Sunday 30 August 2009

Ep 112: Jon Lomberg, the Voyager Gold Record, and the movie Contact

Jon Lomberg is one of the world's most distinguished space-artists. Lomberg was Carl Sagan's principal artistic collaborator for more than twenty years and in 1998, the International Astronomical Union officially named Asteroid Lomberg in his honour.

In 1972, Sagan asked Lomberg to illustrate The Cosmic Connection, after which they worked on NASA's interstellar Voyager Golden Record, a record included in the two 1977 Voyager spacecraft. It contains sounds and images that portray the various life forms and cultures on Earth. The record is intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life that may find it. It also contains information about our mathematics and science, as well as a way of decoding the record. As aliens may not see colours as we do, if they see at all, a method of decoding the information was included in the spacecraft, as well as an explanation of mathematics from its most simplistic level - one dot means the number one, two dots mean two, etc. From this point you can denote addition, multiplication and so on. The Voyager spacecraft are not heading towards any particular star, and Lomberg thinks that as the craft are unlikely to crash into a planet, if they are spotted, it will be by alien life that has mastered interstellar travel.

Lomberg also designed the original cover art for Sagan's novel Contact, and the opening sequence for the Contact film. Lomberg gave a talk at the Ultimo Science Festival and I was lucky enough to grab him for a chat afterwards. Listen to this podcast here:

For some more information on Jon, check out his website and have a read of the 10daysofscience story of his recent meeting with 1999 Young Australian of the Year, astronomer Professor Bryan Gaensler. This is a lovely story - Gaensler just happened to be sitting next to Lomberg at the Eureka Awards, and also had a tutorial scheduled for the next day on the challenges of portraying science and astronomy in film, using Contact as his primary example. Naturally, Gaensler asked Lomberg, “What are you doing at noon tomorrow?” See the 10daysofscience story for more information and videos from the tutorial.

To get you in the mood, here is the opening sequence for the movie Contact (on youtube here if you can't see the embed). It takes the journey of a spacecraft starting at Earth and hearing the sounds that Earth is currently pumping out into the Universe in the form of radio waves. As we pan out from Earth and journey further and further away, we hear older and older sounds to represent the idea that the sounds broadcast by the first radios are still travelling through the Universe - the further away we go, the older the music sounds, until we have left the solar system, and then the galaxy.

Saturday 22 August 2009

Ep 111: The Ultimo Science Festival, and sending text messages to aliens

This week's podcast celebrates the start of the Ultimo Science Festival - ten days and nights of science fun for families, schools, and people of all ages. The festival is presented by the Powerhouse Museum, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The University of Technology Sydney and TAFE NSW. It runs mainly in the Ultimo precinct near Central Station and Harris St - see the map on Google maps here. Most events are free and held from Friday August 21 through to Sunday August 30, 2009.
In this show, I chat to Festival Director Tilly Boleyn about how the festival started, what to expect, and what fun can be had. Some of the events we chatted about include Why the mind matters, The Dark Side of Science, Mathematics and Sex, The Science of Cocktails, and The Science of Coffee. I also chat to Jacqui Hayes from Cosmos Magazine about the Hello From Earth project. The project collects text messages on its website to send to Gliese 581d which is an exoplanet, or extrasolar planet, which means it is in orbit around a star other than the Sun. The Gliese 581 system is thought to be one of the best candidates for life outside our Solar System of the more than 350 systems with exoplanets so far discovered.

Listen to this podcast here:

After message collection closes on Monday 24 August 2009 - hurry!! - all the messages will be collected as a text file and sent to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where it will be encoded into binary code. This system of beeps and pauses will be sent back to the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex at Tidbinbilla, near Canberra. The signal will reach the solar system of Gliese 581 around December 2029 having travelled 20.3 light-years (192 trillion km). The soonest we could hope to receive an answer is in 42 years time in 2051. For more on the technical details, check out the Hello From Earth homepage. And check out the following youtube video:

To read more on National Science Week and the Ultimo Science Festival, see our recent blog post on the topic. Hope to see you at the Festival!

Friday 21 August 2009

The Open Laboratory: The Best Writing on Science Blogs 2009 - Nominations Open

Nominations for the 2009 anthology of the best writing on science blogs, The Open Laboratory 2009, are now open. Last year there were around 830 submissions narrowed down to 50 essays, one poem and one cartoon. You can buy the 2006, 2007 and 2008 editions at

If you would like to nominate blogs for this year's edition (and please feel free to nominate posts from this blog, please.....), use this submission form to submit original poems, art, cartoons and comics, as well as essays and blog posts.

