Archive June 2010

Describing your research – scientific soundbites from Dunedin Peter Griffin Jun 29


I’ve been travelling around the country talking to emerging researchers about the interesting projects they are working on for their PhD theses or as part of their post-doc research.

In particular, I’ve been giving them tips on how to effectively communicate their science and in an exercise during the workshop, I ask the researchers to sum up an aspect of their research in a maximum of two sentences – they have five minutes to do it.

The idea is that these researchers whittle away the complexity of their science or research so that it is easy for a layperson to relate to it quickly. Why would a scientist want to do this?

Well, Einstein has a good reason: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough,” he once said.

But there’s another reason. The more engaging scientists are and the better they are at communicating their science, the more engaged society will be in what they are doing. Lots of benefits flow back to scientists when the public which is funding the science actually “get it”.

I was aiming in their answers for the type of quotes Stephen Hawking gives in summing up what drives his research interest, such gems as:

My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.


Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?

I ended up with an eclectic grab-bag of answers, some great ones, some very much in need of refinement.

Dunedinites – my research in two sentences

Here’s my top 10 favourites from the Dunedin workshops:

A human foot washes up on the shore. How long has it been in the water? a marine bacterial molecular clock provides the answer.

Rejection hurts but why are some people more resilient than others?

It’s not just getting the bimbos off the beach when a tsunami comes but looking at ways of informing people about ways of reducing community vulnerability and increasing resilience to disaster.

I don’t want to kill humans, I don’t want to kill animals either. Hence I am killing yeast to save humans.

The wind blows sand into your face like needles and at the end of the day, you feel like you’ve gone 10 round in a boxing ring. (doing fieldwork on a braided river in a norwest gale).

I build houses on a molecular scale. By designing the size of the door, the furnishings and who lives there, you can control who wants to be inside. Then you know where the bastards live.

Driving our athletes to eat well so they can play harder, longer and smarter. Fuelling those Ferrari engines as well as possible.

I can force a fly to live longer, just by changing what she eats for dinner. I want to find the genetic mechanisms underlying this change.

Improve, sleep, improve weight. Sleep is an additional weight-management tool for youth.

How can we label food so that people can actually understand what is in it?

And a sample of the rest… (I’ll post all of them when I’ve more time)

* Take nothing at face value, question the scientist that plays ‘God’. Are we simply the product of our biology and genetic impulses?

* The calf muscle (the big one at the back of your leg): how does it ‘really’ work when you go up and down on your toes.

* Losing your memory = losing your mind. My research is to find molecular mechanisms that contribute to memory and this is altered with aging and potential memory loss.

* Can people learn better in areas they already know?

* Glaciers are shrinking  as the climate is warming, but is the relationship between the two so simple?

* Shining lights at babies. How to detect ultrasound using lasers.

* Small differences now can lead to new species later on.

* How can we label food so that people can actually understand what is in it?

* Don’t feed your baby,  let them feed themselves.

* It is obviously not possible to dissect a leukemic child to understand what’s going wrong with it. That’s why we need animal models, its not to be cruel to animals, it is to help human beings.

* On inter-generational transmission of tribal knowledge: How did our ancesters know what to do when communicating tribal knowledge of customs and practices and how did they ensure this continued to be handed down to the following generations? On participant said ‘I looked, I listened, I did and that’s how I learnt’.

* Bull kelp make great floating rafts that were exploited by Maori fir their seafaring. I’m trying to find out if other native New Zealanders, like snails, travel on kelp rafts too.

* Does quad bike vibration influence balance in New Zealand farmers? Apotential pathway for injury, rollover and falls.

* What we are and what we do is a big mix of our genes and the environment together.

* Illuminating the pathways and fine-tuning the components of a natural process in cyanebacteria to produce renewable hydrogen, one of the best fuels we have.

* What effect did improving playgrounds have on children’s physical activity? No discernable effect when comparing total activity, but for some children, the improved playgrounds had an effect.

* Lifestyle choices and environmental factors of parents may be remembered transgenetically, affecting the health and appearance of multiple generations.

