Archive December 2010

technical hiccups Alison Campbell Dec 22


Well, it’s nice to be back on line! I haven’t had much chance to write anything in the last week, but it would have been nice to have been able to if I’d wanted…

Reasons for not posting: a) the registrar & I have been incredibly busy at work, trying to process student enrolments before the Big Christmas Shutdown (which we both intend to spend hanging out with family, eating, drinking & generally having fun) – no spare time to set finger to keyboard.

and b) we moved house over the weekend – only to the other side of Hamilton but still, a huge amount of work. Once we’d got stuff out of boxes and the place resembling a home rather than the warehouse for an auction company, I innocently plugged in the computer & all its little gizmos & prepared to surf the net, yay! But alas, no broadband. Until today, when the nice men from Chorus came by & put the right wires in the right sockets in the rather spiffy switchboard thingy we’ve acquired.

So life has returned to normal (& the registrar will be happy as I am now going to do some more enrolments from the comfort of my home office -sure beats trekking across Hamilton in the peak of the pre-Christmas frenzy!)

science & innovation in education – your thoughts, please Alison Campbell Dec 14


I’ve just received an e-mail about a forum on Science & Innovation in Education, which’ll be held next year in Wellington on 19-20 April. Now, quite apart from the fact that I’d really like to go to this one, I thought I’d write a bit about the forum here because my correspondent is in the throes of developing a series of questions to form the basis of discussion & asked if I’d be willing to share them around as any & all feedback on them would be very welcome.

In other words – are the following questions ’good’ questions?

Do you think they’ll be useful in promoting discussion?

If you had to narrow the list down to – say – half a dozen questions, which ones would you include, & why?


(I do have my own opinions here, but that’s all they are, & I’d rather throw this open to everyone here & get a decent discussion going around science education in New Zealand.)

So, don’t be shy! And read on…

Here’s the list:

1.   What is the role of education in the innovation system?

2.   How should New Zealand look to manage the changing demands of students, teachers, society, and science itself?

3.   Our schools form part of local social systems, institutions created to meet human needs. As needs change, as lags, confusions, and conflicts develop, these conditions will be reflected in the schools and in the way various segments of the public view the schools. With this as the sociological frame of reference – what is happening to NZ communities? What are the effects on young people and on schools? And how can teachers, principals, and others prepare themselves to deal with the problems with which they must cope?

4.   Are New Zealanders’ attitudes getting in the way of high achievement in science? How can we continue to change attitudes so that we give all children the opportunity to be inspired to pursue science?

5.   Should we be requiring more from our students?

6.   The current education system lock-steps children by age. Should we begin to focus more on ability, enabling children of different ages to learn together at whatever is the appropriate level

7.  How can education best serve science and how can science best serve education?

8.   What really matters in science education? Does our science education match the demands of the 21st century?

9.   What and how should we be investing in the area of strategic science?

10.  How can we continue to help businesses to realise the commercial potential science can bring to them?

I’ll look forward to hearing what you all have to say ;)

a mouse with no mother Alison Campbell Dec 12

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I had a quick web-surf in between walking the dog (before it got too hot) & doing some paperwork. And behold! there was a post by PZ entitled My mouse has two daddies. So the paperwork had to wait a bit :)

PZ’s writing about a rather clever – & intricate! – piece of work that’s resulted in a baby mouse whose genome has absolutely no contribution whatsoever from a female mouse – it’s all from 2 males. A fascinating piece & well worth a read.

Now, back to what I was supposed to be doing…

nuclear transformation – at body temperature this time Alison Campbell Dec 10


After writing my last post, in which a young-earth creationist expounded on their idea that the planet was once a giant nuclear reactor, I wondered what else was out there. So in the gap between one appointment & the next, I went looking. I almost wish I hadn’t…

… because I found – this:

Over the years I have thought about the relationships between sodium, magnesium, potassium and calcium and have come up with a hypothesis that magnesium, potassium and calcium are all nuclear transformations of the sodium (11) ion. This is important to understand when we consider why our blood is salted with sodium not magnesium, potassium or calcium. Even the ocean is salted with sodium for very good reasons.

The word formula for my hypothesis of nuclear transformation is as follows:

sodium (11) + hydrogen (1) magnesium (12) or,
sodium (11) + oxygen (8) potassium (19) or,
sodium (11) + hydrogen (1)+ oxygen (8) calcium or,
sodium (11) + oxygen (8) + hydrogen (1) calcium

As you can see there are many variations on how the body can transform sodium to the other alkaline elements it needs to maintain its alkaline design. Keep in mind that this transformation of elements is not a chemical reaction but a reaction, I call vibrational intelligence.

