Archive April 2011

“One of my dreams is to drive a virus-powered car” Grant Jacobs Apr 30



They power countless portable devices, start cars and drive electric vehicles.

Yet they’re not particularly efficient. In research labs more efficient batteries are being developed.


They infect cells to cause disease. We’re forever battling them, trying to find better ways to rid ourselves of them.

Yet in research labs around the world scientists try put viruses to use, as agents to deliver genes, to provide antigens for vaccines.

And, in seems, to make more efficient batteries.

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National Geographic has bought Grant Jacobs Apr 26


I’d only just added a comment to my previous post noting PZ Myer’s article about ’a prestigious national magazine’ buying out, without naming the magazine, when Ivan Oransky of Retraction Watch fame tweeted his scoop (forwarded by Bora – thanks):


So who bought Scienceblogs? Retraction Watch exclusive: National Geographic

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Sunday sci-comm snippets Grant Jacobs Apr 24


News and links from the science communication world. (Yes, it’s my regular excuse for closing a bunch of browser tags.)


Open Laboratory has big news. Open Laboratory is an annual publication of the best of on-line science writing. The coming edition will be edited by Jennifer Ouellette teamed with Bora Zivkovic and Amanda Moon, Book Editor at Scientific American and Senior Editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Previously it had been self-published via Lulu (see there for the current and previous editions).

I can imagine that being put out under the badge of Science American Books will bring it further creditability and a wider audience. On the latter note, Bora introduces changes to meet that wider reach – more on this to come in time, apparently.

(Maybe one day an article of mine will make the cut? I still have yet to find time to get back to longer-form writing, though…)

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Homeopathy – practical remedies to address it? Grant Jacobs Apr 23


MacDoctor last night wrote a post on the ethics of homeopathy: check it out.[1] As it’s a lazy sort of weekend a few off-the-cuff thoughts on a different aspect of the subject might fill the bill.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

I’d like to offer suggestions as to what might be practical remedies to educate and curb use of homeopathy for weekend rumination. Readers are welcome to pitch in with their own suggestions.

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Ernest Rutherford’s gold foil experiment Grant Jacobs Apr 22


Ernst Lord Rutherford is perhaps New Zealand’s best-known scientist and features on our $100 note.

(Source: WikiMedia Commons.)

(Source: WikiMedia Commons.)

His story is outlined at many sites, including a biography at the Nobel Prize website and the website, which also includes pages about the myths about Rutherford (the most widely held, in NZ at least, would be that he got his Nobel Prize for ‘splitting the atom’), his birthplace and other information.

Among Rutherford’s achievements were simple particle bombardment experiments to reveal aspects of the inner structure of atoms. The video below, taken from Backstage Science’s growing collection, which features a present-day replication of Rutherford’s famous gold foil experiment, in which in a beam of alpha particles shot at a gold foil sheet, most would pass through but a few would be deflected or bounce back:

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Changing the Ph.D. Grant Jacobs Apr 21


Regular readers will know that I have previously written about that only a fraction of science Ph.D. graduates go on to work within academia long-term and related thoughts.

Nature has published an editorial and a collection of articles (all open-access) looking at possible ways governments or institutions might alter the Ph.D. to perhaps reflect this:

  • Fix the PhD (editorial) leads the way with an overview, suggesting that either Ph.D. programs need to be better tailored to demand or that the Ph.D. programs themselves should be altered, citing the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) programme run by the US National Science Foundation as a possible example.
  • Education: The PhD factory (David Cyranoski , Natasha Gilbert , Heidi Ledford , Anjali Nayar & Mohammed Yahia) look at the prospects for students in several different countries around the world
  • What is a PhD really worth? (Peter Fiske) focuses on law, but there are some general observations that can be applied elsewhere
  • Reform the PhD system or close it down (Mark Taylor) is very US-focused and to my reading a little wholly, but nevertheless is worth reading.
  • Education: Rethinking PhDs (Alison McCook) – this well-written piece offers several alternative scenarios with case examples of individuals who have pursued them

These articles focus on changing the Ph.D. itself. My earlier articles didn’t touch on this aspect, but focused on actively encouraging students to be made aware that only a fraction go on to work in academia, of a wider range of employment opportunities, among other associated issues.

So how might the Ph.D. itself be altered to better meet a market where the majority of Ph.D. graduates do not end up working in the academic arena they trained in?

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Peter Jackson introduces the world of the Hobbit Grant Jacobs Apr 15

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The movie films sets and studios, that is.

I know, I know. This isn’t about science. But, hey, it’s Friday–right?

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Crown Research Institute merger calls Grant Jacobs Apr 14


The Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) are a major employer of scientists in New Zealand. Currently there are eight CRIs. (There were nine: Crop and Food and HortResearch merged to form Plant and Food Research in 2008.)

Reports in the media have suggested the government is considering investigating mergers of the Crown Research Institutes (CRIs). Some sources suggest that the extreme action would be to create just three CRIs from the current eight; one report names three sections based around primary industries, the resource sector and the natural environment.

It has been remarked that mergers would run counter to the recommendations of last year’s review of the CRIs.

I wrote this last night and waited thinking that a statement might emerge that would give further clarity: there has been no further news thus far. My own impression is that some CRI heads have pressed their views to MPs, who have forwarded them to cabinet, where they have been at least noted.

As you would expect, there is commentary on-line and in the media. Below I’ve listed some that may shed light–or at least food for thought–on the subject:

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When children start mooing – a letter to the editor Grant Jacobs Apr 13

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Taking my cue from Peter Griffin’s series of crazy science letters, this appeared in the Otago Daily Times, 12th April 2011 penned by R. Williams of Maryhill, titled GM Milk. I’ll leave readers to their own judgements…

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Professor Ronald and the forbidden fruit – GE apples and a New Zealand visit Grant Jacobs Apr 13


Three recent articles on feature a New Zealand connection, spanning genetic engineering, Middle Earth and an anti-vaccine campaigner.

If you’re a New Zealander, or have an interest in genetic engineering, you might find Professor Ronald’s account of her visit to New Zealand to learn more about pastoral and crop research here and to speak interesting.

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