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Matin Durrani: June 2011 Archives

By Matin Durrani in Perth, Australia

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If there’s one issue dominating Australian politics right now, it’s the proposed tax on emissions of greenhouse gases.

It seems a genuine attempt to encourage Australia – probably the world’s highest per capita emitter of carbon dioxide – to slow down or halt its growth in emissions.

Unfortunately, the climate-change debate in Australia is lagging well behind that in the rest of the world, with the media giving way too much attention to those “climate sceptics” who remain unconvinced that rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are changing the Earth’s climate.

We’re not talking about providing airspace to the relatively small band of genuine scientists who are questioning particular aspects of the scientific evidence for climate change, based on a thorough knowledge of the relevant research.

Instead, the Australian media seems to be focusing on one character in particular: a certain Lord Monckton, deputy leader of the UK Independence Party.

This is the man who, apart from claiming that global warming stopped in 2001, likened the Australian federal government’s chief climate-change adviser Ross Garnaut of the University of Melbourne to a Nazi for his views on global warming, a below-the-belt accusation for which he was forced to apologize earlier this week.

Yesterday, however, as I was nearing the end of my week-long fact-finding tour of Australian science, who else should be appearing in the Perth district than Monckton himself.

He was invited to deliver the Lang Hancock Lecture at Notre Dame University in Fremantle, just south of Perth on Thursday night. Unfortunately, the university press office declined a request to attend to the event that was put in by one of the other journalists on the tour I’m on.

Monckton’s visit had already caused a fair bit of noise, including a formal complaint from more than 50 Australian scientists, who called for the lecture to be cancelled. Despite the protests, the lecture went ahead as planned, as did a separate talk at the Association of Mining and Exploration Companies annual convention on Math Lessons for Climate-Crazed Lawmakers

To me there’s no point calling for Monckton’s views to be stifled, which only adds to his martyr status and makes it appear that climate scientists have something to hide and are too scared to see the topic out in the open.

What’s needed instead is a careful unpicking of his main points, such as those offered here

That was certainly the view taken a few years ago in the UK by the likes of former science adviser David King. It’s the path that Australia needs to go down too.

But the controversy has not reached the end of its course. Monckton is also due to speak on 4 July in the chemistry department at the University of Western Australia. However, UWA president Alan Robson, who I met for lunch today, has insisted that the talk was not endorsed by the university but that it had been organized by a local community group that merely chose to use the department as a venue.

The row looks set to go on.

Subverting science

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By Matin Durrani in Perth, Australia

Donna Franklin's Fibre reactive hybrid dress

Donna Franklin’s Fibre reactive
hybrid dress
, 2004–2008

If you think Australia is remote from the rest of the world, well the city of Perth is even more cut-off, being a five-hour flight from Sydney and 1000 km from the next main centre of population.

That remoteness has engendered a kind of “wild west” spirit, where people have the time and space to think up radical ideas that might be more quickly dismissed in less isolated places.

That, at least, was the view of the Nobel-prize-winning microbiologist Barry Marshall from the University of Western Australia (UWA) – best known for proving that most ulcers are caused by certain bacteria called Helicobacter pylori. Marshall was talking to me over lunch at the university on the latest leg of my week-long fact-finding tour of Australian science that I’m on with three fellow European science journalists.

The subversive spirit was echoed after lunch by Ionat Zurr, an Israeli-born artist working at UWA within SymbioticA – a self-styled “artistic laboratory” within the School of Anatomy and Human Biology that describes itself as being “dedicated to the research, learning, critique and hands-on engagement with the life sciences”.

Unlike most art–science projects, which involve artists reinterpreting scientific ideas in an artistic form, the people at SymbioticA are getting their hands dirty by learning various experimental scientific techniques to create works of art.

Projects include making loudspeakers from bones, growing edible steak from artificial tissue, and (well before Lady Gaga had a similar idea) creating wearable dresses from fungus leaves (pictured above).

SymbioticA, which was founded in 2000 after fighting off a rival bid to buy a boring old confocal microscope, seeks to question the very nature of science, art and even life itself. It also wants to demystify and “democratize” the scientific laboratory.

The delightfully garrulous Zurr admitted that not everyone understands, or even approves of, what she and her colleagues are trying to do. What, you may ask, is the point of designing jewellery made from pig wings grown from bone-marrow stem cells?

But the strong reaction of some scientists to SymbioticA surely shows that she and her fellow artists must be doing something right: after all, isn’t science itself about challenging orthodox thinking? Perhaps scientists are happy to be subversive but don’t like being subverted themselves.

As one of my fellow science journalists complained, shaking his head in derision as we left: “They should have bought that microscope.”

By Matin Durrani, Sydney, Australia

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Australia is a big country but, as far as science is concerned, it does just about as much one might expect for a country with a population of just 23 million.

But according to Thomas Barlow, a former academic and journalist who is now a kind of freelance policy wonk and science adviser, Australians are far too pessimistic about their scientific future. In other words, while Australians believe they are an inherently inventive people, they are less good, or so the thinking goes, at capitalizing on their smart ideas.