The movement of a hydrogen ion into the nucleus of a sodium ion is what gives rise to the alkaline element magnesium to help regulate body or even ocean temperature.

The movement of an oxygen ion into the nucleus of a sodium ion is what gives rise to the alkaline element potassium to help regulate the delicate alkaline pH of the extra and intracellular fluids of the body.

The movement of a hydrogen ion into the nucleus of a potassium ion is what gives rise to the alkaline element calcium. It is through the sodium ion of the blood that creates calcium to help keep our skeletal structure healthy and strong. In the ocean, it is the salt or sodium ion that gives rise to the calcium that makes the coral calcium, which helps in maintaining the alkaline design of the ocean at a pH of 8.3.

You see, nuclear transformation of sodium takes place every second of the day with any vibration or motion, such as the athlete in movement, as the body uses sodium and hydrogen to regulate the body temperature keeping it cool.

As a fail it’s even worse than this:

epic photos fail - Periodic Table of Element Fail4

Production of new elements in vivo & at body temperatures, no less! Proponents of cold fusion will be rapt :) (Just to put it in context, this piece was written by Robert Young, who claims that all disease is due to the acidification of the body & that this can be cured by eating a suitably ‘alkalizing’ diet. Interestingly for someone who apparently has a medical degree, Young seems unaware that your body’s pH is maintained between very narrow limits, between pH values of 7.35 to 7.45. For example, any excess H+ ions produced as a result of normal cellular metabolism are rapidly excreted via the kidneys. You can’t change your internal pH by eating particular foods! This may sound like a silly idea, nothing more – but it does actual, terminal harm to some who believe in this schtick.)

There is one reasonably accurate statement that I could find in the piece I’ve quoted here – it’s to do with the pH of the ocean, which does indeed have a pH that’s on the alkaline side. Historically this was around 8.16, although as atmospheric CO2 levels rise more CO2 dissolves in the sea water, producing carbonic acid and thus lowering the pH. This is problematic for marine organisms with shells or skeletons based on calcium carbonate (CaCO3), because this lower pH decreases the organisms’ ability to get carbonate ions from the sea water. But as for this:

The movement of a hydrogen ion into the nucleus of a potassium ion is what gives rise to the alkaline element calcium. It is through the sodium ion of the blood that creates calcium to help keep our skeletal structure healthy and strong. In the ocean, it is the salt or sodium ion that gives rise to the calcium that makes the coral calcium, which helps in maintaining the alkaline design of the ocean at a pH of 8.3.


There is so much ‘fail’ here. I’m sure the alchemists of mediaeval times would have loved to meet with Young, but in the real world – where ‘cold fusion’ doesn’t really happen - the fusion of 2 elements to form another occurs in the hearts of stars (as Carl Sagan said, when it comes to the fine details we are all made of star stuff). Such reactions do not, can not happen in a normally-functioning human body. Quite apart from the fact that corals are not made of calcium – this is a very reactive metal & wouldn’t stay in its elemental state for very long in water. And of course it’s your diet that supplies calcium for teeth, bones, & cellular reactions – not some mystical transmutation from sodium!

a young-earth creationist’s view of flood geology (& much more besides) Alison Campbell Dec 07


Things have been totally hectic since I got back from the conference trail – all the usual end-of-year stuff plus heaps of students coming in for advice about their study plans for next year. (Hint for future students – try to do a bit of planning before you come in; it makes the process much easier :) I don’t mean picking out every paper that you might want, but having a broad idea of what you are most interested in is a good starting point.)

But I still managed to sneak a look at Pharyngula while I took a a few minutes to eat lunch. Where I found this gem:

Did people really live for hundreds of years?” Yes. Pre-Flood, carbon-14 was not present in the vast quantities that pervade our atmosphere today, and cosmogenic C-14 was very rare. During the Flood, the earth’s crust, wracked with magnitude-10-to-12 earthquakes and rich in quartz (which generates electricity when deformed), acted as a gigantic fast-breeding nuclear reactor and produced all of the radionuclides (up to uranium and arguably plutonium) known to man today. That included C-14, produced in tremendous quantities through cluster decay. And when C-14 gets into your system, and then decays, it can wreck whatever molecule (including DNA) of which it became a part. So the reason we *don’t* live hundreds of years today is that we are all suffering from radiation poisoning (or isotopic substitutional poisoning) and have forgotten what it was like not to be subject to such poisoning.

This is part of a much longer (& equally confused/confusing) series of comments on a post on a US creationist website. PZ & his horde have pretty much taken it apart but I thought I’d share it here as an example both of really really strange thinking & also of the Gish Gallop – a ‘debating’ technique (& I use the word ‘debate’ very loosely) where so many totally wrong ideas are bundled out together that the opposing speaker doesn’t have a hope of dealing with them all in his or her allotted time. At which point the first speaker can claim ‘victory’ for their point of view.

