Friday August 14 was a pretty busy day. I was at Freeplay all day, moderating a couple of panels and checking out some others; the highlight was without doubt the international keynote address by Crayon Physics Deluxe designer, Petri Purho, whose unconventional speech included a copious amount of gameplaying (mostly Spelunky, to which he is clearly addicted, but also Enviro-Bear 2000 and ROM Check Fail, all indie games) but more importantly some of the best artistic and creative advice I’ve received in years. The man’s a genius; watch out for his next game.

As soon as that was over, though, I rushed straight down to the BMW Edge theatre at Federation Square for HYPOTHESIS, a one-night-early launch event for Science Week in Victoria. It was a big line-up; as I arrived, Teacup Tumble were midway through their circus performance as labcoated scientists, recruiting children from the audience to help do some messy experiment or other. Polarized 3D glasses were being handed out so punters could see bits of our solar system in 3D, or perhaps join a simulated party to see the effect of various choices in drug and alcohol habits. The Australian Skeptics were on hand, and in a similar but more anarchic spirit, local arts collective Tape Projects were on hand with 100 Proofs the Earth is not a Globe. (I was later challenged to name three proofs that the Earth is a globe, and was happy to find I could do this, even if a couple weren’t entirely reliable and none from personal experience. My favourite is that when there’s a lunar eclipse, the Earth’s shadow on the moon is always round, no matter where on Earth you need to be to see the eclipse – something that could only happen if the Earth is a sphere.)

I was distracted from these at the beginning of the evening, though, as I was busy catching up with some old friends who were on the scene. By the time they left for dinner, the next main event was beginning – Speed Meet a Geek. This proved to be a bit of a highlight. It’s a speed-dating take on Science Week’s successful “Invite a Scientist to Dinner” scheme, and it involved several punters sitting at a table with a scientist, talking about whatever took our fancy. After a few minutes, there’d be an announcement and music, and the scientists would get up and move to another table. The time was, of course, all too brief, but the conversation was fascinating nonetheless; I could tell that my table mates Sue (a librarian from Albury) and Gina (who produces science shows for schools) agreed.

First up we met Steve, a young man with a similar taste to me in T-shirts, and who had studied both physics and philosophy. Fittingly he is now working in the history and philosophy of science programme at Melbourne University, where he recently has been thinking about a proposed plan to fly giant kites, equipped with turbines, 10 kilometres up in the sky, where the much faster and more constant winds would both keep them aloft and generate massive amounts of pollution free electricity. This plan was of course far too expensive to test with a prototype, so Steve built a computer simulation based on Bureau of Meterology data; the simulation sadly showed that the winds just weren’t consistently high enough to keep the kites in the air, so apart from the other practical considerations, the plan doesn’t seem feasible. It’s a shame; it’s such a beautiful idea. It makes me slightly prouder of our country that, even if we’re not really all that progressive in our ideas of power generation, we’re at least considering such things. I was left in the dark, however, about why such a plan was being tested by HPS academics, and not, say, engineers.

As if to prove that good things come in pairs, our next guests was also an HPS academic, and a very pleasant surprise for me: Neil Thomason, the man who introduced me to the history and philosophy of science through his courses at Melbourne University. I was sad to hear that Neil has retired, but not too much; after all, he now does much the same thing he used to do, just for no pay! As he himself put it, he used to ask why we should believe scientists; he now asks why we should believe statisticians. I think I made rather a hash of my attempt to answer the former, but of course the general answer is that we should believe scientists because they try to only make claims which they can back up with evidence, and use techniques to try and make sure their evidence is reliable. They’re still only human, after all…

Our next visitor was Justin, who works at the 3 Giga-electron-Volt Synchrotron located out in Clayton. More specifically, he works on one of the beamlines  – streams of highly accelerated electrons fired out of the synchrotron at 14 different points – doing analysis on crystalline structures hit by the beams. His work has implications mainly for materials science – finding new types of material for construction, technology and other uses. He was the only scientist to bring gifts – big posters of the synchrotron! I keep meaning to visit the place, and now it’s further up the list. Sue made the excellent suggestion that it would get more media attention if the whole thing lit up, so you could see something happening; while this would be completely artificial, I’m not at all against the idea. People are used to seeing stuff happen thanks to sci-fi movies!