Next post… Christichurch researchers…

Crazy science letter of the week part 10 Peter Griffin Jun 27


Usually I need to trawl the letters pages of the country’s newspapers and magazines to find examples of crazy science letters to the editor. This letter came direct to my inbox. The use of different fonts and colours is a fair warning of what to expect should you choose to read on…

I wonder what they put in the water in Sarasota, Florida…

crazy letter 10

What you can do with 24 hours and a bunch of web geeks Peter Griffin Jun 25


If you want to make any sort of statement in the world these days, and particularly if you are asking for other people’s money to help you do it, you need to have a website.

fcpBut despite the rise of free website tools and hosted website platforms, to build a good website you really need to get people involved who know what they are doing. Unfortunately that usually costs a lot of money. Its great then that New Zealand hosts an annual competition that pits teams against each other to build websites for organisations that want to change the world, but can’t afford the accompanying website.

I was lucky enough to be on the judging panel for Fullcodepress, which was held at the Wellington town hall last weekend and involved three teams from New Zealand, Australia and the United States working non-stop for 24 hours on websites for three non-profit organisations. I waltzed up on Sunday just as the teams were putting the finishing touches on their websites. But the detritus of chocolate bar wrappers, empty coffee cups and the blaring rock music hinted at the frantic pace the teams had sustained the previous night.

I was a judge of the content on the websites – the way the teams and their not for profit organisations told their stories online. All the geeky technical bits about coding, and navigation and whether the site would view properly in IE6 were left to my more tech-savvy fellow judges. But in the end we gave the top prize to the Australians and this website for the Australian Lions Hearing Dog service, which pairs specially trained dogs with deaf people.

This wasn’t the most technically flashy website of the three, but it made good use of the real life stories the Hearing Dog service has come across to tell a compelling and very human story. The Codaroos opted to keep things simple and listened carefully to their client, which paid off handsomely for them. One of the judges, Xero’s  head of design, Philip Fierlinger put together some judging notes which reflect well the torturous decisions we made about who to give the prize to. Our decision, incidentally, was unanimous. Philip puts his finger on what gave the Codaroos their edge:

The key to success, comes back to that old chestnut: keep it simple, focus on the basics:

  • Tell a good story
  • Help people understand what’s important and why
  • Build on a strong foundation

That might sound like a formula for mediocrity, play it safe, avoid risks. Not true. You can be innovative within the constraints of simplicity. Look at Apple. Sometimes innovation is so simple you don’t even notice.

The Code Blacks site completed for the Te Hua Rangatahi Trust made some innovative use of calendaring and Facebook integration and shows a lot of promise. So too does the site put together by Team USA for the Timaru Mental Health Support Trust.

The great thing about Fullcodepress is that regardless of who won, three not-for-profits that previously had no or minimal web presence now have fully-functional, professional looking websites that are easy to maintain.

I was struck while listening to the comments of the web teams by how much use they had made of free content management systems – two of the sites were based on WordPress, the Code Blacks’ site was based on New Zealand-made opensource content management system Silverstripe. What you can do now using these technologies, the various plug-ins that are available for them, and interfaces with free social networking tools is incredibly powerful.

The victorious Codearoos

The victorious Codaroos

From baby food to global behemoth Peter Griffin Jun 25

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The Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman is in London for the 350th anniversary celebrations of the Royal Society of London and this week gave an interesting speech on the history of UK-NZ scientific collaboration.

You can read the speech below or download it on the PMCSA website. A few interesting statistics from the speech illustrate the level of scientific collaboration between the two countries:

38 [Royal Society of London] Fellows were born in New Zealand although less than 10 have carried out their research there — unfortunately we export scientists as effectively and with as high a quality as the food we export.

We think that currently more than 30% of New Zealand scientists still have a significant association with a British counterpart and Britain remains the New Zealand science community’s most important partner.

The old Glaxo factory at Bunnythorpe

The old Glaxo factory at Bunnythorpe

But the most interesting nugget in the speech by Sir Peter, himself a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, is his anecdote about the pharmaceutical company Glaxo Smith Kline (formed in 2000 through the merger of Glaxo Wellcome and SmithKline Beecham). I had no idea that the Glaxo in the name of the world’s fourth largest pharmaceutical company came from New Zealand. Sir Peter explains:

Glaxo, which later became Glaxo Wellcome and whose fortunes allowed the [Wellcome] Trust to become what it is now, started in New Zealand as a small infant food company and was started by one of my wife’s relatives, but somewhat unwisely he sold out 100 years ago. My life might have been somewhat different.