Anyway, the writer has a really strange view of how C-14 (a radioactive carbon isotope) is produced and just how much of it there is in the atmosphere. I mean, ‘vast quantities’ makes it sound like there’s heaps! But the proportion of radioactive to non-radioactive carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere & oceans is about 1 in 1 trillion, so it’s not exactly enough to ‘pervade our atmosphere’, as the original writer would have it.

C-14 is produced in the upper atmosphere as a result of the bombardment of gases by cosmic rays: periodically a high-energy particle hits a nitrogen atom and generates an atom of C-14. This in turn reacts with oxygen to form CO2, which plants use (just as they do ‘normal’ CO2) to produce sugars. Thus the C-14 radionuclide enters the food chain. As long as organisms are alive they’ll continue to take in C-14 along with ‘normal’ C-13 & C-12, so the ratio of the different forms of carbon in their bodies remains constant. But once the organism dies, this replenishment stops and the levels of C-14 in its remains begin to drop: the amount of C-14 in dead organic matter is halved every 5730 years as the atoms decay into nitrogen. (This allows scientists to use carbon isotope ratios to date organic material back to about 50,000 years ago.)

However, our author isn’t having a bar of this, insisting that such cosmogenic production of C-14 was just about non-existent prior to the Noachian Flood. (Goodness knows where he gets that from; in my younger days I did read the Bible & I don’t recall anything there on nuclear physics.) Instead, he claims, magnitude-10 to -12 earthquakes deformed and shattered quartz crystals in the Earth’s crust, somehow turning the crust into a ‘fast-breeding nuclear reactor’ which produced all currently-known radionuclides. Including, of course, C-14. (Magnitude-10 to 12 on what scale? Richter? Mercalli?)

Which would be fine & dandy, I guess, except that while deformed quartz does release electricity, there’s no reason why this in turn would turn the earth into a gigantic nuclear reactor. And if it did – the resultant heat would have caused the crust to become molten. The supposed floodwaters would have boiled off & one rather suspects the Ark (& all aboard) would have been incinerated. If, by some chance, it avoided this fate & some waters remained, it would have taken a darn sight longer than the year cited in Genesis for the crust to have solidified, let alone cooled sufficiently for an olive tree to grow…

Just one more contradiction: Genesis has it that Noah lived to be 950. According to our author, the reason modern folks don’t live anything like that long is because we are all suffering radiation poisoning from those vast quantities of C-14 produced during the Flood. But… … … Noah is supposed to have lived through this massive outpouring of radionuclides & if our author is correct the proportion of C-14 would have been much higher then than it is now. So – how come Noah didn’t drop dead on the spot of radiation poisoning?

There is actually a lot more of this stuff in that comments thread. Mammoths (which were apparently tropical beasts, despite all the morphological evidence to the contrary) frozen solid by massive hailstorms accompanying the Flood. (That explains why they never made it onto the Ark, then.) The Himalayas being pushed up by all that earthquake activity & causing the Earth to shift on its axis. It’s amazing what you can come up with if you let your imagination run riot and aren’t too worried about making stuff up.

But at that point I was saved from having my neurons apoptose by another student knocking on my door :)

paradoxical frogs Alison Campbell Dec 05

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Well, I’ve just got back from a series of conferences (3 in the space of 10 days) – & all of them about teaching! I was getting pretty tired by the end of it all, but at the same time it was really good to be able to spend time talking about teaching (& about research into teaching & learning) and to pick up some tips from some of the country’s top tertiary teachers.

One of those teachers was Otago’s Phil Bishop, aka ‘the Frog Man’. If you want to know anything about frogs in this country then Phil’s the man to go to :) He kicks off each of his first-year lectures with a ‘frog fact of the day’, & one of these is about the ‘paradoxical frog, Pseudis paradoxa.

What, I thought, could be paradoxical about a frog? Well, it has to do with the size of the tadpoles. P.paradoxa‘s tadpoles are huge: about 25cm long:

Image from

But the adult frog is much, much smaller, at around 6cm long. (And very fetching little frogs they are too.)

That in itself would make a good starter :) But Phil tells his students that Pseudis paradoxa is even more interesting. Like all frogs it secretes mucus that moistens & helps to protect its skin from damage. This mucus contains a protein that researchers have named ‘pseudin-2′, which helps to prevent the skin developing bacterial infections, killing pathogenic bacteria but not harming the frog (or, indeed, human red blood cells when tested on them). This interested Yasser Abdel-Wahab & his colleagues (2008), who tested the action of pseudin-2 & synthetic forms of the protein.

