Not quite News yet – Part IV

In this series we present fictive “News Articles” which some of us wrote when participating in a Science Communication Workshop at ANU. If you want to know more about the Why and How, please see this post here.

While the projects described are PhD projects that are on the way at RSES, the results (if they are described) in those “news articles” are by no means final and can be described from “That`s my current interpretation of my data that I came up with last night and I haven`t tested yet” to “Wishfull thinking”.

The aim of this series is to provide you with a glimpse of the diversity of ongoing Earth Science research at ANU, not to present final results.

And now, without further ado …


Teeth unlock secrets of
African slaves


By Hannah

African slaves transported to the Caribbean during the 17th century have been identified, using elements in their teeth, by researchers from the Research School of Earth Sciences at ANU.

An unmarked slave cemetery, Anse Sainte Marguerite, on the Atlantic coast of Guadeloupe in the Caribbean was discovered in the early 2000s and contains almost 300 remains. No records from this cemetery have survived, so no information on the origin of these individuals is available.

Using the chemistry of teeth, for the first time, the individual life histories can be teased out from this previously invisible population. Different versions of the elements oxygen and strontium naturally exist in soil, water and air. Their abundances differ across the globe, which forms a geographical pattern.

In childhood, when teeth are forming, oxygen and strontium from food and water consumed is incorporated into the teeth and this regional chemical signature is locked in. By analysing this signature and comparing it to the values expected in Africa and the Caribbean, researchers have been able to show in which region individuals spent their childhood.

Using teeth, eleven individuals have been identified as first generation slaves. Others have been identified as the later generations born and raised in the Caribbean. “We hope to expand our analysis and aim to identify all individuals,” says PhD student Hannah James from the ANU.

The Trans-Atlantic slave trade transported more than 11 million individuals, but records about these people are sparse. This technique may provide future insight into the forced migration of these forgotten people.

Communication Breakdown

By Thomas

Over the last week space science got a lot of publicity thanks to Rosetta and its sidekick Philae. ESAs successful attempt to land a spacecraft on a comet was all over the news. Apart from the news coverage, which the mission got thanks to the landing, you could and can follow Rosetta on Twitter or on the Rosetta blog, ESA is providing detailed information about the mission on their website and last but not least the use of videos explaining Rosettas mission and the ingenious short-movie Ambition got a lot of people excited about the mission. A pathetic hysteria raging over a scientists sense of fashion aside, it was an excellent example for science communication well-done. Or was it?


Rosetta and Philae
Source: ESA

I followed the discussion of the mission in the comments on a German news website. As some people were nagging about the not so perfect landing, someone remarked that the mission is now going on for ten years, and in this time has provided a lot of data and insights and therefore the mission was already a success even before Philae attempted its landing. This was one of the comments1 that followed:

“The discussion here underpins my critique that we don`t get sensible information from the people in charge and the scientists about the actual results. We all have to speculate. After ten years that is a bit weird, if there really are already that many results. Not only Philae is in stand-by, apparently science as well. It is time that science comes down from the ivory tower and explains to us pity layman why this mission is so important and what insights it has really provided.2

Now, don`t get me wrong, I will not write a blog post every time I read an ignorant comment3 somewhere in the internet4. In this case it just wonderfully displays a dilemma I see for science communication and it has a connection to an “en vogue” topic, so I couldn`t resist.

But first, why do I think this comment is ignorant?

Well, the essence of the comment is that ESA is not communicating why the mission is important and what it has already achieved. This ignores, that if you go to the website about Rosetta provided by ESA you will find plenty of information on these issues.

For example, you want to know why it is important to investigate comets, read the four-part series on the history of comets.

You want to know about what has been achieved? This article gives you the overview. And if that grasped your attention and you want to know more, you can, amongst other things, read about the flybys of the asteroids Steins and Lutetia.


Rosetta Selfie
Source: ESA

And here we are in the middle of the dilemma:

On the one side we have a lot of science communication going on. On the other side we have the person at who it is aimed at, who nevertheless feels obviously not informed.

How can we bridge this gap?

Yes, in the first instance the responsibility lies within the field of science. Yes, scientists have to continuously work on their communication skills. Yes, scientists should use different media to distribute their message.

But we cannot bridge the gap completely from one side alone. No matter how much information scientists put out there and how nicely they wrap them up, they will unfortunately not always make the headlines. So how do we get science communicated in the cases when science doesn`t win the race to the top of the newspapers against wars, conflicts, politics and Kim Kardashians backside?

I think the answer might lie in the term itself:

“Science communication” – that`s two words.

While scientists have to do the “communication”, it requires the interested layman to do a little bit of “science”, namely looking up the communicated information and asses them.

The scientists in their respective fields can only build a bridge across the gap with the information they put out there. Sometimes (as in the case of Rosetta) it is a broad and stable stone bridge, sometimes it will only be a slippery rope bridge.

