Category Archives: In the news

Pushing an empty envelope

By Michael

Some of you may have heard this embarrassing story from back in October. The incoming Chief of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Dr. Larry Marshall, was being interviewed by ABC Rural about what to expect at CSIRO under his leadership from the start of 2015. The interview covered his vision of how CSIRO’s scientists will continue to deal with the challenges that face the agricultural industry in Australia.

On top of that list of challenges is water scarcity, and it has been ever since there has been an agricultural industry in Australia. It was during this part of the interview that Dr. Marshall brings up water-dowsing by saying, “I’ve seen people do this with close to 80 per cent accuracy and I’ve no idea how they do it.”

Before I go on to what I took from this interview and the reaction to it, I want to briefly describe what water-dowsing (or water-divining) is.

The basic concept works like this: a stick or metal rods (sometimes just a pendulum swinging over a map) in the hands of a dowser will be attracted to areas where groundwater is present. The dowser then uses the movements of their instrument to suggest where their client should drill for water. Dowsing has also been used to find mineral deposits and archaeological sites.

waterdowsing1

Generic water-dowsing photo #1
Source

So how does water-dowsing supposedly work? The website of the Dowsers Society of New South Wales (unfortunately it’s a thing) isn’t that helpful in explaining how but they do mention things like “energy lines”, “energy fields” and “chakras”. So in a nutshell: magic.

The United States Geological Survey explains it much better here: “the natural explanation of ‘successful’ water dowsing is that in many areas underground water is so prevalent close to the land surface that it would be hard to drill a well and not find water.”

So Dr. Marshall should really be surprised that water-dowsers are unsuccessful 20% of the time.

The Dowsers Society of New South Wales give the second part of the explanation on their website: “pendulums are subject to suggestion.” The movements of the stick/rods/pendulum in the dowser’s hands have been found to be caused by phenomenon known as the ideomotor response. This effect causes the dowser to subconsciously move their body without consciously deciding to. Much like when people scare themselves with Ouija boards.

Now that I have covered the main points on what water-dowsing is, I’ll explain why I think the Dr. Marshall interview on ABC Rural is such bad press coverage for groundwater science in Australia and for CSIRO.

Firstly, water-dowsing is junk science that should have died off long ago. Unfortunately, other junk sciences like homeopathy, astrology and fortune telling have lived longer lives than they should have as well. One of the main reasons for their continued existence is people in highly regarded positions, like the Chief of CSIRO, sometimes giving great public endorsements.

Look at the Dr. Oz fiasco in the USA for a very recent example of an apparently credible person misleading the public. Unfortunately, it hasn’t taken too long for Dr. Marshall’s statements to be used as a shining endorsement for water-dowsing in a recent column published in Fairfax newspapers (see here). This article will no doubt give the false impression to the public that water-dowsing is still something worth investigating.

If I haven’t been clear already – it is not.

waterdowsing2

Generic water-dowsing photo #2
Source

My second issue comes from Dr. Marshall’s and CSIRO’s response to criticism after the interview (see here, here and here). The critics aren’t being petty either. Water-dowsers can cost farmers thousands of dollars on badly placed wells, so it isn’t just harmless fun. However, Dr. Marshall’s only response so far has been to miss the point of the criticism and say that it’s CSIRO’s job to “push the envelope”. Apparently without any regard to how many people let him know that the envelope is empty.

The response from CSIRO’s twitter account during National Water Week was just as unimpressive: “Larry’s interested in helping farmers access water but wasn’t saying divining is the answer.” Again, they have missed the point of the criticism. We know he doesn’t think water-dowsing is the answer but he definitely gave it endorsement by giving the false impression that it actually works.

Lastly, the former Chief of CSIRO Land and Water, Dr. John Williams, pointed out another problem with the interview in a statement to Science Insider. He pointed out that Dr. Marshall’s focus on water scarcity was in the wrong direction. Dr. Marshall gave the impression that there is a problem with finding water in Australia. The problem isn’t finding water (scientists are aware of most of the productive aquifers), the problem is how we manage what we’ve got, and as Dr. Williams noted, “there isn’t much of it, and we don’t know how it’s replenished.”