Jo Sumner came to visit us next. I’ve met met Jo before, in her capacity as Manager of Genetic Resources at Melbourne Museum; she was one of the scientists on last year’s Not the Nobel Prize, if I remember rightly. In any case, she is lovely company, and she regaled us with a story of her trip to Indonesia when her husband, also a biologist, was studying Komodo dragons. When she revealed they’d brought their very young daughter along, I was instantly reminded of Douglas Adams’ Last Chance to See…, in which he recounts stories of dragons eating small children. Jo said that when she took her daughter to see her husband catch and release a dragon, she grew bored and started making a lot of noise; when the dragon was released, instead of scuttling off, it hid in the long grass and to watch Jo’s daughter. Creepy stuff…

Our next few guests were all astrophysicists and, oddly enough, all Americans currently at Swinburne University. Lee, the first cab off the rank, is studying globular star clusters, formed in the early history of the universe, and thus able to teach us about the conditions in the first billion or two years. Charmingly he carries a photo of such a cluster in his wallet, which he brings out to show us. He uses data from one of the many optical telescopes in Hawaii, where the distance above sea level reduces the distortion caused by turbulent air currents – something that makes Australia unsuitable for optical astronomy. Asked by Sue if his research can be related to mankind, he replies “only in the sense that it gives us inspiration, and is humbling”; it’s a terribly satisfying answer.

Emily, originally from Conneticut, is working on WiggleZ, a project to map 200,000 galaxies using spectral analysis data gathered by the Anglo-Australian telescope in Coonabarabran. Emily was a stargazer as a child and clearly, deeply loves her job. Since astronomers don’t really look through telescopes any more, when Emily goes to Coonabaraban to man the ‘scope, she likes to go out on the gantry at night and look up at the Milky Way, clearly visible without the light pollution of a big city. She hasn’t been yet, but as Sue suggests, she’d love to head out to the red centre and see the stars from there, too.

Our astronomical trio is completed by Andy Green, a Colorado native, who talks less about his own work but is no less fascinating for it. We mention the light pollution survey going on as part of Science Week – 2009 being the International Year of Astronomy – and he mentions that New Zealand is currently trying to have the night sky in Tekapo Valley registered as a World Heritage Site, because there is so little light pollution there that it gives a near perfect view of the Milky Way.

Our next and final guest was Tom Rich, white haired Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology at Musuem Victoria. He’s wearing a tie patterned with pterosaurs; when I compliment him on it, he replies that he’s only wearing a tie as he’d been to a wedding before coming to the event. I instantly liked him, and asked what kind of palaeontology he was interested in, since I know that, as awesome as they are, dinosaurs are not the obsession of every bone digger. He revealed that he was mainly interested in the mammals of the Mesozoic era, but that since he found so many dinosaurs while looking for the mammals, he’d ended up becoming “the world’s most minor authority on dinosaurs”. His background was both in physics and palaeontology, but he decided he could either be a third rate physicist or  a second rate palaeontologist, and chose the latter. (Asked by Sue if he was humble or cynical, he replied: “Both.”) Another American, Tom is married to another palaeontologist, the “Queen of Slime” (she studies the Ediacaran fauna of the late pre-Cambrian), and accompanied her to Melbourne when she undertook some research here. He decided to learn about the country by reading an issue of The Australian from front to back, and promptly found the job he has now held for many years, commuting back and forth across the Atlantic until his wife took a job at Monash University.

Our time with the scientists over, the rest of the evening was given over to conversation with old friends, new friends, and entertainment, mainly in the form of another friend, Simon Pampena. He performed a truncated teaser version of his show Super Mega Maths Battle for Planet Earth, now touring for Science Week. I took a break after that for some food, returning for Science: fact or fiction?!, a sort of revamped version of Not the Nobel Prize. I wasn’t on the panel this year, but it was stacked with people I knew: local comedians Rob Lloyd, Tegan Higginbotham, Jason Geary and Xavier Michaelides, plus Melbourne Museum’s Rolf Schmidt, who I’d worked with on Not the Nobel Prize. I must confess I missed most of the panel as I was talking with some of the Science Week volunteers and the girls from Tape Projects, but I did enjoy Rolf’s introduction to the nigh-indestructable life forms known as tardigrades, or “water bears”, and Tegan’s subsequent impression of one.

Hypothesis was a big night, and a stirling kick off to the Victoria Science Week calendar. Let’s hope we see something similar next year!

One comment

  1. Chris KP says:

    Hey Ben, I’m glad you enjoyed ‘Hypothesis’ and ‘Speed Meet a Geek’. The whole event was a great mix of big, loud and obvious coupled with quieter, smaller and more subtle. Lots of fun. I loved wandering through Speed Meet and picking up pieces of conversation (“Ok, let me explain string theory . . .”; “Well trees are our ancestors as well . . .”; “Oh my god, that’s such a cool job!”, etc). I think you captured the mood well. Cheers, Chris KP

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