Among other things, they looked at its effect on pancreatic cells in vitro (i.e. growing in nutrient broth in petri dishes), and found that both the natural and synthetic proteins stimulated the cells to release insulin (with no apparent toxic effects on the cells). In fact the synthetic form ([Lys18]-pseudin-2) was more effective in this than the natural form, which has got to be good news for the frogs :) I did wonder what prompted them to test pseudin-2 on pancreatic cells, but it turns out this was no shot in the dark – scientists already knew that peptides released in the mucus of several other frog species affect the function of these cells (Abdel-Wahab et al., 2008).

The research team concluded that [Lys18]-pseudin-2 "may have potential for development as a therapeutically valuable insulinotropic agent for the treatment of type 2 diabetes", although obviously it’s a long way from trialling something on cells in a petri dish to releasing it as a therapeutic agent.

Maybe there is something in that story about kissing frogs, after all…

Y.H.Abdel-Wahab, G.J.Power, M.T.Ng, P.R.Flatt & J.M.Conlon (2008) Insulin-releasing properties of the frog skin peptide pseudin-2 and its [Lys28]-substituted analogue. Biological Chemistry 389(2): 143-148

the interface between secondary & tertiary teaching Alison Campbell Dec 02


I’ve just spent a couple of wonderful days at the inaugural First-Year Biology Educators’ Colloquium, hosted by Otago University’s Phil Bishop at the Orokonui Ecosanctuary, near Dunedin. There were some absolutely inspirational speakers there & I came away with some ideas that I’d like to adapt for my own teaching. And I gave a talk myself (well, led a discussion, really), on the interface between secondary & tertiary biology teaching & why we need to be aware of it.

I’ve probably banged on about this before, but I believe that all first-year teaching staff should be aware of the secondary school curriculum in the area in which they teach. Why? – because an understanding of students’ prior learning experiences can only improve our ability to bridge them into their tertiary study. If we just sit back & assume that prior learning is going to remain the same for each new cohort of students, then we’re in for a big surprise. Let alone their expectations of how they’re going to be taught & assessed.

In 2014 we’re going to get a different cohort through the doors. These will be students who’ve been taught under the new (2007) national curriculum, and who’ve been assessed using new Achievement Standards that have been written to better reflect that curriculum.  (Personally I think there’s still way too much content in there, but that’s just my opinion – although it’s an idea that did attract a fair bit of discussion at the colloquium.) What that means, for example, is that lecturers can’t assume that students studied genetics in year 13 – because this new group won’t have done. The new draft standards see genetics (including concepts like control of gene expression) moved back into year 12.

And while the form & function of plants & animals remain in year 12, they’ve been combined, in the draft standards, into one standard that asks students to [demonstrate] understanding of adaptions of plants or animals to their way of life. (As someone who teaches a bit of botany, the ‘or’ bothers me a bit as it makes me wonder if even fewer students will be exposed to the planty side of things.) Plus the current requirement for students to [research] the interaction between humans and an aspect of biology is replaced by [analyse] the biological validity of information presented to the public. This particular one drew quite a bit of discussion, actually, as my first-year colleagues felt that their students could struggle with it…

Meanwhile the draft L3 standards include one on homeostasis ([demonstrate understanding of how animals maintain a stable internal environment), and the 'biotech' standard may become [demonstrate] understanding of human manipulation of genetic transfer and its biological implications.

Plus, as I said earlier, students who’ve come through the NCEA system tend to have quite different experiences of assessment compared to university practices: more formative assessment, more scaffolding into the question. And they’ll probably have been exposed to more opportunities for inquiry-based learning – rather different from the transmission model still common in lecture theatres & labs. This is something that we ignore at our peril, given the government’s increasing focus on measuring – & rewarding – the outcomes of teaching in a similar way to the existing performance-based research funding regime.

There was quite a bit of discussion around things like assessment, & also the nature of the NCEA itself. Towards the end, someone asked, what’s the government & the NZQA doing to make sure that universities are aware of all this? My answer was that it’s actually essential for teaching staff, particularly at first year, to familiarise themselves with what’s going on, not least because that way they’re likely to get a better handle on the system and its implications for their future students.

And along with that, to remember that the job of the year 13 teacher is not to prepare students for university. Not any more – only a minority of year 13 students will go on to study at university (although many may well go on to study in other tertiary education institutions). The difficult job those teachers face is to provide a diverse bunch of students with the skills they need for life beyond the classroom. And developing closer links between secondary & tertiary teachers, with enhanced mutual understandings of curriculum issues, would go a long way towards making that job a little easier, for all concerned.

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