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Did life originate with a bang?

By Adi

front

Well, the answer depends on what we mean by the “origin of life”. One could say that it all started 13.8 billion years ago with the birth of the universe – the “shock and awe” process we call the Big Bang. The impetus that kick-started the processes which led to primitive life-forms may have come from the seeding of our planet with molecules such as amino acids on asteroids, comets, stardust, or other cosmic bodies crashing into our young planet. Perhaps, the jolt to bring inanimate abiotic molecules together to form the precursors to biological molecules could have come from lighting strikes. This process of prebiotic synthesis was first experimentally tested back in 1952 by a graduate student Stanley Miller.

Stanley Miller, 1999. Credit: James A. SugarThe now famous Miller-Urey experiment was an impressive attempt to show that it was possible to synthesis life’s building blocks by simulating conditions of the early Earth. With nothing more than hydrogen, water, methane and ammonia, Miller was able prepare a concoction of amino acids – the building blocks of everything alive on Earth. Continue reading “Did life originate with a bang?”

Accidental science: How you know you’re a real scientist

UTZ1391_thumb2By Claire

Today I spent my day being an I.T. person.

As soon as I arrived at work this morning I was asked to help one of our lab techs with a computer issue she had been having. I then helped another student install some complicated software (although not entirely successfully), then fixed up some software issues of my own.

I’ve always been my family’s go-to person for tech issues because I systematically find the problem and fix it, even though I don’t really know what I’m doing. Somehow, being a scientist makes me a good tech person (or at least a reasonable substitute).

The final hurdle today came when I went to download some data, but wasn’t able to get the website to work. It had worked in the past – I’ve downloaded many datasets from it before – but since Christmas, something hasn’t been working properly. I contacted the site administrators and they assured me everything was working from their end.

It was then that I slipped into subconscious science mode to fix the problem. Continue reading “Accidental science: How you know you’re a real scientist”

Maths – our (often) forgotten tool

By the time you read this… I’ll probably be presenting at a conference. The particular conference I am at this week is the 2013 conference on the Mathematics of Planet Earth, which is being held because 2013 is also the international year of the maths of planet earth.

Rather than going into details of either my presentation or the conference itself, I want to take the soap box for a bit to talk about the ways in which maths is an essential tool to do good science. I also want to ask the question: “how does maths help you with your science / what sort of maths do you need that might make your science better?”. Also note I’m not going on about pure maths, I’m talking about maths the tool rather than maths the subject. I’m also keeping it fairly generic: no huge discussion on second-order Bessel functions despite the fact I use them daily at the moment.
Apologies in advance for any minor gremlins in this post, editing on a small tablet is… interesting.

Continue reading “Maths – our (often) forgotten tool”

Time to get creative

By Kelly  Unknown

For the last 2 1/2 weeks I have been back in Hobart at the nation’s marine science hub. For the last 2 1/2 years we have been trying to do some rather fancy measurements on my  coral samples to unlock secrets from that part of the planet we know least about: the deep ocean. However, this has proven to be not so easy. Was I given the wrong key or is  it to do with the instrument being more temperamental than I am (which is quite). After  7 or 8 trips, my data set is still …erm…. small. Until now.

This trip I have not only completed the ‘top priority‘ list, I’ve completed the ‘this would be great but not entirely essential‘ list, and the ‘now that’s a PhD‘ list. Today I started processing the ‘you’ve got to be kidding the instrument is still running?‘ list. And it couldn’t have come at a better time. The clock struck ‘9 months’ a few days ago and it’s time to start thinking about how to deliver this thesis with as little medication as possible. I have the data, now it’s time to get creative.

Continue reading “Time to get creative”

From the archives: ‘Wind Farms Cause Global Warming’ … Huh? More media mangling of scientific research

By Ali Kimbrough – guest contributor (originally posted 14th May 2012)

Conveniently, or rather inconveniently, the media often misinterprets scientific findings to produce seductive headlines such as: “Wind Farms Cause Global Warming” or “Wind Farms are Warming the Earth, researchers say”. These extravagant claims have been triggered by a recent study by Zhou et al., (2012). This study looks at surface temperature changes in west-central Texas, where four of the world’s largest wind farms are located. This is the first study of its kind and has raised significant questions relating to local and regional impacts of wind farms.

