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Bec

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Scientia Pro Publica #46

Scientia Pro Publica

Alright you lot, apologies for hibernating for the last couple of months. For those of you who don’t know (ie. who aren’t on twitter), I’ve been working at Australian science magazine, Cosmos, since June, and it’s keeping me very busy and happy. But don’t give up on old RP completely – we’ll be back very soon…

That aside, I’m super-excited to be able to host the 46th edition of Scientia Pro Publica: a rotating bi-monthly compilation of the best blog writing targeted to the public about science, medicine, the environment and technology. And if you a) think taking 5000 bees in a suitcase on a plane is a great but pointless idea, b) think strapping a prawn to a treadmill is a great but pointless idea or c) need proof that chimps are nothing like humans because you hate them and don’t want to look at them ever as much as I do – prepare to be enlightened.

Or don’t, I don’t know, it’s not like it’s going to change anything. Either way it’s just going to end with a, “Huh. Cool.” anyway, which is pretty much ideal if you ask me.

beesonaplane

So first up: BEES ON A PLANE

The team over at More Than Honey – The Making of a Bee Documentary tell the amazing story of German biologist, Max Renner – student of the famous bee expert, Karl von Frisch, – who somehow stuffed 5000 bees into a wooden suitcase in 1955 and boarded a plane from Paris to New York to see how their tiny internal ‘bee clocks’ would cope. Do bees get jetlag? What kind of decor does a Bee Room need?  Click to find out…

So bees can count to four and speaking of counting and segways, The Questionable Authority blog destroys the dreams of school kids everywhere by explaining why Conrad Wolfram’s idea proposal to let computers do the calculations in maths class instead of the kids doing it themselves just won’t work. Fifteen-year-old me is devastated. And continuing on our mini maths jaunt, MarkCC from Good Math, Bad Math explains what obfuscatory mathematics is and precedes to stomp all overits use to argue against the value of vaccination.

Things are getting characteristically philosophical over at Traversing the Razor, where that giant cat overlord oversees a post to celebrate Carl Sagan Day (8th November) with an excerpt from Pale Blue Dot (1994). If you’re not familiar with it, it’s an incredible read. The giant cat overlord would also like you to ponder the science versus the products of science question while you bask in his hypnotic gaze.

eleutherodactylus-iberia

THIS GUY.

Look at him. He’s the weeniest. But being weeny doesn’t mean he can’t kill things. GrrlScientist from Punctuated Equilibrium explains how the recently discovered eleutherodactylus iberia – the Cuban mini-frog – evolved to be highly toxic due to its very specific diet.

Meanwhile, not-so-poisonous but a whole lot more deadly if you’re a harbour seal – the Pacific sleeper sharks have been found to be controlling certain parts of its ecosystem with fear. That’s just the kind of thing a shark would do, only sleeper sharks aren’t known for eating seals. Chuck from Ya Like Dogs explains the science of keeping ’em in line – fear style.

Also frightening are chimps. Don’t even get me started. Now, I specifically asked for no chimp-related submissions because I don’t want primates infecting this blog, but Norman Johnson from Watching the Detectives compromises by reviewing Jeremy Taylor’s Not a Chimp. If I’m going to have to read about chimps, it helps that I’m reading about how unlike humans they are.

Emily Willingham from The Biology Files introduces us to microchimerism. And no, this isn’t some awesome condition that makes you develop the parts of a lion, a goat and a snake and then makes you really really small. I know, I’m disappointed too. What it does mean is that we can carry a few cells from someone else around with us, meaning our parents are literally with us all the time. Again, frightening.

Now I hope you all remember THIS:

It gets me every single time. But now thanks to Andrew from Southern Fried Science, we now know why that prawn is unwittingly scrambling for its life. You’ll also find out about other scientific experiments that don’t harm the animals (even the Pigeon’s Obstacle Course of Doom and Baby Seal Waterboarder) but can tell us so much about them.

Meanwhile Andrew Bernardin hits us with some null news over at 360 Degree Skeptic, discussing recent null experimental results involving fish oil and green tea and why they are important, and Bob O’Hara from Deep Thoughts and Silliness takes a look at a paper on research fraud, and find the Americans aren’t as bad as the paper made out. So America: 1, Journal of Medical Ethics: zero.