What we do need is to develop new and improved methods of accurately estimating aquifer recharge rates, more robust modeling techniques for predicting catchment responses to water use and climate change, and better methods for managing and identifying water quality problems. Water-dowsing will never play a part in solving any of those problems.

The reason I put off writing this blog post until now was because I was interested in how Dr. Marshall might respond after such an obvious mistake. I was hoping he might finally listen to, and understand, some of the criticism that came after the interview. Unfortunately, we have now begun 2015 and he still hasn’t given a well thought out response. I guess we can only hope that farmers keep themselves up-to-date with all the great science that CSIRO Land and Water researchers are working on. I’m not doubting his sincerity about wanting to help farmers in areas where water is scarce. But if he really wants to make a constructive contribution to the discussion on water security in Australia he needs to set the record straight and understand that water-dowsing has no place even being mentioned.

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_orbits_comet_with_lander_on_its_surface

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_mission_selfie_at_16_km

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

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

Meet the scientists…Who? Me?

P8190018

One very good scientist and four dressing the part

By Kelly

Just recently I was given a healthy reminder that some stereotypes are really hard to break. I am very open about the fact that I was always interested in science, however when I hit 16 I was more interested in being cool. Unfortunately I had no role models that were cool scientists which led me to make some decisions that would lead me away from science* for over a decade**. And so during my time at the Research School of Earth Sciences I have gladly been involved with the university’s Equity and Diversity Unit, that most recently included participating in their ‘Who are scientists?’ workshop that was held for 14 year olds from regional school along the coast.

The 8 representative ‘scientists’ were jumbled in with other staff from our coastal campus, and when singled out the 120 kids were asked to stand if they thought that person was a scientist. Of 120, guess how many stood for me……

Continue reading

Good News are Good News

By Thomas

We all know the saying “Bad News are Good News”, usually used by/for the media, referring to the phenomenon that “Bad News” normally get much more attention than “Good News”. Over the course of the last few weeks the plane disasters in Ukraine, Taiwan and Mali and the subsequent media coverage attest to this.

If our loved ones are on a trip, we might rather think of the saying “No News are Good News”, especially if they travel in region that doesn`t allow them to have 24/7 access to Facebook and Twitter.

When it comes to do a job, the principle is again a bit different. And while “Good News are Good News” is hardly a saying, it pretty much sums up the desired outcome that everyone hopes for when there is work in progress. Science is no different in this respect.

As a scientist you want to announce the discovery of the Higgs Boson, rather than explain to the citizens of several european countries that they paid 7.5 billion Euro for a machine that created a black hole that is now swallowing up Switzerland.1

As a scientist you want to announce, that the planet your curious rover is driving on has some interesting features. In the best case something that can be interpreted as possibly indicating that there was an environment on this planet that could in theory have hosted life. You don`t want to tell them that your orbiter crashed on the same planet, because someone thought “pound-seconds” is a sensible unit.2

As a scientist you want to tell your boss that you created a cure for Alzheimer, rather than a virus that will wipe out most of the human population, while at the same time creating highly intelligent apes, that will wipe the floor with the few human survivors. (Figure 1)

dawn_of_apes_teaser_poster

Figure 1: What is better than apes on horses? Apes on horses with guns!
Gee, how are they planning to top that in the next movie? Apes on motorbikes?
Source: Hollywoodreporter

Continue reading

It’s a plastic world

By Biance

Following previous blog posts about plastic in our world, this is a new video everyone should see and share.

We are living in a world where everything is wrapped in plastic, quite often unnecessarily in tons of plastic.

I remember when we bought some cutlery and discovered at home that every single fork, every single spoon and every single knife was packed into it’s own private plastic bag just to be wrapped once more into a larger bag to bundle all forks, all spoons and all knifes to pack them once again in a plastic bag. It was not just a total waste of plastic it was also very annoying to unpack.

Maybe I shouldn’t have unpacked it, maybe I should’ve just give it back and try a different company but hey, who knows how often I would’ve need to return the new cutlery until I find a company that doesn’t use that much plastic?

lotsofplastic

A lot of plastic

Unfortunately, these days, because we have it and we can do it, companies just use it, everywhere and for everything. They don’t care about the environment as long customers buy their products. And that is where we can change things. It might seem like nothing, it might seem like there won’t be any change if we, as an individual person, act ecologically but if we all start thinking about the way we live and start to take care of our environment it is not just one single person but many of us and that can make a difference!

