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Paper Chase

Image by GiantsFanaticI’ve become more and more disappointed with news media over recent years. I know I’m not alone in this, but a few days ago I asked myself why – what did I really want from the media? I mean it’s very easy to criticise, but could I articulate what the problem is, or – better still – could I offer any solutions. The answer is maybe.

I analysed the morphology of a popular Australian newspaper, which revealed two interesting things. The first was a list of basic newspaper content; the second was a very interesting analysis of the anatomy of the newspaper. Let me explain. More . . .

Think 'til You Drop!

Great Big Science Gig, touring Australia again in AugustMonths ago it occurred to me that I should write a quick post about all the excellent events that are coming up in August, before things get too busy. Unfortunately - perhaps ironically - preparations for all these activities have contributed to a pretty busy couple of months and now things are just about to kick off.

We’re about to head off on this year’s Great Big Science Gig (GBSG) tour, with some new songs and new demos. We’re very happy to back at The Front (Canberra) and at Burnie Civic Centre. This year we’re also performing at The Exford Hotel (Melbourne) the Glasgow Arms Hotel (Sydney) for the first time. GBSG will also appear at 'Ultimo Night of Science', 'Market of the Mind' and 'How Smart Are You'.

Market of the Mind - cerebral, scientific, social and sometimes sillyOn 11 August I will be at QV square in Melbourne, MCing ‘Birdman Sandwich’, part of the ‘Science Sandwich’ program. This will feature successful (and less successful) entrants to the Moomba Birdman Rally and we'll discuss the aeronautics and physics pertinent to jumping off a bridge with a passive, home-made flying suit/system.

I will also be MCing ‘GM Food: A Dinner Discussion, Should GM crops contribute to global food security?’ on 10 August. The issue of food supply and production is a big one, so this should be a absorbing conversation.

Faraday's Candle, touring to Geelong for the first timeI’m also excited that ‘Faraday’s Candle’ will have a short season in Geelong. This time at St Matthew's Church.

Among more than 100 other National Science Week events in Victoria (and more than 750 across Australia) you should also consider 'Living Science at Queen Victoria Market', the 'Raveling the World' exhibition and 'Waiter, Waiter, there's a dye in my soup'. Check out the National Science Week site for more event details and I'll see you there!

Tesla and the Teenage Brain

Nikola Tesla was probably a genius. Even as a youngster he was clever and inventive. He may well have been rather different to modern teenagers, but that does not mean that there is not connection. Tesla was awarded more than 100 patents and is credited with the invention of the first automobile speedometer, fluorescent lighting, alternating current (AC), the radio, the first remote controlled toy (a boat) and wireless electricity (I can’t wait for that to become a household reality – real wireless living). He also invented the rotating magnetic field. This is a magnetic field which changes direction at a constant angular rate.

A rotating magnetic field makes it possible to maintain a homogeneous magnet field. It is based on such a field that MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machines operate, but it needs to be a really, really strong magnetic field.

This sort of magnetic field is produced and maintained by a superconducting magnet, made up of lots and lots of coiled wire, through which an electric current is passed.

What's all this got to with teenagers? Fair question, keep reading. More . . .

Small Flame, Great Illumination

Image by Bernard CaleoThere are candles on birthday cakes, candles in churches and candles at romantic dinners. It seems that unless there’s a power failure, candles are restricted to ceremony and set dressing. Of course it was not always this way. A candle represents some of humanity’s deepest needs and greatest achievements. We need warmth and we need light and with a candle we have that energy in our hand, we can carry light into darkness.

There is beauty and awe in a candle; the vulnerability of the flame, the power of the fire, and intrigue of holding this paradox in our hand. We have known this fascination since the first wick was ignited. More than 150 years ago Michael Faraday saw it too, but he saw so much more.

Faraday used the candle as the inspiration – indeed as the central character – of a series of six lectures at the Royal Institution, 'The Chemical History of a Candle'. Currently I am very happily directing a piece of theatre inspired by and based on Michael Faraday’s Christmas Lectures. Faraday was a fine science communicator, one who could see profound truths in the most humble of moments. He was a man who recognised the splendour of a good experiment and the power of a good question.

‘Faraday’s Candle’ is being produced by re-science and will be performed by Bernard Caleo, one of Melbourne’s most charismatic actors. It is a been a pleasure working with him, as always. We hope the show will be performed at various venues around Victoria in the coming months, but it all begins at St Paul’s Cathedral (corner of Flinders and Swanston Streets) on 20 and 21 May. Bookings are via Eventarc and I would encourage you to join us. 

Saving Science

Photo by Mary VailThe scientific community of Australia has been rattled by rumours that the National Health and Medical Research Council is to have its funding cut by close to 20% in the upcoming May budget. There is now a nervous wait to see if the federal government will really slash $400 million from the NHMRC.

Photo by Mary VailIt seems extraordinarily short-sighted that such a move would be considered, but what is perhaps more disturbing is that the government is unlikely to have developed any such plan without some research of their own. I assume there must have been some conversations, market research, focus group study or similar. If this is the case and the government’s considered opinion is that the Australian people will accept such an irresponsible act, I would be both surprised and very disappointed.

Participants in a recent ANU study rated their level of interest in health, medical discoveries, environmental issues, scientific discoveries and new inventions ahead of music, politics and sports news. In terms of their contribution to society, scientists were outranked only by doctors and teachers.

Photo by Mary VailAustralia has a rich history of scientific research and I’m pretty sure that the vast bulk of Australians would be outraged if they were aware of the mooted NHMRC Photo by Mary Vailfunding cut. The only fear is that they might not be aware and that it might slip quietly through in the background of the budget announcement. This is far less likely after rallies today in several Australian cities.

It’s rare that scientists protest, publically at least. They discuss and network; they debate and argue and sometimes they’ll even lobby, but public expressions of frustration, defiance and advocacy are very unusual. So when thousands of researchers take to the streets people should take notice and I think they will.

It was also pleasing to see the range of very clever posters and placards on display. I have included several of my favourites from the Melbourne rally here. I hope they give you a giggle and that the energy and creativity shown by our scientists may again be channelled into their work and appropriately supported by government.

Photo by Mary Vail
Photo by Mary Vail