Either way, you`ll have to cross the bridge yourself.

1 Better: A translation of the comment that approximately reproduces the original meaning.

2 If you want to read the original: Comment 76 here.

3 Note: “Ignorant” solely refers to the comment itself, not to the commentator.

4 I wouldn`t be able to do anything else

In the heart of the machine

By Eleanor

“Is that like a transformer?”

I’ve just been to Japan for a synchrotron school. Most of my non-scientist friends had never even heard of the word ‘synchrotron’ before I told them where I was going. One friend thought it sounded like something from the movie ‘Transformers’. Fortunately, Mike’s latest post will help you tell the difference.

Others friends have heard of the Large Hadron Collider and they assume that I must be doing particle physics. But I’m not – I’m a geologist.

Synchrotron Source: Riken

‘SPring-8′ synchrotron, Japan
Source: Riken

This is the synchrotron facility called ‘SPring-8’ in Japan, where I’ve just spent ten days learning all about how these things work and what you can do with them. So what do they do and why, as a geologist, would I go there? And what does it look like, inside?

Being a geologist means that I want to learn about the Earth. As children, most of us grow up learning a lot about the world by seeing. The sun’s light reflects off the things around us and enters our eyes, which send signals to our brain. But there is a limit to what we can see with our eyes, and with light from the sun.

In my lab at the Research School of Earth Sciences, I make lava – molten rock – and cool it so quickly that it turns to glass. I want to find out how the atoms are arranged inside the glass, and how that arrangement might change with pressure. But that’s not something I can see with sunlight and my eyes. Instead, I need a different type of light – I need x-rays.

But I can’t just use any old x-rays. When you break an arm you might get an x-ray that illuminates your whole arm, but I need to look at atoms, so I need to focus all that light into a very small spot – like the difference between a light globe and a laser pointer. Both might have the same power, but because the laser pointer is so focussed, it illuminates small areas much more brightly.

So I need very bright, focussed x-rays. Unfortunately it’s not easy to make an x-ray laser*. This is where synchrotrons come in. A synchrotron is a light source, and I need it to generate light that will help me “see” the results of my experiments, and hopefully understand something new about the Earth.

Okay, but why does it look like a doughnut?

That’s because of the way synchrotron light is produced. Inside the doughnut-shaped building, there is another doughnut-shaped, er, room (?) … called the “storage ring” which has walls at least a metre thick. Inside the storage ring, there is a length of metal tubing that goes all the way around, surrounded by different types of magnets. Inside the tubing, electrons are flying through, around the ring, at close to the speed of light. The magnets keep all the electrons going in the right direction – not in a circle but in a big polygon with straight sections and bends. So, it’s called a storage ring because this is where the electrons are stored. When the electron beam is forced to bend, x-rays (and other wavelengths of light) are produced, and this light is funnelled out of the storage ring and into a “beamline”.

Okay. Breathe!

Did you just skim over that paragraph, wondering why I got so excited about magnets and electrons and metal tubing? I’m describing it because this is the real heart of the synchrotron, and this is not something you usually get to see. Even if I’d known all this stuff was in there (which I didn’t), seeing it for myself really helped me understand what was going on.


Inside the storage ring.

So I want to share two cool things that I saw inside the storage ring, and both of them are evidence that not all of the x-rays go to the beamlines, but some get scattered and escape (that’s why you need the walls to be so thick).

(1) Have you ever left some paper on the windowsill, and found after a couple of weeks it turned yellow? In this photo, the same thing has happened to the floor, but with x-rays. The floor has been discoloured except for the region in the ‘shadow’ of the metal strut.


X-rays causing discolouration of the floor, but the metal strut has cast a shadow.

(2) This telephone. I took a photo because it seemed strange to see such old technology while standing in the heart of such high-tech facility. As it turns out, the x-rays in the storage ring tend to kill electronics, proving the worth of the trusty analogue phone.


Also inside the storage ring.

Though some get scattered, most of the x-rays do get captured and sent down into the beamlines – and this is where the science happens! What kind of science? It turns out, a lot! I was surprised to find myself one of only four earth scientists out of 77 students on this course. The majority of students seemed to be in biological research doing protein crystallography. Until now I didn’t even know that proteins formed crystals! There were also students working on topics ranging from the properties of rubber and plastic, to nanoparticles in the environment, to the motion of atoms in solids.

So, synchrotrons are not aliens, nor do they involve smashing particles together. They are facilities that produce bright and focussed light useful to a wide range of science and engineering.

* X-ray lasers have just started to be developed. There are three in the world, and the smallest one is 900 m long. You can actually see this facility in the photo of SPring-8 above: it’s the long building above and to the right of the synchrotron.

