Blog Society 31 March 2020

Two police officers check the documents of a citizen during curfew at a checkpoint in Quito, Ecuador. 

Juan Diego Montenegro/picture alliance via Getty Images

From Monika Silva: Montañita, Ecuador

Ecuador: First case reported 29 February

Cases 1925; deaths 58

(At Sunday 29 March)

Every day I wake up to the sound of hummingbirds’ wings flapping by my window (actually there are no windows, only half height walls, where I sleep). The sun shines and the sky is blue every day. Magnificent birds’ concerts, omnipresent greenery and giant butterflies fluttering about surround me. Every morning, every single plant-baby of mine in my garden shines with vitality and puts a smile on my face.

In the times of coronavirus nothing interrupts this magical spectacle of nature.

Except that, in the other, pre-corona dimension, nothing ever interrupted it either. It has simply been my family’s way of life since we moved to the coast of Ecuador six years ago.

With one difference. A fundamental one in our case.

There is no one we can share this natural beauty, the tranquility of our green oasis, with. Instead of hosting travellers from all over the world and by so doing, winning our daily bread, I’ve spent the last two weeks evacuating our guests back to their home countries.

Coronavirus this, coronavirus that; people somewhere out there where material belongings seem to matter more than they matter in our tiny Montañita universe fighting each other for the last roll of toilet paper. Ridiculous. Thank goodness we’re in Ecuador, in our coastal, tropical bubble, distanced from the madness of the other world. Corona will never get us here, ha ha!

And it hasn’t so far.

Maybe it hasn’t thanks to the measures taken by our government. The very same measures that have imprisoned us in our green slice of heaven.

On 30 March, my Duracell-bunny-like daughter will turn four. That day will also mark over two weeks since she’d seen the world outside the bamboo and adobe walls of our property. Over two weeks since she’d seen a friend outside a phone screen.

I wonder if she’ll remember it. I certainly will.

At times I wonder if this will...

Blog Society 30 March 2020

Empty streets in the Alpine resort of Zermatt, Switzerland, amid the spread of COVID-19.


By Matthias Hertl

Population: 8.57 million

First Case: 25 February 2020

Cases 11,811 Deaths 191 (As of 26 March 22:36GMT)

Switzerland is not a place which moves quickly. Even in Zurich, the largest city by a distance, the 350,000 inhabitants take their time. Coffee by the lake is enjoyed in the sun and dinners are eaten over the course of hours. And all of these elements move together in perfect harmony like, well, a Swiss watch.

Normally this makes the country beautiful and calm, but these times are not normal, and have shown the downside of living in a place that always walks but never runs.

It might surprise people to know that Switzerland has the highest per capita rate of COVID-19 infections in the world (outside of microstates and Iceland).

You might expect the country worst hit by this pandemic to take the most extreme measures - lockdowns, curfews, empty streets and an isolated populace. However, the response has been typically Swiss - everything happens by consensus, and consensus is not easy to gather.

It was only on March 16th, 3 weeks after the first case and a week after Italy – our direct southern neighbour – had locked down the entire country that the Bundesrat [ed: Swiss Federal Council] moved to shut down public life: restaurants, bars, etc. Since then the rules have tightened, which for us means parks are off-limits, no gathering in groups of >5 people under penalty of a 100CHF fine, and closure of all borders to everyone who isn’t a citizen, resident, or cross-border worker. In an extraordinary measure for a country on which everything closes on Sundays, parcel and grocery deliveries are now allowed all weekend long.

This prompted a phenomenon you have probably experienced yourself. In German panic purchases are named Hamsterkäufe, which translates to “hamster purchases” – fitting in times where large swathes of the population displayed similar hoarding instincts as our furry friends.

Despite the lockdown...

Blog Society 25 March 2020

A worker cleans the empty shelves at a local supermarket in Singapore after panic buying swept through the city.

ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images

By Nora Lee

First case reported 23 January

Cases 308; Deaths 2

(At 12:00 local time on Sunday 22 March)

I guess that I’m lucky I live in Singapore in these crazy times of COVID-19. We started taking this disease seriously quite early on – even before it had an official name.

