Blog Society 13 September 2019

The focus of Scott Carver's research was the cubed-shape of wombat's poo. 


Researchers Scott Carver, Ashley Edwards and Alynn Martin from the University of Tasmania in Australia, have shared one of this year’s Ig Nobel awards for research that explained how and why Australian wombats do cubed poo.

The poo project was led by Patricia Yang from Georgia Institute of Technology in the US, who became a two-time winner at the Igs.

The team, along with David Hu and Alexander Lee from the Georgia Institute of Technology, worked with colleagues from the US, Taiwan, New Zealand, Sweden, and the UK on the study, which was presented to no less than the American Physical Society last November – and reported in Cosmos.

Now it is one of 10 winners of the tongue-in-cheek yet prestigious awards respected for honouring research that “first makes people laugh, and then makes them think”.

Other research to triumph included work looking at which parts of the body are most pleasurable to scratch, how much saliva a typical five-year-old produces in a day, whether a man’s testicles are the same temperature, and if you can train surgeons with techniques usually reserved for dogs.

You can see the full list of winners and their work here.

And if you have a couple of hours to spare you can watch the full award ceremony from Harvard University below.

Michael Lucy has received one of Australia’s most prestigious science awards.

Blog Space 23 August 2019

The exhibition also showcases the technology that got us there.

Ballarat International Foto Biennale

A new exhibition in the Ballarat Municipal Observatory and Museum in Victoria, Australia, is celebrating all things the Moon.

To the Moon and Back is a photographic exploration celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

The exhibition reminds us just how miniscule we are in the universe, with photo collections of outer space as well as the technology we used to travel there.

And, while astronauts no longer walk the surface of the Moon (for now), the event promises to continue to fuel our imaginations of one of the greatest stories of humankind.

The event is a part of the Ballarat International Foto Biennale and runs from 23 August to 20 October.

The exhibition is curated by visual artist, writer and academic Rebecca Najdowski who worked with Melbourne-based artist and academic Dr. Colleen Boyle.

It features work from a diverse group of artists from across the world– with each one presenting a contemporary exploration of the continuing relevance of the historic event.

Visitors can learn how astronauts live in space as well as taking part in different creative sun-print and light-box activities.

More details are available here.

Blog Society 13 August 2019

Natalie Parletta has been honoured for highlighting the importance of food security.

Regular Cosmos contributor Natalie Parletta has won the prestigious Food Security Journalism Award presented by Australia’s Crawford Fund for a Secure Food Future.

It is her second major award in recent months. In June, she received the 2019 Early-Career Award from the Australasian Medical Writers Association (AMWA).

The twin successes highlight Parletta’s high-quality journalism and her commitment to issues around health, the environment, sustainability and food security.

The latest award was for “Foods you’ve never heard of that could change the world”, published here online, as well as in Issue 82 of Cosmos magazine.

The article highlighted work under way in Africa and Australia to revive traditional food crops and bring a range of benefits for local communities.

The prize is a working visit to a developing country yet to be determined.

Parletta says she is looking forward to the opportunity to see sustainable agricultural practices first hand.

“Food security is one of the most pressing issues facing our planet, with population growth, dwindling resources and an erratic climate,” she says.

“Change needs to come from the grass roots up, and lots of people are doing amazing things out there.

“In particular, local and indigenous people have many answers through traditional crops and farming methods and I’m looking forward to sharing some of these.

Researchers are seeking help to save one of the world's great marine environments. 

Jeff Hunter/Getty Images

If news bulletins explaining how climate change has devastated parts of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef leave you feeling impotent and depressed, maybe getting involved in one of several citizen science projects up there could help.

Researchers from Brisbane-based university QUT run several programs that are turning everyone from secondary school kids to tourists into marine scientists.

Statistician Erin Peterson, for example, designed the Virtual Reef Diver project to drive a new approach to monitoring and managing the Great Barrier Reef.

Members of the public can log on to the website and work through the collection of photographs, classifying the images as they go.

Less “virtual” divers and snorkellers can submit underwater images they have taken while out on the Reef for others to classify.

This work is vital.

“The main challenge that we were trying to address is that the Great Barrier Reef is huge,” says Peterson. “It costs a lot to monitor it all."

Researchers at work on the Great Barrier Reef.


“But there are more than 65 different organisations out there collecting data on the reef – specifically images – all the time.

"Plus we have all these citizens out snorkelling or scuba diving, and everybody has an underwater camera now.

“And so the idea was, can we bring together these image-based data from all these different sources, and learn more about what’s going on to get an estimate of coral cover.”

Once the data is in and classified, data scientists such as Peterson design statistical models to create a predictive map across the whole of the Great Barrier Reef. Thanks to ordinary lay people, the information is as up-to-date as possible.

Meanwhile, reef researcher Brett Lewis, at QUT’s Science and Engineering Faculty, has his sights set not on the Great Barrier Reef but its smaller cousins in Moreton Bay, near Brisbane.

His work focusses on reefs in inner Moreton Bay to see how they cope with climate stress, and what that can tell us about the...

Blog Society 31 July 2019

View the best of SCINEMA 2019 from the comfort of your own home. 

wundervisuals/Getty Images

Australians have the opportunity to host screenings of the very best of science cinema throughout August.

In support of National Science week, the entire program from SCINEMA International Science Film Festival 2019 will be available – plus a few extras for good measure.

There are 10 playlists to choose from, with 23 festival entries and a variety of features, shorts, documentaries, and animated and experimental films.

All you need is a venue, an internet connection, snacks and drinks.

The playlists and more information are available here.

“The best thing about SCINEMA is that anyone can host their own event, and anyone can attend one, making this not only the largest National Science Week event, but also the most varied,” says Alan Duffy, lead scientist for The Royal Institution of Australia, which runs SCINEMA.