I met Barlow yesterday during my visit to Sydney at the home of Peter Pockley – a veteran Australian science journalist and broadcaster who also regularly reports on Australian science for Physics World.

Barlow has outlined his thoughts in his 2006 book The Australian Miracle, which offers an honest, well written and sober perspective on Australian science.

It’s worth reading if you’re at all interested in the country’s science and Barlow has as good a perspective as any – he’s married to Michelle Simmons, who’s a leading quantum-computing physicist at the University of New South Wales and who directs a successful national Centre for Quantum Computer Technology funded by the Australian Research Council.

Still, I just can’t get away from the nagging feeling that Australia, being physically so far removed from the US, Europe, China, Japan and other centres of power in global science, is destined to always remain one step behind the rest of the world.

In his book, Barlow denies that there is a brain drain of talent from Australia, which may be true. But unless there is a steady flow of people and ideas in and out of the country, true innovation may struggle. And being so far away, that flow is simply hard to sustain.

Avoiding the grump

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Phil Diamond

By Matin Durrani, Marsfield, Australia

There’s someone who says he’s going to be “in a grump” if the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is not built in Australia. That’s Phil Diamond (above), head of astronomy and space science at the country’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

Diamond took up his post last year after moving from the University of Manchester in the UK, where he was director of the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics and co-ordinator of PrepSKA – the preparatory study for SKA itself.

I caught up with Diamond earlier today at CSIRO’s radiophysics laboratory at Marsfield, about 20 km north-west of Sydney, where I’m on a fact-finding tour of Australian science with three other European science journalists. The newly appointed CSIRO chief is obviously keen for SKA to be built in Australia, having upped sticks from the UK, but unfortunately the Australian plan is faced with a rival bid from various nations in southern Africa.

Both bidders are planning to construct an array of some 3000 radio-telescopes, about a third of which (in the Australian case) will be located in an area about 5 km across in the remote outback in the west of the country, with about a half distributed over another 180 km, with the final fifth spread over several thousand kilometres (including some as far away as New Zealand).

Given that the smallest object a telescope can resolve is inversely proportional to its diameter, spreading lots of dishes far apart means that SKA will have a really high “resolving power”.

And the big advantage of locating SKA in the outback is that there will be hardly any radio interference from mobile phones, power lines or other effects of modern civilization. That’s because almost no-one lives there: the shire of Murchison, where the central SKA core will be located, has a population of just 110 spread over an area that’s 20% bigger than the whole of the Netherlands. And the lack of interference is essential given that the radio emissions that SKA’s interested in are so weak that, says Diamond, it’s like having to detect the signal from an airport radar located 50 light-years away from Earth.

So the Australians think they have quite a strong case, but no doubt the Africans do too and the final decision will be made on 29 February 2012 by the international astronomy community spearheaded by the SKA project office, which is based in Diamond’s old haunt of Jodrell Bank. Not that anyone is suggesting any bias of course.

One thing both bids are having to deal with is the huge amount of information spewing out from the array – with 2 terabits of data per second from each dish, we’re talking the equivalent of a kilometre-high stack of CDs every minute. That information has to be filtered and then sent down high-performance optical cables to a central data centre.

And the point of the project? Oh, just the small matter of finding out how the first black holes and stars formed, how galaxies evolve, the nature of dark energy, the origin of cosmic magnetic fields, the nature of gravity under extreme conditions and possibly even whether we are alone in the universe.

Plus whoever wins will have the world’s astronomers knocking on their doors. So you can see why Diamond will be in a grump if it doesn’t work out for Australia.

sydneyharbour.jpg

By Matin Durrani, Sydney, Australia

It’s a tough life, but someone had to do it.

I’m here in Sydney with three other European science journalists after accepting an invitation from Australia’s Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade to take part in a week-long fact-finding tour of the country on the theme of “science and innovation”.

We’re being introduced to a range of Australian scientists and later this week are flying to Perth before being taken to the proposed site for the main component of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). SKA is a set of radio-telescopes that will either be built in Australia and New Zealand or possibly in southern Africa. A choice is set to be made between the two competing bids by the international astronomy community on 29 February 2012.

The Australian government has a regular programme of inviting journalists from around the world to help showcase the country’s efforts in a range of different themes, not just science. You can’t blame them for making the effort. After all, Australia is just so far from the rest of the world – it’s a five-hour flight from Sydney to Perth alone – that a well-crafted programme of events is what’s needed to encourage busy journalists to give up their time to find out more.

So over the next few days I’ll be keeping you up to date with events Down Under. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the photo I took from Circular Quays as an early Sunday-morning passenger ferry from Manly approaches me with the iconic Sydney harbour bridge in the background.

Australians have been moaning about all the poor weather they’ve been having in the last week or two, but all I can say is that having left the UK late last week, the Sydney winter seems as good as the summer I left behind.

I won’t make you jealous by showing what the beaches look like – oh, go on then (see below).

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