Last up – Mike McRae from The Tribal Scientist talks about the real education gap – between science and maths communicators and their students – and makes some really important points, and Bill Litshauer from RelativelyInteresting.com explains how the seasons work, in terms that even I can understand. (Shhhh….)

Now I’ll leave you with James Byrne from Disease of the Week!’s post about gut flora. It’s gross. There are gross bodily functions, gross bodily emissions, gross babies eating gross bodily emissions…. but it’s also a great read.

Thus ends my part. And now I’m going to read something really really stupid to balance all of this out. Or watch cat videos. I’ll just do that. If you want to get involved in the next Scientia Pro Publica, keep an eye on the website for submission details.

– bec

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Pokémon Vs The Royal Botanic Gardens

I’m not going to lie. I was practically dragged out of bed last Sunday morning. “I just want to play Pokémon. That’s all I want to do. Yes I’m serious.”

And of course that old adage that would haunt me as a child every Wednesday night at Brownies and every Thursday night at swimming training – You’ll enjoy it when you get there – stings just as much now as it did then. YES, okay, I had a good time. And I got to play Pokémon afterwards when I got home anyway. Now leave me the hell alone.

As part of National Science Week this year, the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney had an Open Day on Sunday 22nd August, offering guided tours of their labs and nurseries and collections, as well as self-guided tours around the gardens and other family-oriented activities. Having attended the Plant Pathology Tour, run by their resident pathologists, and the Herbarium Tour, which took us through the National Herbarium of New South Wales, I was so impressed by the organisers’ ability to cater to both kids and adults in their programming.

Sure, neither of these tours I attended were particularly suited to children, all but one of the four that showed up to the Herbarium Tour slipping out within the first ten minutes, but there was an entire hall filled with activities like plant mounting, botanical illustration and microscope viewing, plus an insect-themed self-guided mystery tour, and guided “bush tucker” and wildlife walks, so no one – not even this grumpy Sunday morning Running Ponies correspondent – could have been bored.

Honestly, how great does this look:

Hands on Science - Royal Botanic Gardens

Hands on Science - Royal Botanic Gardens

Exactly.

Having adults and kids simultaneously fascinated – that’s what Science Week should be about, but it’s a very tricky business to get right.

The Plant Pathology Tour took a group of six of us through one of the new labs at the Gardens, and we learnt about the disease cycle of chestnut rot, funguses, and how to extract, process and photograph DNA. The adults asked a lot of questions. I played it cool and asked nothing. #brainsabbath

Next I did something really stupid and opted not to line up for the sausage sizzle, all like, “Oh my God, there isn’t time!” The Herbarium Tour was in fifteen minutes. I’m not sure who I thought I was at that particular moment, but in hindsight I could’ve probably eaten about three before the tour started. (It was 2pm and I hadn’t had breakfast yet. Don’t judge me.)

I did get a charmingly eclectic sample bag though, its contents going progressively off-topic:

* Science magazines

* A magnetic waratah bookmark

* Stickers of a smiling water droplet

*A ruler with a T. Rex in space on it

* Toothpaste.

Irrelevance aside, it was definitely one of the better free sample bags I’ve picked up at an Open Day. At least this shit I can use.

The National Herbarium of New South Wales looks like this:

National Herbarium of New South Wales
National Herbarium of New South Wales

Thousands and thousands of plastic red boxes in rows and rows and rows containing 1.2 million specimens from Australia and around the world. It might look and sound a bit dull, and I’m not even that into, you know, plants, but they’ve got an art exhibition in the foyer, a library, and every one of those red boxes are filled with these, which are surprisingly fantastic to look through:

National Herbarium of New South Wales
Herbarium specimen mounts

And it’s all open to the public. I went in not knowing that the Herbarium existed, and came out seriously considering coming back and spending an entire day there.

We also had a tour of one of their labs and got an even more thorough walkthrough of the process of DNA extraction. We finished up and went outside and the sausage sizzle was gone. I panicked and wondered if they had food in the Gardens’ Shop. They did not.

