Archive December 2012

When things grow wild – post-earthquake natural succession in Christchurch gardens Grant Jacobs Dec 20

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While I madly tackle the pre-Christmas to-do list (sigh) I’d like to give a shout-out to a blog post by Glenn Stewart,  Professor of Urban Ecology, Lincoln University (near Christchurch), about what is happening to gardens in ‘abandoned’ Christchurch homes.

As you might expect, they’re growing wild, with a natural succession taking place that is being recorded.

Map from Avon-Otakaro network petition website

The areas in green are ‘red zone’ land—identified as unable to be rebuilt upon (in the short-term)—adjacent to the Avon river, east of the city centre. The straight-ish stretch of water running north-south is known as Kerr‘s Reach and the base of competitive rowing in Christchurch. The blue to the right is the Pacific Ocean (New Brighton coastline).

It’s a little like when I leave the weeding a bit long in my own place…

In my case I get seedlings of maples and a while raft of New Zealand natives along with the invasive weedy nuisances. Natives that regularly self-sow in my little corner of New Zealand include kowhai (lots and lots of them… surprisingly hard to pull out these little guys out, too), flax, cabbage tree, fern, Coprosma, five-finger, toetoe and all sorts of other things.*

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Congratulations Professor Roy Kerr Grant Jacobs Dec 19

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News out today is that Professor Kerr, an Emeritus Professor at the University of Canterbury, is to be presented the 2013 Albert Einstein Award, given by the Albert Einstein Society in Switzerland for ‘to deserving individuals for outstanding scientific findings, works, or publications related to Albert Einstein’.

Previous Einstein Award winners include six Nobel Laureates. Names of previous winner that those who, like me, are not physicists might recognise include Stephen Hawking (inaugural award, 1979), Roger Penrose (1990, well-known for this popular science books) and Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann.

Professor Kerr has been cited for this work on ‘a solution to Einstein’s gravitational field equations relating to black holes’ in 1963.

His work is described in the popular science book, Cracking the Einstein Code by Fulvio Melia. The opening passages of Dan Falk’s review of the book in NewScientist in 2009 perhaps captures the essence:

Just as knowing the rules of chess does not, by itself, allow you to win tournaments, having Einstein’s field equations for general relativity does not immediately tell you what the gravitational field surrounding a real object is actually like.

Of particular concern was the gravitational field of a massive, rotating body – after all, nearly everything in the universe seems to rotate. It sounds deceptively simple, but as Fulvio Melia explains, it was actually a fiendishly complex problem, one that defied an answer for decades. New Zealand-born physicist Roy Kerr finally “cracked the Einstein code” in the early 1960s.

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Feeling oppressed by the administration…? Grant Jacobs Dec 18

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Try this That Mitchell and Webb sketch, Monsieur Garnier and the laboratoire. Research scientists (in commercial settings) in particular.

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Other lighter material at Code for life:

Two half-brains

Distinguishing scams (cartoon)

Friday round-up: zombies, cats, embargoes, XMRV papers

A geeky valentine

Friday’s Factoids and Quirky Quotes

One reason for low private sector investment in research and development Grant Jacobs Dec 17


… is a lack of scientists running companies – ?

This thought was offered by Peter Hodgson, a former Minister of Science and Technology to New Zealand in a speech to graduates at the University of Otago:

In Germany, Japan and Scandinavia, scientists ran companies and their science influenced management decisions.

”In New Zealand, those same companies are run by accountants or lawyers.”

This was one of many reasons why this country had ”one of the lowest levels” of private sector research and development in the developed world.

It’s not a reason I’ve seen suggested before. What do readers think – ?

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The effect of the ‘Mayan Doomsday’ on clinical trials Grant Jacobs Dec 12


Released on December 11th by the Canadian Medical Association Journal is a theoretical study, The Mayan Doomsday’s effect on survival outcomes in clinical trials.[1]

This open-access paper explores the possible effects of the upcoming apocalypse on measurements of survival rates of clinical trials.

Following the lead of Louis Pasteur (‘Where observation is concerned, fortune favours only the prepared mind.’), the sole author’s examination laments that ‘any adverse events would not be able to be recorded owing to “the mother of all adverse events,” and any statistical significance between study arms would be lost’ and furthermore suggests zombies are to rule: Read the rest of this entry »

Mad on Radium Grant Jacobs Dec 12


(Still trying to complete the Christmas shopping list? I’m going to bring to you a couple of book reviews for readers who like more than the latest ‘trashy’ thriller.)

New Zealand wasn’t always anti-nuclear. In fact, as New Zealand writer Rebecca Priestley shows us, it was distinctly pro-nuclear.

Mad on Radium explores the corners of how the ‘nuclear age’ came to New Zealand and New Zealanders’ responses to it, their involvement in it.

It’s revealing to peer back into our recent past and see how it was, rather than what we now portray ourselves as. There’s intriguing titbits throughout, accompanied by many photographs, cartoons, advertisements and posters.

It’s probably not appreciated by younger New Zealanders that New Zealand provided some scientists for the Manhattan project, that New Zealand supported the British bomb tests in the Pacific, that radium was a popular ‘healthy’ product marketed to consumers.

The illustrations are excellent and tell their own stories. One map shows the proposed effects of ‘Atomic bombing of Wellington City’. Who remembers annual x-rays for tuberculosis, featured in one poster: ‘Make a date for MASS X-RAY’.

