Clown science

18 05 2010

Misconceptions and wonder can be a great way to teach science.

Last year I had a thirteen year-old doubt me when I said that grasses were plants, which was surprising, but was a good place to start a discussion.

It’s all about asking questions, rather than making statements. The student didn’t tell me I was wrong, and I didn’t do the same for that. I was asked  something like “Is grass really a plant?” and I responded, “Well, what have we discussed plants are? Does grass match the description? If it’s not a plant what is it?” Perhaps to many questions at once, but I was only starting out.

Problems can happen when the questions are treated as the answer. “What is up with that?” is treated as “Whatever.” It’s enough to make a clown’s head hurt.

If this doesn’t make sense you may have to check the ICP original.

Free Science! No ulterior motive necessary!

16 05 2010

Ulterior motive may be included anyway.

Valve has released steam for mac (squeee!), and for the next couple of weeks is offering award-winner Portal for free download to everyone*. Enjoy some portal fun and the eternal promise of cake!

Okay. I managed to finish it in under 3 hours gameplay (at least that’s what Steam is telling me), but Portal is an awesome game, and I’ll put that down to me having already played the last quarter of the game (which is plenty crazy when you haven’t gone through the original training levels).

And that was my Saturday.

*Which may or may not have something to do with Portal 2 being imminent.

Jim’s Story: Engine bodies and body engines

15 05 2010

This is taken from my Science Education textbook, The Art of Teaching Science. Is this a science lesson gone wrong? or a science lesson gone right?

Snapshot 10.1

Jim (not his real name) was explaining homeostasis to his Year 12 biology class. Homeostasis is the process where bodily inputs and outputs are balanced to maintain a constant internal environment. To model body temperature regulation, Jim used a car engine’s cooling system to show how heat input and output are balanced. Read the rest of this entry »

HDH: Quolls pass training test

15 04 2010

This weeks Hump Day Happy via DaveTheHappySinger

Cane toads were a bad idea. A very bad idea. An insanely bad idea. But anyway, Australia is now stuck with rampaging toxic amphibians threatening almost all our native wildlife. Amongst those threatened are native carnivores. Aside from birds and snakes, there is a whole range of little superficially rodent-looking marsupials, and quolls.

Quolls are awesome. Just from having an awesome name like “Quoll” (and providing more ‘q’ words in scrabble). They aren’t wimpy like “possums” and “sugar gliders”, these critters eat MEAT. Sadly, toads are made from meat, so quolls will naturally try to to eat toads. And then they die. Which is sad.

So the happy news at ABC is that scientists at University of Sydney have been successfully training small groups of quolls to resist the urge to eat cane toads using aversion therapy. The quolls were exposed to small toads sprayed with a nauseating compound which made trying to eat the delicious grenouilles quite unappealing.

“The toad was hopping around. It looked like something good to eat, but once they sniffed it they got that signal saying, ‘Hey, we’re not good to eat’ and they ignored it.” – Dr. Jonathan Webb

A video of the training process is also up on the ABC.

When released into the wild and monitored, trained quolls had higher survival rates than untrained quolls.

The scientists hope that toad training can be initiated ahead of the toad invasion front, so that by the time the toads reach that area the quolls (and other animals) no better than to try and eat one.

The actual scientific article can be found at the Journal of Applied Ecology (you’ll need a Wiley InterScience subscription) DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2010.01802.x

Vatican secrets: The original Macroscope

2 09 2009

One of my favourite sci-fi novels is Macroscope by Piers Anthony.

Note: Although Anthony is famous for his light-hearted Xanth series. This is a novel for adults, and deals with a lot of serious and heavy historical and social issues, and yes, that means violence and sex.

The macroscope is a powerful transmission receiving satelite that can detect pretty much every wave emitted in the universe. Theoretically with such a device one could observe every event in history anywhere in the universe.

With the device scientists are able to observe the demise of several distant historical alien species (one through personal greed, one through violence, and another reckless abuse of their environmental resources). Scientists also detect another special signal that only the people with high IQ (i.e. most of the scientists) can discern. Unfortunately, everyone who watches this signal turns into a catatonic vegetable. The story follows the one alleged genius who may be able to discover the secret behind this transmission.

The idea of a Macroscope is quite interesting, and is almost what our existing satelites and telescopes do already (receive various forms of radiation as it reaches Earth). So why can’t we observe what happened 40,000 years ago on Earth in real-time?

Apparently, in the 60’s, a Venetian monk, Father Pelligrino Ernetti claimed to have a device that could do just that. The device was called the “chronovisor” and apparently resembled a television.

Instead of receiving broadcasts from local transmission stations, however, the chronovisor could tune into the past to allow the viewer to see and hear events that had occurred years or even centuries earlier. Father Ernetti told [Father] Brune that the machine worked by detecting all the sights and sounds that humanity had made that still floated through space.

That’s right: Catholic scientists invented a virtual time machine. And apparently they saw the crucifixion of Christ, Napoleon’s conquests across Europe, and the penning of Thyestes by the Roman poet Quintus Ennius.


Now here comes the unbelievable part. You can not see the device anymore because the priests destroyed it. It was too dangerous, as it might invade people’s privacy and create a dictatorship. Really? Catholic priests don’t want blind obedience and total information awareness?

Something about that just doesn’t add up.

60 Second Science: Kids competition

12 08 2009

Through the ABC Teaching Science mailer.

Children in Australian schools can win cash prizes by creating a 60 second science video. The video can be filmed or animation, and must “demonstrate and explain a scientific experiment, principle or concept.” (Full rules here)

Registration closes at the end of September. The prize has been set up thanks to funding from the Victorian Department of Education – but there is a $1000 of prize money available in each state ($400 and $100 for first and second in primary and secondary divisions).

Entry forms available here.

Choose your own science

4 08 2009

In the lead up to Australia’s National Science Week this month (don’t forget to sign up for that), the Australia Museum is holding People’s Choice Awards for their Eureka Science Prizes.

GO VOTE. (There are prizes for Australian residents)

I actually have connections with one of these scientists! Squeee! I am like legitimate (or not…). Kathy Belov, nominated for her work regarding the genetics of the Tadmanian Devil facial tumour (DFTD). Marsupial immunology is a small field, so Kathy was one of the collaborators with my ex-supervisor on the launchblock for my research (one of my former lab-mates now has Kathy as a PhD co-supervisor) – near the end of my research our lab received some very useful American marsupial DNA libraries from her.Good luck Kathy.

And if transmissible facial cancer in devils is not cool enough for you there is also: