top science stories from 2006, snippets from my favourites songs from the year, and a collection of recordings of snorers who I had the pleasure of being caught with throughout the year.

The mp3 for this episode can be found here, or on the podcast.

Other interesting observations from the year:
  • The most downloaded podcast episode from the year was on how Stephen Hawking communicates and gets around (story, mp3)
  • The most searched for story was on Vacuum Cupping (story, mp3)
  • A lot of people also searched for Scientific Dating Tips, whilst 2006 saw me convinced about the Science of Speed-Dating.
  • Surprisingly, many people also searched for articles on facial hair and would have been surprised at what they found (here and here).
  • The Travelling Scientist tackled the 2nd and 3rd world. This year, assuming I have money, I'll try and tackle London and New York, and possibly Canada. But that all depends.
  • First Science picked up the blog - thanks guys!
Cheers and thanks for listening/reading.

Lets hope that 2007 is a fun, interesting and exciting year for all. Please leave any comments, or email me with feedback and thoughts, or just to say hi.