National Herbarium of New South Wales
Herbarium bottled specimens

Like the Melbourne Museum, the Botanic Gardens have a great Science Week program. I would have stayed and done the self-guided tour because it was a stunning Sydney day, but I don’t keep biscuits in my bag.

Visit PlantNET – the Herbarium’s online plant identification site here.

– bec

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“The Oscars of Australian Science” – Eureka Awards Dinner 2010

eureka awards 2010

From one madcap taxi ride to Randwick Pavilion to regrettable post drinks at an open-till-5am bar on Oxford Street, the Eureka Awards Dinner is pretty much one of the best parties in town. Established in 1990, the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes are awarded annually to those with outstanding achievements in science and science communication. This year the highlights included chickens with feelings, photogenic insects and nicely-dressed scientists as far as the eye could see. I love a nicely-dressed scientist.

Sitting at the Science Week table I learnt about Questacon’s badly-behaved talking robot who said inappropriate things to children before they removed and reprogrammed him, and watched the 19 prizes being handed out over dinner.

Chicken sympathisers, Chris Evans and K-Lynn Smith, trumped researchers working on a way to replace animal testing and saving dogs from inherited disorders for the Research that Contributes to win the Prize for Scientific Research That Contributes To Animal Protection:

“Groundbreaking research using new high-tech chook-friendly testing facilities challenges the concept of the feckless fowl… titled Sentient chickens: the scientific case for improved standards, it portrays chickens as social, intelligent creatures complete with Machiavellian tendencies to adjust what they say according to who is listening.”

Given that chicken was being alternated with barramundi that night, I’m assuming they switched meals with whomever was sitting next to them while they waiting in the queue for the bathroom.

“What’s barramundi?” friends from Europe asked me.

“An Australian fish.”

“Sounds like a good name for a cat, or a baby girl.”

Europeans.

A world-first collaboration between a cattle breeder and six scientists won the Prize for Research by an Interdisciplinary Team for their work with Meat Standards Australia, and Amanda Barnard from CSIRO the prize for Scientific Research as she develops an invisible, environmentally friendly sunscreen.

I visited the COSMOS table up the front where things were getting suitably anarchic, before the saddest moment in the evening when our two nominees for the Science Journalism Prize, John Pickrell and Elizabeth Finkel, were beaten by the ABC. Read Pickrell’s incredible piece on feathered dinosaurs and Lizzie’s elegant exploration of genes here and here.

I tweeted/texted double sad faces from across the room.

“Are you blogging right now??”

“No. I’m just texting…”

Guys, I’m not that clever. Sorry.

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Science Week Begins With Melbourne Museum Stealing My Heart

museum victoria qantassaurus

Qantassaurus

Melbourne Museum – I could totally live in you. I know that sounds like something a psychopath would say, but there’s no other way to put it. And it doesn’t have to be the whole entire building, just the Science and Life Gallery would be fine. And yes, both floors please. Just rope it off and everyone else can go crazy everywhere else. Quietly. I get the dinosaurs and the taxidermy and the insects.

Except you’re going to have to move the spiders elsewhere, particularly the live ones and particularly the live ones that aren’t even in boxes. What is that, MM? I honestly stood there for like five minutes straight trying to come to terms with the fact that there’s literally nothing except a giant room-sized web between those orb-weavers and us, and I know they aren’t particularly dangerous and have no reason to come out of their giant room-sized web and mingle with the humans, but that’s not the point. They’re still spiders, MM. You’re playing with fire in a giant room-sized web.

Science on Show

National Science Week - Science on Show

Science on Show - Mammology Display

National Science Week kicked into gear yesterday and Melbourne Museum was the absolute best place to spend the first day. And I’m not just saying that because that’s what I did and obviously have no comparison. But…

* Live insects

* Museum experts

* Australia’s best scientific illustrators

I rest my case.

I began with Science on Show, which involved half a dozen display tables filled with stuffed, bottled and boxed specimens, Australian megafauna fossils and a model crab the size of a curled up human child and so on, all manned by various experts from the Museum. I got to pat a taxidermied tapir and made some dumb comment about how it looks like it’s stuck in a really powerful wind tunnel with that posture (well it does), rifle through a trolley’s worth of poltergeist-esque sea creatures in jars, and get mad at the terrestrial invertebrates expert for holding up two huge bottled spiders and making me compare their fangs. DO NOT WANT, as they say.

