Monday, December 1, 2014


Last week I was the curator of the rotation twitter account, @EduTweetOz. Here's more about them

It was a very cool experience. I'm now very used to typing things in 140 characters, which is why this post will be so short!

Anyway, wanna have a look at what I said, what we talked about??

Here's the Storify of my week.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The pendulum of science engagement swings back and forth

I saw this article in the Sydney Morning Herald and just had to have my say!

I disagree with the engaging students with the Miley Cyrus wrecking ball pendulum idea! In the same way that i disagree that the TV show The Big Bang Theory teaches science, It doesn't! At best it starts a discussion about science that includes more people. I would never use TBBT or wrecking ball to teach physics in class, but I would use it to talk about issues in science.

My answer to how we make science engaging, is to do real science, and stay true to what that is. As soon as we water it down (or my most disliked version of that ’dumb it down’) we change what science is. We can not get people interested in science if we tell them what we think they want to hear and then change it once they are engaged.

Students are smart, as soon as you start trying to teach them things using stuff that they think is cool, it is instantly, by definition, uncool and therefore even less engaging!

We do this in High school and it frustrates me so much. We give students band 6 in science, then when they get to uni, they think they are good at (hey, we gave them a band 6!!) but they figure out that science is very different to what they thought it was! No wonder they’re disengaged!

It’s the academic equivalent of asking a kid if they want ice-cream, then when they say yes, we give them a block of frozen cream (which is interesting, but in a different way).

We have to teach science to be what science is! Not an explosion filled, super entertaining bonanza…cos it isn’t that. Sometimes science is not fun. When an explosion happens in science, it is generally the wrong thing, in fact we spend a lot of time trying to stop or at least control explosions. Science is challenging, in the good way. People ask me all the time, is physics hard with all the maths? and my answer is Yes! it is, but it’s a lot harder without it!

I’ve know some great teachers that are engaging their students by being passionate about something and sharing that with their students. One guy has doubled his year 11 science class size in 2 years and NONE of them have dropped for year 12, simply by teaching something that he really likes. By the way it’s a girls school, and he is getting them to rebuild a mini, and run a car show!

One of the best science experiments I saw from a student (a VERY disengaged year 9 student) was she asked her family/friends to do the learner driver exam and she compared the results of younger people with older people. It was an excellent project. Her conclusion was younger people are better drivers (they scored better on the test). This is where the learning happened, we discussed if you could make that conclusion from the data, which you can not. Not only did she learn something about the scientific process/variables/validity etc, but she also told me how she could do the experiment again to get better results! AMAZING! She didn’t go on to do Physics in year 11, but she certainly didn’t hate science after that! I would say that is a successful engagement!

The other cool example is this year when I ran a ”How to be a physicist” session where the students DO science, another disengaged girl said to me in her best year 9 voice. “Thanks, I hated physics before this, but I don’t mind it so much, thanks.” I think you’ll agree, reluctant approval from a teenage student is amongst the highest praise one can be given!

What we should be trying to do is increase the number of people in our ‘club’ not by changing what we’re about, but by inviting others in. The wrecking ball is NOT about simple harmonic motion, so don’t pretend that it is. Like Craig Cormick says in the article, as fan-boys and fan-girls of science we are having a ball doing science, so lets share that excitement and engagement by doing it more, not by doing something else, calling it science and pretending to have fun!

I agree, scientists can be elitist! But so can poetry professors, or politicians, or parents, or plumbers (enough alliteration there??) or anyone! (people!)

If you're after songs that engage people with science, watch any of the clips by the band "OK GO"

Lastly, the point of your article is lost when after the entire speel about scientists being elitist, the last paragraph points out the inaccuracies in the wrecking ball clip, in a very elitist way!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

PhD justification

Ever since I started working here at the University of Sydney School of Physics in 2011, I have wanted to contribute to my field. I replaced a guy who has a PhD, almost every office I walk past has at least 1 PhD in it, perhaps a few. I'm surrounded by people who's job it is to ask questions. Change one thing, then measure another. Predict, Observe, Explain, etc. I want to do that too! I don't just want to talk about what they do, I want to do it as well. To be able to talk to students, communicate science, with first hand experience.

My field is science communication and education, I have a teaching degree (...mostly) I have been a teacher and for over a decade I've been in the game of learning science and science communication. On arrival, I instantly wanted to become a part of the SUPER group (Sydney University Physics Education Research group). Almost directly after that I was asked to justify the program I run called Kickstart on a number of different metrics, some harder than others to measure.

We say things like, "Kickstart is one of the most successful flagship outreach program of its kind"...How do we know. What are students actually getting out of it? What do they learn, do they like it, Is it good for them, or the teachers?