Here’s some more detail from Glaxo Smith Kline’s own corporate history:

The Glaxo in the name traces its history to the colonial New Zealand of 1873. Local entrepreneur Joseph Nathan established a trading company in Wellington that was a forerunner to Glaxo’s milk powder drying operation at Bunnythorpe, Manawatu.

Glaxo really got going in the early 20th century when the Nathans got into processing dried milk. The Manuwatu OurRegion website has a good history of Glaxo from the 1870s to the 1990s. Here’s where things really started to get interesting for the company:

During World War I dried milk sales rocketed as the product was adopted as part of the daily diet of the troops in the trenches.  The Glaxo business did well and by the end of the war was ready to move onto the next stage of expansion.

The new field of vitamin supplement development and marketing became the next success.  A vitamin supplement for the ’Glaxo’ babyfood was the first step, to be followed by an ever-increasing range of ’health products’.  In 1937 Glaxo Laboratories was formed and from that time the field of pharmaceuticals became a major part of the business.

Glaxo had a factory in Palmerston North up to 1996. The company still has a presence here, but for marketing, distribution and supply. How different for the country things may have been if New Zealand investors had retained a stake in the business – and continued to undertake significant pharmaceutical R&D here…

Crazy science letter of the week part 9 Peter Griffin Jun 24


Water fluoridation is flavour of the month again for anti-science conspiracy theorists who consider it mass-medication or in the case of Rusty Kage, sorry Kane, mass poisoning. Anyone for a root canal? Rusty?

Source: Taranaki Daily News

Source: Taranaki Daily News

The US Centre for Disease Control ranks fluoridation of water number 9 on its top 10 list of the greatest public health achievements of the 20th century.

* Vaccination

* Motor-vehicle safety

* Safer workplaces

* Control of infectious diseases

* Decline in deaths from coronary heart disease and stroke

* Safer and healthier foods

* Healthier mothers and babies

* Family planning

* Fluoridation of drinking water

* Recognition of tobacco use as a health hazard

From the CDC: Fluoridation of drinking water began in 1945 and in 1999 reaches an estimated 144 million persons in the United States. Fluoridation safely and inexpensively benefits both children and adults by effectively preventing tooth decay, regardless of socioeconomic status or access to care. Fluoridation has played an important role in the reductions in tooth decay (40%-70% in children) and of tooth loss in adults (40%-60%) (5).

Why you should look skyward on Saturday night Peter Griffin Jun 23


If you are out on the town late on Saturday night, hopefully still celebrating the All Whites trashing Paraguay, you may want to head out onto the street to look at the moon.

How the total lunar eclipse in December may appear

How the total lunar eclipse in December may appear

That’s because a partial lunar eclipse will be visible across New Zealand, the South Pacific and part of eastern Australia. A lunar eclipse, according to Wikipedia,  happens when “the moon passes behind the earth such that the earth blocks the sun’s rays from striking the moon”.

Alan Gilmore of the Mt John observatory has more detail:

On Saturday June 26 New Zealand, the South Pacific and the eastern two-thirds of Australia see all of a partial lunar eclipse. The moon begins to enter the penumbra, the fuzzy edge of Earth’s shadow, around 8:56 pm but little change will be seen in the moon’s appearance for an hour. Gradually it will become obvious that the lower edge of the moon is darker than the upper. The darkening will be plain around 10:17 when the moon begins to enter the umbra, the dark central shadow.

The fuzzy bight out of the moon’s lower edge will grow till 11:39 when it will cover more than half the moon’s width. After that it diminishes until the moon leaves the umbra at 1:00 a.m. The shading across the moon will persist for a while as the moon moves out of the penumbra. It leaves the penumbra completely at 2:21 a.m.

In summary: penumbral eclipse begins 8:56 p.m. NZST

Umbral eclipse begins 10:17

Maximum eclipse (0.452) 11:39

Umbral eclipse ends 1:00 a.m.