Then I may or may not have rendered myself the creepiest person in the building by deciding I wanted these for my livingroom:

National Science Week - Science on Show

Science on Show - Ornithology Display

Yes. Rows and rows of tiny dead birds. That’s what I want in my house. Jesus. But it might come as less of a shock to you now when I tell you I want this room as my bedroom:

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Not in Front of the Girls, Phrynosoma cornutum!

Phrynosoma cornutum

Phrynosoma cornutum, or the Texas horned lizard, has armed itself with an impressive array of defenses, but none quite as gruesome as its tendency to squirt jets of poisoned blood from its eye sockets to deter attack. Otherwise known as ‘autohaemorrhaging’ horned lizards are the only known vertebrates to use this defense mechanism.

A highly cryptic, or well-camouflaged, species from the dry areas of Southern U.S. and Mexico, P. cornutum relies on its colouration, flattened body form, and lateral fringe scales to keep it hidden from predators. However, when it is detected by predators, it can defend itself with its toxic blood-jets, or flee. The defense mechanisms and behaviour of P. cornutum have been studied by William Cooper of Indiana University-Purdue University and Wade Sherbrooke of the American Museum of Natural History to determine if a notion known as ‘escape theory’ applies to highly cryptic species such as P. cornutum as it does with more conspicuous species. “Of  particular interest is whether their escape decisions bear the same relationship to predation risk and costs of escaping as they do in other prey lacking such defenses,” said Cooper and Sherbrooke.

Escape theory predicts that once an animal has detected a predator nearby, it will not flee immediately, but instead monitor the predator’s approach and base its decisions on the apparent costs and benefits of the situation. It will assess the risk of getting caught versus the cost of fleeing from its current location – which could mean lost opportunities to forage for food or engage in social behaviour. When it does decide to flee, its level of fitness will determine the initial distance between it and its predator, a space known as ‘flight initiation distance’. The fitter the prey, the shorter the distance left between them.

What the reseachers found when observing P. cornutum was that the individuals who were alone when spotted by a predator had an average flight initiation distance almost twice as long as those who were in the company of other lizards and interacting socially with them. Thus the predictions of escape theory held true. “The decrease in flight initiation distance during social encounters provides the first evidence that horned lizards base their escape decisions in part on costs associated with fleeing,” Cooper and Sherbrooke said.

Texas horned lizard blood

Another small animal with a rather terrifying defense mechanism is the Trichobatrachus robustus, or Hairy Frog, so called because when the males breed, they produce strands of skin and arteries that look like long hairs. When threatened, much like the Spanish Ribbed Newt that pushes its ribs through its skin to use as weapons, these frogs break their own bones and push them through the skin on their toe pads to form claws.

Observed in detail by David Blackburn and colleagues at Harvard University, T. robustus’ claws are an instant weapon, and dangerous enough to force the people of Cameroon to hunt them with long spears and machetes to avoid some nasty wounds.

Trichobatrachus robustus claws

When at rest, these claws are hidden inside the tips of the hind feet, surrounded by a mass of connective tissue. A small piece of bone at the tip of T. robustus’ toe is connected by collagen to the sharp end of the claw. The back end of the claw is connected to a muscle, which Blackburn suggets can be contracted when the animal is threatened, pulling the claw downwards, and breaking the collagen bond between sharp tip of the claw and the bony end of the toe. The claw emerges through the skin on the underside of the frog’s hind toes, far enough to leave “deep, bleeding wounds to the person holding it,” according to the paper pubished in Biology Letters.

Also found in other African frogs from the Astylosternus genus, Blackburn reports, “No other vertebrate claw is known that lacks a keratinous sheath, is composed soley of naked bone, and must break free from another skeletal structure to pierce its way to functionality.”

Cameroon Hairy Frog claw

Hey, P. cornutum, T. robustus – promise me you’ll never get into a fight, especially in front of girls?