One thing I’ve come to appreciate is the fact that the Singapore government acted early and communicated the risks and issues clearly and calmly from the very beginning.

It’s become increasingly clear how important that is as I read daily about what’s happening in other countries. Many people lament how their governments didn’t act fast enough, or had squandered their lead time, and how there’s a general lack of trust in how their leaders are managing the pandemic.

So here, we’ve been dealing with the outbreak for a couple of months now and naturally, some parts of our lives have changed. We get daily updates on cases and almost daily changes in policy and rules.

In the last week alone, we went from the government discouraging non-essential travel to them discouraging all travel. Now we’ve also closed our borders to short-term visitors. It’s hard to keep track of all the changes but the constant has always been wash your hands, don’t stand so close to each other and avoid crowded areas.

We’ve witnessed a couple of rounds of panic buying, first time when the government announced we were going to DORSCON-Orange and again last week when neighbour Malaysia announced it was closing its borders for two weeks.

Yes, we’ve also seen toilet paper disappearing from stores and also pondered what magical powers loo rolls hold.

In the beginning, we saw hand sanitiser and surgical masks wiped out from store shelves but in the last couple of weeks, hand sanitisers have made a comeback, although masks are still missing. We also had people who tried to profit from the pandemic by selling the items at inflated prices, but that was shut down by the authorities pretty early on.


Blog Society 04 March 2020

To create diversity in engineered products, we need diversity in the workforce.

Hinterhaus Productions

By Felicity Furey

We don’t often stop to think how amazing it is that clean water flows from our taps, a toilet flushing magically takes away our waste, satellites buzz around planet Earth to facilitate google maps or electricity turns on at the flick of a switch.

Our convenient world just… works. And it is all thanks to engineers. March 4th marks the first International World Engineering Day and it is an occasion to celebrate engineers.

We don’t think often think about the impact engineers have on our lives, it is easy to take our modern convenience for granted. There are also many misperceptions about what engineers do.

For the last eight years I have worked with high school students, mostly women, to shift their perceptions of engineering. When I ask 15-year-old high school students what an engineer does I often hear “men in overalls fixing cars”, “a mechanic” or “hi-vis and on construction sites”. Most students have no idea what engineers do, they have not heard about it and 90% of them have never considered it as a career.

Shifting these perceptions is simple. We can let young people know engineers make things work, make the world work better and ultimately solve problems for people. Everything engineers do is for people.

Why do perceptions of engineering matter? Well right now, about 1 in 10 engineers are women and it has been that way since 1990. And if engineers are designing our world, we need to make sure they consider and represent the people that live in it.

Because of a lack of diversity in engineering the design of cars is less safe for women, there are less toilets for women on the planet, air conditioning is designed on the basic metabolic rate of a 40-year-old man and traffic modelling is centred around trips more common to men than women - all because women weren't considered in the design of these everyday inventions!

By engaging...

Blog Space 23 January 2020

Lisa Kewley was recognised for her work on galaxy formation.


By Natalie Parletta

Quietly tucked away in Canberra, Australia, is one of the world’s most influential astronomers right now.

Lisa Kewley has been awarded the James Craig Watson Medal by the US National Academy of Science in recognition of her work’s impact on understanding how galaxies formed and evolved over the past 12 billion years.

Her pioneering research in theoretical modelling sheds light on power sources for galaxies, what happens when they collide, the history of stars forming, and how oxygen is distributed throughout the Universe.

“Now we understand how to make a computer model of the impact of star formation and supermassive black holes on their host galaxies,” she says.

“We can run the model forward and see how we expect galaxies to evolve, and we can go backwards and see how galaxies like the Milky Way formed, shortly after the epoch of reionisation, when the early Universe lit up.”

Kewley’s vision isn’t limited to the skies – her most recent paper, published in the journal Nature, argued that Australia needs more Indigenous, LGBTQ and disabled scientists to produce quality research.

Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt, who supported the nomination, says the award for her “stellar research and the incredible contributions she has made to our understanding of the Universe” is richly deserved.

“Here at ANU, we push the boundaries of what is known every day. This includes our place in the Universe,” he says. “The work of Lisa and her colleagues position Australia as a world-leading centre for astronomy.”

Kewley is director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in All-Sky Astrophysics in 3D (ASTRO-3D).

After completing her PhD in 2002 on the connection between star-formation and supermassive black holes in infrared galaxies, career highlights include a fellowship at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics and a NASA Hubble Fellowship at the University...

Blog Society 10 December 2019

A sculptor, two horticulturists and a physicist brainstorm ideas: (l. to r.) Mark Swartz, Bjorn Sturmberg, Hayden Druce and Erika Watson.

Laura Fisher

By Bjorn Sturmberg

We generally hear climate change discussed as a technical challenge that will be solved with bigger wind turbines, more electric cars, less steak and fewer flights. The mission is nothing more, and nothing less, than to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide equivalent units.

As a physicist, this computes for me, but over the past year, I’ve begun to look at things differently.

I’m part of An artist, a farmer and a scientist walk into a bar, an unusual arts initiative in Australia designed to challenge and change the relationships we have with the land. My project – one of eight – involves working with a sculptor and two horticulturists to explore creative ways of harnessing solar energy on farms.

Things began with a visit to a drought-stricken farm in the shadows of the Blue Mountains escarpment west of Sydney, where the shallowness of the simplistic technical response to climate change took root.

Then, as the project involved me in more conversations with artists and other collaborators, a number of things struck me.

The first was the attentiveness and genuine value placed on the artistic process. You can hear this whenever an artist refers to their "art practice" instead of their "art". This seems to me to be powerfully linked to artists’ comfort in constantly working with a blank page; with a loose scope; with uncertainty.

Farmers too are deeply embedded in a perpetual process of tending to their living, breathing, never static landscapes.

As we rush into our uncertain future – with its changing climate, changing technologies, and changing demographics – the rest of us (especially us science types) would do well to give greater attention to the processes we adopt when we engage with issues.

Appreciating the process keeps us focussed on continually asking good questions and pursuing best possible solutions. It also helps sustain motivation through our multi-year challenges.

The adjustment in perspective is nicely...

Blog Mathematics 03 December 2019

Associate Professor David Harvey demonstrating the old-school method of multiplication which is impractical when multiplying astronomically large numbers together.
Natalie Choi/UNSW

Associate Professor David Harvey from the University of New South Wales has been awarded the 2019 AustMS Medal by the Australian Mathematical Society (AustMS).

Presented during the society’s 63rd annual meeting in Melbourne, the award recognises Harvey’s work in the fields of algorithmic number theory and computer algebra.

His achievements include the development of highly efficient algorithms that play a central role in number theory and cryptography and, with Dutch mathematician Joris van de Hoeven, the discovery of the fastest known method for multiplying large numbers together.

His work on integer multiplication settled a notorious conjecture that had remained unsolved for nearly 50 years.

Harvey says he is humbled to receive the honour. “Many of the past recipients of this medal are giants of Australian mathematics who I admire greatly.”

The 2019 Award for Teaching Excellence (Early Career) was presented to Belinda Spratt, a Mathematical Science Lecturer at the Queensland University of Technology, for her commitment to transforming student engagement and perception of mathematics.

“This award sends a very important signal about the value and impact of teaching and its role in developing and inspiring new talent,” she says.

The 2019 Gavin Brown Prize for outstanding article, monograph or book was presented to University of Queensland researchers Dr Zdravko Botev and Professors Joseph Grotowski and Dirk Kroese for their paper “Kernel Density Estimation Via Diffusion”, published in the journal Annals of Statistics.

Blog Biology 29 November 2019

Andreas Strasser and David Vaux are recognised for their work identifying cell death triggers. 


David Vaux and Andreas Strasser from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research have been awarded the biennial CSL Florey Medal for their work identifying cell death triggers and using them to fight cancer.

