Category Archives: Science

Saturday salon 7/7

1. How realistic is space travel?

As reported in the New Scientist, Frédéric Marin, an astronomer at the University of Strasbourg, France and Camille Beluffi, a physicist who works for Casc4de, a data firm in Strasbourg, have done a thought experiment on the feasibility of reaching the nearest Earth-like planet, which happens to be Proxima b, around 4.25 million light years away, a mere 40 trillion km. Continue reading Saturday salon 7/7

Where will we be in 250 million years time?

A bit longer than 250 million years is when we had the Great Dying, the Permian–Triassic extinction event, when up to 96% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species became extinct. A mere 65 million years ago saw the extinction of the dinosaurs and the dawn of the Cainozoic Era. From a screenshot of this YouTube, this is how the continents were placed around the globe:

Continue reading Where will we be in 250 million years time?

Science stories for 2017

The New Scientist has predicted the 10 biggest and most important science stories for 2017 (pay-walled) in their bumper three weeks in one Christmas and New Year special issue. Here are some of them.

1. DeepMind’s AI wants to beat us at video game StarCraft next

In March last year Google-owned firm DeepMind developed the AlphaGo system which defeated one of the world’s best Go players, Lee Sedol. Continue reading Science stories for 2017

Climate clippings 176

1. Battery storage to grow four times quicker than market thinks

The latest Morgan Stanley report is bullish about the growth of battery storage in the Australian market. They think we’ll have 6.6GWh of battery storage in Australia by 2020, which is what the Australian Energy Market Operator last week predicted for 2035. Continue reading Climate clippings 176

Saturday salon 13/2

1. Garbage out, garbage in

Stuart Robert had to go. Ben Eltham goes through the detail and finds his defence “is somewhere between threadbare and farcical.” So Malcolm told him to resign, and he did.

So with Mal Brough and Jamie Briggs in the naughty corner, plus Warren Truss and Andrew Robb giving the game away, we now have five vacancies. Continue reading Saturday salon 13/2

Goodbye Holocene, hello Anthropocene?

It hasn’t happened yet, not officially. The final decision rests with an august scientific body called the International Commission on Stratigraphy, which has a 36-person Working Group on the Anthropocene. Now 24 scientists, including some from the Working Group, have produced a paper advocating for the Anthropocene to be recognised as having begun in the mid-20th century. Continue reading Goodbye Holocene, hello Anthropocene?

Innovation and economic complexity

Goran Roos, Adjunct professor at University of Technology Sydney, explains why advanced manufacturing is an essential feature of ‘economic complexity’ and that “a nation’s potential to create prosperity is a direct function of its economic complexity.”

Australia’s economic complexity has declined over the last 25 years, to the point where it ranked 53 among all countries in 2012. The top three were Japan, Switzerland and Sweden. Losing the car industry is likely to lower Australia’s economic complexity by a further 5-15%. The share of manufacturing in Australia’s economy is likely to be below 5%, compared to Switzerland’s 20%. Continue reading Innovation and economic complexity

Dark energy: it all ends with a bang, not a whimper

We know that what we think of as ‘stuff’ in the universe is only a small part of it, right? The standard spiel is that ordinary stuff is 5% of the everything in the universe, dark matter about 25% and the rest – about 70% – is something called dark energy. Thereabouts. That’s on a “mass–energy equivalence basis” whatever that is.

Stuff, at least we can see it, although it goes very weird at the micro quantum physics level, where particles can be in two places at once, or in two different states at once, but if two particles are bonded, then change one and the other changes automatically and instantaneously even though kilometres apart in what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance”. Continue reading Dark energy: it all ends with a bang, not a whimper

Science battles for recognition in Canberra


Generally speaking the Abbott government lacks recognition of science, to the point where its stance can be characterised as anti-science. That is certainly the case in climate science, but can be seen in many other ways, not least in the use of science infrastructure funding as a pawn in the political wars over how university teaching should be funded. Certainly too, the Abbott government lacks an appreciation of the contribution science and mathematics can make to transitioning out of our dependence on mining and other product exports in the economy.

In this context the Chief Scientist and the Australian Academy of Science commissioned a report The Importance of Advanced Physical and Mathematical Sciences to the Australian Economy. The report was produced by the Centre for International Economics (CIE).