After a bit of reading and discussing, (some of which I hope to include here later) I came up with the three E's for evaluating Kickstart. This has turned out to be sort of the basis of my projects leading to wards a PhD.

The three E's:

  • Engagement - public awareness of science (PAS)
  • Education - public understanding of science (PUS)
  • Enrolment - public involvement in science (PIS)

Engagement seems to be fairly well understood (I can tell you that students will like the kickstart program! They'll have warm-fuzzy feelings about physics after they leave the lab). Enrolment is very hard to measure, I've tried with a few surveys, (again, I'll write about these later). The second E, Education, is where I start!

My justification for starting a research project such as this is to attempt at asking the questions about Kickstart that most people assume have been asked. Education fits very well into the SUPER group, being Physics education research.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

How to do a PhD

I've begun a get a PhD.

The PhD project is being done with the Sydney University Physics Education research Group (SUPER group, hands down the best name for a research group if you ask me!) at the University of Sydney. My project will cover different aspects of physics and science education.

This blog will be a sort of research journal, how I did it, what was I thinking, what's next, review of papers/conferences/meetings, data analysis etc. I don't know how any of this works, so I'll be figuring out as I go along. Whoever reads this...You're invited to come along with me!

As with any PhD project, what is presented is only the culmination of all the hours and years put together in a single document. When I was a fresh first year, I remember handing in my very first philosophy assignment. An epic 2500 words essay on something very important like socks with holes in them.
John Locke proposed a scenario regarding a favorite sock that develops a hole. He pondered whether the sock would still be the same after a patch was applied to the hole, and if it would be the same sock, would it still be the same sock after a second patch was applied, and a third, etc., until all of the material of the original sock has been replaced with patches - from Wikipedia.
I remember handing over my masterpiece for which I toiled over, wiping the sweat from my forehead, I could barely walk due to the effor that this essay took, I was a shell of a student, I'd done it, my first university assignment! I was very proud. The lady at the admin counter handed me a receipt of submission and I held onto that thing very tightly, I wanted to say "When do I get notified that this paper will be published and in which well respected journal? I'll be in the refectory if the media need to contact me!"

Next to me, was another student handing something in, but hers was a little bit different. just after my receipt was given I saw 3 entire hardcover books get slammed onto the counter, it made a huge thwop noise!! She looked beat! She simply said, theres three years of my life!" It was her PhD thesis. My jaw dropped. It didn't get any better when all she got for it was the same receipt from the admin lady. I instantly felt, the change in perspective that it almost made me dizzy! I still have no idea how she did that.

I guess no-one can really tell me how they did it, I just have to get in and do it! I don't even know where to start, let alone how to complete and finish it! So I may as well just start! So to answer the question of how to start a PhD?...Like this!


I was told once by someone finishing up his PhD in Astrophysics a couple of years ago, "You always have to remember why your doing a PhD." You'll forget it sometimes, and it'll seem a long way away, there'll be times when you want to give up, and times where you can't sleep cos you're so excited. But no matter what, you have to have in your mind why you are doing this, and getting to call yourself Doctor is not a good enough reason!

My reason, I want to contribute to the area that I have chosen as my work. I work in science communication and Science education. I would like to say that I have made some form of technical, and academic contribution to that field. And that's basically it. I think the nitty gritty of this may change a bit over time but the basis of it will probably stay the same. This is of course a simplified justification and it goes deeper than that, but for now, it fits.

So I guess here ends my first thoughts about it. There's plenty more to go.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

This post, it's about space...and its about time as well!

Part of my job is to answer questions from High School science teachers, and I love it! These last questions came from a teacher and her year 11/12 students. I thought the questions were good and showed the great depth that some students are thinking at, and also the great interest in science.

I hope I’ve given them justice. This stuff can get quite mind-warpy very quickly!

How do we know how many light-years away we are seeing - as in we have seen stars 13 million light-years away.

Redshift will tell us the velocity of galaxies away from us, then with a calculation as fundamental as c=fλ we can approximate it’s distance. BUT…It’s not a simple as that…of course! There are effects due to our atmosphere, relativity, gravitational lensing, objects in the way, expansion of space etc that get in the way of accurate measurements. 

So, we have to KNOW the distance to  a whole bunch of objects in order to compare that with others. There are a few ways to do this, either with cepheid variable stars, quasarspulsars, and parallax. There are a couple of satellites that are tackling the problem with parallax that are very interesting. 

