Tomorrow, Tuesday 12th April, carbon pricing expert Michael Grubb will beam into Australia from the UK for a talk on carbon pricing. I’ll be moderating the Q & A for this event and if you’d like to join in (and throw us some carbon-laden questions) the web address is anu.edu.au/climatechange/content/events/michael-grubb-presentation.

Starts 12.15pm sharp – don’t be late!

The other day I was asked to visit Dickson College in Canberra, where high school teachers were getting together to find out how they might go about teaching robotics at their schools. Andrew Moss, who runs an awesome robotics course there, asked me to present some good arguments about why this is a field worth teaching.

Here’s what I came up with:

1. Robots are and will continue to be historically significant. We humans have had a fascination with building automata that stretches back thousands of years. We’re obsessed with building machines to do things for us. And now, we’ve even started getting good at it. For better or worse robots are here to stay, so we’d better get used to it…and prepare ourselves for a new age of robotic assistance.

2. Robots permeate popular culture. Think of the Jetsons, the Terminators, R2D2, Stepford Wives, Transformers, I, Robot and hundreds of other shows. Everybody can relate and react to the idea of robots in our society and what they might mean – so the subject is a good imagination-catcher, even for kids who aren’t that interested in science or technology.

3. Robots are already part of everyday life, and news stories come out every week about the latest developments, so pretty much everybody can understand their common applications. Think planes flying by autopilot, how our cars are spray-painted, the pre-packaged food industry, unmanned aerial vehicles doing surveillance (and dropping bombs), robotic surgery, and all those cool remote-controlled toys you can get. Not to mention the ‘bots that already do everyday chores (every kid’s dream, surely!) – like vacuum cleaners, mowers, mops, snow-sweepers, gutter-clearers, pool cleaners…

4. The reality of robots over the coming decades is going to be far better, weirder, cooler, funnier and even scarier than fiction.We have social, ethical, moral, financial, practical and environmental obligations to understand their use and how the technology will impact on human societies and the rest of the natural world.

5. Robotics is a fast-developing, wide-ranging field with enormous creative freedom at the moment. It’s also virtually unregulated. So there’s room for a lot of creativity, personal interest and passion.

6. It’s cross-disciplinary. Robotics is a chance to learn about interaction, computer programming, physics, social and ethical dimensions, engineering, chemistry and biology not to mention persistence, curiosity, problem-solving and working in teams – critical skills in today’s education and jobs marketplaces

7. It’s going to be a growth industry. There are jobs and opportunities of all kinds associated with robotics, from entrepreneurship to software design, monitoring to art-making, engineering to writing, marketing and inventing.

8. There’s great research going on in many countries that can be used to inspire kids about what’s possible and where the new frontiers of science are. And, if you ask nicely you can also get real scientists to come and talk to your classes about what they’re doing and why. There’s also thousands of video clips about real robots available online, which can help demonstrate what’s happening in the real world and support teacher and student engagement.

9. Robotics is all about the future. We live in a complex world of big problems which need courageous, talented young people to help tackle them. A lot of young people are motivated by a desire to help others and save the planet, and some of the most significant problems that confront us can be at least partially solved with robotic technologies – such as saving lives during disasters, monitoring environmental resources, doing difficult and dangerous tasks so human lives are protected, and keeping us safe and healthy.

10. It’s fun! Anyone can learn it, and there are some great kits and programs out there for people of all ages. If you want to check out some specific examples then I think you could start here or here.

Drug resistant bacteria. Image from the Centre for Disease Control, via Wikimedia Commons

Bacteria. They’re tiny. Often useful. And deadly, when our immune systems are unable to keep them in check. In today’s first world we’re so used to taking antibiotics at the first sign of an infection that the idea we could actually die from one seems improbable, almost laughable.

But bacteria are wildly prolific – and so fast in reproducing that new varieties spring up with relative ease. And the latest varieties are nastier than anything we’ve seen in a long, long time. They are resistant to almost every form of antibiotic we’ve created. And all because they carry a gene, which makes them produce an enzyme, which single-handedly puts most antibiotics out of action.

A medical study released last month has tracked the emergence and spread of new drug resistant bacteria carrying this enzyme, called NDM-1 (New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase). They appear to have sprung up first in India and Pakistan, upon whose populations this new misery can be expected to wreak havoc, while also spreading inexorably worldwide.

Here in the comfort of our first-world cities, it’s easy to think we’ll be safe. After all, our hospitals are good, our sanitation excellent, our vigilance high. And we trust our drug companies to stay ahead of the game, when there’s money to be made from the creation of new drugs.

But drug development is painstakingly slow, and as global travellers return from trips abroad, the newly antibiotic-resistant bacteria are spreading. Already, cases are reported from the USA, Asia, Canada and Europe, with the first mortality recorded in Belgium.

Right now, we don’t know much about the exact origins or spread of the new bacteria. But almost all that stands between us and a return to pre-1930’s mortality rates due to bacterial infection are 2 antibiotics. One is more than 50 years old. The other is new, but not suitable for use in pregnancy or childhood. And this should have us worried.

