Archive November 2011

Beyond 2020 aimee whitcroft Nov 29


I admit it, I’m a sucker for future scenarios.

No, not necessarily because I think they’re accurate (or expect them to be!), but because they can exercise the mind wonderfully, reveal much about our present.  The best science-fiction is like this, too :)

And yes, sometimes, they can absolutely be useful in preparing for the future.

And it is with this in mind that I present the latest offering from MindBullets, founded by compatriot Wolfgang Grulke and his think tank FutureWorld. More on the presentation and its themes is available on their website.

What do you think?  With which scenarios do you agree/disagree?

I get emails from MindBullets every week, and can thoroughly recommend it – nope, I don’t always agree with the futurecasting, but sometimes, it’s pretty feasible.  And, again, a great exercise :)

Actually, there’s a thought – how interested would y’all be in my sharing more of these nuggets?


Related posts:

Mindbullets goodness: The Avatar Wars

Ulan Bator’s geoengineering scheme is THAT cool aimee whitcroft Nov 25


Originally syndicated from the Lemur Attack Force blog (I’m doing the Mongol Rally next year, and we could use YOUR help!)

As you quite possibly know, Ulan Bator is the capital of Mongolia. And, given that it’s going to suffer from the continentality effect as a result of its location (clue — it’s very landlocked and on a very big continent, amongst other things), one might expect it experiences extremes in weather, including very cold winters (see Quick Facts below) and warm summers.*

Ulan Bator (red marker) - far away from many places.

Ulan Bator (red marker) - far away from many places.

Hooray, because that’s when we’ll be arriving there next year.

The city, however, has come up with an ingenious method of protecting future residents and Rallyers from these extreme temperatures: an artificial urban glacier, designed to save on airconditioning (energy) costs in summer by helping to cool the whole city. It will also, happily, provide water for irrifation and drinking, too!

The idea is to capture some of winter’s cool temperatures in enormous ice blocks, which will slowly melt over summer and cool the city. Naleds — the Russian term for these enormous ice sheets, or Aufeis in German — occur naturally along river and stream valleys in very cold environments (think far noth or far south). As water freezes and other water is forced over the top of the ice, a successive layer of ice sheets forms one giant ice layer, which can be several metres thick!

And, later this year, Ulan Bator is going to be testing the creation of artifical naleds.

For those interested, this is an example of geoengineering :)

According to the Guardian, the scheme is going to cost 1 bn tughrik — a little over $1 million NZD. A Mongolian engineering firm, ECOS & EMI, is going to create these artificial ice sheets by boring holes into the ice which has started to form on the Tuul river.

As one might expect, water will be forced up through these holes and across the ice sheet, forming a thicker ice sheet thasn would normally have formed — a naled . Just like in nature, basically but with Extra Boring Equipment. The boring process will be repeated throughout winter. The river, considered sacred by the Mongols, runs from its origin in the Khentii Mountains through the southern part of Ulan Bator, so thankfully there isn’t the problem of how to pick up and move the ice sheet**.

In addition to the use of this process to cool Ulan Bator and other cities which deal with huge weather extremes, the engineering company involved also reckons that naleds could help, for example, counter negative effects from global warming such as glacier and icecap melting, and say that if properly used, could help repair permafrost.

Naleds have been made by humanity before, it would seem: they’ve been used to build bridges for tank crossings, and as drilling platforms. They’re not always good, though, as they can threaten railways and bridges too, cause flooding on roads and blocked drainge.

This seems pretty interesting and given that we’ll be in Ulan Bator next year late summer (all things going well, of course), we’ll happily report back!

Quick Facts about Ulan Bator:

Elevation: 1,350 m above sea level

Highest ave. temperature (July): 23 °C

Lowest ave. temperature (january): -27 °C

Coldest national capital in the world

Annual average temperature: -2.4 °C


More climatological information:


* Also, there are things like the urban heat island effect and climate change to consider

** The subject is addressed in a Futurama episode :)

You don’t like it? Go somewhere else. aimee whitcroft Nov 24


Oh, Feynman – you never fail to do other than impress me :)

I think this may well turn out to be one of my favourite videos of all time.  In it, brilliant physicist Richard Feynman explains his attitude towards people who, well, doubt science.  Any he explains why he has said attitude.