Have a look at Hipparcos and Gaia. These two satellites are involved in Astrometry, a very interesting area in astronomy. Literally measuring the stars! The precision is amazing by the way. Gaia can detect a movement of a star of 10 microarcseconds, (or something like that) the equivalent of seeing the length that my hair grows in 10 minutes from a distance of 10 meters. The angle between the smallest division on a protractor is a degree, that’s made of 60 arc minutes, each one of those is 60 arc seconds, and then 10 1000ths of that!

With all of these methods, we can get some very accurate measurements. 

The text book states that when the universe was one second old it was at least 1 light-year across but wouldn't that mean it was expanding faster than the speed of light?

YEP! It’s called inflation, and it is not very well understood! We talk about it as if we know what happened, but we really don’t! (like when we talk about how we know what the universe is made of, when we really only know what 4% of it is made of!) The experiment BICEP2 had a pretty close shave with the answer, but there is still some discussion, and of course we need to replicate the experiment.

Due to the fact that we don't understand inflation, we need to observe it and measure it, once that has happened, we can then start to try and figure out some details. So in order to measure it, we've tried to measure the effects of what that period would've done to the gravitational environment. In short, we're searching for gravity waves

If the universe started to collapse - could you travel fast enough to escape and can you exist outside the universe?

No. The idea of existence outside of a universe is, with our current understanding, non-sensical. If the universe collapsed, so would everything in it. The physical space between galaxies, stars, planets, etc would also collapse. Think of the usual stars (dots) on a balloon. If you deflate a balloon, the balloon also shrinks, the stars don’t move independent of the balloon, and interestingly (and in line with the analogy) the dots also get smaller!

The idea of “outside" the universe is not defined in physics (like dividing by 0, you just can’t do it. The idea of putting things into 0 groups is a non-sensical idea!) Space and time break down, we have no way of describing that condition mathematically or physically.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Celebrity scientists

Earlier this year, I blogged about why scientists should not necessarily be treated like footballers. It's here. The basic argument is that scientists probably do not want to be treated like footballers.

A similar conversation came up again in my twitter feed, this time from the SMH. "Australians can aspire to finer role models." This article rose out of the recent media frenzy around a few stupid things being done by footballers. The questions raised is, Why is Todd Carney a household name and not Brian Schmidt, or Elizabeth Blackburn for example, great question!

This falls nicely into the categories (following on) of name recognition and role models, and with a special request of ticker tape parades as a celebration of both!

Our very own household name, celebrity
 role model scientist, Dr Karl. Apparently
 he gets stopped an average of 2 times
per grocery shop for a question or autograph.

Name recognition
These days, when it comes to name recognition in the media cycle, I don't think that means much. Sure I can name the guy who wee'd into his own mouth now, but gimme two weeks or so and I'll have forgotten it. This works for the scientists as well. During their brief time, scientists could probably be named in households, but only for that brief time. To claim that Todd Carney is a household name and scientists aren't is quite simply not true. That's not how the media works.

To be honest, I'm pretty sure scientists wouldn't want to be household names, if the criteria for being a household name was disgracing yourself and your family. Think of all the household names in the media cycle at the moment, Todd Carney, Rolf Harris, Andrew Coulson.

There was a fantastic documentary series from the BBC called Howard Goodall's Story of Music. In it, the presenter, Howard Goodall, made the point that we know about artists like Beethoven and Chopin, Vivaldi and Wagner for a reason, they were brilliant and did something that no one else did. I think the same can be said for sportspeople like Maradonna or Michael Jordan, and scientists like Marie Curie, Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton. Granted, John O'Sullivan, Brian Schmidt and Rosalind Franklin aren't household names, but Wi-Fi, Dark energy and DNA are!

Role Models
The role of a role model I think is not understood by the role models very well. There are plenty of examples of poor role models that really should know better. The fact that people look up to you and therefore will listen to what you say and watch what you do, should inform some actions. Of course that isn't the case all the time. I think that if people can't handle that, they really shouldn't be role models anymore, and should get out of that position.

A great sporting role model for me was John "Nobody" Eales. After a game of rugby for his country he'd hit the showers, get into a suit and go and delivery a keynote address at a dinner somewhere. Imagine some of the thugs that play football these days doing that!! Being a role model is a responsibility. People like Katie Perry must know that what they do is watched (and copied) by millions around the world.

But due to the above argument about our short attention span for name recognition, even if todd Carney is a role model, how probably won't be for very long. Again, those that are, like (for me) my father, Dr Karl, ex-bosses of mine Pete Mascini and Rachel Dash to name a few, are still role models for me because they've done something different or brilliant etc.