Continue reading “From the archives: ‘Wind Farms Cause Global Warming’ … Huh? More media mangling of scientific research”

From the archives: Frontin’

By Aimee (originally posted 2nd June 2012)

I had an epiphany last weekend about human beings and how the world works (at least the world of academia and native humans inhabiting the grasslands). The epiphany is that the key to success is frontin’. It all started as I was watching this fantastic BBC documentary – Human Planet (something like a David Attenborough-type series but on the ultimate animals – human beings). An episode of humans living in the East African grasslands demonstrated how they usually got their meat by stealing it from lions! A very surreal scene showed 3 men armed with nothing but spears (and a heck of a lot of confidence) walking straight to a pride of 12 lions that were feasting on a fresh kill. The most surprising thing happened next. The lions caught sight of them and ran away to hide in nearby bushes, leaving the men free to take as much meat as they wanted and then head back home. Had those lions detected that it was all a bluff, those men would have ended being lion food. Continue reading “From the archives: Frontin’”

Studying the polar ice caps with satellites

By Bianca

We regularly hear in the news that the polar ice caps are melting with increasing speed and scientists all over the world are concerned about the rapidity of the ice retreat. Their concerns are entitled, considering that Greenland contains an amount of ice that would raise global sea level by approximately 10 m, while the Antarctic ice sheet contains enough ice to raise global sea level by around 60 m (Huybrecht, 2002). That means the loss of both ice caps would raise global sea level by almost 70 m and many major cities that are build around the ocean would be endangered: e.g. Sydney, Melbourne, Bangkok, New York, Miami, Tokyo, Shanghai, Mumbai, Buenos Aires, Dubai, Athens or Barcelona, just to name a few.

Now, we don’t know if that scenario will occur or how strong sea level will rise eventually, but we have to consider that centimetres of sea level rise are already threatening low lying areas, which is why extensive research is necessary.

However, the problems we have with these huge ice sheets are the harsh climatic conditions that exacerbate the sampling of scientific data and it is therefore difficult to obtain enough information on ongoing ice mass loss especially in the interior of the ice sheets. To overcome those problems modern space geodetic techniques can help by providing new information. Continue reading “Studying the polar ice caps with satellites”

Kindergarten scientists

By Kelly

http://bps-research-digest.blogspot.com.au
/2010/10/cultivating-little-scientists-from-age.html

I read an article recently that confirmed some suspicions I’ve been harbouring for a while. That is, that children make the best scientists. Every time I feel I am close some kind of answer in my exploration of deep-sea coral along the eastern Australian seaboard I come back to the same question, ‘yeah but whhhyyyy?’. We have nitrogen isotopes from individual amino acids and they appear to be changing through time. Yeah but why? Okay well there could be a number of reasons…the food source is changing. Yeah but why? Hmmm well that could be environmental, the water is getting warmer. Yeah but why? Shifting bifurcation point of the equatorial currents in the coral sea? Why? Long term oscillations in the PDO/IPO. Why? Why? Why?

Sound familiar? Been to a preschool recently? Well researchers have published findings in Science that discusses how children really do reason like scientists. According to the research kindergarten age children observe their surroundings actively testing hypotheses, they experiment (albeit informally), analyse results and make inferences about cause and effect. They also collect information from a variety of sources by watching and listening to asses the best way forward. The authors use Bayesian inference to describe this learning and when I first read the abstract I thought the children were using Bayesian inference. I was rather impressed because I only learned about this particular branch of statistics in a lecture series last week!

Continue reading “Kindergarten scientists”

My week of epic fails

By Kelly

Even kittens fail sometimes
(www.epicfail.net/2008/10/06/kitten-failure)

The “Epic Fail” montages are a mainstay on YouTube for those who enjoy schadenfreude, or laughing at the expense of the others (German is an excellent language). It is usually a compilation of videos where the protagonists hurt, maim, or shame themselves over handlebars, by running into glass doors or slipping on all manner of surfaces, then falling from all manner of heights. I would be lying if I said I had never laughed at these calamities so I feel it only fair to share my week, actually it was more like 10 days ,of epic scientific failure.

