What science becomes news? aimee whitcroft Mar 31

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A question almost constantly on the minds of (well, most, I guess) science communicators is:

“Is this piece of research newsworthy? Will anyone CARE about it, and read what I write on the subject?”

And, as a general rule, the bigger and more important the news outlet, the more crucial that question is.

Thankfully, people are looking into that very question! Paige Brown, a science communicator herself, started conducting a survey into the subject last year. And this year, she’s following the survey up with Part II: “a follow-up to answer more questions and confirm some intriguing results from Part I.”

As she says:

If you are a journalist, blogger, freelance writer, magazine writer, TV producer, radio announcer, podcast producer, or anything in between, I’m asking you to participate in this online survey. By participating in this survey, which only takes 10-15 minutes to complete, you can help me understand when and why science makes its way from research publication to news story.

Fancy yourself a science communicator of any sort? Want to find out more? Check out Page’s article on the subject, which also links through to the survey itself. Oh, and don’t worry – you don’t have to have participated in Part I to participate in Part II :)

An added inducement? You’ll get to see some of the results from Part I, which are really interesting. I certainly enjoyed them* :)


Yes, I filled out the survey. It’s quick, and worth it :)


The best visualisation of the solar system yet aimee whitcroft Mar 07

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Regular readers may be aware of my penchant for whimsy. My happy grinnings when people mix pedantry with a sense of humour*. And today’s offering is just such a one.

The description is perfectly apt: it IS a tediously accurate scale model of the solar system. But there are some wonderful surprises, and I found myself scrolling for an awfully long time, considering my inveterate inability to focus – seriously, mayflies look at me and think ‘gosh, short attention span, much?’.

And, like all great visualisations, not only is it pretty and fun and interesting but it gives one a very strong intuitive grasp of the subject matter.

There’s not much more to say without ruining it, so I’ll end off with a simple ‘happy scrolling’!




* It’s possible. I promise.

Winners of 2013 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge announced aimee whitcroft Feb 07

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And my goodness but there are some stunners this year.

As readers of this blog will know, I’m something of a fan of data visualisation, and this year’s competition winners have a great deal to offer, in categories from games to video, posters and more.

It’s difficult to pick a favourite, but I did want to highlight the video below as one of them. Produced by NASA and winner of the video category, it shows the beautifully intricate and dynamic relationship between Sol (our sun) and Earth. How it affects our climate, the effect of coronal mass ejections, and more.


YouTube Preview Image


Of course, there’s plenty more on which to feast your eyes! Arstechnica has picked out a collection of the competition’s winners, and Science (one of the organisations behind the competition) has the full list of winners (see links at bottom of blog post). Here are two (just two!) of my favourite among the winners:

Cortex in Metallic Pastels. First place: Illustration. More information at

Cortex in Metallic Pastels. First place: Illustration. More information at

The Life Cycle of a Bubble Cluster: Insight from Mathematics, Algorithms, and Supercomputers

The Life Cycle of a Bubble Cluster: Insight from Mathematics, Algorithms, and Supercomputers. Honorable Mention: Posters & Graphics. Full details at


So, feast your eyes, enjoy, and maybe even learn something. I know I have :)

Sidenote: Which ones are your favourite?


Links from blog post:
Arstechnica’s selection from the winners
Science: Full list of winners

Countdown: I love this liftoff aimee whitcroft Jan 27

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It’s an insane day for space stuff!

Stephen Hawking is boldly claiming ‘there are no black holes‘* – and this from the chap who proposed Hawking radiation :P

Astronomers have discovered an ‘ultramassive’ black hole: one of the most powerful objects ever found.

The ‘cosmic web’ – filaments of gas connecting galaxies across the darkest regions of space – has been long hypothesized, and now seen.

And there’s this stunning video – artists’ conceptions of a rocket launch.