Having been a teacher, which is effectively a role model in many ways, I can tell you that my actions were heavily modified. I was aware that many actions were being watched and acted accordingly. I think that is responsible. Todd Carney must know he is a role model of sorts. People watch what he does because of who he is. No amount of drunkenness can remove that fact that people watch, are informed by, and in some cases, imitate what he does.

As always, there are two sides to the story. We could do better at what we produce in the news and media cycle, we could choose our role models better, we could train them to be better role models. But we should also expect more of our media to provide us with news that is news, and not just shocking "entertainment." And we should certainly expect more from our role models. It is a responsibility to behave morally and correctly (whatever that is!) as a role model. Children look up to you. If you don't think children should witness you doing something...don't do it.

Ticker Tape parades
I've never been to a ticker tape parade. I would probably never go to a ticker tape parade for a sportsperson, but probably would've been there for the Mercury and Apollo astronauts in their day. And I would certainly go to a similar science based celebration like a lecture by Brian Schmidt (and I'd still get chuffed when he remembers my name!). I still really love going to the Eureka Science prize award night, The Oscars for Science! That is a wonderful and huge and shameless pat ourselves on the back event for only us! I love it!

I hope this hasn't gone into rant territory. I'm still happy to keep the conversation going, like I said in the previous post, there's more in it!

Monday, June 30, 2014

Just like a real scientist!

By Renee Webster @reneewebs

Well, the solstice has passed, we’re almost halfway through the year and here at RSHQ the puns ain’t getting any better (sorry not sorry). Thankfully, Real Scientists is only a little bit about indulging the terrible senses of humour of the admins, and mostly about the awesome work that real scientists like this week’s curator Tom Gordon are doing every single day.
Tom gave us a brilliant run down of the Sydney University outreach program Kickstart, which he runs not only at the university, but all over New South Wales. Kickstart allows physics students to participate in experiments that might not be possible in a high school setting, and gives students a taste of university life and laboratories while still in high school. Tom sees an incredible 25 % of all NSW Higher School Certificate students through this excellent program. He also shared with us several pictures of the Kickstart experiments:
A cathode ray tube, something that’s quickly become closer to a museum specimen than an ever day item students can relate to.
A cathode ray tube, something that’s quickly become closer to a museum specimen than an every day item students can relate to.
is it an insulator? is it a metal? No! It's a semiconductor!
is it an insulator? is it a metal? No! It’s a semiconductor!
Like a number of other previous curators, Tom took to the airwaves during his time at Real Scientists on ABC Radio Dubbo.
@Gordeauz for all (well 2) of your senses - twitter in your eyes and radio in your ears.
@Gordeauz for all (well 2) of your senses – twitter in your eyes and radio in your ears.
Tom also ran us through his career highlights, from the Questacon Science Circus to behaviour of algae on the Vomit Comet.
An ongoing theme throughout Tom’s week was physics education, and ways we can get students to engage with, and continue studies in physics – including using games in science education. Tom’s even doing a PhD on this so it will be interesting to see how his research in this area progresses.
You can continue to follow Tom’s  adventures in physics and science communication on Twitter, where he is @gordeauz.
We’re trying something new this week, since Storify has been giving us a little bit giant coprolites of trouble. To catch up on Tom’s tweets from this week, click here to see the whole week’s worth of content on the Twitter website. If you have thoughts (proton-like or electron-like) on this new way of collecting each curator’s tweets, please let us know in the comments here, on our Facebook page or on Twitter.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Preaching to the converted

I've been at a few events recently where the sub-theme was pretty clearly "Preach to the converted" Intentional or not, that's what it seemed to be. Even if trying to avoid that sub-theme, it's still there. A few conferences come to mind, as well as a very successful event called IFLScience live.

But Preaching and converted seem to have non-scientific feel about them, so perhaps we should science-ify this saying a bit. Scientists don't really preach. I'd say instead of preaching, we present and review results and collaborate. And we don't call our colleagues converted, we call them peers. So instead of preaching to the converted, it really should be called a process of peer review...
Hang on...Isn't that exactly what Science is???
This process can be seen by some as a bit exclusive or elitist by some but, these are conferences and all conferences are like that, and not just the science ones. It would be a bit silly to invite everyone for the sake of saying everyone is invited. The most recent conference I was at where the vibe felt very self congratulatory was the Australian Science Communicators conference in Brisbane in February this year. And I don't think this is a bad thing. It's good to congratulate ourselves!

What we really should be doing is just including a bigger set of people into our peer group, that's it, just assume that more people are in our peer group! Marketers do this very well. IFLS is about to have this chance to assume that people watching it are your peers when it goes on TV. If we do that, they will become our peers, then they can come to our conferences, get our jokes and be elite like us in the in crowd!