The video includes the wonderful line, Richard gesticulating:

You don’t like it? Go somewhere else. To another universe, where the rules are simpler; philosophically more pleasing, more psychologically easy.

Quite, Richard.  Quite :)

Oh, and for the Kiwis?  This was given at the University of Auckland.  Can we have more speakers like him over, please?

YouTube Preview Image

The full lecture on QED – Quantum Electrodynamics, is available on youtube.  First part below.

YouTube Preview Image

The Vega Science Trust also has videos of the talk, split by subject matter (nicely done!)

[HT to Derya Unutmaz on Google + for putting this in my path]

Brinicle! aimee whitcroft Nov 24


UPDATE: Please note – the picture below is a picture, not the video :)  The link to the video is later in the post…

Yep, that is, indeed, a real word.

The BBC has, for the first time ever, captured the formation of a brinicle

The BBC has, for the first time ever, captured the formation of a brinicle

The Beeb, bless their cotton socks, has released some excerpts from their new the new BBC/Attenborough series Frozen Planet.  Frozen Planet deals, as one might expect, with “the frozen wildernesses of the Arctic and Antarctic”, and while I’ve not seen it, it looks absolutely stunning.

We’d expect nothing less of them.

And the footage in particular to which this post refers shows a brinicle forming.  Brinicles – a portmanteau of brine and icicle – are the water equivalent of, well, icicles.  Brinicles are unusual, and form very differently from their atmospheric counterparts.

Previously referred to as ice stalactites, this footage is the first time the creation of one’s ever been captured, hence all the excitement.  The footage was taken at Little Razorback Island, near Antarctica’s Ross Archipelago.

How do brinicles form?

As many of you will be aware, the act of freezing water forces most of the impurites, including salt, out of it.  Not all, but most.  The salt* that’s been excluded from this freezing water then dissolves into the surrounding water, decreasing its freezing point and adding to its salinity (and hence density).

So this surrounding water sinks, creating in the process brine channels through which this supersaline, supercooled water sinks away from the ice.  If these brine channels happen to be concentrated in an area, then this supercooled supersaline water sinks through the water column (due to its higher density) in a plume, and starts to form an ice layer around it as the surrounding water freezes due to contact with the plume.

Et voila.

And brinicles are, it would appear, self-sustaining – that layer of ice forms a layer of insulation (think igloos!) which prevents the supercooled water from warming up and diffusing – indeed the opposite occurs, and brinicles grow ever deeper (well, as much as is permitted by water depth, ice growth, the water itself etc).

What happens when it reaches the seafloor?

It can freeze critters, essentially.  If a brinicle reaches the seafloor, that superdense water will, of course, continue to flow along the seafloor in whatever direction is downward (in terms of slope), and ice will form around it.  Once it’s flowed as far down as it can, it then pools – any bottom-dwelling creatures caught in that pool of ice and supercooled water will be trapped and freeze to death.

More in this BBC article.

Of couse, there’s a Wikipedia article, too (yay Wikipedia!)


And, of course, a reminder – this week’s TOSP is out, and Elf and I witter on about a large number of interesting science-related goodness.  Check the TOSP 11 post for more details!


* Oops.  The original post used ‘ice’ instead of ‘salt’ – a simple typo on my part.  Apologies for any confusion, and thanks to George for pointing out my error!

The Case of the Mysterious Jellyfish aimee whitcroft Nov 17


I love Wellington.

Credit: Dave Allen

Jellyfish! Credit: Dave Allen

On fine days, I can cycle from from town around the bays to get to work, which is a lovely .  And last Friday was particularly exciting! In Evans Bay, only a meter or two from the pavement, a large jellyfish had come in to shore and was floating in the shallows.

And when I say big, I mean big.  Well, far bigger than the hand-sized jellyfish I’ve sometimes seen washed up on beaches – this one was closer to the size of my head.

After some excitement and beetling around, I contrived to have some (awesome) footage taken with a proper camera – the photos on my phone simply don’t do the jellyfish justice. I’m told that, subsequent to my leaving the scene, another jellyfish then came in, too, heading for first one.  Everyone left at the point, and we’re all choosing to believe jelly 2 was coming to show jelly 1 the way out, back to the group.  Anthropomorphism FTW :)

What then followed was interesting.  I spent some time online, trying to figure out it was – to no avail.  Thankfully, experts were able to do exactly that: our spotted jellyfish was a Desmonema gaudichaudi.  It’s from the same family as the Lion’s Mane jellyfish  and is one of three species that appear regularly in Wellington harbour each year.