Penumbral eclipse ends 2:21

So the best time to check out the partial lunar eclipse will be close to midnight. What you’ll see won’t be as impressive as what we may be treated to in December when our region will see the second half of a total lunar eclipse. This could look quite impressive, with the moon expected to have a deep red hue. Says Gilmore:

Most of the North Island will see the moon rise almost fully eclipsed. Only a small part of the upper edge will out of the umbra. By moon-rise in the South Island the moon will be completely eclipsed in the umbra. This is bound to attract a lot of attention.

Maximum eclipse is at 9:17 p.m. NZDT (8:17 UT). The moon begins to leave the umbra at 9:54 and is fully clear by 11:02. It leaves the penumbra at 0:06 a.m.

But it doesn’t end there…

Our luck with lunar eclipses continues into 2011. On the morning of June 16 the moon will set fully eclipsed, as seen from New Zealand. That eclipse begins the penumbral phase at 5:23 a.m. At 6:23 it touches the umbra and is fully immersed by 7:22 when it is setting in northeast NZ. Southerners will see the setting moon at mid eclipse. The moon is likely to be quite dark in colour as it will then be close to the centre of the umbra.

Here are some diagrams from the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand that show exactly where the partial lunar eclipse on Saturday night will be visible:


Ag science just ain’t sexy enough Peter Griffin Jun 22


Here’s the looming problem for New Zealand – the scientific institutions that come up with innovations to keep our primary sector industries productive and contributing huge amounts to GDP are failing to attract young kiwi talent to replace the old-timers that are retiring.

Hence we have, a few days after Fieldays, the following headline in Rural News:

Source: Rural News

Source: Rural News

It’s an interesting issue I’ve been mulling as I prepare to embark on a tour around the country as part of the Royal Society’s Emerging Researchers workshops, which have so far attracted nearly 1000 participants! The workshops are designed to give PhD and post doctoral researchers tips on navigating science funding, getting a job, communicating their science and dealing with immigration requirements. As I found out last year, the latter issue is a very important one for a good deal of the people who attend the workshops as many of them are foreigners who have come to New Zealand to study, and hopefully gain residency and a job in New Zealand.

Last year, the workshops included representatives from large agricultural science players like Fonterra, Gallagher and Fonterra, who explained how hot the competition is for the jobs they offer emerging researchers – and how they are increasingly casting the net worldwide to look for new recruits. Part of the reason for that is there’s a limited pool of young researchers in New Zealand pursuing agricultural science. That despite our biggest-earning industries being agriculture-related. So what’s the problem? According to the report in Rural News (not online) which quotes Agricultural and Horticultural Science Institute president Jon Hickford, it could largely be one of perception:

There is a perception of mud and gumboots as opposed to medical researchers saving the world, yet our role is to produce more and better food. Somehow there is the perception that food production is ‘dirty’ and not a noble cause which is weird.

Part of it also comes down to money – agricultural scientists just don’t earn the big bucks…

Rural News: Young people are aware that the best the average senior scientist with a PhD can hope for is a salary of around $100,000, whereas someone with a BA can earn a lot more as a policy analyst in Wellington.

The Government is aware of the problem – statistics released to Rural News by the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology which are discussed but now published apparently show that in three Crown research institutes – Agresearch, Plant & Food and Scion, a “high proportion” of scientists are in their 50s and 60s. The answer? According to RS&T Minister Dr Wayne Mapp the shake-up of the CRIs and the science system currently underway will help. But what of the perception problem? How do you get young people excited about pursuing agricultural science. Or will we increasingly just import our ag sciences from the rest of the world?

Kinect: Is this the future of video games? Peter Griffin Jun 14


For a couple of years its been known as Project Natal – Microsoft’s bid to do away with the game controller and usher in an era of more naturalistic video game playing.

A few hours ago on the eve of the the E3 video game expo in Los Angeles, Project Natal received its official debut – with a clunker of a name – it will now be known as Kinect.

Microsoft, in typically extravagant fashion, had a Cirque Du Soleil show designed around its new game control system which uses motion detection to mimic the game player’s actions within the environment of the game. It is designed to work with Microsoft’s Xbox 360 game console, which has really been needing a refresh since the Nintendo Wii came along with an innovative way of controlling games with the Wii remote.

