Blog Biology 15 February 2017

Wolves have been much on our minds here at Cosmos recently. One of our writers is working on a review of Brenda Peterson's excellent book Wolf Nation, that is due to be published in early May. It is the remarkable story of the 300-year history of wild wolves in America and their relationship to humans over that time. We won't spoil that, you can read it in our next print edition out in early April and online shortly after that.

But in the meantime, we came across this fascinating short film, narrated by George Monbiot, about the extraordinary effect the re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park has had on the ecology there. Over a short period of time they have set off what is known to scientists as a "trophic cascade", an ecological process that begins at the top of the food chain and tumbles all the way through to the very bottom.

By preying on deer, which had dangerously overpopulated the park, the wolves sparked a remarkable chain of events that led to a boom in new life and vibrancy that even saw a change in the flow of the rivers. It's a remarkable story and one that reminds us just how interconnected everything is – and perhaps an overdue shot of feel-good in these gloomy times.

Blog Society 09 February 2017

Surgeons performing a liver transplant.
MedicImage/Getty Images

Grisly news out of China, where a medical journal assessing the outcomes of liver transplants has been forced to retract a paper on concerns that organs came from executed prisoners.

The study was published last year in the prestigious journal Liver International. It looked at 564 liver transplantations performed at Zhejiang University’s First Affiliated hospital between April 2010 and October 2014.

The authors of the study wrote that “all organs were procured from donors after cardiac death and no allografts [organs and tissue] obtained from executed prisoners were used”.

But doubts have been raised about that.

Wendy Rogers, a professor of clinical ethics at Macquarie University in Sydney, says that it was impossible for one hospital to have obtained so many useable livers from cardiac deaths alone.

“International programs report relatively low rates of procurement of livers from DCD donors,” Rogers wrote in a letter to Liver International’s editor, quoted in The Guardian newspaper. “In the USA, rates of liver transplant from DCD donors in the years 2012-14 were 32%, 28% and 27% respectively. If retrieval rates are similar in China, this would require 1,880 DCD donors, assuming a retrieval rate of 30%, to transplant the 564 livers reported in this paper.

“Given that there were only 2,326 reported voluntary donations in the whole of China during 2011–2014, it is implausible that this small pool could have resulted in 564 livers successfully retrieved … unless the surgeons there had exclusive access to at least 80% of all voluntary donors across the whole of China in this period.”

The journal’s editor, Mario Mondelli told The Guardian he will issue a formal retraction notice and a full transcript of his interactions with the surgeons in the journal’s next edition, along with the letter from Rogers.

“The authors’ institution was given until last Friday 3 February to provide evidence against allegations supported by data that organ procurement for liver transplantation was not from executed prisoners,” he told the paper. “However, there was no answer.”

Blog Society 07 February 2017

Kent Street High School in Perth, the pioneer of Aviation studies in Australia, is looking to expand nationwide, in a bid to save the specialty course.

The school introduced the subject into its school curriculum back in the late 1970s but is now in danger of losing it.

Unfortunately, in recent years other high schools in Western Australia offering the subject have ceased offering the university bound program for Year 11 and 12 students.

This places the future of the course at risk due to the School Curriculum and Standards Authority’s (SCSA) minimum requirement of 100 candidates in Year 12 for the course to be both statistically and economically viable.

That led to Kent deciding to spread its wings to other states. It will use its expertise to provide exams as well as marking.

Kent street Principal, Kath Ward along with Aviation teacher, Kevin Bennett, head off on a national tour in March and will hold presentations in each capital city to highlight its its proposal.

The school is proud of its specialist Virgin Australia Aviation Program that offers Year seven to 10 students a unique opportunity to delve into the challenging and rewarding field of aviation and transitions in the upper school to the university bound Aviation course – a diploma course and/or a Certificate course in Aeronautics.

Bennett describes the Aviation Program as “a quality evidence-based STEM program taught across all year levels”. Study spans a diverse range of areas including mathematics, English, science and environment, and technology and enterprise. It caters for both those students who wish to pursue a career in aviation to those keen to explore the subject as a hobby.

The school’s world-class Aviation Education Centre opened in 1994.

They are offered many exciting aviation-related experiences and opportunities from helping to build an aeroplane, flying the Airbus A320 flight simulator, jump-seating on an airliner to learning the skills required to fly an aircraft themselves.

Students are also introduced to key aviation organisations, such as the Royal Australian Air force (RAAF) Base Pearce and the Royal Flying Doctors Service, and attend significant aviation events including the Avalon Airshow in Victoria.

The school’s world-class Aviation Education Centre opened in 1994 and was especially designed for aviation education.

