Brian Cox: Professor Awesome

Last night SBS aired a program called ‘Can We Make A Star On Earth?’. It was hosted by the refreshing and enthusiastic British physicist, Brian Cox and was about the future of energy on earth, in particular nuclear fusion. Cox is an excellent science communicator, with immense passion for fundamental science and is very relatable. Before earning his PhD and whilst studying for his undergraduate degree, he played keyboards in the 90s electropop band D:Ream, best known for their hit Things Can Only Get Better.

At one point during the programme, Cox was speaking with someone (I can’t remember who) about something (I can’t remember what) but his face was just lit up with this beautiful sense of wonder about some small, elegant piece of science and it was just so inspiring.

Cox is the poster-boy of the LHC and he’s got a new book out too, ‘Why Does E=mc2 (and why should we care)?, which might just make it’s way onto my Christmas wishlist.

And, he’s even kinda cute in a dorky, Pommy-boy way…

Photo by Vincent Connare, from

Do Our Top Research-Focussed Universities Offer Students Enough?

Currently in my group at work there are 2 university students on a 1 year industry work experience program. They attend a middle-of-the-road university not part of the Group of 8 and not particularly known for its research prowess. However, if they choose to pursue a career in science, this year of industry based learning will put them a step ahead of other graduates, I don’t doubt this for a second. One outcome of this experience is that they may realise that a career in science is not for them, but this is not necessarily a bad result. Far better for a student to realise this before they have finished their degree and entered the workplace for real.

When I was an undergraduate I was keen to get some work experience (I wasn’t sure if chemistry what I really wanted to do with my life), so before my summer break between 2nd and 3rd year I sent off letters to probably about 20 labs asking for unpaid work experience. I thought it would be a good idea to ask one of my lecturers to act as a referee for me. He was happy to do it, but very pessimistic that anyone would take me on, almost to the point of discouraging me from even trying. Despite this I got positive responses from 2 labs, one took me on for 2 weeks, and the other 4 weeks. The experience I gained, not only in improving my practical skills, but also learning about quality, dealing with clients and modern lab instrumentation was invaluable and skills I never would have picked up during the course of my chemistry degree. And in case you were wondering – yes, turned out I did want to be a chemist after all!

Throughout the next 2 years I was still at uni, the academic whom I asked to referee for me continually encouraged me to do a PhD, despite knowing I was keen to enter the workforce. Universities get a lot of money for their PhD students, and are the future of their research and teaching programs so it makes sense that the academic staff encourage ALL undergraduates to continue their education through to PhD. But in my mind there are 2 big problems with this;

  1. Most students are not suited to PhD research, or an academic or research-based career for that matter.
    This is not me saying that some people aren’t smart enough to be doing PhDs (but probably some are not!). But everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, and many of the skills required to excel in a research environment cannot be learned. Ya either got it, or ya don’t. Students and their supervisors should have a reasonable idea of their suitability for further research before the honours year is complete, and a joint decision made over whether or not the student is a suitable PhD candidate. It’s wrong to push students to do PhDs ‘for the good of the department’, sometimes at the expense of that student’s future.
  2. There is little to no support or information for those who choose not to pursue a PhD
    The Discipline within the research-focussed, Go8, Nobel Prize-winning university where I got my degree had no industry ties that I was aware of. Since I have left, there has been at least one industry link set up. Although I believe doing a PhD was within my capabilities, I was clearly headed towards a position in industry and I didn’t feel like any of the academic staff would have been any help whatsoever in helping me choose a career direction or giving advice on the kinds of jobs available to chemists locally. The student guild career service was also woefully biased towards students seeking employment after graduating with humanities degrees (actually they probably need the help a lot more than us science grads – ha!).

Research-driven universities need to realise that although they attract top students, not all students can or should do a PhD and have a career in academia. It is not the university’s role to find a job for its graduates, however, they should not ignore the fact that industry is employing the bulk of them. As much as the ‘second-tier’ universities may be mocked by the Go8, they are compensating for what they lack in world-class research by providing their students with ‘real-world knowledge’ and very valuable industry exposure, ultimately making them more employable.

Nick Xenophon busts some Scientology ass

Independent senator Nick Xenophon has been all over the news in the last couple of days regarding opinions he voiced in parliament on Tuesday about the Church of Scientology. If you are interested, the entire speech can be found online in the Senate Hansard here.