Micrsoft’s other rival Sony has for years had a primitive form of motion capture game control in the market in the form of the Eye Toy – one rather lame game I remember involved you franticallywavingyour arms around in front of your TV screen to mimic washing windows. It was pretty exhausting, if fleetingly amusing. Microsoft wants to take that a giant leap forward,incorporating the types of gestures you’d make in an energetic session of Wii tennis but also detecting movements of the entire body.

What’s wrong with the good old Xbox controller you’ve clutched on numerous occasions through those all-night sessions of Halo 3. As USA Today explains:

The 4-year-old Xbox 360 has long seemed targeted at hard-core gamers, with a controller that could be intimidating.

“For lots of people, that controller is a barrier,” says [Kinect] creative director Kudo Tsunoda. “We set out to make a new control paradigm where anybody can get in and play, without having to read the instructions or learn a complicated set of controls.”

The problem game console developers have faced is that while the powerful processors in the Xbox and PS3 consoles have becoming capable of deliveringly increasingly impressive graphics, the controller has still been a distractingly tactile fixture in the gaming set-up, a plastic, molded remote bristling with buttons. Sure you can replace it with Wii remote for the Nintendo or steering wheel or gun for the PS3 and Xbox 360, but the limitations and intrusions on realityremain great.

Going through the motions

Kinect – and Sony’s rival which will likely see the light of day at E3 will seek to overcome that using gesture recognition, speech recognition and motion analysis.

This interview with Microsoft games executive Shane Kim gives an insight into what’s involved in Kinect:

VB: What technology does it use?

SK: It uses an RGB camera (image sensor), a 3-D depth camera (which determines how far away an object is from the camera), and a multi-array microphone.

VB: The depth cameras are a key technology?

SK: To me, the magic is more software. You’re talking about an extraordinary amount of data that has to be processed in real time. You saw the latency was very good yesterday. You can parse voices, recognize faces. It’s complex hardware, even more sophisticated software, and simplified for developers to use it immediately. All of that so that consumers can have the most simplistic and easy experience to get into gaming.

Is this the next big thing in gaming? The initial reviews to appear over the next few days will indicate if that’s the case. The beauty is that Kinect can be added to an existing piece of hardware at a reasonable cost (it is suggested it will debut for US$150). If the experience is convincing in the confines of the lounge room on a TV set, Microsoft could be onto something. After all, that bulky Xbox controller really is a bit of a handful…

Some of the early titles to see release on Kinect, which will come as an add-on for the Xbox 360 and be available in time for Christmas include:

- Kinectimals train and play with 20 different virtual cats – a lion, cheetah and tiger included.

- Joyride, you hold an imaginary steering wheel – pull your hands toward you and push back out for an acceleration boost – and their bodies to execute jumps and tricks.

- Kinect Sports boxing, bowling, beach volleyball, track and field, soccer and table tennis. To serve a volleyball, you mimic the real motion; in soccer, kick the ball or do a header.

- Kinect Adventures includes a river-raft time trial and obstacle course, playable by up to four players. On the raft, playing as a duo, you and a partner must lean one way or another to steer. Jumping helps the raft reach special areas for extra points.

- Dance Central, in development by MTV Games, brings a So You Think You Can Dance experience home.

- Star Wars characters and iconic Disney favorites will be featured in separate new games being developed at Microsoft in conjunction with LucasArts and Disney.

And to finish off, some photos from the glitzy launch of Kinect at the University of Southern California…

Source: Microsoft

Source: Microsoft

Source: Microsoft

Source: Microsoft

Source: Microsoft

Source: Microsoft

What the media doesn’t want to hear (or print) Peter Griffin Jun 14

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Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, made a reasonable impact with his lecture on climate change delivered at Victoria University last week.

A few media outlets covered the event running an NZPA article and climate skeptics were furious, urging Prime Minister John Key to “rein in” his science advisor or sack him.

The drive of Sir Peter’s speech is that climate change deniers and interest groups are undermining confidence in science as they spread fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) about the state of climate science and what it suggests about the need to act to reduce the impacts of global warming. As NZPA reported:

“The public is confused about what we know and what we do not know about the science, and is unsure whether governments are justified in making hard decisions, despite the science not being certain,” said the PM’s science advisor Sir Peter Gluckman.

