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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.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

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.

Blog Space 23 April 2019

Heading home: Apollo 11's lunar lander approaching the command module after departing the moon.

SuperStock/Getty Images

A new exhibition in the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, at the Powerhouse in Sydney, Australia, will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and take visitors back to this historic moment in space travel.

The exhibition, aptly named Apollo 11, opens on June 29, 2019, and will celebrate and explore the moment humans first landed on the moon.

More than 200 objects from the mission will be on display, including part of the Parkes Radio Telescope which received the first photograph transmission from the lunar surface.

“At the museum we have a strong connection to the history of space travel through our collection and an ongoing focus on astronomy at the Sydney Observatory,” says CEO Lisa Havilah.

The venue will also host a virtual reality experience developed with the University of New South Wales’ iCinema program, using 3D modelling from the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC, US. Visitors will be able to experience the moon landing from the perspective of Michael Collins, the astronaut tasked to remain in the Apollo Command Module in orbit around the moon.

Also on display will be a moon-themed piece by British installation artist Luke Jerram.

A series of talks and other events, including tours of the Sydney Observatory, will be prominently featured.

More details are available here.

Blog The Future 18 April 2019

Sydney's Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, the site of many of the events in the forthcoming Sydney Science Festival.


TkKurikawa/Getty Images

National Science Week will sweep across Australia this August, and New South Wales will celebrate with the fifth annual Sydney Science Festival.

From August 6 to 18, the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS) is producing a suite of discussions, exhibitions, workshops, and events on a wide array of topics.

The festival “celebrates Sydney’s diverse and multidisciplinary science community” according to organisers, and will take place at various venues throughout the city.

This year, the event promises to take on such crucial topics as climate change, space travel, and the future of the internet. The central theme explores how science is helping to create humanity’s shared future.

Australian mathematician Eddie Woo is the ambassador for the project.

“The festival’s continued growth each year has provided a fantastic avenue for our city to discuss and explore issues together,” he says.

“With questions about gene editing and artificial intelligence at the forefront of the news agenda, it’s a pivotal moment to look to science and question how our society thinks about these matters”.

Organisers highlight an evening stargazing event called Science and Music in the Park, where visitors can enjoy a performance of The Planets by Gustav Holst, performed by the Sydney Youth Orchestra.

PlantBank, a research group based at the Australian Botanic Garden in the Sydney suburb of Mount Annan, will host a panel discussion called “The Future of the Australian Space Agency” with key players in that effort.

At last year’s festival, more than 85,000 visitors attended 200 events.

Researchers, scientists or educators wishing to host an activity at this year’s event have only a few days left to submit expressions of interest. They can do so here. Deadline is April 26.

More information about the festival also is...

Blog Space 03 April 2019

The Small Magellanic Cloud, visible over Namibia.

Westend61/Getty Images

A new project seeks citizen scientists to help discover previously unseen star clusters, and maybe even unlock secrets of the history of our universe.

The project is a collaboration between the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and Northwestern University in Illinois, US, and is called the Local Group Cluster Search. The aim is to combine high-quality images of three irregular nearby galaxies – the Triangulum, and Large and Small Magellanic Clouds – with the detective skills of amateur astronomers.

Together with the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy, the trio form what is known as the Local Group. Identifying star clusters within them will greatly aid astronomers in their quest to understand rapid and rare stages of stellar evolution, the structure and scale of star formation, the evolution of cluster populations, and how the cluster's host galaxies have changed over billions of years.

“Algorithmic cluster searches have trouble eliminating false detections due to chance groupings of stars, while human-classified catalogues provide a reliable sample of clusters down to very faint brightness levels,” says project leader Cliff Johnson.

The Local Group Cluster Search uses images from a 2017 project called the Survey of the Magellanic Stellar History, or SMASH for short.

Rather than using the more traditional glass photographic plates to capture the clusters, SMASH uses the Dark Energy Camera (DECam), which is a massive digital camera at the NSF’s Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile.

Volunteers are invited to join the project and help search for new stars by going to clustersearch.org.

Blog Society 02 April 2019

Mariners have been doing it for centuries, but scientists are always seeking more accurate ways to calculate magnetic north.

Yevheniia Bondarieva/Getty Images

North might not be where you think it is, but a project called MagQuest is giving problem solvers $1.2 million to help find it.