A week or so back I wrote a post about the pressure to publish. I opened in weary excitement from Hobart, where I was  to collect the last of the data needed to write my first detective story: girl meets coral, coral gives up secrets of East Australian Current climatology. It’s a long title sure, but catchy don’t you think? I needed to rescue some samples that had not been analysed on my last trip due to technical difficulties…keeping in mind that it takes me 4-5 hours to run a single sample, in triplicate, bracketed with standards. And this is where the fails begin. It looks as though the samples have gone bad…..I tried to revive them chemically but in the process I appear to have lost several compounds. If any one sees stray glycine or alanine wandering the halls please let me know, they belong to me. But you can see the positive can’t you?

Continue reading “My week of epic fails”

NSW State Government ignores sea level predictions

Erosion at Collaroy

By Claire

Legislation put in place by the former Labor Government of NSW stating that councils must take UN projections of sea level rise into consideration in their coastal management policies, has been overturned by the O’Farrell Liberal Government.

These laws were used to determine which coastal properties were ‘at risk’ of coastal erosion and to limit the future development of these ‘at risk’ areas. These laws compelled coastal councils to prepare for a forecast sea-level rise of 40cm by 2050 and 90cm by the turn of the century.

As a result, the value of coastal properties that had been identified as at risk dropped (by approx. 40%), prompting these people to petition government to review and ultimately remove the planning restrictions placed on them.

While I can sympathise with the people who own these coastal properties, the removal of these planning restrictions leaves the council open for future legal action. Continue reading “NSW State Government ignores sea level predictions”

Arsenic controversy continues

By Kelly

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arsenic_and_Old_Lace_(film)
http://en.wikipedia.org/

Before the crowd roared over the Higgs there was GFAJ-1. Never heard of it? Almost a year and a half ago GFAJ-1 was the cause of much controversy in the scientific community, touted to be the first known organism that could substitute arsenic for phosphorous in its DNA backbone. Felissa Wolfe-Simon and colleagues from NASA claimed to have isolated a microbe with such capabilities from Mona Lake in Colorado, a high mountain lake with unusually high levels of arsenic. The paper was published in a very high-ranking journal, Science, with almost as much hype as the announcement of the Higgs.

Prior to the announcement, rumours were leaked that perhaps extraterrestrial life had been found and enormous fanfare surrounded the media release from NASA. Some claimed that this was the discovery of the century, or if you have an interest in the origin, evolution or discovery of life outside this planet, perhaps the most important discovery ever! But the announcement was not met with the same enthusiasm across the entire scientific community. Indeed the lab’s methods and interpretation were called in to question from the outset. Several labs set out to reproduce the results, some quite publicly, to ensure the claim was indeed a valid one. This week, two different labs have published papers, again in Science (here and here), refuting Wolfe-Simon’s claim. A very interesting furor has erupted, for the second time, but this time for very different reasons.

Continue reading “Arsenic controversy continues”

Ode to the man upstairs

By Kelly

Source: http:// en. wikipedia. org/wiki/The_Man_Upstairs

In previous posts I have mentioned ‘the man upstairs’. This was not in a religious context, more an architectural one. The ‘man’, Professor Andrew Roberts, became our director in early 2010 and invigorated our research school during his time in the big office. (This is sounding like an obituary I should get to the point). Yesterday the announcement came from our VC that Andrew has been appointed the new Dean of the ANU’s College of Mathematical and Physical Sciences. While I think it is an obvious choice I must say I am very disappointed that he is leaving the school so soon.

Andrew is a natural leader who is as fair as he his forthright; a winning combination when leading a large group of over-achievers. Not long after he started I unwittingly ended up in a meeting with him discussing issues surrounding the ‘leaky pipeline’, or lack of woman in senior positions in Earth science. He openly acknowledged the problem and expressed his shared concern, and by the meetings end we had an appointment with chancellery to see what was being done. I do like a person of action. I particularly like one who makes time to speak to the underlings,  underlings who he believes deserve access to childcare facilities. Continue reading “Ode to the man upstairs”

Men of Rock – Deep Time

Siccar Point, Scotland – Horizontal red sandstone bedding overlaying vertically bedded greywacke. (Source: Dave Souza at Wikipedia)

by Brendan

Yesterday I came across a documentary about some of the Scottish scientists who were instrumental in the development of geology as the science we now know. Presented by Iain Stewart, a Scottish geology professor, the first episode traces the early work of James Hutton. Hutton was one of the first proponents of deep time, as well as developing theories on plutonism and uniformitarianism. Continue reading “Men of Rock – Deep Time”

Frontin’

