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Image: University of WashingtonMany years ago a friend of mine turned up at our house with a new toy. It was basically a combat game and came complete with head-piece, vest and gun for each of 4 players. The gun “fired” some sort of signal – presumably infra-red – which was detected by sensors on the back, front and shoulders of the vest. As the number of shots inflicted upon you increased, you became more “injured” and eventually dead, just like in countless video games.

We proceeded to run about a local park hiding behind play equipment, hillocks and public toilets and taking shots at each other whenever we could. Other people in the park seemed rather bewildered as we ran, stumbled and giggled our way around them. We were in our twenties and I can only imagine what people thought when they emerged from the public toilet to come face to face with a young man in red goggles holding a gun.

I only remember playing this game once and I don’t think any of us were very good at it, possibly because we were distracted by the cool-ness of the head-up display in the head-piece. It was by this display that each player knew how dead they were becoming and what the team scores were.

Since then (and with added input from various science fiction movies) I have had a special place in my heart (and possibly corneas) for head-up displays. I have been quietly looking forward to the day when mobile phones and perhaps laptops could have their screens replaced by some sort of tiny virtual display. That day is a step closer with the announcement by Babak Parviz and his team at the University of Washington of a new contact lens embedded/imprinted with visual display circuitry. The idea is to produce images that appear to float between 50 cm and 1 metre in front of the user. More . . .

The Queen, the Flies and the Good Weekend

It has been unseasonably warm in southern Australia recently. I haven’t really looked into the Bureau of Meteorology’s historical data, but my memory of November is of a month of bright sunny days, followed by rain, followed by wind, then more sun, then lots of cloud cover, etc, etc. Anyway, this current hot patch has had everyone talking about summer. Summer of course means flies. Great. Flies always remind me of a great Australian science story. It’s tale of science, of people and of times past. It’s true, its old and everyone should know about it.

It was a big deal when Queen Elizabeth visited Australia in 1963. The tour was scheduled between 18 February and 27 March – summer and peak fly season. More . . .

Friends and Fortunes, Farewells and Futures

In Asakusa on Tuesday night we drew fortune chopsticks. Mitsuru reliably informs me that the one I drew is just about the best there is.

Bad old things will turn into happinessThe bright lights of Asakusa
New hope appearing, you will get treasures
You can find hope on the cloud in the sky
Just like dead trees bloom flowers when spring comes
Everything will be prosperous

Apart from the fact that this translation is quite beautiful and the future is so positive, these were encouraging words to read as we all face the melancholy truth of our impending departure. Both Yuko and Mitsuru suggested that a clearer translation of the third line is to "aim high" (for the sky - beyond the clouds) which is also very uplifting.

We wandered about, ate food (fantastic again, of course), watched people, took photos, and there was a guy playing beautiful music near the temple. I'm not sure what the instrument was (could it have been a shakuhachi ?) but the music was peaceful and soothing. He was not busking - there was no hat, or bag or box - he was just playing. I wanted to thank him, but it did not seem appropriate.

Then we made off for dinner, followed by more farewells. By this point I had more or less given up trying to control my tear ducts when saying goodbye.

The following day some of us returned to Miraikan (and Cathy went off to buy 4 lovely Vivienne Westwood jackets). Miraikan had been our host organisation, but we had actuallyHiromi and the GFP - Shimomura-san, Chalfie-san and Tsien-san would be pleased spent precious little time looking at its exhibitions. It was great to watch Hiromi doing a GFP (Green Fluorescent Protein presentation. I know we made her nervous, but she did a sterling job nonetheless.

Patrick and I did a bit of shopping in the Miraikan shop, had fun in a virtual robot and had a closer look at the internet exhibition and the senses exhibition (excellent). We also enjoyed a super-conductor demonstration show and had a closer look at and the health and medical research section - also very good.

Through a bit of shared bungling and probably over-tiredness, we managed to mis-inform Yuko about or departure time, so she was unable to make it back for a final goodbye. That was a pity and Hiromi had to bear the burden of the final farewell, but we all know this is not the end. There are already emails flying about and all manner of plans to look up, hook-up and link-up. We can find hope - and fun - on the cloud in the sky.

 

Places to Go, People to See

So bonyOn Monday and Tuesday we enjoyed a tour of science centres and musems in Toyko and there is quite a range. Tokyo National Museum of Nature and Science has a huge and spectacular collection. There are so many dinosaur skeletons that from some angles they seem to weave through each other. I can only imagine what they have in storage. There is also a roof top herb garden and a "parasol" garden featuring large umbrellas that open when you approach them. The roof space included solar panels, power supply substations, a variety of plumbing infrastructure and it could have remained for purely industrial purposes, but they've done great things with it, and the views into the surrounding park and across Tokyo are lovely. The Museum also has a beautiful biodiversity exhibition and the incredibly cool Theatre 360, a 12 metre sphere that one enters to experience  a 360-degree Beautiful biodiversity displaycinema screen.

