Saturday, August 11, 2012

Big bangs, smoke and fun @ National Science Week 2012

Ya gotta love science!

Not only for the spectacular drama and big bangs, but for the delicate finesse of artistic creativity, researching our environments to ascertain their health, delving into cancer cells and DNA, learning from the stars, or working out how many people particular regions can sustain. I don't pretend to understand it all, but I love that there are people working in all these (and more) areas to better understand the complexities of our world and beyond.

National Science Week is a celebration of science, and the opening today in Brisbane's Queen Street Mall went off with a dramatic bang! Students, researchers and assorted scientists were scattered around the mall sharing insights and enthusiasm.

Garbage bins are usually pretty boring things, but today one was put to good use when liquid nitrogen was carefully poured in a drink bottle and put in a container inside a wheelie bin. The lid was quickly shut and the presenters scampered to a safe distance. An ear popping explosion was the result, with copious amounts of smoke, a wildly rocking bin and hugely smiling emos who'd been watching with feigned disinterest from the sidelines. Not bad at all!

I learnt that listening to the bush is not only delightful, but a valid way to ascertain the health (or otherwise) of environments. Scientists record the sounds, remove the extraneous "noise" then analyse the results. By doing this, (which is a rather complex business) it's possible to discover such things as the infiltration of cane toads to the west and south of the country (seriously not good for native animals of any size), the range and health of particular communities of animals, birds or frogs and how the populations are coping with assorted environmental factors.  

You can listen to some of the sounds of the Australian bush and learn a bit more at
I love staring at the night sky, looking at the depth and range of colours, scanning for meteors, waving at the International Space Station and looking for satellites. Others become animated and enthusiastic when in the vicinity of telescopes of varying sizes. I heard oohs and aahs as people of all ages concentrated to look at sunspots and held my breath, hoping that no one would trip over the tripods that looked far too insecure to allow the bumbling public near.
Dr Jennifer  Loy seemed to be fielding quite a few questions along the lines of "Where can I get one of those?" and  "That looks like a great course" as she demonstrated a small tabletop 3D printer. I'd heard and seen some uses for 3D printers, but I'd never seen them used for jewellery and other elegant work. The lamp shade was exquisite and the jewellery would be fun to wear. As for more practical uses, glasses frames came to mind, and I expect a clever person could compete well with the outrageously priced stock in many spectacle stores.

Starting a conversation with anyone who is passionate about their particular field of interest can be a fraught business. Are they going to be interesting? Are you going to, for instance, have to resort to chewing your leg off to get away from a tediously boring, long winded, excruciatingly painful, bore? Thankfully, no dramatic, messy newsworthy stories were evident today. In fact, quite the opposite. At times I wondered if the scientists and presenters found the enthusiasm of the public a bit, well, enthusiastic to be honest. Wide eyed wonder, and lots of questions seemed par for the course.

I'm looking forward to having time to explore the Carrying Capacity Dashboard which "is an online application that estimates the resources needed to support a human population" given particular lifestyle choices. You can explore what happens when there are changes in such things as diet, energy usage, agricultural techniques and recycling practices. Adapting our lifestyles has a dramatic effect on the estimated number of people that different areas in Australia can carry sustainably. Given what I learnt today, it's clear some areas are already well beyond their ability to be sustainable.

Australia faces huge challenges with our changing climate. We already have divisive and competing land use demands - farming versus mining, agriculture versus housing development subdivisions.

Communities and states are at loggerheads about fair and equitable use of water - should it be used for farming, irrigation, mining? How much for manufacturing? Which areas get how much? Who decides? What proportion should be left in the environment for healthy rivers and groundwater? What about contaminants? How do we rationalise the use of this impermanent, precious natural resource?

It's vital that our policy makers address these issues with a deep understanding of the ramifications of their decisions and not make decisions as a knee-jerk response or for short term electoral gains or to satisfy the most strident lobbyists. Carrying Capacity Dashboard is, I suspect, going to provoke a lot of discussion, and hopefully some deep reflection on the sort of society we hope to become.

National Science Week is just beginning! To find out what's on near you, go to it's not just big bangs to entertain the kid in us all, there's also challenging, entertaining, creative, welcoming sessions around the country for people from all walks of life.



Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Sue .. that must be amazing to have in Brisbane - with presumably reasonable access.

Life is definitely changing ... it's a right mix up - with everyone wanting something for themselves, not looking at the whole and being philanthropic for man (that may not be quite the right word .. but the brain didn't it out straight away - still getting my head straight .. it's not bad - words just don't flow at times!) ...

Cheers Hilary

sue said...

I know what you mean Hilary, correct words or not! There are so many people working towards a more just and compassionate world and sharing their expertise so generously. We are a creative species and I hope that these characteristics trump the adulation of greed soon.
Take care of yourself - sending thoughts