Very exciting!  And beautiful to see something like that up close.  If you’re curious, there’s a video of it…


Oh, also? The new tv series of Sherlock Holmes is awesome.  I recommend it most highly :)


In other news, I came across this company while I was looking at jellyfish facts – they claim to have come up with a compound which protects one from sunburn _and_ jellyfish stings…

5,000 posts on Sciblogs! aimee whitcroft Nov 15


This post is, officially, the 5,001st blog post on Sciblogs.

We are very happy bunnies

We are very happy bunnies

Since the inception of Sciblogs in October 2009 – a little over two years ago – we’ve been impressed with the quality of writing of our bloggers, and the growing stable of talent this network has attracted and continues to attract.

And so, both Peter Griffin and I* would like to say a very strong and happy ‘thanks!’ to both our fellow bloggers and, of course, to our wonderful readers for continuing to read our work, and take part in the conversations to be had here!

We value you all enormously – keep up the good work :)


* I’m less dignified than … many people … so I am at this point grinning like a mad ferret and jumping up and down with glee.  There may be enthusiastic hands-waving, and I’ll probably end up tripping over something :P

Science writing is everywhere aimee whitcroft Nov 02

1 Comment

Science writers are everywhere, or at least so it seems sometimes.


And there are numerous wonderful events and conferences, worldwide, every year, aimed at getting them (us?*) together to talk about the challenges and issues around trying to communicate science to people, well, outside of science itself.

Admittedly, within science, too. If nothing else, think of the forests’ worth of internal newsletter and glossy magazines produced by science-related organisations!

Science writers vary enormously in purpose, scope and target audience.  Some write popular science books. Some write directly for print and online publications (and write books, sometimes, too) – these number people such as Carl Zimmer amongst their ranks. Some write science blogs – Ed Yong, of course, springs to mind.  And these bloggers may be scientists themselves (such as most of the bloggers on Sciblogs!), ex-scientists, or simply people with a massive jones for science. Some write internal newsletters and reports. And, of course, some write press releases aimed at the media, with journalists then turning those releases into reports**.

There is constant, wide-ranging and often lively debate and discussion about what it means to be a science writer, and some of the difficulties inherent in taking often-complex subject matter and making it not only understandable, but engaging, without losing important detail or context.
Because that’s the thing – being wrong in science communication (not only writing but, say, announcements) can have some pretty serious consequences.  One doesn’t necessarily get to shrug one’s shoulders and say ‘oops’. It can change policy, or get scientists sued, or get people seriously hurt. It can influence, at a national or international level, what science gets funded, and how, with all the knockon effects of that.

This week, as so often happens, seems to have filled my inboxes and social media streams with a multitude of particularly interesting content around science communication. I’mma share a bit of it, I think.

(I’m also on twitter and google +, for those who want to follow my other output!)

World Science Festival

One of the more eagerly-awaited events of the year for those who’re scientifically inclined, I’d posit.  This year’sWorld Science Festival is now on. Thankfully, those of us not able to be there physically, can do so virtually.

Given that it features some of the best science communicators, and science communication, out there, it’d be a pity not to.  Right?

Also, if you’re an ars technica reader (of course you are, but just in case), you can win stuff!

Incongruous Quarterly: the science edition

I love the premise behind Incongruous Quarterly (so new there’ve only been 3 editions!)

It’s a literary adventure, aimed at publishing literary flitters, flutters, flights and other movements which would generally be considered unpublishable.  For reasons of content, length, form and subject matter. Or, perhaps, simply because they don’t fit being published in print itself***.

Anyway, the current edition, #3, is about science.  Huzzah!