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Deafness Grant Jacobs Dec 12


Some time ago I tried to gather articles to offer as a carnival on disability in science. I put quite a bit effort into finding material, but got few offers. It was a project I had wanted to do for some time and the lack of response was very disappointing. I had thought it was a topic people would want to front up and share, but perhaps people don’t.

As a slight compensation of sorts I’ve collected a small number of articles related to deafness below. A few further articles of my own are listed at the end of this piece.

Scientific sign language

Earlier this month the New York Times ran an article, Pushing Science’s Limits in Sign Language Lexicon.

Throughout the world there are many different sign languages. These are quite capable for everyday language, but struggle in specialist domains like science. It’s doubly tricky as there is a natural tendency for local sign to develop for particular terms, rather than scientific signs being international, in the way that the print terms and units of measure are.

Finger-spelling and spatially placing a word for later reference is a passable solution in some conversations, but it’s also very limiting.

The New York Times article describes attempts to crowd-source common signs for terms.

Personal experiences and advice/suggestions

Mosaic of Minds has a post suggesting how to better talk to people with hearing loss or auditory processing problems and why do it that way. I’d encourage anyone to read it – I’ve always been of the opinion that some of the advice to better communicate with the hard-of-hearing is just good advice to communicate at all.

The placement of the speaker can make a difference. Back lighting — where there is bright light behind you — makes you hard to lip-read. The listener’s eyes will naturally adapt to the bright light, leaving your face hard to see. Similarly, noise behind the speaker is particularly troublesome. Modern hearing aids usually come with a ‘directional’ mode that favours sound from in front of the listener. While that helps downplay noise to one side and behind the listener, noise behind the speaker is still and issue. Echo also can be nuisance – shiny walls and floors can be clues a place will have echo.

I’ve related some of my own thoughts in an earlier article.[1]

History of medical and educational views of the deaf

One writer who responded instantly with cheerful enthusiasm to my call for articles was Jaipreet Virdi. I asked her directly as I’ve long been a fan of her blog, From The Hands of Quacks. Below are the articles she suggested.

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Students, early career scientists – win an iPad in writing competition Grant Jacobs Dec 06


Want to win an iPad and show-off your science writing skills?

Ph.D. students and early-career scientists (< 6 years post-Ph.D.) can enter an international science writing competitionAccess to Understanding, run by Europe PubMed Central. The winning entry will  published in the new open-access journal, eLife (launching next week) with the writer winning an iPad.

In particular, I’d like to see students from outside Europe give those in Europe a run for their money!

You’re to select one from a list of nine papers from Europe PubMed Central—all open-access, naturally—and, using no more than 800 words (including title), ‘explain the research and why it matters to a non-scientific audience. ’

There will be an award ceremony in London. There is no travelling costs to attend this, but as attending the awards ceremony is not a prerequisite to entering go right ahead and enter.

The runner-up is to win an iPad-mini and the 3rd prize is a £100 Amazon voucher. At the judges’ discretion these entries may also be published in eLife.

As always, take note of the judging criteria. The competition web page offer tips on science writing (PDF file). You might also want to look at the extra resources at the end of the competition’s science writing tips and a post on using Nature editor Noah Gray’s breakdown of scientific paper abstracts as a list of some things to include in writing about science.

Other articles on Code for life:

Thoughts on scientific abstracts also a science writing check-list

Banished from science writing. Words, that is.

Scientists can’t write?

Professors, lost souls with great oratory power?

Career paths, redux – the academic research career is the exception

Help editor tackle TEDx pseudoscience Grant Jacobs Dec 04


Earlier today I received this comment from editor Emily McMagnus:

Just dropping a note here, because this has been such a wonderful thread and community, to say: SIGH! Have you seen the latest outcropping of woo on TEDx?
It’s not possible for anyone to be more upset about this than I am, and I’d love to talk about it.
So basically, TEDx is a community continuously under assault by pseudoscience now. This latest mess-up is interesting to me because it involves a lot of the low-grade health woo that I think all of us have encountered in conversations in our own lives. I’d love to know: How do you speak respectfully to your students, friends, family when they start talking about how great this health woo is?
Please know TEDx is on the case to prevent this kind of event from recurring, and your thoughts are welcome!

English-language readers can read a Google-translation of the TEDxValenciaWomen website in English. (It should keep translating the pages if you follow links to the biographies of the speakers, etc.) Similarly, you can read commentary elsewhere on-line translated into English via a translated Google search.

I’m too pressed for time to offer my own thoughts at this moment, but hope to add some later. Likewise, I will try append to this post examples of the concerns being expressed.

In the meantime, please offer your thoughts, suggestions.

Those wanting some of the back story may like to read my earlier article that Emily directed her comment at, On vetting TED(x) events – a suggestion.

Structured procrastination, 2 Dec 2012 Grant Jacobs Dec 03

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Another edition of my irregular structured procrastination reading lists – have fun exploring these. (Geekier ones nearer the end.)

Sci-fi movie

Geneticist Ricki Lewis offers a review of Jim, which she says is more compelling than GATTACA. The movie can be viewed on-line. (If you watch it, let me know what you think.)

Gene-based dating

You think gene-based dating in sci-fi? It’s already with us. See also this twitter conversation. (There’s also a service that matches dates by their dogs.)

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