Dietary requirements? Plastic-free

By Eleanor

Could you eat plastic-free for a week?

I’m up to day 6 of this strange challenge I’ve set for myself. It was Bianca’s post in this blog, in fact, that opened my eyes to the issues of producing so much plastic waste. Actually, there have been several posts about plastic on this blog. Reading about this, and watching the really cool video in Bianca’s post made me think, but to be honest I didn’t try to change my behaviour.

Then I went to Japan for three weeks, and found myself constantly encountering plastic-gone-crazy products similar to what Bianca described. One time, buying some biscuits, I found myself holding a plastic bag, containing a plastic packet, which I would later discover contained a plastic tray, and in the tray each biscuit was individually wrapped. Don’t get me wrong: I really enjoyed my time in Japan and I liked many aspects of the Japanese culture. But they do seem to like plastic. Everything comes individually wrapped, and they even have plastic food in their shop windows.


Yes, even the coffee is plastic.

I felt so bad for the planet that I decided when I got home I would try to go for a week without eating anything that came to me wrapped or contained in plastic.

This means no vegemite, sliced bread, nuts, rice, lentils, salt and pepper, spices, cheese, or tea. No tea!!!

I am a big tea drinker; I usually have multiple cups per day. I’ve had to substitute with honey + lemon in hot water, which is nice too, but not quite the same.


Plastic-free “tea”

Luckily I have a breadmaker and I frequently make my own bread, so I have enjoyed fresh homemade bread with jam (from a jar) or butter (wrapped in paper) for breakfast.

The types of food I most often cook are Italian and Indian, so having to go without cheese and spices is a bit difficult. Fortunately, I have discovered you can get pasta in cardboard boxes. Fresh fruit and veggies are the obvious candidates as a basis for a plastic-free week, so I’ve had a couple of meals of stir-fried veggies, pasta and veggies, and salads.


Loot from the farmer’s market. My impulse-buy was the amazing bunch of fresh basil, which tempted me while buying carrots. Better than being tempted by chocolate at the supermarket checkout though!

My first failure happened on Day 5, ironically, during the “Nara festival”. I had visited Nara (which is Canberra’s sister city in Japan) just a few weeks ago, so I was quite excited to go to the festival, and it was a beautiful evening for it. One of the first things we did was watch a demonstration of “mochi pounding” where they whack sticky rice with big mallets to make rice pudding. We were excited to try some samples, which were quite tasty – but half way through eating it I realised, with horror, that I was eating out of a plastic bowl! I turned over the bowl to see if it was at least recyclable. Instead of a number in a triangle*, I found two faces that seemed to be laughing at me: “ha-ha, gotcha!”



Going forward, it is not sustainable to continue to avoid all plastic. But I would like to cut down the amount of single-use, non-recyclable plastic I consume. Here are the things that I’m going to try to do:

  • Diligently recycle everything possible
  • Buy products with minimal packaging
  • BYO containers and bags to the farmers markets
  • Buy pasta in cardboard boxes
  • Keep making my own bread

The evil face of plastic

On Day 5, Take 2 (I had to try again because of my failure at the Nara Festival), I gave my mother a call. Before I’d made any mention of this project, she said, “I made hummus today, because I’ve been trying to reduce the amount of plastic I use.”

Spooky mother-daughter synchronization? Maybe, or maybe it just means the awareness is spreading. Could we make plastic-free a new dietary requirement?

* It turns out, in the ACT, they don’t use the numbering system. They say that any rigid plastic is recyclable – this includes semi-rigid plastic like biscuit trays. So maybe the smiles on the bottom of that plastic bowl are actually happy, ‘yes please recycle me’ smiles, not so evil after all!


By Thomas

In science, a big part of your daily work is to critically assess other peoples and – more importantly – your own work. This can sometimes lead you into states of mind, which let you seriously doubt that everything is okay with said mind. I have ventured into such a state last week.

In particular it was a state of paranoia – paranoia about the abilities of past-Thomas to get anything correctly done.

Figure 1: Near Gaussian Normal Distribution of the life-long Trust-Yourself Coefficient (yes, that name is made up and it is not a thing)

You are probably familiar with the concept of past-, present- and future-self’s, especially if you have watched How I met your Mother. But just to avoid confusion, I will quickly explain:

If, let us say, I go out this evening and have a beer too much1, then I do this because it is not a problem for present-Thomas (aka “the guy who enjoys just-one-more cold beer”) but for future-Thomas (aka “the guy that wakes up tomorrow morning with a hangover”) who will curse the by then past-Thomas (aka “the guy who enjoyed the cold beer”).

But back to present-Thomas`s5 (aka “last week’s Thomas”) paranoia about past-Thomas`s (aka “last year’s Thomas”) “insufficiencies”.