The aim has been to produce an economic framework that can use the available statistics and economic modelling techniques to provide a timely reminder of how much of our national economic activity depends on the advanced physical and mathematical sciences (the APM sciences). The APM sciences comprise physics, chemistry, the earth sciences and the mathematical sciences, where ‘advanced’ means science undertaken and applied in the past 20 years. Biology and the life sciences were not covered in the report.

The direct contribution of the APM sciences is estimated to be 11% (or about $145 billion per year of the Australian economy). The contribution in additional and flow-on benefits equals another 11%, bringing the total benefits to 22% or around $292 billion per year.

This exercise was not helped by Age journalist Gareth Hutchens with an article entitled Australia’s scientists forced to rely on pseudo-science to be taken seriously in Canberra starting with:

It’s a shame that scientists have to stoop so low.

Climate scientist Roger Jones defended the report and its progenitors in a blog post.

We can all agree, Hutchens included, that it is a disgrace that such a report should be felt necessary for science to be taken seriously by those govern and plan for our future. There should be no need for a “timely reminder”; our leaders should have science and knowledge-based industries front and centre in their thinking. But to dump on the report in the way Hutchens does is in my view inflammatory, derogatory and misleading in that it gives the impression that the exercise was worthless. What Hutchens calls “guesses” were in fact informed estimates by the most knowledgeable people available.

In large part Hutchens is entering with hob-nailed boots the old argument of how much science there is in economics. I don’t know enough science or economics to usefully contribute, but Hutchens own account of the methodology used suggests a disciplined and rational approach.

Scary berries: trusting the food we eat

As of Wednesday evening 14 cases of hepatitis A have been linked to frozen berries. More are expected. Schools are on the alert as the berries have been used and consumed in cooking classes. At least one preschool used the berries to make smoothies for an afternoon snack.

Agriculture Minister, Barnaby Joyce, said the government was considering a review of testing on imports under Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) as more hepatitis A cases turned up. His department wrote to the Chinese government to ask for assurances on the food testing measures.

As for the government doing anything concrete Abbott has virtually ruled it out, saying that it is the responsibility of businesses ‘not to poison their customers’. A crackdown would just add to the cost of food, he says.

Meanwhile Patties, the company concerned, has cast doubt on the quality of Australian produce, angering growers.

Patties say their:

“policy was to acquire Australian fruit wherever possible,” despite the fact in the past two years it sourced berries from China, New Zealand, Canada, Chile, United States, Greece, Turkey and Serbia.

In this case:

The four recalled products – one-kilogram packs of Nanna’s Raspberries and Frozen Mixed Berries, as well as 300 gram and 500 gram packs of Creative Gourmet Mixed Berries – were largely sourced and packed in China. (Emphasis added)


The Conversation has an explainer.

Hepatitis A can come from the berries being grown in infected water, washed in infected water, picked or packed by people carrying the virus, getting contaminated by infected animals, such as livestock, rats, mice or bats, at some stage in the production cycle, or mixing with other ingredients contaminated with hepatitis A virus during processing.

The infection can be inside the berry itself.

About 90 per cent of China’s groundwater is polluted, 65 per cent severely so, with contaminates such as pesticides, fertilisers and petrochemicals, a report from the Centre of International Security Studies at Sydney University showed.

The real problem, however, is faeces. Human poo is used in China as fertiliser. I understand that customs don’t test for bacterial or viral pollution. I did hear that the berries were now sent to an overseas lab for testing. Are we a first world country?

A new focus has come on labelling. Consumers want it, there have been endless inquiries, and exactly nothing happens. Choice tells us we are stuck with statements like ‘Packed in Australia using imported fruit’ or ‘Made in Australia using local and imported ingredients’ which offer very little information about a product’s origin and are largely meaningless to consumers.

It looks as though Joyce wants to do something about labelling, but I think it lies in the health portfolio. At least eight governments have to agree. Without the support of the PM who seems to have made up in his mind in the negative, nothing will happen

Ironically the Chinese would rather eat our fruit than their own if they can afford it, but there is no provision to export our produce directly to China. It has to go through third countries. We are currently working on a trade deal with China. Andrew Robb, please note!