The issue has to do with the flow of liquid iron in the Earth’s core, which causes the planet’s magnetic north pole to move, by as much as 50 kilometres each year.

The World Magnetic Model (WMM) helps predict how magnetic north might fluctuate and allow devices such as cell phones and airplanes to work properly by accounting for the difference between magnetic and true north.

Normally the model is updated every five years, but an unexpected magnetic jerk occurred right after the 2015 model was released, requiring an additional out-of-cycle update before the 2020 recalibration.

Michael Paniccia is a Geodetic Earth Scientist at the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), and the WMM program manager. He says that in the 1990s these shifts became less predictable, making out of cycle updates to the magnetic model more necessary.

An out-of-cycle update is essential for those using the model at 55 degrees north and above. In these locations, depending on carrier, smartphone compasses may be as much as one degree out of alignment.

Measuring the Earth’s magnetic field has been an evolutionary process. Dutch trading ships used simple magnets, while today’s airplanes have evolved to using satellite technology.

Paniccia says he hopes this project will lead to the next stage of that evolution, by inviting scientists and engineers around the world to submit proposals for funding to develop novel tools.

For those who might be able to help solve this problem of collecting data on a planetary scale, the NGA is awarding grant funding through a two-phase process.

Phase 1 seeks written concepts and ideas, and is open until May 16 this year, with up to 10 winners selected to share $200,000. Phase 2 will aim to put the projects into action and is expected to open in June 2019 and close in August. Up to five winners will be selected to share $1...

Blog Society 27 March 2019

Elizabeth Finkel

The Australian Society for Medical Research (AMSR) has announced that the recipient of its 2019 annual medal is former Cosmos editor-in-chief Elizabeth Finkel.

The medal was awarded for her contributions to science journalism and communication.

Since stepping down from the top job at Cosmos late in 2018, Finkel has been researching several topics, among them the surging field of gene therapy – an area in which she worked during a stint in the US.

“I hadn’t been able to express how gobsmacked I was that the sort of things I used to do to fruit flies at the University of San Francisco – supply them with new genes – are now being done in people to achieve ‘biblical’ results,” she says.

“Toddlers born with spinal muscular atrophy, who should be crippled or dead, are walking. I was thinking I needed a forum to get the message out: this is where blue sky research leads. Now I have one.”

Through the year, Finkel will deliver a series of lectures relevant to her new role as AMSR medallist, culminating in an address to the National Press Club.

The journalist and author retains a role at Cosmos, as roving editor.

Blog Space 19 March 2019

Jupiter has many moons, some newly discovered and as yet unnamed.

Zenobillis/Getty Images

In July 2018, Scott Sheppard and his team at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Hawaii, US, announced the discovery of 12 Jovian moons – and the public have been invited to name five of them.

Suggestions can be submitted until April 15, 2019, by sending a tweet to @JupiterLunacy, with written or video recorded reasons for the name chosen.

Include the tag #NameJupitersMoons.

“I’m excited to get suggestions, and especially eager to see video suggestions, from the public for what these five moons should be named,” Sheppard says.

The astronomer is something of an exo-moon specialist, having discovered 60 of Jupiter’s currently recognised crop of 79 satellites.

He also discovered 25 of Saturn’s 62, two for Uranus and one for Neptune, along with 16 minor planets, a few comets, minor-planet moons, and assorted celestial objects.

Clearly an expert in finding things, but how does he do it?

“To discover a moon, you need to image the space around Jupiter to very faint depths,” he explains.

“Only the world’s largest telescopes can do this. But you also need a big field of view since the space around Jupiter is very large. Very few large telescopes have large field of view cameras.

“Once you actually discover an object that appears to be a moon of Jupiter, you need to re-observe the candidate over months and years to actually officially determine the orbit. Thus, it takes time to confirm and object is an actual moon of Jupiter.”

The rules for naming new celestial objects are described by the International Astronomical Union (IAU).

For the newly discovered Jovian moons, the organisation recently announced a change to the conventions governing the choice of names. Up until now, all the planet’s moons have been identified using the names of lovers or favourites of the Graeco-Roman god Zeus, or Jupiter.

For the latest batch, however, names deriving from...