Present-Thomas was comparing his own chemical data set with literature data and “just-to-make-sure-cause-something-seemed-a-bit-odd” was having a quick look at an Excel-Sheet which past-Thomas had used to do his data reduction6


Figure 2: Distribution of a PhD-students project-long Trust-Yourself Coefficient (still made up, but now it is a thing)

72 hours later: Present-Thomas had found a huge mistake in the data reduction sheet7, had glanced over past-Thomas`s notes on the problem, had fixed the problem, had found that this totally screwed up the out coming data, found that the problem actually was already addressed in the original data reduction sheet (just in another place) and found that this was actually explained in past-Thomas`s notes, if he would have read them and not just glanced over them. He also found that past-Thomas had indeed done a small mistake. For a few elements of the data set he had not chosen the highest quality ones. Mind you, he had worked out which data was of the highest quality, but for some reason had chosen the slightly lower in quality elements.

To use an analogy: If past-Thomas would have built a car, and present-Thomas would have noticed that it feels “a bit funny” while driving, present-Thomas would have taken the car apart, fit another motor in, got it out again, got the old motor back in, to then realize that past-Thomas had accidently put the spare wheel on and one of the normal wheels in the boot.

Figure 3:

Figure 3: Absolutly dysfunctional distribution of the Trust-Yourself Coefficient (it is a thing, look it up on the internet). If yours looks like this, you will not trust the person that prepared today`s lunch sandwich yesterday evening … especially if it was yourself … which is very likely in this case …

I think it is totally normal that we distrust our past self (Figure 1), and while growing older we more and more realize that our future-self will not understand what our present-self was actually up to. However, doing a PhD (or science in general) distorts this view (Figure 2) – and that can sometimes be a bit worrying, as you do not know how much distortion is good for you (Figure 3).

1 Of course I would never do that2

2 Do not look so reproachful, I am writing this on a saturday3

3 Well, I had the idea for this passage on saturday4

4 I think …

5 Thomas`?

6 The process which transforms the measurement from [insert used method here] into a sensible data set.

7 In hindsight I would term it “Pandoras Excel-Sheet”

Not-so-serious Sunday 55: Ambitious science communication

By Kelly

The European Space Agency shows the world what science communication can achieve (on a large budget). The making of below is also excellent.

Ambition is a collaboration between Platige Image and ESA. Directed by Tomek Bagiński and starring Aiden Gillen and Aisling Franciosi, Ambition was shot on location in Iceland, and screened on 24 October 2014 during the British Film Institute’s celebration of Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder, at the Southbank, London.

Scroll down for the making of….

Continue reading

ANU Climate Café

By Liane

Free coffee and snacks at Vivaldi’s Café (Union Court), on the first Wednesday of every month from 3:30 – 5:00 PM.

Well that got your attention, didn’t it?

A group of diverse PhD students are interested in overcoming disciplinary barriers when it comes to discussing climate change research here on campus – and they are providing free drinks and snacks to help facilitate the conversation.

Enter the ANU Climate Café.

Modelled after other dialogue events (e.g., Café Scientific), the monthly conversation forum is changing how we can communicate about climate change here in Canberra. At each event, a guest host presents an idea or topic which is then explored in smaller discussion groups whilst leisurely enjoying a nice drink or snack.

Put on in association with the ANU Climate Change Institute and the ANU Postgraduate and Research Student Association (PARSA), the café aims to overcome disciplinary barriers and create a supportive synergistic community amongst ANU climate change researchers.

I attended the inaugural event hosted by Michael Raupach, Director of the ANU Climate Change Institute, in October. He introduced his topic, ‘Climate change and evolving narratives’, with a brief overview while providing signposts for the following discussions:

What are narratives?
Are they important in the climate change discourse?
Can narratives, for individuals of for societies, change?

At our table there was an earth scientist (me), a biologist, an artist, a philosopher and a public servant. We spent the majority of our time discussing the definition of narrative. Other groups focused on other aspects of the topic including ethics of narratives, how to change narratives, narratives of individuals vs. those for societies.

I thought that the inaugural event was interesting. Active discussion was encouraged, as was inclusivity and mutual respect. ANU Climate Café offers an innovative way to interact with a diverse group of researchers in the community outside of the standard passive seminar format.

Upcoming topics include ‘Global Warming framed as a hyperobject’ hosted by Liz Boulton from the Fenner School in November (RSVP by Oct 29, i.e. TODAY); as well as ‘The Artist’s Way’ with host Carolyn Young from the School of Art with host in December (RSVP by Nov 26).

The café returns in February 2015 with a further 12 more sessions, speakers and discussion leaders to be determined; suggestions are more than welcome.

If you are considering attending a session, be sure to RSVPs (via ANU Campus Life System) the Wednesday prior to the event to make sure that there are enough snacks.

You can find the ANU Climate Cafe here.