The stats on what we could expect from a new ‘superbug’ are sobering. Before the discovery of antibiotics, death from bacterial infections was common. They killed people undergoing all kinds of surgery and after giving birth, those with open wounds, severe burns and respiratory illnesses.

This should be a huge concern to all of us. Science is good at finding solutions to problems. But when it comes to the development of new drugs, it’s neither fast nor cheap. Right now, there’s very little in the development pipeline to help us in the short term.

So what will?
Firstly, good sanitation is urgently needed in the developing world, and particularly in India and Pakistan where millions of people are currently exposed to raw sewage. Fix this, and you immediately slow down the rate of exposure.

Secondly, medical tourism must be curtailed, starting immediately. It may be cheaper in the short term to get your dental, cosmetic or surgical work done overseas, but is it worth risking your life, or others to possible infection? Once a superbug arrives, it’s here to stay – just think golden staph, and it’s multiple-drug-resistant cousin, MRSA.

Thirdly, new types of antibiotics are needed, and urgently. Governments need to start throwing money into research which will help us keep ahead of this looming crisis.

Fourthly, all countries need to be highly vigilant about tracking and stopping the spread of these resistant bacteria. Once they get into our hospital systems, they will be extremely difficult to eradicate – increasing misery and mortality within our communities, and putting our lives in jeopardy.

Finally, we need to stop using antibiotics so regularly. This means reducing their use in food production, not demanding a cure every time we have a cold, ensuring doctors prescribe them only where necessary, and preventing their sale over-the-counter, particularly in the developing world. We also need to take them properly – in the right amount, at the right time, and without cutting corners. So that our own bodies don’t become incubators for new types of drug-resistant bacteria.

Basically, it’s the over-use of antibiotics which has landed us in this situation in the first place. As history shows, they are one of our most precious resources – and they’ve just become a whole lot more scarce. Which should give us all the heeby-jeebies.

For more information, check out the ABC’s short history of antibiotics, the original research paper in The Lancet, and this news article from The Globe.

If you’ve been wondering why the long silence, trust me, it’s all because of this robot hand. Ok, so a robotic hand isn’t that small a thing, especially when it’s taken decades to make. But it was pretty cool when the guys from Make.Hack.Void showed up to Robot World Live! to demonstrate it, and wowed me with what you can do at home by way of personal projects.

Did you know that out there in the world right now there are places called Hacker Spaces? In which you can find tech/ art/ design/ science people and make crazy things happen?

That’s what Make.Hack.Void is all about and this was a revelation to me.

Basically, I’ve been looking for somewhere I can go to learn about simple electronics and maybe try them out on a few projects – which may seem weird to some people, but to me it just seems logical. You see, I was deprived of a crystal radio set when I was a kid. My brother got one, but I was given a sewing kit instead – which just smacks of discrimination, frankly. Anyhow, I digress. The thing is, I don’t particularly want to learn electronics on my own at home, a) because there’s nobody else into it there and b) there’s no one I can pester with questions.

This is where the Hackerspace comes in – not only are there loads of interesting, proficient, curious people to ask but I might also then be able to use my skills on making an actual project. It probably won’t be as wonderfully random as a robotic hand, though you never know.

Basically, in a Hackerspace you can try out ideas that cross disciplines and break open¬† objects, systems or software, to create something new. Really, it’s about community and sharing ideas and trying to make things work and turning them into something surprising.

I love it. I’m going to the next meeting. And if you like the sound of a Hackerspace, word has it your local area probably has one too…

Hamish the dog watching Inspector Rex

This Inspector-Rex obsessed canine is Hamish, who belongs to Sue, who recently got into an argument with a zoologist about whether or not her dog is really watching TV.

The zoologist argued that it’s not possible for dogs to see TV the way we do. Probably, he suggested, Hamish’s good sense of hearing is what’s working, and he is simply reacting to the sounds of animals he can hear on the TV. But is he?

Sue swears black and blue that Hamish does watch the screen – and in particular, enjoys animal programs. For one, he tries to interact with the animals on screeen, even with the sound off. And, when the program Inspector Rex is on, he will intently watch the main character, a German shepherd. If the dog leaves the screen then Hamish will get up and look behind the TV set to see where he’s gone.

So what’s going on here? Well, I scrounged around online and found that Sue’s anecdotes correspond well with other stories told by dog owners about their pets watching TV. There are lots of hilarious stories out there about of pets watching and reacting to animal shows.¬† But, it’s also true that not all dogs seem to watch TV or react to it in the same way.

Can dogs watch tv?

Well, yes. Back in 2003 some Hungarian scientists proved that dogs can watch TV, by testing whether dogs respond to videotaped images of their owners. They discovered that not only do dogs recognise their owners on screen, they also respond to non-verbal commands given on video. Dogs who couldn’t smell their owners – and smell is a pretty major sense for dogs interpreting the world – still obeyed the commands issued by video.