“There is a growing concern among those of us who have some role in marrying science and policy that the way the debate is being framed is undermining confidence in the science system,” he told a Victoria University seminar series on key policy challenges facing New Zealand.

What the media didn’t run, except on the Yahoo Xtra website, was the companion NZPA sidebar which outlined how Sir Peter took aim squarely at the media for the way it has covered climate change… looks like editors took exception to being labeled as part of the problem…

Wellington, June 9 NZPAThe media are part of the problem of public confusion over the scientific debate on climate change — but also essential to the solution, says the Prime Minister’s chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman.

“The modern media like controversy — they feed off it,” he told a Victoria University seminar in Wellington tonight.

Sir Peter canvassed the issues of credibility and integrity in climate change science and argued that climate change “deniers” had a variety of motives, with the most transparent ones being lobbyists for commercial interests, such as fossil fuel industries.

Farming lobby Federated Farmers has actively campaigned against the Government’s emissions trading scheme due to start at the end of this month, but Sir Peter said if there was evidence that climate change brought dramatic economic growth for the pastoral sector, farmers would not be questioning the science.

“No, they would be demanding research to further its exploitation,” he said.

“I cannot regard it as helpful to actively promote distrust and suspicion of the scientific process for political ends,” he said.

Denialists also included libertarians who objected to state interference in their lives, or believed economic growth must be paramount, with some crossover to creationists who denied the science of evolution.

They all actively confused the public and the media, and in the United States and some other places the media had been “politicised” and was closely-linked to strong economic interests.

“They can give a platform to the celebrity denialist or, in their desire to appear balanced, give equivalency to each side of a scientific argument when there is in fact a broad consensus on one side and not much more than individual opinion on the other,” said Sir Peter.

The key issue was how to communicate complex science, because the public had a right to understand the issues which would determine how society responded.

“Without responsible media it is not clear how this can be achieved,” said Sir Peter.

“If science is not better communicated, science cannot properly inform democratic decision-making or policy formation, and for many that would be seen as dangerous.”

But the actions of rejectionists supported by the media showed the difficulties of the democratic approach in the electronic era, and Sir Peter quoted Professor Philip Kitcher of Columbia University: “It is an absurd fantasy to believe that citizens who have scant backgrounds in the pertinent field can make responsible decisions about complex technical matters on the basis of a few five minute exchanges amongst more or less articulate speakers.”

The media had a duty to convey information in a way which enabled people to cast votes in a meaningful way.

Scientists also faced challenges in communicating evidence of global warming in a dispassionate, transparent, authoritative manner to a public also being aggressively courted by a noisy, anarchic blogosphere and a politicised media urging them to shoot the messenger.

Most scientists were not well trained in public communication, and many became angry and defensive, which raised suspicion. They also worried that release of raw information would lead to uninformed interrogation and harassment — a real conundrum in an open society.

Space capsule touches down in South Australia Peter Griffin Jun 14

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My colleague at the Australian Science Media Centre, Nigel Kerby had a late night last night, waiting up in the desolate surrounds of South Australia’s Woomera test range for the Japanese space capsule Hayabusa to touch down.

Scientists from Japan, the US and Australia, and including New Zealander Trevor Ireland had gathered over the weekend to watch the probes re-entry to Earth, which appears to have been successful.

Nigel has videos and photos of the touch-down preparations and aftermath here.

The exciting thing about the Hayabusa probe is that it was the first ever spacecraft to successfully land on an asteroid then successfully return to Earth. It was a pretty amazing feat, though one that was not without its mishaps. Its not yet known if the probe was successful in its mission of grabbing a handful of space dust from the asteroid Itokawa – though scientists will only need a few micrograms of material to examine the asteroid’s make-up – which they claim could give clues to the chemical origins of the universe.

Whether the capsule’s precious payload has arrived intact will become obvious fairly quickly. What will take much longer, will be the analysis of any material found, making the outcome of this US$200 million mission still far from certain.

More from the BBC’s Spaceman blog.

Japanese scientists preparing for the capsule's touchdown - source: AusSMC

Japanese scientists preparing for the capsule's touchdown - source: AusSMC

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