Aviation staff at Kent Street are all licensed commercial pilots and have on board a qualified flight instructor, qualified to instruct students in flying training towards receiving their private pilot’s licence.

Kent Street owns two training aircraft to provide economical and accessible flying training for students. Previous Kent Street aviation students have built a Vans RV-6A aircraft which first took to the air in 2003.

The Aviation faculty at Kent street together with the Canning Coalition and Virgin Australia, have formed a strong industry partnership which has provided aviation students with invaluable work experience opportunities and future career prospects following graduation.

Under the “Adopt a School” initiative, aviation students are now offered the opportunity to undertake work experience at Virgin Australia, assisting Licensed Aircraft Maintenance Engineers with the maintenance of jet aircraft with the potential of subsequently gaining an apprenticeship.

Ward and Bennett are expected to visit Canberra on 3 March and Brisbane 6 March with plans to visit all other states after that.

For more information please visit

Blog Physics 02 February 2017

Modern finance is built on complex mathematical tools developed by “quants”, a different breed of investor with expertise in fields such as physics, mathematics, and computer science. These models have been the basis for both new trading strategies and new financial products, leading to untold wealth.

In some cases, however, these models have done more damage than good, making markets less stable and introducing new systemic risk.

In his Perimeter Institute Public Lecture, James Weatherall, Professor of Logic and Philosophy of Science at the University of California, Irvine tells the story of how, in the aftermath of World War II, some innovative physicists and mathematicians saw surprising connections between physics, gambling, and finance, and put those connections to use to become the first quants. He will introduce some of the ideas behind modern quantitative trading and show how the history of mathematical reasoning in finance reveals that these models can be extremely useful — but only if we understand their limitations.

Blog Technology 31 January 2017

A Monash University project aimed at improving water water delivery and sanitation in urban slums has been awarded a $14 million grant by charitable foundation the Wellcome Trust.

The funding is part of the Trust’s "Our Planet Our Health" program, and will keep Monash's-year research project going. The research aims to deliver the first ever public health and environmental data on the outcomes of an alternative water management approach.

It will start this year, focusing on informal settlements in Fiji and Indonesia and will be in two infrastructure projects, which are currently being prepared for financing by the Manila-based Asian Development Bank to the tune of $13 million.

Blog Space 29 January 2017

An artist’s impression of some of the 130,000 antennae of SKA-low to be assembled on the red plains of Murchison, Western Australia.
SKA Organisation / Eye Candy Animation

The telescope that goes by the name Square Kilometre Array will be the largest global, collaborative science project ever. If all goes to plan, in 2018 the first of 130,000 antennae will be rolled out on a remote red plain a few hundred kilometres north-east of Geraldton, Western Australia. A sister telescope will be built on another remote red plain, the Karoo, about 600 kilometres north-east of Cape Town, South Africa.

Overall, this is a complex, vast, daunting project. Myopic journalists struggle to get its measure. It’s the elephant problem; here’s a tail, there’s a tusk, but what is this entire monstrosity all about? That’s a concern because this is an extraordinary beast: we should all be falling off our seats in excitement.

There are at least two reasons. First, there’s the sheer audacity of it – SKA-low, the telescope to be built in Australia, will fill in a missing chapter in the history of the universe: how did we get from a featureless sea of neutral hydrogen to galactic islands separated by a thin sea of ionised hydrogen? Theorists have had free rein to model elaborate scenarios on their computers. The SKA-low data, expected to come online in 2021, will at last put these models to the test.

SKA-low is the most ambitious of the two telescopes. SKA-mid, in the Karoo, has its sights set halfway to the edge of the universe; SKA-low is aiming for the very edge. To do so, it needs technology yet to be developed. That’s because it’s a software telescope. Not majestic dishes like those to be deployed in the Karoo, but a forest of antennae whose signals are combined to achieve sensitivity and resolution. Together they will multiply into a telescope 168 times more powerful than current equivalents such as LOFAR in the Netherlands.

To get a clear image of the early universe, SKA-low will have to crunch data at an unprecedented scale – greater than the entire global internet traffic per day.

That’s the second reason we should be falling off our chairs. The innovations that will emerge from this big data project promise huge windfalls. The Word Wide Web was the spin-off when CERN – the home of the Large Hadron Collider – needed to find a way to manage its big data problem. Wi-Fi was the offshoot when CSIRO researchers learnt how to realign the scrambled signals from black holes.

Which is why companies are already flocking to Western Australia’s capital city, Perth. Cisco, Woodside, Google and Chevron are getting involved. This conglomerate of astronomers, computer geeks and industry is a far cry from the romance of Galileo, grinding his lenses into a telescope, gazing heavenward and discovering the moons of Jupiter.

But how he would have swooned to see the first images from the edge of our universe.