A stellar day for science, if you will :P


* The Hawking paper (awesome title ’Information preservation and weather forecasting for black holes’) has been published on arXiv, and is still need of peer review. If you want to join in the review process, REAL TIME, you can do so over on peer review platform Publons**, by going to

** Full disclosure: Publons is one of the projects on which I work :)

Spellbinding: Computers Watching Movies aimee whitcroft Jan 23

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Artist Benjamin Grosser has done some utterly fascinating – given us a new perspective on, well, our perception by showing us how computers ‘watch’ movies.

The outcome is stunning. Each movie used – from Taxi Driver to The Matrix, Space 2001 to American Beauty – shows a strikingly different pattern. They come from software, written by Grosser, which illustrates how a computer ‘watches’ a movie in realtime. You can see where the computer focuses – perhaps on a floating plastic bag, or perhaps on multiple points as buildings explode out. His videos align the movie’s soundtrack with these sketches, giving a very strange, surreal and somehow beautifully appropriate view of the films themselves.

I find they also force one to listen especially to the music and inflections of the film – the total effect is mesmerising.

As Grosser says in an interview with FastCo:

“What is different about our vision that finds more to look at than the computer does?” Grosser asks. “Certainly our narrative construction of the scene and its role within the larger film plays a part here. But Computers Watching Movies shows me just how much my brain ‘fills in’ with these clips, and how my mind is left with some visual space that asks me to construct more of the narrative on my own.”


What do you think? Brilliant or point(ahaha)less?

Computers Watching Movies (Ben’s site)
Watch Computers Watch Famous Movies (FastCo interview with Grosser)

Academic kindness aimee whitcroft Jan 20

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The academic world can be a harsh mistress, as anyone who’s been anywhere near it knows. Not only can it feel like your colleagues are out to get you, but your bosses, funders, the public, governments and officials and, well, the world.

academic kindness screenshot

Through all of this,  fledgling (and lovely!) tumblr blog Academic Kindness shines a light of sweetness and hope. Have a look. Take a moment to smile.

And, perhaps, think what moment of academic kindness you could not only add to the blog, but perform :)

You’d be amazed at the impact it could have*.



This is also, to my mind, a brilliant example of technology being used to bring people together and inspire them, rather than alienate them.


* I’ll admit to sometimes wondering whether I might have stayed in science had I encountered something along the lines spoken of in the blog. Ah well!

New Study aimee whitcroft Nov 25

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This was just too good not to share :P

Of course, remember to go check out the original for the always-excellent mouseover sotto voce!


New Study - xkcd


Classifying plankton: more fun than you might think aimee whitcroft Oct 16

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One of my favourite things to do with this blog these days is to catalogue/chronicle awesome citizen science initiatives.

And there’s a new one! And it’s lots of fun!

In Plankton Portal, you get to help identify plankton from images taken . I’ve just started playing, and so far it’s actually trickier than it looks, but one gets added benefit of learning heaps about plankton which, lets face it, are amazingly cool (my favourite are radiolarians, of course).


Look! I’m identifying plankton!

Look! I’m identifying plankton!


The project explains itself thusly:

Plankton are a critically important food source.

No plankton = No life in the ocean

Plankton also play an important role in the global carbon cycle. This cycle captures the Sun’s energy and the atmosphere’s CO2 at the surface of the ocean and releases it to other organisms and other areas of the ocean.

Understanding where and when plankton occur at different depths in the ocean allows scientists to get a global understanding of the function and health of the ocean from small to global scales.

Plankton Portal is a member of the Zooniverse, a collection of citizen science initiatives which span everything from stars to whales, cyclones to worms, and a bunch more. So yeah. Go ye forth, have fun, and Contribute to Science!


H/T Brian Paavo and the New Zealand Science Network facebook page for this one :)


Unworthy self link: every weekday (pretty much) I compile Todays’ Links, a list of some of the more interesting links I came across that day. You can see the compilations (and sign up to get them mailed to you each day!!) at

UPDATE: So MANY good things in Today’s Links, including Planet pr0n, playing with plankton, and space jump POV. Subscribe now!

