Blog Space 27 March 2017


If you’ve ever wondered how you might urinate on the moon – and even if you haven’t – Cosmic Vertigo has the answer for you.

The new science podcast from the ABC takes you on a voyage through the universe – and who knew how side-slipttingly funny that could be.

Astrophysicists Amanda Bauer and Alan Duffy (the latter a regular on the pages of Cosmos) make for hilarious, genuine company as hosts and their explanations of the phenomenons that challenge the importance our tiny existence are clear - even for the lay listener.

Whether it’s an existential crisis, or just a general sense of wonderment, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone whose thoughts haven’t wandered out into the galaxy, pondering what’s out there and how it came to be. But the truth is, it’s complicated.

Thankfully Cosmic Vertigo breaks it down into bite sized pieces so even the scientific novice can understand.

Alan and Amanda’s wit, charm and intelligent banter first takes us to the moon, the seemingly constant lump of rock and iron above us that humanity has always been fascinated by, drawn in by its romance, mystery and otherworldly glow. But as I was drawn into Amanda and Alan’s cosmic vertigo, it became clear that the moon isn’t so constant after all. It was 20 times larger at the time it was formed and consequently much, much brighter.

As it moves ever so slowly away from the Earth, it slows down our orbit, making us wonder who is boss – or perhaps we’re just a primordial marble at the mercy of the solar system around us.

If, like me, you struggle to engage fully with the ever changing complexities of the world of astrophysics, this podcast is for you. From the gassy clouds of Jupiter to the crushing atmospheric pressure of Venus, you’ll uncover the quirks of the solar system and unanswered questions that keep even the most intelligent minds wondering.

Amanda and Alan approach their subject in a relatable way without the jargon but with the hard and fast facts. I, for one, am...

Blog Society 17 March 2017

Cat Sparks meets Gavin from Lockheed Martin who is demonstrating the powers of an exoskeleton
Cat Sparks/Cosmos

Founded 30 years ago, “South By” is Austin’s pride and joy, an annual technology, media, movie, music and innovation conference-come-festival that runs from 10-19 March.

This year an estimated 70,000 plus registrants and artists are participating. Speakers include former vice president Joe Biden, CRISPR co-inventor Jennifer Doudna, pop star Kesha, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, music legends Nile Rogers and Mick Fleetwood, NYT Executive Editor Dean Baquet, ocean conservationist Dr Fabien Cousteau (grandson of Jacques-Yves), Yoda master Frank Oz, and experts from the Pentagon, the CIA, Microsoft, NASA and a mixed bag of bleeding edge technologies big and small.

March in Austin is supposed to be hot. A surprise cold, wet snap resulted in a flurry of hastily overlaid plastic ponchos. Demographically, the crowd ranges from 20s through to 40-somethings, all dressed in casual clothes and sensible shoes. An eclectic blend of techno hipsters sporting backpacks, backwards baseball caps, occasional man buns -- and not as many beards as you'd expect -- each juggling multiple electronic devices, wires trailing out of ears and pockets. Young guys and gals talking incessant start-ups, successive apps, embedding, messaging, backend systems and workarounds, swapping schedules for party intel in the ubiquitous, never ending coffee queues. Every available wall socket is encrusted with barnacle-like charging devices.

Too many topics to cover here, plenty for the scientifically inclined: presentations on AI, AR, VR, impacts of machine learning, military drone swarms, genetically modified athletes, synthetic biology, pattern recognition, the power of geospatial context, drone journalism ethics, space exploration, democratised data access. Hearables, wearables, cleantech innovation, flexible substrates, optical interconnects, devices that charge themselves from light &...

Blog Society 10 March 2017

Last year’s recipient of the $250,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation, Professor Michael Aitken, developed services that help make global stock markets fairer and more efficient.
Science In Public

Nominations for Australia’s prestigious Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science are open today. Now in their 17th year, the prizes celebrate the achievements and successes of Australian scientists, teachers and innovators in Australia and abroad.

There are seven prize categories that recognise the best and brightest among early to mid-career scientists and innovators, to outstanding researchers who change our lives for the better and help industry thrive in a changing world.

The prizes also pay tribute to the teachers at primary and secondary schools who nature the scientists of the future.

The prizes total $750,000, made up of the $250,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation; the $250,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science; the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools and a similar one for primary schools; Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year; the Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year and the Prize for New Innovators, each worth $50,000.

For for further information, or to make a nomination, visit the website at

Cosmos magazine is proud to be. Media partner of the 2017 Prime Minister’s Prizes for science.

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...

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...

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...

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