Then, more recently, some Australian researchers decided to check up on the old idea of all dogs having the same eye size and structure. They found out that different sized dogs do have different sized eyeballs. And, more excitingly, they also found that dogs have two completely different ways of seeing the world.

It turns out that some dogs have a visual streak – a high density line of visual cells that runs across the whole retina. This gives them a wide field of view and good peripheral vision. Other dogs just have a big cluster of visual cells right in the middle of their field of vision, called an ‘area centralis’. They can’t see much peripherally, but what they do see is in much higher definition.

This could help explain why some dogs chase after things, while others don’t. For dogs with a visual streak, a moving object will stay in their field of vision for a long time, enabling them to track it. Dogs with long noses tend to have this sort of vision, which could explain why they’re so good at hunting and catching – think hounds and beagles, or wolves.

For dogs with an area centralis, a moving object flashes quickly across their field of vision and is then gone. Short-nosed dogs are more likely to have this sort of vision, and it probably explains why they are less reactive to objects moving at speed – after a certain point, they just can’t see them. In Hamish’s case it could also explain why he’s so good at watching telly – having high def sight must make TV viewing a breeze!

Check out the original stories and, if you’re tired of Inspector Rex re-runs, maybe these will keep you amused:

Dogs explain the atom (video)

Science dog blog (tragically, it only has one post. About Tetris.)

Daily science news about dogs

A blog for dog lovers

A Mona Lisa smile?

One of these teeth has dental caries. Can you spot which one?

Memo to self: Teeth not as small and insignificant as they look! Last week, after a horrible toothache, I discovered that I have a rotten case of dental caries – aka tooth decay. Although you can’t see much from the outside, apparently one of my teeth has a big cavity and has to be pulled out. While I wait for somebody (anybody?!) to fetch the pliers, the pain is just excruciating. It feels a lot like somebody has driven a knitting needle through my cheek, which is making life utterly miserable. To make things worse, it seems the minute you say ‘teeth’, people start to tell you horror stories. From barbaric dentists to chronic infections, I’ve now heard so many tales of dental suffering and woe that it’s got me thinking. Why isn’t dental health covered by Medicare? And more importantly, how can something SO small in relation to the rest of our bodies cause such big trouble? Well, it turns out that overall well-being can be profoundly affected by dental health. Some types of decay, like the sort I have got, can be very hard to spot and can become quite advanced before anybody realises. Often you need x-rays to reveal what’s going on – and the tell-tale signs are dark patches inside the teeth. Out of interest, I got my dentist to send me the x-ray of my mouth. Can you pick which tooth is giving me all this trouble? First person to email me with the answer wins a prize! I’ve also had a cracking headache for 6 weeks and I wondered if this is connected to the tooth decay. It turns out that it is. As you might expect, the face, mouth and jaws are incredibly rich in nerve endings. There’s a major nerve that serves the mouth and jaw (the Trigeminal nerve) and also the front part of the head. This nerve is also stimulated when you eat really cold things, leading to the phenomenon of ‘Ice Cream Headache’! Not having had a cavity before, I wondered what had caused this one. Was it something I ate, such as the afore-mentioned icecream? Turns out the answer is Yes! It seems that cavities often form in places where food becomes trapped – in between teeth or in the ridges and troughs on top of the tooth. Here acid-producing bacteria can multiply, and these thrive particularly well when we consume a diet rich in sugars. Since prehistoric times, the incidence of tooth decay has increased with the introduction of more sugar into our diets. Interestingly, tooth decay leapt with both the introduction of agrarian (grain-based) diets centuries ago, and also with the invention of fizzy drinks in the 19th century. I don’t really eat or drink a lot of sweet foods but I do eat ‘natural’ sugars found in bread, fruit, wine, dairy products and honey. Over time all of these have probably contributed to my current plight. Which isn’t much of a consolation but at least I haven’t got teeth like some of these people So, little teeth can cause big problems. Like the one in my head right now. The good news is that this small bit of research has happily distracted me from the pain for, oh, at least 30 minutes! If you too need a distraction (or just something to get your teeth stuck into), you can read more here: Medline encyclopedia Dental Dude blog MedicineNet article on toothache And my particular favourite by a very good looking surgeon: Dr Kam’s dental blog In my next blog post, I’ll be watching TV with a small dog called Hamish. Fangs for visiting! Sorry, couldn’t resist…

Hello world!

Posted: May 8, 2010 in Uncategorized

Welcome to my blog about daily life and some of the weird interesting stuff that’s always happening in it.

As a science communicator, I used to hear a lot about how science was everywhere around us, embedded in and helping explain the tiniest details of our world. So now I’m going to put this idea to the test and write about what I find.

Along the way I’ll call on the huge body of scientific literature, knowledgeable people and everyday experts, who all have something to say about the science of small things.

If you have an alternative explanation to something on this site, post it in the Comments section!