Happy World Octopus Day! aimee whitcroft Oct 09


Today is, apparently, the tenth annual World Octopus Day.

So, I figured you’d all enjoy this fun infographic, courtesy of the National Aquarium. And what better time to go and read this stunning article about these stunning creatures (my favourite form of the plural), and, if you live in Wellington, make a date to go meet the octopodes at the Island Bay Marine Education Centre!


Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Where does NZ rank in the Global Innovation Index 2013? aimee whitcroft Oct 09


How innovative would you say New Zealand is, comparatively? Well, we have an answer, according to the Global Innovation Index 2013 – produced (since 2007) by economists from Cornell University, INSEAD and WIPO (the World Intellectual Property Organization.

This year, the report looks at 142 countries from Zimbabwe to Switzerland. Together, these countries represent almost 95% of the world’s population, and over 98% of its GDP. From Scientific American:

This year’s big-picture findings: R&D spending has rebounded around the world after suffering in the wake of the global financial crisis. The same high-income usual suspects—the wealthiest European countries in particular—dominate the top of the list. The BRIC nations—Brazil, the Russian Federation, India and China—all slipped in this year’s rankings. R&D spending is growing more quickly in emerging markets than in rich countries. And unexpected players such as Costa Rica, Uganda and Moldova are doing impressively well with comparatively little.

The diagram below shows how each of the 142 countries ranks according to GDP per capita and the Global Innovation Index score. If you’re looking for NZ, we’re in the blue bubble (underneath ‘leaders’), but disappointingly (if not surprisingly), we’re ‘Inefficient Innovators’, with an innovation ratio below the median. Not that we’re in bad company, of course :)

Image courtesy of Scientific American – the version it’s based on can be found on page 24 of the report. Click to enlarge.

Image courtesy of Scientific American – the version it’s based on can be found on page 24 of the report. Click to enlarge.


But that’s not the full story. We also rank 17th overall in the index (and third in our region), with a score of 54.46.

Global Innovation Index rankings 2013

From the Global Innovation Index 2013, pg xx. Click to enlarge.


So, I guess the question is: is that good enough? Should we do be doing better? If so, CAN we? And if then…how? What do we need to do in the next 5 and 10 years to become more efficient innovators, and to move up those rankings? One useful pointer, perhaps, comes not only from the writings of people like Shaun Hendy*, but also the report itself: connectivity.

In every aspect of these endeavours there is an underlying theme: connectivity. Connectivity lays the groundwork for empowerment and the framework for innovation.

- Osman Sultan

Myself? I think we can and should do better. Hell, we’re ranked first in ease of starting a business, and our small size gives us, to my mind, a number of advantages in terms of ease of access to people and talent, networks and so forth. Also, we have excellent beer and coffee, and that helps EVERYTHING :P

Yes, there are numerous disadvantages too, but I think the weightless economy would, if we focused on it the way we do our primary sector, allow us to leapfrog many or most of those.

Anyhoo, have a read and feel free to comment below! The full report is available online and as a download here.


Sidenote: I found this interesting (if depressing) statistic in the report:

One disturbing reality that our research has turned up is a major fault line at the front end of innovation. Booz & Company’s most recent Global Innovation 1000 study revealed that just 43% of senior innovation executives and chief technology officers at nearly 700 companies believe their organizations are highly effective at generating new ideas, and only 36% believe they are highly effective at converting ideas to product development projects. Still fewer—one-quarter of respondents— indicate that their organizations are highly effective at both.

- Cesare R. Mainardi

On the other hand, what an opportunity! There’s got to be some lovely ripe low-hanging fruit in there, right?


* Be nice to Shaun, Auckland. Otherwise those of us who’re sad he left Wellington will have to come up and Have A Chat With You, Mkay?


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