Jean Balchin

Jean Balchin is an English Literature Honours student at the University of Otago, Dunedin. When she's not busy painting, playing the piano or writing essays on Robert Burns, you can find her curled up with a recently published book on science. Alternatively, she'll be bugging her flatmates about their recent findings.

Mordor, Massive software and Mount Doom - A History of NZ Science in 25 Objects

May 24, 2017

“A last alliance of Men and Elves marched against the armies of Mordor. On the slopes of Mount Doom they fought for the freedom of Middle- Earth.” Galadriel’s thrilling, ethereal voice floated over the chaos and bloodshed of the battlefield. A wearied, battle-fatigued Elrond lead rank after rank of elf archers, and the seething mass of orcs retreated before the army of the last alliance, shrieking with anger and desperation. I sat there, mouth agape and eyes goggling as the deep echoes of the drums announced Sauron’s arrival. A shiver ran up my spine, and my flesh prickled as the Dark Lord laid waste. The armies recoiled, and a wave of fear rippled through the thousands gathered. Death was nigh. The Lord of the Rings film series is considered to be … Read More

The importance of accurate science reporting - Guest Work

May 14, 2017

“Science values detail, precision, the impersonal, the technical, the lasting, facts, numbers and being right. Journalism values brevity, approximation, the personal, the colloquial, the immediate, stories, words and being right now. There are going to be tensions.” – Quentin Cooper, of BBC Radio 4’s Material World. Open up Facebook or scroll through Twitter and you’ll immediately be presented with a deluge of thrilling ‘new scientific discoveries’. From the astonishing revelation that chocolate can cure cancer to the more sinister claims that vaccines cause autism, fake news has invaded the scientific sphere. TV, digital radio and the internet provide essentially unlimited information on a wide range of issues. When one takes into consideration the myriad experiments and discoveries made by scientists worldwide daily, it becomes obvious that there is a great demand for intelligent … Read More

Harold Gillies and Plastic Surgery - A History of NZ Science in 25 Objects

May 11, 2017

A pastel portrait of Gunner John Dyson by Henry Tonks in 1917, depicting the pioneering skill of Harold Gillies’s surgery. As an art history student, I am often asked to describe or praise artworks I’m not particularly fond of. This strangely captivating pastel portrait is not one of them. It reminds me of a softer Egon Schiele portrait, or deftly sketched Impressionist painting. Yet its significance extends beyond the mere skill of the artist, or the pleasing colour combinations on the page. It represents a new lease of life for the artist’s model.       The words ‘plastic surgery’ call to mind images of botoxed L.A socialites addicted to tummy tucks and facelifts. But Kiwi surgeon Sir Harold Gillies (1882–1960) had a far nobler pursuit, stitching together the faces of at least 4,000 British and New … Read More

Cold ones and continuous fermentation brewing - A History of NZ Science in 25 Objects

May 09, 2017

Welcome to the History of New Zealand Science in 25 Objects! From ingenious pā fortifications and Tā moko uhi (chisels) to disposable syringes and the Britten motorcycle, New Zealand’s scientific innovations are fascinating, varied and internationally appreciated. Explore the history of NZ science and technology with Jean Balchin as she examines 25 objects we Kiwis have made – starting with a cold beer.  “Whoever drinks beer, he is quick to sleep; whoever sleeps long, does not sin; whoever does not sin, enters Heaven! Thus, let us drink beer!” Thus spoke the German theologian Martin Luther, in a sentiment echoed by Kiwis across the country. New Zealand has a fond relationship with this fine alcoholic beverage, from Captain Cook’s beery experiments with rimu bark and tree needles to Morton Coutt’s ground-breaking discovery of the continuous fermentation brewing process. From a … Read More

Counting the calories of cannibalism - News

Apr 16, 2017

Human cannibalism is a deliciously fascinating topic. Identifying the motivations for human cannibalism remains a contentious issue. A recently-constructed nutritional template for the human body suggests that prehistoric human cannibalism was most likely motivated by something other than nutritional needs. Human flesh may have been cooked for greater calorific value. James Cole, from the University of Brighton found that the nutritional value of the human body is not particularly high, thereby implying that early humans potentially ate each other for social reasons. Cole constructed a nutritional template for the human body by using the total average weights and calorie values (fat and protein) for each body part from chemical composition analyses of four males. This template provided a proxy calorie value for the human body that was employed to compare the dietary value of prehistoric cannibalism with that of other … Read More

One bubble in the great bath of existence – Brian Greene on the universe, time travel and string theory - News

Mar 23, 2017

Earlier this afternoon, I was fortunate enough to interview Dr Brian Greene, the renowned theoretical physicist and string theorist. Dr Greene is a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University, and is recognized for a number of revolutionary discoveries in his field of superstring theory. I spoke with Dr Greene about his theories on string theory and multiverses, and tried to wrap my head around that elusive character, Father Time. You can still buy tickets to Dr Green’s A Time Traveller’s Tale show in Auckland on Sunday night. The Sciblogs Q&A – Brian Greene How did you get caught up in string theory, and why is this theory so exciting for physicists? Well, I became interested in string theory as a graduate student. I was at Oxford and that was in the 1980s, when there was … Read More

Dental plaque DNA shows Neandertals used ‘aspirin’ - News

Mar 09, 2017

Ancient DNA found on Neandertal teeth has revealed fascinating new insights into the behaviour, diet, use of plant-based medicine and the evolutionary history of our nearest extinct relatives. “Dental plaque traps microorganisms that lived in the mouth and pathogens found in the respiratory and gastrointestinal tract, as well as bits of food stuck in the teeth—preserving the DNA for thousands of years, ” explains Dr Laura Weyrich from the University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre of Ancient DNA (ACAD). Dr Weyrich and an international team analysed and compared four dental plaque samples from Neandertal remains found at the cave sites of Spy in Belgium and El Sidrón in Spain. These samples are the oldest dental plaque ever to be genetically analysed; 42,000-50,000 years old.  The research, published today in the journal Nature, offers an intimate … Read More

Rhinos can correct gender imbalance in the wild - News

Mar 08, 2017

Rhinos are able to alter the sex of their offspring to avoid a gender imbalance and reduce competition for breeding, according to a new study led by a New Zealand researcher. Twenty-four years of rhinoceros data, gathered over the course of 45 reintroductions of the animals across southern Africa, provided this first experimental evidence in the wild. Professor Wayne Linklater Lead researcher, Victoria University of Wellington wildlife biologist Associate Professor Wayne Linklater, who also blogs here on Sciblogs, said the theory that uneven population sex ratios can result in a compensatory response by parents to ‘correct’ the imbalance—a homeostatic sex allocation (HSA) response—was first proposed in the 1930s by statistician Ronald Fisher. “Almost all population models assume birth sex ratio is fixed. Our evidence indicates that this may not be the case.” Sex-bias is particularly important in rhinoceros populations, … Read More