National Science Week 2010 – Part 4

  • Sci-Ku

And finally, a little self-indulgence. The Royal Institute of Australia in conjunction with the Friendly Street Poets, ran a poetry competition for Science Week this year. The competition was called Sci-Ku, and entries were to be 3 lines long and in a Haiku style of poetry, although not necessarily conforming to the traditional 17 syllable count. I entered 3 poems, all of them gas chromatography themed. I won a ‘Highly Commended’ for the following poem:

Positional isomers

Always elute together

This is separation anxiety

You can read the winning entries, and other commended entries on the RiAus website here. Congratulations to all of the Sci-Ku poets!

National Science Week 2010 – Part 3

  • The Stupid Species – Wednesday August 18th, Kaleide Theatre, RMIT

Ex-Hungry Beast presenter and current ABC Science Show reporter Dan Keogh presented a show titled ‘The Stupid Species’ at RMIT in the city. The idea behind the talk was something along the lines of, ‘why do we think we are so great, but other people are just idiots?’. Dan presented videos of a couple of  cool social experiments he did, one getting people to answer questions with replies that they knew were wrong, but were convinced to say, just to conform with the other people in the room who were knowingly saying the wrong answers.  The other video was of uni students getting drunk on alcohol-free beverages – something I have witnessed myself in the past!

      Keogh is an accomplished performer, with a relaxed yet engagaging delivery style, a quirky, memorable on-stage persona (Professor Funk) and excellent use of Powerpoint. His overview of phenomena like the Dunning-Kruger Effect and other cognitive biases was accessible enough to those who hadn’t read about such things before, but also still entertaining to those of us who’ve read and heard a lot about them. I look forward to more stories from Dan on the Science Show in the future.

      In the next Science Week post: Sci-Ku

      National Science Week 2010 – Part 2

      • Scinema – Monday, August 16th and Friday, August 20th

      Scinema is an annual scientific film festival which screens during Science Week. There are a range of films in the program, covering a broad range of topics. This year I saw the following films:

      Nano You:

      Spain, UK. D. Tom Mustill. 17mins An introduction to the strange new world of Nanoscience, narrated by Stephen Fry. Where and what is nano? How will it shape our future? 2010 Winner – Best Short Film.

      How Kevin Bacon Cured Cancer:

      Australia. D. Annamaria Talas. 54mins. Three mathematicians reveal a new view of the world as     they unfold the science behind the popular trivia game “six degrees of Kevin Bacon”. 2010 Winner – Best Film.

      Do You Know What Time it is?:

      UK D. Paul Olding. 55mins. Professor Brian Cox asks the simplest of questions “What time is it?” but the answer takes him on an unexpected journey.      Winner – 2010 Award for Scientific Merit.

      All of the films I saw were great, and pitched at just the right level which is something difficult to do in popular science media. And it always helps to have wonderful personalities like Stephen Fry and Brian Cox involved.

      I am lucky that for the past two years I have been able to view some of the Scinema films at either my work, or at Other Half’s work. I would love to see Scinema distributed more widely, screened at more public locations and receive more publicity in the future. Whilst browsing the Scinema website for info for this post, I found a request for volunteers to help promote the event, so next year I will offer my services. It would thrill me to see Scinema showing to larger audiences at venues like ACMI or the Capitol Theatre during Science Week.

      In the next Science Week post: The Stupid Species

      National Science Week 2010 – Part 1

      National Science Week is over for another year after unfortunately coinciding with and being overshadowed by an ultimately pointless federal election campaign. This series of 4 posts is my wrap up of this year’s events.

      First up at the Brains Matter live show was Corin Storkey from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Free Radical Chemistry and Biotechnology, who you may know from ‘Beauty and the Geek’. Corin’s talk was about antioxidants and the role that foods like brazil nuts and chocolate play in reactions with free radicals in the body. Corin was a very good presenter, and I hope he can use his fame to help counteract the negative stereotyping of scientists in popular media . As an added bonus, samples of chocolate and brazil nuts were passed around the audience during the talk – free chocolate is always welcomed!

      The musical interlude between Corin’s talk and the live broadcast was also quite enjoyable, in particular, Clive’s rendition of ‘Everybody Do The Dinosaur’ was a hoot.

      Following the musical interlude, the live broadcast of the Brains Matter podcast began. Guest Patricia Vickers-Rich, and a complement of cute and enthusastic audience members made the show interesting, informative and entertaining. I certainly picked up some new paleontological knowledge. You can listen to the podcast at the Brains Matter website. And I also recommend the recent Brains Matter episode 122 relating to the federal election and the science policies of many of the political parties.

      In the next Science Week post: Scinema

      Acid or Base – Can journalists tell the difference?

      Yesterday on Chapel Street in South Yarra, two children under the age of 3 had a strong cleaning solution poured on them from above by a group of children aged 9-10. The story received coverage across all news media in Melbourne.

      In these days of almost instant news coverage, errors are common and details are often neglected in favour of breaking a story quickly. News spread that the children had been doused with ‘acid’. Turns out that the chemical was actually sodium hydroxide, and this sort of very basic error (pun intended!), is the kind of thing that really annoys me.

      The ABC reported that the chemical was most likely sodium hydroxide, commonly found in household cleaners and can also be purchased in solution from hardware stores .  A witness statement that the children “were just covered in this soapy stuff” adds weight to the hypothesis that the substance was caustic, as sodium hydroxide and many other basic solutions feel soapy or slimy to the touch.

      The Age quoted a detective saying that the substance was indeed sodium hydroxide, however the article was titled “Acid-prank suspect ‘too young to face charges’”.  NewsCorp’s Herald Sun initially led with “Toddler, baby burned with acid”, but have since changed most usages of the word ‘acid’ to ‘caustic’.

      Education about the properties of acids and bases begins in primary school, and students will encounter acid-base chemistry right up to year 10, even if they do not pursue further studies in the sciences. I think that acids and bases is one of the most applicable topics in chemistry to everyday life – that virtually all of the journalists reporting on the story did not know the difference, or did not care to check, is another sad indictment on the state of the public’s scientific literacy.