Last year I was lucky enough to make the cut with a post I wrote for Plus Magazine called United Kingdom - Nil Points about the maths of the Eurovision Song Contest. Amusingly, as the title is a bit of an in-joke for Eurovision fans, the name of the article was changed to Political Music for US audiences!

And please remember to only nominate articles that would look good in a book - don't nominate podcasts, posts with embedded video etc. There are other awards for these types of things. Follow A Blog Around the Clock for more.

Thursday 20 August 2009

National Science Week Australia

National Science Week is Australia’s largest festival, celebrating science, innovation, mathematics, engineering and technology. Held annually in August, and now in its twelfth year, National Science Week welcomes an audience of over a million and hosts more than 800 events across the nation. According to a Newspoll survey, more than half the Australian population is familiar with the festival. (I am a little sceptical about this fact, although as it is such a wonderful occasion for science communicators, I'll let it slide!)

This year the festival runs from 15 to 23 August. Events take place in every Australian State and Territory, with the majority free and open to the public, offering an opportunity for all Australians to get involved.

There is also the very funky sounding National Tour. With events held in every State and Territory, the Tour guests help to inspire and motivate Australians about science and raise the profile of science within the community. This year, the National Tour will be joined by NASA Astronaut Marsha Ivins; environmentalist Tanya Ha; theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss; and palaeontologist Scott Sampson.

If you'd like to find out what's going on in your neck of the woods, check out the National Science Week website.

If you are in Sydney, then you'll want to be getting over to the Ultimo Science Festival, which runs from Friday 21st August to Sunday 30th August. I will blog and podcast more about this event very soon - I have interviewed the organisers, now to edit it all into a show... In the meantime, check out their website and look out for me at the festival. There are loads of events, but the ones I plan to go to include:
So, with any luck, I'll be dosed up on caffeine, cocktails and sex. Good times ahead!

And if blogs are more your thing, then check out the 10daysofscience site as they blog their way through the festival. I'm sure I will be twittering throughout so stay tuned for more blogs, podcasts and tweets.

Tuesday 11 August 2009

This makes me want to count!

If it were possible that Feist could get any cuter, here it is. In this clip, she sings her song 1234 with the cast of Sesame Street. Brilliant - surely this will get the next generation into mathematics!

Oh why not, here's one more! This is Sesame Street's take on Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run - in this case, Born to Add!

Thursday 6 August 2009

Ep 110: Coral, the Stone Henge of the Pacific, and more of the sights, sounds and science of Tonga

This week's podcast takes us back across the ocean to discover more of the sights, sounds and science of Tonga - see our previous episode for more on Tongan blowholes and whales.

On location in Tonga, we tackle the topics of:
  1. Haʻamonga ʻa Maui - otherwise known as The Stone Henge of the Pacific. This is an ancient 12-tonne stone trilithon whose purpose is not exactly known, much like that other Stone Henge in the UK. A previous King of Tonga, Tāufaʻāhau Tupou IV, once claimed it had an astronomical significance as it can determine the position of sunrise at solstices and equinoxes. As it was said by the King, it is the accepted explanation for what is an odd stone construction, at least in Tonga anyway.
  2. How did people get to Tonga in the first place? The generally accepted history is that the Lapita people came down through Papua New Guinea into Melanesia and Polynesia. However, Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl had other ideas based on the fact that the sweet potato (kumera) is found in both South America and Polynesia. To prove that it was at least possible that Tongans came from South America, in 1947 he sailed the Kon-Tiki raft across the Pacific Ocean from Peru to Tuamotus. Heyerdahl showed that, by using only the materials and technologies available at the time, there were no technical issues that prevented South Americans coming to Polynesia. Whilst the evidence suggests that people came through South East Asia and Papua New Guinea to reach the Pacific, one school of thought suggests that Polynesians may indeed have travelled to South America and picked up the kumera from there.
Back here in Australia, I spoke to Lachlan Whatmore about coral - what is it, how does it form, and what life does it support. Lachlan is a diving enthusiast and the golden tonsils of Australian community radio - as well as a qualified Marine Biologist. In short, coral is an Anthozoan marine organism that lives in colonies of polyps. Corals build reefs in tropical oceans - the reefs are made up of their calcium carbonate skeletons. Listen in for more.

And tacked onto the end of this show, we have a Correlation of the Week - this week discussing the relationship between eclipses and the stock market - see our previous story on the topic for more.

Listen to this podcast here:

Stay tuned for our final edition on Tonga in a few weeks.