By Aimee

I had an epiphany last weekend about human beings and how the world works (at least the world of academia and native humans inhabiting the grasslands). The epiphany is that the key to success is frontin’. It all started as I was watching this fantastic BBC documentary – Human Planet (something like a David Attenborough-type series but on the ultimate animals – human beings). An episode of humans living in the East African grasslands demonstrated how they usually got their meat by stealing it from lions! A very surreal scene showed 3 men armed with nothing but spears (and a heck of a lot of confidence) walking straight to a pride of 12 lions that were feasting on a fresh kill. The most surprising thing happened next. The lions caught sight of them and ran away to hide in nearby bushes, leaving the men free to take as much meat as they wanted and then head back home. Had those lions detected that it was all a bluff, those men would have ended being lion food. Continue reading “Frontin’”

‘Wind Farms Cause Global Warming’ … Huh? More media mangling of scientific research

By Ali Kimbrough – guest contributor

Conveniently, or rather inconveniently, the media often misinterprets scientific findings to produce seductive headlines such as: “Wind Farms Cause Global Warming” or “Wind Farms are Warming the Earth, researchers say”. These extravagant claims have been triggered by a recent study by Zhou et al., (2012). This study looks at surface temperature changes in west-central Texas, where four of the world’s largest wind farms are located. This is the first study of its kind and has raised significant questions relating to local and regional impacts of wind farms.

Continue reading “‘Wind Farms Cause Global Warming’ … Huh? More media mangling of scientific research”

Alert!

By Kellyhttp://theworkorganizer.com/combat-your-paper-chaos-mission-possible/

No it’s not another earthquake here in Canberra, it’s just a cheap trick to get your attention. But now that you are here, I’d like to mention one of the many challenging aspects of research: keeping on top of the literature. There_is_so_much_information_out_there. Researchers are expected to know of the new techniques, the new discoveries, the conflicts, and the proven (or now disproven) ideas in their discipline. This is no trivial exercise and is made only a fraction easier by the ‘alerts’ that academic journals kindly deliver to your inbox.

While the saying normally reads that ‘no man is an island’, neither is a research area. There is an ever-increasing tendency toward ‘interdisciplinary’ research, and while the scientist in me agrees that this is a much more holistic approach to solving a problem, my inbox groans under the weight of  ‘alerts’ that keep me up to date in multiple disciplines. As a researcher that uses deep-sea corals as archives of climate change I am trying to keep up with our understanding of coral biochemistry, the global nitrogen cycle and food web dynamics, climate forcing both past and present, and more specifically, the physical, chemical, and biological oceanography of the East Australian Current and Southern Ocean. What else can you expect if you study marine bio-geo-chemistry? At present I receive weekly alerts from maybe 6 journals, and then another couple from monthly and quarterly publications. While this goes a long way to keeping me informed, there are probably another twenty journals I should keep my eyes on. And so to the next kind of alert, the citation alert. Continue reading “Alert!”

Why giving a presentation is like going to the dentist

By Katehttp://mexicodentist.yolasite.com/

The other week I gave a presentation to my panel to update them on all the sciencing I’ve been doing since my midterm.  It was a good opportunity to have them all in one place, to hear what they have to say about my findings.  It was also a good chance for me to actually think about my data, put it all together and try to make sense of it.

That doesn’t mean I enjoyed it.  I get really, really nervous when I have to do public speaking.  I hate it.  And this week I had a mighty revelation:  Giving a presentation is just like going to the dentist.

Hear me out on this one. Continue reading “Why giving a presentation is like going to the dentist”

The Slow Waltz of Science

By Nick Scroxton

Tracks from a Neutrino Event
Photo from the Conrad Research Group http://www.nevis.columbia.edu/~conrad/whointro.html

Forward, right, together, forward, left, together, forward, right, together…..

Like a classical waltz the progress of science moves forwards, backwards, sideways, and spins, all at the same time. Its only after a few years that you can stand back and see if any real progress in any direction has been made. And whether this is in the direction you expected.

This is in contrast to how the media portray the progress of science, linearly, event after event, and I suspect this is probably how most members of the public similarly view progress. But science is just as much about the experiments that haven’t worked as the ones that have. The backwards steps that tell us what isn’t going on are just as crucial in building up the bigger picture, trying to understand how our world or universe works.

Continue reading “The Slow Waltz of Science”

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