And yes, I should have given the cutlery back and try a different company! But at least I kept the plastic wrap somewhere at home in a corner so I can reuse it should I ever need some wrapping paper, whether it’s for cutlery or something else but this way I’ll not have to buy any more plastic for quite a while!

Betting on climate change will not get you money

By Tanja

Over the course of the past few weeks I have been reading quite a lot about climate all over the news. El Nino and La Nina events have been mentioned on a few occasions. I was always fascinated by these events, even as a kid, when I hadn’t the slightest clue as to what they were (but they do sound cool right?). Later on, as education slowly crept on me, I learned exactly what they were and how they impact the world.

But did I really understand how they ACTUALLY IMPACT the world?

Of course not!

I was born, raised and gained my masters-level education in Croatia, a country that doesn’t directly feel the impacts of either. My Oceanography and Dynamic-Meteorology teachers have put quite an effort to demonstrate the devastating and/or benevolent impacts of El Nino and La Nina events – depending on the part of the world. I had to derive some fearsome equations and was awarded with pictures of drought or floods all over the world, of people moving countries etc. For me personally, this probably meant that the price of some imported fish or seed was going up.

Right now, I live and study in Australia. And it seems, that an El Nino event will come crashing down on my head (and many other heads). And it will finally manifest itself to me in all its power. Probably some prices will go up too.

El Nino is a part of a natural cycle known as El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) that manifests itself in prolonged periods of warming (El Nino) or cooling (La Nina) over the central and eastern Pacific Ocean.

In neutral mode we have the trade winds blowing from east to west across the Pacific, pushing warmer surface waters towards the western Pacific and causing convection in that area. The Central Pacific is kept relatively cool. The thermocline is deeper in the west than in the east. This means, that the ocean temperature gradient is not very steep in the west, which in turn means the water is warmer there.

During the El Nino conditions the trade winds are weakened or even reversed which allows this body of warm water to float further east and cause convection elsewhere. This also levels out the thermocline a bit. Now – without further ado – this means drought in Australia. It means rain and possible floods in Kiribati and Peru.

elnino

Neutral and El Nino Systems over the Pacific Ocean
Source: Australian Bureau of Meteorology

To me this means – seriously, even warmer summers? And a drought? In a country where water is already an expensive commodity?

Wonderful. I am affected now. Probably some prices will go up to!

Since this is a natural cycle it might prompt some people, like say …

… the government …

…. to deny climate changes. And the current prime minister here is adamant in trying to convince this nation that there is no such thing as man induced climate change.

Now let’s take a look at Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology brief explanation as to what might cause the El Nino conditions:

“An El Niño occurs when sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean become substantially warmer than average, and this causes a shift in atmospheric circulation.”

Brilliant, I have established something similar above. So we have a natural occurring phenomenon here, but it is interesting to see that this phenomenon has gained a substantial power over the last few decades (see for example here, Pages 8 and 9). Now I won’t go into proving and showing that some aspects of climate change are man induced, others have done so, repeatedly (as in – many times). But on the low chance of Tony Abbot reading this – yes, climate changes have occurred naturally during the geological past of this planet. But not on the scale we are observing now. Climate change may not be something new on the face of this planet, but we – humans – are empowering it. Making it bigger, faster, stronger. The upcoming El Nino may be another record-breaking one, because the ocean is just a tad warmer, thanks to us. And it is affecting me and millions of other people directly.

And just to top it off, a scientist is offering a 10000$ reward to anyone who can use scientific methods to prove that man-made climate change is NOT real.

Tony Abbot should jump on that boat. He should actually hope that this boat wouldn’t be turned back too. I think proving something like that would be an ultimate win-win situation – someone would get the reward AND go down in history. While everyone else would be able to happily exhale in relief, knowing that it is not us messing up this planet, it is completely natural. We could happily live our lives, knowing that there really is NOTHING we can do to prevent this. And just imagine what the 10000$ would do to the budget! Probably some prices would go down too.