There’s a mix of non-fiction, fiction and poetry pieces, covering everything from surgery room behaviour to hunting bacteria, ribosomes to weeds, and more.  The non-fiction comes in the form of  blog posts, where people write about scientific subjects which are considered unpublishable. You’ll likely understand why when you read them :)

Ribosome Spreadsheet,  written by Kent MacCarter, excerpted below and available in well-worth-it full here, is a stunning example, I think, of what is possible:

Arrival in vivo, grip the skins of/off a Robinson

Crusoe. Your child’s soul, id-wrapt, peekaboos and tiptoes at

intervals alpha columns stow. Fettered ether Parthenon

hesitates between unborn, then sorts. Rebid, a diplomat

Tell people :)  Perhaps consider a submission yourself!

You call yourself a science writer??

Christie Aschwanden is a science journalist.  She gave an Ignite talk recently, at the (US) National Association of Science Writers conference, and her talk’s proven so popular that she’s made a storyboard out of it.

She makes the point that people (members of the public, say) don’t like being told they’re wrong.  Whether it’s about climate, taking multivitamins, the effect of one’s attitude on the progress of their cancer or, well, almost any other issue where people hold beliefs, she’s found her inbox filled with people who’re upset, have told her she’s incorrect or lying, and have questioned her integrity, facts, ability as a science writer, and so forth.

And she posits a reason why people, who might consider themselves rational and intelligent, sometimes refuse to change their minds in the face of the facts.  She uses herself, and her somewhat-less-than-brilliant sense of direction as an example, pointing out that how we define ourselves can lead us to stand firmly against the facts, because not doing so may challenge our self-perception.  Particularly when it means that someone else is right, and will know about it.

I think she’s got a point. Indeed, it’s something increasing numbers of people are noticing.  We may be able to quietly change our minds, perhaps when we challenge our own assumptions, but when someone else does it?  And, worse, publicly?  Particularly when we’ve been loudly in favour of a certain viewpoint?  It becomes difficult to back down. Indeed, one’s views can strengthen, in something called ‘The Backfire Effect‘.

I take as an example the climate change ‘debate’.  It’s now been suggested [I cannot find a link currently, but the strategy was developed initially for climate change, and has since been used in American politics, too] that part of the reason so many people are failing to accept the facts, is that they feel backed into a corner.  They have no way to admit they were wrong, without losing face.  So thought is now going into how to put forward the facts about issues such as climate change, in a way which allows people to do just that: change their minds while saving face and preserving their sense of identity.  Which can only be a good thing. As people in the science community are only just starting to realise****, it’s not only _what_ one says that’s important.  It’s how one says it :)

Also, an interesting paper by the Yale Law School’s Cultural Cognition Project: The Second National Risk and Culture Study: Making Sense of–and Progress in–the American Culture War of Fact

Best Aussie science writing

Graham Reid of the New Zealand Herald has reviewed a book about some of the best Australian science writing.  There’s also a ’2011′ in the title, but I’m not sure whether that related to its year of publishing, or means that all of the articles within were also published in that year.

Nonetheless, it looks pretty interesting.  As Reid says:

Science is a problem for mainstream media. It isn’t sexy, usually can’t be reduced to a snappy headline or soundbite, progress is glacially slow in a fast-turnaround world, there are too many big words, and its practitioners are often more at home in the lab than blinking into the light of the public domain.

But science struggles on every front to get whatever message it has out there, which may explain why this anthology of almost 30 essays by some sassy Australian writers is only the first such collection. Yet here is wit aplenty and clear communication.

Should I be able to get hold of it, I’ll definitely report back on what I think :)


Finally, it’s ScienceOnline2012!  Well, registrations have opened for it.  ScienceOnline is, as the name suggests, an international conference on science and the Web. As their website says:

Every January since 2007, the Research Triangle area of North Carolina has hosted scientists, students, educators, physicians, journalists, librarians, bloggers, programmers and others interested in the way the World Wide Web is changing the way science is communicated, taught and done.

ScienceOnline2012 takes place in mid January of next year, and if you _possibly_ can, I’d suggest going. In the meantime (and during), you can track it across social media at #scio12.