The award, which is presented by the Australian Institute of Policy and Science (AIPS), recognises significant lifetime achievements in biomedical science and human health advancement.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Vaux and Strasser discovered the molecular processes that cause billions of our cells to die every day, showing that some cancer cells can evade this process of programmed cell death and thus "fail to die".

They found that a gene called Bcl-2 keeps cancer cells alive and increases their resistance to chemotherapy. This led to the development of a potent new inhibitor of Bcl-2 that is now used to treat leukaemia around the world.

“I’m proud to share this honour with Andreas,” Vaux says. “Bcl-2 was the spark that ignited a whole new field that has given new insights not only into the origins of cancer but also, as first shown by Andreas, autoimmune disease. But cell death research has only just begun.”

Strasser agrees. “Although our research into cell death and cancer has been under way for decades, it remains for me a vital and exciting field,” he says.

“There still remains much to be discovered and there is a real opportunity to translate the understanding of programmed cell death into improved therapies for diverse cancers.”

Blog Society 22 November 2019

SCINEMA International Science Film Festival has officially opened entries for 2020, and this year there’s a host of new award categories.

New awards include Best Experimental/Animation, Best Short Film, Best Online Format, a Social Impact award and SCINEMA Junior for filmmakers 17 years and younger.

“We’re really excited to launch a category that celebrates the work of young filmmakers who have a curiosity for science,” says Katherine Roberts from The Royal Institution of Australia, the Adelaide-based publisher of SCINEMA.

There’s also a new award for the best Indigenous or First Nations film that aims to advocate and celebrate the scientific endeavours, stories, and voices of Indigenous people.

“SCINEMA is all about promoting the public understanding of science. Throughout history, Indigenous Peoples have substantially contributed to science and technology - SCINEMA is a platform to tell these stories”, says Roberts.

Best Film/Documentary, Best Short Film, Best Experimental/Animation and Award for Scientific Merit will also return for 2020.

Organisers are now inviting entries from amateur, professional and student filmmakers.

If you have produced a film, television series, documentary, online video, short film, educational content or animation that has a science theme, submissions are now open via FilmFreeway. Entries close 12 January 2020.

SCINEMA gives filmmakers the opportunity to have their films seen by a large audience – this year the festival attracted over 100,000 science and film fans - category winners will also take home an Instagram worthy trophy.

Don’t miss out, submit your film now! More information on the festival can be found here.

SCINEMA International Science Film Festival is presented by Australia’s Science Channel and supported by BBC Earth.

Blog Society 21 November 2019

Dr Karl is the first Australian to take home the prestigious prize.
The University of Sydney.

Dr Karl Kruszelnicki – or simply Dr Karl as he is best known – has become the first Australian to win the UNESCO Kalinga Prize for the Popularisation of Science.

He joins the ranks of such scientific luminaries as Margaret Mead, David Attenborough, Arthur C Clarke, Bertrand Russell, David Suzuki, and inaugural winner Louis de Broglie, one of the founders of quantum theory.

Presented during the World Science Forum in Budapest, the award recognises Dr Karl’s knowledge, his gift for communication and his enthusiasm and curiosity about all things science.

“I’m ever so honoured by this prize. I simply couldn’t have achieved what I have without the nurturing environment that the University of Sydney provides for people like me who are perhaps not quite normal or mainstream,” he says.

Dr Karl’s best-known work includes his weekly science hour on the ABC radio station Triple J, as well as segments on BBC radio in the UK. In 2002, he was awarded the prestigious Ig Nobel prize for his research into belly button lint, and why it is almost always blue.

You can watch him in action during an In Class session for Australia's Science Channel.

He is also engaged in a wide range of outreach programs, including twice-weekly free Skype sessions with schools across the world.

The Kalinga Prize, which is funded by the Kalinga Foundation, the Indian Government and the Indian State of Orissa, was founded in 1951 and is UNESCO’s oldest prize. It aims to recognise exceptional contributions made by individuals in science communication and promoting the popularisation of science.