I see program like The Big Bang Theory and others reach out to a science audience, but also to non-science audience, in a way that hasn't been done before. People who laugh at that show (for whatever reason) are now our peers. We can now talk science things with people who would have normally said, "Oh I was never very good at school"and used words like boffin.

For want of a better term, preaching to the converted has its place in what we do. It keeps us thinking about what we do, it makes us feel like we are making a difference (which is important), it allows us to network and catch up with old and new friends (also important) and if done right, will increase the number of converted.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Undeniably fact

I'll start this post out as a bit of a response to the article titled "Facts won't beat the climate deniers - Using their tactics will," posted in The Conversation on March 13, 2014 by Dr Rod Lamberts from the Centre for Public Awareness of Science (my old stomping ground!), and we'll see where it takes me.

I like the article, it was a good conversation starter for me. I like Dr Lamberts, he speaks his mind and it is a good mind, I hope he keeps speaking it! and I hope this response is taken is it was intended, as a continuation of the conversation.

First, a quick summary of the article from me.

The facts we as scientists are using to combat the climate deniers are not getting through as we would accept them. We are presented with facts and we get it, they are presented with the same facts and they don't (I'm paraphrasing). Added to that, tactics of opinions and anti-science are getting through. Instead of more facts (the equivalent of talking louder in a foreign country to get people to understand you!), we should be getting in peoples faces with our opinions and point of view. Action, not facts.

This is pretty depressing quote from the article that hit me pretty hard
We can decry climate deniers for their unfair, lowbrow tactics, but their tactics are getting them exactly what they want. Ours are not.
My response.

I think Dr Lamberts has some good points, but I'd like to keep my optimists hat on for little bit longer. I agree with the point about action, Yes, action is what is needed, but it should be action based on facts. I hope this is what Dr Lamberts meant. I don't think we should be forgetting the facts. In fact contrary to what Dr Lamberts said, we should most certainly continue to use facts to inform our arguments. We should of course be loud and proud, we should be getting in peoples faces, but all based on fact. I'll refrain from pulling apart this quote "The fact is that the time for fact-based argument is over" in the same way the Tim Flannery's quote was pulled apart in the article.

I like this quote. I've used it
before, cos it's a good'un.
The fact is that facts are true (see Neil deGrasse Tyson quote), Opinions can be true too, but are not always. To ignore this in any argument is silly. Our facts are based on science, knowledge and the scientific process, which has worked pretty well for a few hundred years. I think instead of ignoring facts, we should not only rely on them more heavily, cos you can't deny facts, we should also lean on the process which we use to get those facts.

Dr Lamberts says in his article "Forget the Moncktonites, disregard the Boltists, and snub the Abbottsians. Ignore them, step around them, or walk over them." Again, I agree, as their opinions do not aid in the discussion, but to continue to say the we should use their tactics, I disagree with. (granted it is of course hard to ignore the people who have been elected to make the laws, but it isn't impossible!)

I'm a big advocate of aiming above the lowest common denominator, not at it or below it. Using their tactics is moving to their level that is not based on facts, and arguing without facts is worse, in my opinion, than arguing with facts. In a way, we could be mindfully ignorant of the things that some people just don't know. We could assume that there is a level of knowledge out there about climate change, this would effectively eliminate that discussion. Sure we'll lose some supporters along the way, but we'd also eliminate the need to argue silly points that we have argued many times. I guess this is the same as what Dr Lamberts is suggesting. Forget, disregard and snub!

I think you'll find that our tactics are working. There are of course set backs, but this will always happen. Look at that spectacular video from the Year 9 Newtown High students that asked PM Abbott questions the other day as one example. Those are the people that in a few years will be representing us. We're in good hands if you ask me. These students are not unique either, there are many more with the same tenacity as these guys. There are even political parties that call for evidence based policy, and a high focus on STEM etc. The Future Party and The Greens to mention a couple. I honestly don't think we are losing the battle, so we should therefore not change our tactics.

Sure, let's get loud, and active, but also, let's not forget what we are loud about. We are here to solve a problem that science can solve, and science is based on facts, so lets use those facts that in the long run, will always prevail over opinions, in our argument. Instead of us using their tactics, let's force them to use ours, then we'll really see whose ahead in the debate!

Action with facts. If only the word Faction didn't already mean something else, it would be perfect here!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sleeping under a universe of stars

I've been watching Grand designs recently, it's a great show. I love the way that the houses always go over budget, the time it takes to build a house is always under estimated and the smallest issues always become the most problematic and expensive to solve. Let alone the crazy projects people decide to undertake in order to have an interesting house. A small scrapyard in the middle of London, a 16th Century castle that is quite literally falling down, an underground house, a self build etc. Every episode has it's drama and therefore entertainment.