You know what it would be like. You’ll be walking between classes together or something one day, like, “And then my mum walked in and I got cereal and milk all over the sheets,” “That’s gross,” when you’ll accidentally bump into a Greater Roadrunner who’s mad about his crap grades and he’ll be all, “HEY! WATCH WHERE YOU’RE GOING, NO EYES.”

And you’ll be like, “Why are you yelling?”

“I CAN’T SEE YOUR EARS, I ASSUME YOU DON’T HAVE ANY.”

“Yeah? Well we can’t see yo–“

“ENOUGH. YOU, ME, AND YOUR GIRLFRIEND – BEHIND THE DEMOUNTABLES AFTER CLASSICS. GOT IT?”

“I’m a b–“

“OH LOOK I’M LATE.”

“Shit. We’re going to die. We’re going to die in front of girls.”

“What are you talking about? We have the most awesome weapons ever. You can make bone claws, and what’s he gonna do? Peck?”

“Hey you’re right. We should invite girls.”

“Yeah. Lots of girls. Because this will probably be the best moment of our lives.”

So you’ll do your mythology quiz, “If in doubt, just write ‘castrated’…” and then head over to the demountables. Of course, the Roadrunner will be late, so you’ll be like, “I wonder what I’d look like if I had feathers.”

“A chicken.”

“Huh.”

Then the Roadrunner will arrive, and so will all those girls you invited. You’ll shoot mad blood tears at the Roadrunner, and probably accidentally at the girls too, judging from the way they’ll carry on like, “Oh my god, we’re covered in blood.”

The Roadrunner will be all, “JESUS CHRIST. WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH YOU. YOU CAN GET HEPATITIS LIKE THAT.”

“Birds can’t get hepatitis.”

“WHAT THE HELL DO YOU KNOW? FUCK THIS.”

And somewhere between their mutterings of “That was the grossest thing I’ve ever seen,” and “If I ever accidentally make out with either one of them at a party because I’m really really super drunk, promise me you’ll kill me and immediately stop being my friend?” the girls will have decided to never ever date you.

“Shooting blood out of your eyes? What is that? What’s your next move? Opening your chest cavity and using your guts to tie that Roadrunner to a bicycle before wheeling him to the top of a hill and pushing him down so he’ll get runover and crushed and all tangled up in your guts?”

“No…”

“Well are you going to take your own eyeballs out and dip them in poison and then force him eat your poison eyeballs and then laugh when he dies because of your poison eyeballs?”

“Um. No…”

“Are you gonna tear off your own head and put it in a sandwich and–“

“OR… how about I push my own bones through my skin to make claws? Bone claws! That’s cool, right? Girls?”

****

For more info visit New Scientist’s Zoologger page.

Original paper on P. cornutum from Ethology here /On T. robustus from Biology Letters here.
Top image by Jack Goldfarb / T. robustus images courtesy of D. Blackburn.

– bec

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Running Ponies Declared Australia’s Best Science Blog!

running ponies

So in what was a completely unexpected result to I’m sure many (including myself. Especially myself), this little blog won the Big Blog Theory Competition by popular vote, earning it the title of Best Australian Science Blog! It’s a wonderful thing to realise that despite the liberally-applied obsenities and thinly-veiled references to the more awkward moments of my sex life, Running Ponies’ ultimate goal of getting as many people as possible excited about the peculiarities of nature and the researchers who discover them is acutally being fulfilled.

You can read my comments in the press release here (but not while I’m in the room because I’ll probably throw up or hyperventilate or something), and be sure to visit equal runners-up, Marc West’s Mr. Science Show and Capatin Skellet’s A Schooner of Science. And fellow finalist, Kylie Sturgess of PodBlack Cat fame also gets a mention for being consistently lovely.

There was also a micro-blogging/Twitter category, which Corri Baker from Adelaide won. You can/must follow her here.

Thanks so much to everyone who voted, your encouragement means an enormous amount.

As part of the prize, starting from August the 13th to the 29th I’ll be attending various events for National Science Week around Australia and acting as the “offical Science Week blogger”. I’m terrified, but excited, and hopefully you guys will enjoy it as I do Watermelon Cat.*

– bec x

* The blogging, that is, not my terror. That would be cruel.

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