“SCINEMA brings the world’s best science films and documentaries to Australia with everything from space to slime-moulds to sharks.

“I know that our playlists will have something for everyone no matter their interest or experience in science.”

If you have a specific theme in mind for your festival, you can take your pick of films from the animal, environment, space or body playlists.

There are also playlists for different age groups if you’re wanting to run an event for your school or organisation.

What are you waiting for?

Blog Society 04 June 2019

Cosmos contributor Natalie Parletta.

Brian Pulling

Frequent Cosmos contributor Natalie Parletta is the winner of the 2019 Early-Career Award from the Australasian Medical Writers Association (AMWA).

Each year, the AMWA selects one writer who stands apart for their contributions to health and medical communication. This year, AMWA specifically cited the quality and accessibility of Parletta’s writing on insulin and pregnancy in the award announcement.

Sophie Scott, a national medical reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and guest judge for the AMWA, said “[Parletta’s] writing really stood out for quality, ability and I believe she has a lot of potential to offer as a medical writer”.

Through research and academia, Natalie has studied nutrition and mental health. She has a master’s degree in dietetics and a PhD, both from the University of South Australia, and is currently completing a graduate certificate program in science writing through Johns Hopkins University in the US.

Recently, she has had articles published in Health Agenda magazine, the Sydney Morning Herald, The Conversation, and of course, Cosmos magazine.

In response to the award, Parletta says, “I am delighted to receive this award. It is immensely encouraging to know that my goal to communicate science in clear, engaging language is succeeding.”

The prize includes free registration for the AMWA Annual Meeting in Sydney, Australia, where the award will be presented, and $1000 towards travel and accommodation.

Blog Society 24 May 2019

A life's work: Edward Stone and the Voyager mission.


The man who has served as project scientist for NASA’s Voyager missions since five years before the first of the two spacecraft left Earth has been awarded one of the most prestigious prizes in astronomy.

Former Jet Propulsion Laboratory director Edward Stone, now a physics professor at Caltech, has been given the Shaw Prize in Astronomy, an honour that carries a $1.3 million reward.

Stone has headed the science team for the two Voyager probes for 47 years – starting in 1972. Voyager 2, the first of the craft to launch, took off in 1977.

The probes have since made many very important discoveries, such as the existence of volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon, Io, and the gaps and complex structures in Saturn’s rings.

Voyager 1 and 2 are now both beyond the limits of the sun’s influence and have become the first two human-made objects to reach interstellar space.

The Shaw Prize was created in 2002 by Hong King philanthropist Run Run Shaw. It is awarded in three categories – astronomy, life science and medicine – every year.

Stone has been awarded, according to his citation, “for his leadership in the Voyager project, which has, over the past four decades, transformed our understanding of the four giant planets and the outer solar system, and has now begun to explore interstellar space".

Stone himself says he is deeply moved.

“This is a tremendous honour,” he says, “and a tribute to the teams who designed, developed, launched and operated Voyager on an inspiring journey of more than four decades.”

The award will be officially presented at a ceremony in Hong Kong on September 25.

Blog Society 16 May 2019

A still from the documentary 700 Sharks.

Laurent Ballesta

The southern hemisphere’s biggest science themed film festival, SCINEMA, kicks off in Australia on Tuesday May 28.

The festival, which will run until Thursday June 13, showcases the best of science features, shorts, documentaries, animated and experimental films from around the world.

The 2019 program covers a breadth of science topics from medicine to skateboarding.

This year’s winner of Best Film is The Face of a Stranger, directed by Geneviève Turcotte. The film follows the journey of Maurice Desjardins who lost half his face in a hunting accident. After hearing about his case, a young surgeon teams up with him in an against-the-odds quest to help him rebuild his face and his life.

The winner of the Technical Merit award is a frightening documentary called 700 Sharks, directed by Luc Marescot, which documents an experiment that combines five experienced underwater scientists and a very large mob of hungry predators.

At the other end of the emotional scale is the delightful documentary Jeremy the Lefty Snail and Other Asymmetrical Animals, a British documentary exploring strange chirality in several species.

SCINEMA is presented by Australia’s Science Channel, part of The Royal Institution of Australia (the publisher of Cosmos) and supported by major sponsor BBC Earth.

Premiere screenings will occur at 14 major locations across Australia, and the full program is available on the SCINEMA website.

Tickets can be purchased here.

Unique visions: the Future of Life Institute is searching for utopian short stories.

James Brey/Getty Images

The folk at the Future of Life Institute (FLI), a US-based volunteer-run thinktank concerned with analysing the dangers and opportunities artificial intelligence may pose in the coming years, think there is too much gloom about.

In particular, they are of the firm opinion that the current mood of pessimism and gothic dread that suffuses the genre of science fiction is all a bit much, really.

As a consequence, the institute – which was formed in 2014 by intellectuals including renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology cosmologist Max Tegmark – has launched a competition to find the world’s best utopian short fiction.

The competition calls for short stories between 1500 and 3000 words about how one of your descendants manages to live in harmony. With nature and overcome challenges.

Given the technological focus of the institute, however, possible definitions of “descendant” are broad indeed.

“Is your ‘descendant’ still biological?” the competition website asks.

“Is your ‘descendant’ a grandchild or a clone? Have we merged with technology or uploaded DNA to create new cyber-beings? Is your ‘descendant’ something completely different?”

The story should be consonant with the institute’s mission, which it summarises as: “Technology is giving life the potential to flourish like never before, or to self-destruct. Let's make a difference.”

Entries must be in by June 9, and all authors must be 18 years of age or older. First prize is $1000. More details here.