Blog Mathematics 16 December 2016

A contemporary portrait of Madame du Châtelet – also known as Gabrielle-Emilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil.
Culture Club?Getty Images

Tomorrow, 17 December, is the anniversary of the birth of French mathematician Émilie du Châtelet, whose translation of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica is still the standard French version of the work.

Born in Paris in 1706, du Châtelet, who was also Voltaire’s mistress, was one of the most glamorous figures of her age.

As Robyn Arianrhod explains: “Tall and aristocratic, passionate in both her intellectual and amorous pursuits, she was larger than life.

“Too large for most people at the time: too ambitious, too intellectual, too emotional and too sexually liberated. Too much of a feminist, too: she pulled no punches when writing of her struggle to educate herself in higher mathematics and physics (because girls were denied access to good schools, let alone universities).”

“If I were king,” she wrote, “I would reform an abuse which effectively cuts back half of humanity. I would have women participate in all human rights, and above all, those of the mind.”

Related reading: Émilie du Châtelet: the woman science forgot

Blog Space 15 December 2016

Edward Pickering and female staff — including Margaret Harwood, Arville Walker, Ida Woods, Florence Cushman, Annie Cannon and Evelyn Leland — circa 1911.
Harvard University Archives

Long before the Hidden Figures “human computers” of NASAthe black women mathematicians whose pioneering work in the 1950s made America’s Space Age possible – came “the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory” whose work laid the basis for how we classify stars today.

These women in the early years of the 20th century maintained and analysed early images of the stars recorded on delicate glass negative plates under the direction of then-director of the Harvard College Observatory Edward Pickering.

The women’s work is documented in a new book by Dava Sobel called The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars.

One of the astronomers, Williamina Fleming, began work as Pickering’s maid but went on to identify hundreds of stars, while Henrietta Swan Leavitt’s observations about the luminosity of stars would shape later ideas about the expanding universe.

There’s a fascinating interview with Sobel here.

Hat tip Science Friday.

The stars of the Small Magellanic Cloud appear as black dots on this negative plate.
Harvard University Archives
Blog Space 09 December 2016

Astronaut and US Senator John Glenn suited up ahead of his return to space in 1998 aboard a Space Shuttle flight.

John Glenn, the first US astronaut to orbit the Earth, has died in Columbus Ohio, aged 95.

His flight in 1962 was a catch-up for the US, which was beaten by the then Soviet Union, to launch the first man in space – cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, in a 108-minute orbital flight on 12 April 1961.

His flight followed two suborbital flights by Alan Shepard Jr and Gus Grissom.

Astronaut John Glenn climbs into the Mercury-Atlas 6 spacecraft Friendship 7 during pre-launch checkout procedures in1962. MA-6 was the first time NASA placed an astronaut into orbit.
NASA/Science Source

Glenn was the last surviving member of the group known as the Mercury Seven, the group of military test pilots selected in 1959 by NASA to become America’s first astronauts.

He began a long career as a pilot in World War 2 and then as a fighter pilot in the Korean War.

He later served 24 years in the Senate for Ohio.

Astronaut John Glenn during Mercury-Atlas 6 pre-launch training activities.

Glenn returned to space in the shuttle Discovery at age 77 in 1998, making him the oldest person in orbit.

Glenn’s experiences were among those chronicled in the book and movie The Right Stuff, whose author, Tom Wolfe, called him “the last true national hero America has ever had”.

But Glenn was more modest. “I don't think of myself that way,” he told the New York Times in 2012.

“I get up each day and have the same problems others have at my age. As far as trying to analyse all the attention I received, I will leave that to others.”

Glenn died at the James Cancer Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, where he had been admitted more than a week earlier.

Friendship 7 spacecraft launching on top of an Atlas rocket at Cape Canaveral (now Kennedy Space Centre), Florida, on 20 February 1962, carrying John Glenn.

Blog Biology 02 December 2016

Biomedical engineer Molly Shoichet will deliver a lecture on translating research to real life.
Tara Walton / Toronto Star / Getty Images

If you’ve ever wondered how lab research transforms into life-changing, real-world products, you won’t want to miss this live webcast by the University of Toronto biomedical engineer Molly Shoichet next Wednesday at 7pm ET (Thursday 11am AEDT).

Brought to you by the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada, Shoichet explores the potential of regenerative medicine to move beyond treating disease to actually stopping and reversing it.

Exploring three case studies – focusing on cancer, blindness and stroke – Shoichet unravels the multidisciplinary innovations that can move regenerative medicine out of the lab and into our lives.

Click here to sign up for an email reminder of the event.

And don’t worry if you miss the live broadcast; the whole presentation will be recorded for open access via their YouTube channel.