 Xenophon may in fact be entirely justified in his criticisms of the church, I don’t know, but I do think he has chosen a soft target in the Scientologists. Most Aussies already know Scientologists are just plain bonkers, and do a hell of a lot of crazy stuff in the name of their religion. Many of the points he’s raised could apply to any of the organised religions that are prominent in Australian society. He talks of abuse, cover-ups, fraud and rape…he could have been talking about the Catholic church!

 What Xenophon was trying to hammer home was that the Church of Scientology should not enjoy the tax-exempt status it currently holds in Australia. Indeed, a number of countries including, but not limited to, Canada, Ireland, UK, Switzerland and Belgium all deny Scientology recognition as a religion, and the tax-exempt status that goes with it. But why single out Scientology? No religion should be exempt from taxes. Churches and religions are a burden on the Australian taxpayer and must be held accountable, and contribute to society in the same way that individuals, businesses and organisations must.

  I’d like to finish with this wonderful quote from Xenophon: “What you believe does not mean you are not accountable for how you behave.” I wonder if he’d apply the same tenet to the more powerful and mainstream  religions that have so much influence over our law-makers?

I heart Catherine Deveny

Her blog post from today’s Age is great, and so on the money. This lady is all kinds of awesome, and I can’t wait to see her at AtheistCon next year.

An excerpt:

Things that make me wince
Australian parliamentary standing orders still requiring the House and Senate to open daily with a Christian prayer despite us supposedly being a secular state and our society supposedly being multicultural.

Australia’s continuation as a constitutional monarchy, a system that discriminates against pretty much everyone, despite our anti-discrimination laws.

The Brisbane teenager facing jail for procuring an abortion by using a pharmaceutical not easily accessible to Australian woman despite it being widely and legally available in Europe and Britain.

I’ve recently found myself embedded in the above conversations with morons pretending to be people who have said things that made me wince and think: ”Where do I start? If they don’t get the basics, what else don’t they get? Is there enough time? Can I be fagged? I’ve got to be in an old people’s home in 2048.

Onya, C-dawg. You rock.

Periodic Table Picnic Table

I can’t remember where I first came across this very cool piece of usable art (probably somewhere on ScienceBlogs).

periodic table picnic table

It’s located on campus at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, created as part of a public art program. The table is completely scientifically accurate in compliance with the Internation Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), which recognises that elements above 112 “have been reported but not fully authenticated”.

periodic table picnic table closeup

Would someone please pass the NaCl?

Halfway Through The Greatest Show on Earth

My copy of The Greatest Show on Earth arrived while I was on holidays, and now as I find myself about halfway through I’d like to share my thoughts so far.

There are plenty of anecdotes and analogies that readers of Dawkins’ other books will recognise. I don’t know if some people would find the consistent revisiting of prior material annoying but personally I found myself fondly remembering The Blind Watchmaker, Unweaving The Rainbow et al., rather than being annoyed that Dawkins was recycling material.

Now, I’m not really sure who Dawkins really expected the audience for this book to be. For someone like myself (a scientist and atheist), he is clearly preaching to the converted and although his prose is easily consumable and a pleasure to read, I felt that many of the descriptions were too simplistic. While reading his other books (The God Delusion maybe excepted), I remember that I could feel myself learning with each turn of the page. And there are some excellent layperson analogies and explanations of common creationist fallacies (I liked the Fronkey/Crocoduck section in particular).

If on the other hand he is optimistically pitching this book at creationists, to whom he chooses to refer to as ‘history deniers’, then I fear he’d have put them off before the end of the first chapter. I felt as though Dawkins was beating me over the head with his personal copy of the Oxford English Dictionary throughout the discussion of ‘what is theory, what is fact?‘ And stressing the use of the word ‘theorum’ was completely pointless, and frankly I thought it did nothing for his reputation of being a teeny bit of an arrogant prick. Nonetheless, if a sufficiently open-minded creationist (do such people exist? maybe it is an oxymoron…) were to make it past the Only a Theory chapter, then surely they couldn’t come away with their prior held  assertions intact.

One little tiny gripe of mine is the incessant use of the word ‘invaginate’ in the chapter You Did it Yourself in 9 Months. I mean, Dawkins use of the word is  legitimate and scienfically appropriate but the similarity to the word ‘vagina’ was more than a little off-putting for me. Maybe I’m too sensitive!

Either way, Dawkins passion for the subject is undoubtable and this translates into a book that so far has been a pleasure to read.  At this stage, I feel like the book would be most appropriate for rationalists/critical thinkers/atheists without biological science knowledge past lower/middle high school. I’ll probably finish the book in the next week or two so I will wrap up what I thought of the whole thing soon after.