The Tokyo Science Museum (not to be confused with the Tokyo National Muesum of Nature and Science, above) also boasts an impressive range of themes and displays generally covering science and technology, as the name Madoka Suzuki in actionsuggests. If you like bikes, there's a great display of bicycle technology though history. The aurora section is very nice and we were treated to a lovely demonstration show about sound, presented by Madoka Suzuki, one of the 2008 Japan-Australia Science Exchange participants.

We also visited RiSuPia (I think they explained that 'ri' is the word for 'science', 'su' is the word for 'maths' and 'pia' is from the word for 'place)
the Panasonic Digital Network Museum. It's very fun.Ground floor at RiSuPia RiSuPia combines cool technology and simple concepts. The whole Centre is beautifully laid out and features interactive displays covering topics including perception, geometry, nano-chemistry, mathematics and the water cycle. Your experience is recorded on a personal electronic device worn around the next, which is updated as you move through the exhibits. I'd show you more of these, but cameras are not allowed beyond the 1st floor, so you'll just have to trust me, or go for yourself.

Our host organisation, Miraikan is focussed on cutting edge technologies and research. "Miraikan" actually translates (roughly) to "future house". It features exhibits such as the ever-changing (and fragile, so don't even think about launching a water rocket anywhere near it) geodome, The fabulous Yuko, and some robot . . .some very nice nan-technology displays, the incredibly cool neutrino detector display and, of course Asimo. There is also a fantastic VR robot display. Basically 2 of you enter a VR theatre where you experience controlling a robot from inside (or on top of) it. The great thing is that you are actually controlling a real robot outside the room and seeing the world from its perspective. Patrick and I had a great time trying to meet the various bridge, ball and directional challenges posed by the Miraikan staff. These 4 institutions are wonderfully complimentary to one another and I'd recommend all of them.

The Gang

It dawned on my this morning that I have tried in recent posts to convey some of the joy and excitement Patrick and Mototsugo discuss cryo-ballisticsI have been enjoying in Japan, but that I have not mentioned the individual people. It is mainly they who have made this adventure so enriching. It is a wonderfully diverse and complimentary group from a wide range of institutions and backgrounds. Here they are in the order that their business cards fell out of my name tag holder.

Mototsugo Ueno, our “Rocket man” from Yamanashi Prefectural Science Centre gave us drive, energy and goodGrandpa Cathy under the influence of the crazy glasses humour. Kate Moore, one of Scitech’s finest kept us giggling and did some excellent work packing our road cases (the cardboard boxes used to transport our props to the performance space). Yuko Okayama, our facilitator from Miraikan, has been simply fabulous. She managed to find the perfect balance of humour, oranisational rigour, problem-solving skills and generosity of spirit. Hiromi Kurokawa, also from Miraikan has been a source of great ideas, committed performance and a fun-loving demeanour. We have also enjoyed the company of Museum Victoria’s Bernard Caleo. An accomplished comic artist (that’s comic, the noun although most his drawing this week has made me smile a lot) and performer, Bernard’s performance as the blue-wigged Mother is a highlight. And now it's runny again - Megumi and the oobleckI can only guess the psychological damage this performance might have caused to children in the audience. We brought a bit of Queensland with us in the form of Pete Cowes, from Queensland Museum. Pete played the father, married to Bernard's character. As if that wasn't challenge enough, he also managed a nifty bit of Japanese lip synching - hilarious.  

Akihiro Kumagai from Morioka Children’s Museum of Science is a good thinker with a fantastic sense of humour; he is also a sensational singer, as last night’s karaoke revealed. Questacon sent us Patrick Helean and Cathy Petocz. Patrick is our Australian Facilitator and is a source of boundless creative energy, wonderful support and heart-warming diplomacy. Cathy is another deep well of creativity. An accomplished musician, Cathy’s skills were revealed in the finale of our show as her Grandfather character rose to prominence in the centre of the stage. Mizuho Awakawa (Coco) of Hiroshima Children’s Museum brought an effervescent personality and an insightful mind, and was perfect as one half The twins, Mami and Cocoof our “twins”. The other half of the twins was Mami Ikeuchi, from Fujikawa-Razuka, Taikenkan Donbura. None of us will not forget Mami’s smile, her ideas, her performance or her skills with an AirZooker. We have been privileged to work with Megumi Ohashi from Hamamatsu Science Museum  as well, and whenever I think about her playing with oublek or using small balloons to impersonate a koala, I nearly giggle out loud. Megumi’s preparedness to try anything with a smile was great, and we are all wearing the beautiful string tie things she made us with pride. Pete and Bernard present an interesting angle on parentingMitsuru Kudo came with us from ANU and has been superb from the beginning, as an interface between the cultures. He has guided us (sometimes he didn't get completely lost), supported us, translated for us, ate with us and laughed with us.

Well, I must say I feel better for recognising everyone in our group, because these are the people that made it all work. There are more stories to be told about karaoke, taxis, MANGA, Fu-Fu and food, but they will have to wait for another time. Right now, as our group is dispersing it feels good just to see them to together again on this page.