The Parkes Radio Telescope, I could easily live
in a modified version of this! Credit: CSIRO
So of course, that makes me want to have my own Grand Designs project. One with a difference (aren't they all). I want to design and build a house that is also an observatory!

I'd love to have a converted observatory, but those are mostly still being used as observatories or museums, or they are extremely remote. There are a few abandoned observatories but again, not ideal locations.

There are some places around that have designed homes with added observatories, and there are very many kit or DIY observatories you can build for your own house. There are even portable observatories. But I want to go further than that. I want my house to be a live in observatory with two functions, a house and a scientific instrument.

It'd be really cool to live in a house that used to be (or still is) an observatory. I could go to the dome and use the telescope at night, and when it isn't in use, it'd be a cool circular lounge room with a really interesting feature in the middle!

Observatory in the middle of a lounge room.

An example of an excellent house would be a recreation of the radio telescope out at Parkes otherwise known as "The Dish." I've been in there a few times (even on the dish!) and the space inside The Dish would be perfect for a house, it even has a kitchen and sleeping areas anyway, because while observing, astronomers basically live there! I imagine a house like that would be similar to living in a lighthouse. Lots of stairs, cylinder type building, and also really cool!

I think some of the observatories around the world are spectacular looking buildings and would be wonderful to recreate and live in.

 The list of pros about living in an observatory include: It's awesome, you have an observatory in your house, it's great for kids and learning about space, it's unique, you get heaps of nerd cred (very important). Compare that to the negligible amount of cons and you're on a winner.

I think with a small amount of imagination a home could be built to honour the observatory, as well as function as one. Sure there would be unique challenges, but every week on Grand Designs there are unique challenges. An observatory house would not be simply a cool design for the design sake, it would be a design that has a purpose. A lot of cases on Grand Designs are all about "The personification of the builders identity in bricks and mortar," well an observatory house is that for me, it tells you who I am and what I'm about.

They say that your house is your castle, I disagree. I think your house should be your observatory!

So I guess I'll get to my design then send it off to Kevin McCloud at the BBC so he can have a look at my bespoke (drink!) and unique design to see what he says. Until it actually happens though, I guess my little tabletop dobsonian and regular house will have to do.

Clear skies!

Friday, January 31, 2014

Why not treat scientists like footballers? Because they're not footballers!

I saw this from @sciengage in my twitter feed today and couldn't help myself but to add my opinion.
"Why not treat scientists like the highest paid footballers? They're doing a bit more than kicking balls around..."

A nice article with some pretty good comments and discussion...But,

I don't think the argument is as simple as that. Should we should pay scientists more? or should we should treat scientists like celebrities? This is about equality, respect, trust, celebrity and effectiveness. In this post, i'll address each of those.

Of course I agree with paying scientists more. First up though, I'd extend this to all academics and researchers from any field. Academics certainly do contribute to society and should be rewarded for doing so. Then, if it's contribution to society, then we should also include teachers, garbo's, police to list only three. A call for more money for scientists will not make the problem go away. Either footballers would still get paid too much and the issue will get passed onto other fields, or scientists get paid too much, and the situatino is switched.

Granted, footballers are well respected amongst their fan base, but I certainly don't respect them when they abuse referees, hit their partners, drink too much an punch on... etc, no matter how much they get paid.

If it is a questions of "Should we trust scientists more than footballers?" We already do! Here is a small piece of analysis of Australia's most trusted people from last year. For the full list, go to

Here's the top 11 for you
1. Charlie Teo, neurosurgeon
2. Fiona Wood, burns specialist
3. Ian Frazer, immunologist and cancer vaccine researcher
4. Chris Riley, founder of Youth  Off The Streets
5. Ian Kiernan, Clean Up  Australia founder
6. Mary, Crown Princess  of Denmark
7. Dick Smith, entrepreneur
8. Catherine Hamlin,  obstetrician and gynaecologist
9. Harry Cooper, TV vet
10. Hugh Jackman, actor
11. Karl Kruszelnicki, science journalist

The first three at the on the list I would consider as academics. I'd also ad din #8, #9 and of course #11. No Sports people! The first appearance of a sports person in the list is Libby Tricket (Swimmer) at #18, the first footballer of any kind is Lucas Neill at #49 (The only other footballers in the list are Essendon coach James Hird and Union player Quade Cooper #59 & #71)

There are indeed some super celebrity scientists out there. Some of them I can think of off the top of my dome are Dr Karl, Carl Sagan, Brian Cox, David Attenborough, Robert Winston, Bill Nye, Neil Degrasse Tyson, Michio Kaku, Adam Spencer. Richard Dawkins, Laurence Krauss, Brian Schmidt. And that's enough for a football team!

