Category: adventures

The ginger science alliance

It’s not often you get to see a redheaded comedian speak about the beauty of the universe, and pictures from the Hubble space telescope in particular, and even less often that the person in question isn’t me. So it was lovely to be in the audience tonight to see Rod Quantock at the Ian Potter Gallery in Federation Square do just that.

If you don’t know who Rod is then I can only assume you’re either under the age of 20, you have no interest in the Australian comedy scene, or both. He recently did a show titled “First Man Standing” and it’s not much of a stretch to imagine he was one of the first stand-up comedians, at least in the modern sense, in Australia. If you’re my age or older, you’ll probably remember him from The Big Gig, Australia: You’re Standing In It, or possibly (and I apologise in advance, Rod) the Cap’n Snooze advertisements of the eighties.

Now, Rod being Rod, he didn’t exactly stay on topic; his style may be best described as lovingly rambly. But it was a grand half hour that featured, among other things, a model of the history of the universe contructed using only four human beings, one of whom played a dinosaur. (That might have been me, but I swear it was all Rod’s idea.) One thing he did mention, however, when sketching out his plan for establishing equilibrium in the ecologically disastrous times ahead,  was that humans are made of 80% water, and, perhaps inspired by Rod and Dr Karl, I’m going to go off on a tangent about that.

Like just about all living things of which we’re aware, we are made largely of water. There’s a lot of fluid in our bodies: blood, lymph, saliva, bile…all mostly water. Our cells are full of it, with anything up to 90% of their mass accounted for by H2O. That varies, of course; you or I have a large though uncertain number of cells in our bodies (it’s in the millions of millions), and they come in about 200 different types.

Interestingly, fat cells have a hugely lower water content than other cells: they’re only about 14% water, which is less even than bone, which is about 22% (“dry as a bone”, indeed!). This explains why in adult humans, the actual percentage of water is around 55%-65%, with men at the top of the range and women at the bottom. This varies quite a bit depending on body shape, size, health, fitness and how much you’ve had to drink. (There’s a pretty good breakdown of all this in the Wikipedia article on body water.)

Now, water is obviously pretty exciting and important for all of us, and when I say us, I mean “living things”. The Earth is in what’s known as the “habitable zone”, the narrow band in which a planet orbiting a star can have water in all three states: vapor, liquid and solid. The habitable zone varies quite a lot, depending on the size and temperature of a star; for hotter stars the zone is further away, for cooler stars it’s closer. Over a star’s lifetime the habitable zone will change, but since stars have long lives, there’s no reason to suppose life won’t usually have time to kick off and develop into complex forms. You know: like us.

The nice thing about all this rambling is that next year is both the International Year of Astronomy (much as 2005 was the Einstein International Year of Phsyics), and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species (not to mention the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin). Aside from Moby’s refrain that “we are all made of stars” (the elements heavier than Hydrogen – i.e. all of ’em – which are created via nuclear fusion in stars), physics and biology are, like all sciences, inextricably linked. It’s a bold time of exploration both inside and outside of ourselves; as Rod pointed out, not only will the successor to the Hubble space telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, be launched, but we’re also learning more every year about genetics and also neurology. While I don’t think humans will run out of things to investigate any time soon, in the next decade or so we’re going to find out some very exciting stuff.

How sad, Rod pointed out, that we’ve managed this only at the precise time we’re all likely to die out…

Elite Mathlete

My favourite equation is Fermat’s Last Theorem: I’ve lost track of who solved the problem and when, but I love the history and drama that surrounds it. My favourite mathematical proof (far less controversial) is of differentiation from first principles. The satisfaction of proving it to myself was something I’ll never forget. I’ve also talked about maths, albeit in quite a naive way, right here in this blog.

Which is all just my way of connecting to Simon Pampena and his Maths Olympics. This is the kind of blood-pumping, spine-tingling, juices-flowing passion that I love to see on stage, and maths is no less deserving of such an honour than anything else. Much more deserving, really!

So yeah. I saw the show tonight and it was fantastic. Simon gives it his all up there, all the more impressive when you realise he’s nearly at the end of a Science Week tour that has taken him to every corner of our country. And he’s not done! If you’re in Brisbane, get fired up because the Maths Olympics are coming your way on Friday, August 29. Check out his site and the Science Week web site for details!

All Too Brief

Well, Science Week is officially over, and thanks to all of you who came along to see A Brief History of A Brief History of Time. It was a brief season, and there’s always a chance I’ll bring the show back in future.

While the week may be over (and it’s a decimal week – 10 days long!), though, there are still events to come! Tomorrow night Simon Pampena brings the Maths Olympics back home to Melbourne for the end of his triumphant national tour, 7:30 at Eurotrash Bar in the city. I’ll be there, and I’d advise you not to miss it either!

Oh, and I should also assure all my readers that I weathered Daffodil Day without incident.

Well…almost. I did have a bit of a freak out when I suddenly noticed this…


The Pterodactyl Strikes Back!

I have managed to find out a bit more about , thanks to my own enquiries and the assistance of some Dubbo locals. It seems the Dubbo Military Museum had some science-based attractions, and among them was a “Jurassic-themed maze“, relocated from Darling Harbour. The Museum’s collection of vehicles and memorabilia – all belonging to private funder, Barry Ryan – was offered for auction in 2006, and the museum then reportedly closed. The web site is very out of date and my inquiring emails bounced back from dead email addresses.

Presumably the Pterodactyl was part of the “Jurassic” maze, but mysteries still remain. Why is it still there, all alone, in the field? Why isn’t it signposted? And what happened to the rest of the dinosaurs – and the maze itself?

If you want to find the Big Pterodactyl for yourself, modern technology makes it easy. The recently launched Google Street View includes pictures of the Newell highway, so you can see the Pterodactyl and find it on the map.

If you’ve found any odd science-related bits and pieces on your travels around Australia, let me know!

Legends but not rock stars

Last night at the official launch of National Science Week 2008 I was excited to speak to some fascinating people: Dr Luke Hunter, big cat conservationist; Shane Gould, Olympic swimming medallist and expert in new swimming techniques; and the likely lads of the Great Big Science Gig, comedy rock science cabaret artists. (Those boys rock, don’t miss ’em if you can make it to their show.)

But perhaps the two most exciting people I talked to were Simon Pampena, of The Angry Mathematician and the Maths Olympics fame, and Rob Morrison, one of the two presenters of Australia’s best-loved science show, The Curiosity Show. Here’s a photo of the three of us:


Rob has so many fascinating things to say that I hope I can bring you the full interview, but a couple of his ideas really struck home with me. He believes that we don’t have to get children interested in science; rather all children are interested in science, but are turned off it by bad teaching, a lack of exposure, or peer pressure. He pointed to popular media as the prime example: every newspaper has a devoted Sports section, a devoted Arts section, and is full of news on politics; a person’s interests in such things are constantly reinforced, and on television too. But someone interested in science is lucky if their newspaper has a devoted science journalist, let alone a separate science section. Even if there is – and most are weekly, if they exist at all – it’s generally lumped in with and dominated by Technology, which is not the same thing at all. So his role was to be some guy on television saying “hey, it’s cool to be into science, I’m into it too”. Read more