If you’re interested, you can experience ScienceOnline2011 here, in the form of videos, blog posts, tweets and so forth :)


* I’m not sure I yet get to be included in this illustrious category

** This process of science journalism does not always end well, with the result being the growing presence of Science Media Centres worldwide

*** The subject of their next edition (the deadline submission date is November 13th, 2011).  More about the subject here I can’t wait to see how it turns out, given that they’re looking for :

literary and artistic work that takes into account, and advantage of, the fact that we are an online publication rather than a printed one.
We’re interested in figuring out what we can offer our contributors and readers that a print publication might not be able to. We are not bound by concerns of page or word count; we can feature audio and video files, hyperlinks, any kind of image, downloadable files, interactive or collaborative works, as well as our usual, more basic format of simple text or image on a page. We love work that explores, exploits or messes with different media and the boundaries between them is awesome; work that doesn’t do any of that stuff (more ’traditional’ stories and poems) but is concerned with the same ideas or themes we’re interested in (innovation, communication, connection, alienation, etc.) is great too.

**** Everyone should be made to read Marshall McLuhan.  I’m not joking.

Crowdsourcing science funding aimee whitcroft Nov 01

No Comments

Huzzah!  I’ve been looking forward to this.

A screenshot of SciFund's homepage

A screenshot of SciFund's homepage

SciFund is now live.  YOU can help to fund science projects.  Yup, that’s right.  You.  Not some funding agency.

How does it work?  Well, it’s kinda like KickStartr (or NZ’s version, PledgeMe), but for science.  Very simply: scientists can put up a project, and then ask people for money to help fund it.  Makes an awful lot of sense.   Crowdfunding, in other words.

And _unlike_ Kickstartr (and PledgeMe), which say that if a project doesn’t raise its target amount, all monies donated have to be returned to the donaters, the scientists can keep whatever they raise.  Well, kinda – after fees etc, which go up if a project doesn’t raise its target amount.  It’s a business model I’ve seen used for initiatives such as Indiegogo, and I think it makes an awful lot more sense (people are more likely to submit projects AND donate, I reckon!).

But yeah.  Go have a look.  Get involved in science.  Be a part of something new and brilliant.

And if you want to know more, there’s a blog.  Apparently, 240 scientists signed up for this adventure.  Excellent stuff, and I really hope it succeeds!

On borrowing e-books from your library aimee whitcroft Nov 01


e-books are fantastic.  Especially now that they’re so easy to come by, and use!


And nope, you don’t need a dedicated e-book reader such as Kindle.  You can use your tablet (eg. an iPad*), or your phone (not necessarily an iPhone, for example). Or your computer.

Of course, you can use dedicated e-book readers too, of which the Kindle is only one.  There are also others, such as the Kobo.

Which is awesome.

But, short of pirating books**, or using free e-books where either the copyright has lapsed (Project Gutenberg is good resource for this), or copyright holders have released the book _as_ free, e-books aren’t always as cheap as one might think.  Which means that there’s a huge range of e-books out there which many people cannot, or will not, access due to their cost (USD $10 is still a lot of money for some people, for example).

Society already has structures for people to be able to read books for free, and then give them back so that other people might enjoy them.  They’re called libraries, and they’re absolutely magical places.  And, apparently, they’ve gotten in on the whole e-book thing, too!

Some of New Zealand’s libraries, including Wellington City Library, now have a stock of e-books available for loan. WCL, apparently, has over 1,500 (if memory serves me correctly).

My mind did boggle initially at the idea of ‘borrowing’ digital content – mostly around the question ‘how do I give it back?!’.  There’s a solution, though – the content expires after a set time.  In this case, one can loan an e-book for 2 weeks.

I’ll admit I’m a little confused about why it’s a shorter period than one has when taking out physical books, but nonetheless – pretty cool.

Can’t believe I only heard about it today :)

And if anyone knows when this ability came online, I’d love to know!



I’m very, very pro paper-based books in many ways.  I love the way they smell and feel, for example, and that I can drop them in the bath or fall asleep on them.  However, I’m also aware that they use up an awful lot of tree and carbon footprint, and in many cases, a digital version is just as good as the real thing (and, if built properly with interactive features such as dictionaries, even better).

And I can see why art books, for example, don’t work digitally.  But for most novels?  Digital makes tonnes of sense.  Took me a while to convert, but there: I said it :)


* Although I have to admit, the iPad feels like it was designed for the sole purpose of reading comic books.  Which is a very, very good thing.  We like our comics :)

** Which is considered to be Not Cool.

Network-wide options by YD - Freelance Wordpress Developer