Do we really want to treat scientists like sportspeople anyway? I really don't think so. Spreading their image all over tabloids, fabricating stories about their personal lives, constantly hassling them for their opinions that have nothing to do with their field of research (and focussing only on that, not their amazing skill and work). I imagine that most scientists would probably prefer to be left alone to do their research, rather than be the focus of talkback radio shock jocks or papparazzi for example.

Scientists probably don't want that celebrity status, sure a bit of extra coin would be nice, but we could all use that!

We should certainly not take away the skill, hard work, training, commitment and sacrifice that sportspeople make as well. Could a scientist kick a football around with absolute precision? Probably not (watch Nerds FC!!)

Science is not exactly a spectator event. A thrilling computer simulation just wouldn't get as many ratings as a down to the wire sport contest. We are entertained by sports, a major part of it's popularity is entertainment. That is not the case for science. We do not do science for entertainment, we do it to advance knowledge and make sense of the natural world. They are different, just different, so I think it would be ineffective to simply expect to make scientists into celebrities.

In principle I think the idea is good. Let's pay scientists more. Perhaps sportspeople do get paid too much, but the point is a little bit more complicated than that. In addition, I think the question should really be about if it's really a good move.

Now That'll do from me, the cricket's on!

I'm happy to discuss this further. There's heaps more in it!

Friday, January 24, 2014

SN 2014J

What a week for astronomy! Another example of why we should look up...even in London...on a cloudy night.

I tell students I talk to all the time that science can be done by anyone, even them. Next time you're in a classroom and something is odd, or not expected, have a look at what could be happening, because in some cases, like the discovery of a new supernova, it could be new science.

Supernova 2014J. It'll get brighter over the next couple 
of weeks.

Steve Fossey, an astronomer at the University College London was giving a quick 10 minute lesson to his students on the use of CCD cameras in astronomy, before the clouds in London rolled over. They pointed theirtelescope at the object M82, otherwise known as the cigar galaxy and saw something that "...didn't quite look right"
"One minute we're eating pizza then five minutes later we've helped to discover a supernova. I couldn't believe it," said student Tom Wright "It reminds me why I got interested in astronomy in the first place"
The more you look into this story the better it gets. I don't really want to report on all the things that have already been reported, but comment on the situation of students finding the Supernova, the unexpected circumstances and what to can mean for science, science education and awareness.

There is that old adage that scientific discoveries or less commonly followed by the phrase "I knew it" and more by "That's odd." That is almost certainly not exactly true, we scientists know what we are doing (especially if you read grant proposals!!) but we do see some strange results from time to time. Some people call it the Eureka moment, some call it frustrating, some call it their lifes work.

Hans Christian Oersted  immediately came to mind when I heard about the teacher discovering a Supernova this week. Oersted, in 1820, was lecturing on electric current through a wire, noticed that a nearby compass deflected when the current was switched on and restored to its original position when the current was switched off, making a link between electricity and magnetism. We take it for granted now almost.

I love the line "It reminded me why I got into astronomy in the first place. YES! Me too! It makes me want to go out right now and look up at the stars, but I can't because it's raining.  Although that just makes me want to get a radio telescope!

I hope this inspires a few people to one of a whole range of different things. 
  1. To consider science as a real living breathing thing that we are witnessing changing right now.
  2. That Astronomy is really exciting. Seriously, if it wasn't Steve Fossey and his students, it could've been anyone who discovered it
  3. Get involved in amateur astronomy, get a telescope, join a club even just look up and try and familiarise yourself with the night sky.
  4. Find out more and talk to others about Supernovae, or this event
This supernova is going to tell us a lot more than we already know about our universe and it is exciting to se it happen and see it talked about. I'm certainly going to keep my eyes open.

Unfortunately for us in the southern hemisphere, we wont be able to see it, but keep your eyes out in the blogosphere and news for some spectacular pictures. We have already asked those in the north to take some snaps for us, they said they'll do their best! And if you get inspired enough and you want to know more (formally), contact your local astronomer. I know a few, I can put you in touch!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Engagement vs education

I recently sent out an email alert to my colleagues at the University of Sydney School of Physics as an update of what's happening outreach-wise over the holidays and coming up. Among the events and news, were these two items: 

Astronomers collaborate with Artists to create a dance piece called AM I that is being premiered at the Sydney Festival. From all accounts, the show is extremely good! 
Academics from the School of Physics made some comments about the HSC physics syllabus that is being criticised as 'too arty' and the Board of Studies published in the Sydney Morning Herald on January 4. It's an interesting and thought provoking read. 

So, am I allowed to smile at a physics bulletin which starts by advertising a dance piece generated in consultation with the physics department and then highlights an article which criticises the change of HSC physics from a mathematics to an 'arts' subject:)? 

I was a little bit surprised when a response was sent back to me about the update that read: 

I took the comment as a bit of tongue-in-cheek fun, but I also saw an opportunity to start a conversation. This is a conversation I've been thinking about a while and would like to begin writing more about. For me, this was a great way to start! 

My response:   

You are of course allowed to smile, and after you mentioned it, I smiled too! And thanks for the different perspective!  

Physics will never be an arts subject, Science and arts work in very different ways and there are of course interesting overlaps. I see a distinction however, in collaboration and education. the news of Astronomers working with artists is all about awareness and the article about HSC is about education. 
Collaboration with the arts is in order to make people aware of the science, not understand the science. I see it as the ‘warm fuzzies.’ People who see that dance piece will walk away from it with a warm fuzzy feeling about astronomy and black holes to some degree, rather than being scared by the term. 

Whereas the HSC is more than awareness, it’s about education and understanding. The audience and objectives are different. I would hope that a student in the HSC can describe with some depth, use some equations, interpret graphs, make observations around the concept of black holes etc, that is, use the scientific method learnt from the HSC. I would not expect them to be able to dance a black hole, nor would I expect someone who has seen the dance piece top describe a black hole in any depth from only seeing that presentation.

Have you seen a program called dance your PhD? This is similar concept. Apart from being a bit of fun, it is a communication exercise, not designed to educate, but for awareness. In a way, any media article for example are similar. They are designed for awareness have a similar point, even some radio and tv shows, science centres for example. There are also many examples that blur the lines between engagement and education (Like the program I run, Kickstart)

To go for an extreme comparison...I’m sure you’d be able to tell the difference between playing the game Operation, and a medical degree!  

Now get involved  

What are your thoughts about public awareness of science vs public understanding if science. the next step is figuring out how to tackle public involvement in science, that is, getting people enrolled at uni, or TAFE, orin online courses, or reading science books or blogs etc. getting people to learn science themselves. 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Problem solving

Kepler, and what it's looking at. Credit: NASA
I recently learnt that sometime late last year, the Kepler telescope suffered a pretty huge failure. Two of its four gyroscope reaction wheels, the things that keep it pointing so precisely at that dark part of the sky, have stopped working. A spacecraft needs at least 3 gyroscopes (one in each dimension of x, y and z) for stability and in Keplers case, these needed to be very sensitive in order to collect data from a long way of tiny measurements of light intensity, stellar conditions and asteroseismology.

Apparently on the telescope, there were two good gryos and two not so good ones. It was the not so good ones that failed, and we are left with two gyros left. But that still leaves the problem of on gyro down. The solution is to me a pure act of problem solving, and some great science and Physics to get to the solution.

I love the fact that a seemingly mission terminating failure occurs, but instead of accepting the failure, the mission scientists etc have simple changed the mission lightly to continue observing with only two gryos and possibly even making to experiment better. This is pure brilliance nd I am very lucky that I get to work with some of the people that make this project a reality

The pressure that the photons from the Sun exert on Keplers solar panels in fact give it a small push (very small), but over time, this will put strain on what was determined to be two not so good gryos, and once that have stopped working (friction etc) the solar pressure on the solar panels will push the telescope out of alignment, No mater what you do, you can not keep Kepler pointing at that one spot with only two gyros.

Credit: NASA
This solar pressure is a push, and if you break it down, a Gyroscope can be looked at as a push or a force too. So the idea is to use the solar pressure as a sort of third gyroscope on board the telescope. A brilliant idea, that makes me think that sort of backup plan has been though of all along. It also fills me with confidence that if another gyro goes, they've probably got a solution worked out for that too, if not, they'll certainly be tying to think of one now!

The exciting thing for me is that we'll now be able to look at 2 regions of space to find planets, potentially doubling the amount of planets to be found and gifting us with a comparison of two areas of space. In science we look for comparisons.

I love the fact that seemingly catastrophic failure has not only not been a failure, but cold keep on imaging and providing us with fantastic and meaningful results as well as potentially make the project better.

Scientists are problem solvers, this is what we're good at, it's why scientists are being employed all over the place ow and in some places that you wouldn't expect to see scientists. Financial institutions and the stock market for example. We have analytical brains and approach problems differently than lawyers for example. I'm not saying better, just different. This is a wonderful example of problem solving at it's best.