Posts tagged 'science'

Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe and Tony Soprano

What do Richard Ford’s multi-novel protagonist Frank Bascombe (first seen in The Sportswriter) and The Sopranos‘ Tony Soprano have in common? According to Lydia Kiesling, they offer complementary visions of American manhood at 'the end of male authority’.


Above: Watch Richard Ford at the Wheeler Centre.

Brain science: Wildly popular or largely irrelevant?

Received wisdom is that brain science (or, neuroscience) is all the rage. Books like Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself are on bestseller lists and articles about the intricacies of brain infrastructure and behaviour are everywhere. But according to recent research, most people don’t notice or care about neuroscience at all – and what’s more, they don’t want to know how their brains work. They’d prefer not to think about it.


Solving writing problems with books

In an insightful post on the Readings blog, Christine Keneally shares her writing influences, and takes us inside the process of solving writing problems with other books – even when those books are about subjects very different from your own. Her influences include Michael Lewis, Susan ‘Quiet’ Cain and Lawrence Wright’s book on Scientology, Going Clear.

Think you’re not a science person? Maybe you’re wrong

Maths, science and engineering are subjects that are rarely easy or intuitive to learn. Students often drop out of those subjects early because they think they’re not ‘getting them. Praise for being 'smart’ can exacerbate the problem. So what can help? Talking about the process of acquiring knowledge and figuring out solutions, according to the Atlantic.


A better way to think about genre

Following on from the debates about the legitimacy of adults reading YA fiction, Joshua Rothman discusses the cultural legitimacy of genre fiction in the New Yorker – and the new guard of literary writers, like Emily St John Mandel, who blend ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ in their work. He asks: ‘What is it, exactly, about genre that is unliterary—and what is it in “the literary” that resists genre?’



07 November 2014


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Olive Kitteridge HBO series

Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Olive Kitteridge, has been adapted into an HBO miniseries that will premiere next month – and it looks promising. The cast includes Frances McDormand (in the title role), Richard Jenkins and Bill Murray, and it’s scripted by Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are Alright). Here’s a peek at the trailer.

The scientist who discovered Ebola is worried

The Guardian has run a fascinating interview with Peter Piot, the researcher who discovered (and named) Ebola in 1976. He traces the discovery of the virus in a Belgian lab, his trip to Africa as part of a team to help track it down … and the moment he developed all the symptoms and feared for his life. He urges the need for new strategies, to prevent it becoming a pandemic.


Gone Girl: book vs film

Over at the Readings blog, they’ve gone Gone Girl crazy (try saying that aloud!). Crime book specialist Fiona Hardy and digital marketing manager Nina Kenwood went to see the film together, and have published their post-cinema debrief. And Nina has produced an in-depth comparison between book and film, assessing the strengths of each in a number of categories. The winner? Book!


Inside the brain of a psychopath … who’s also a neuroscientist

A neuroscientist who accidentally discovered, mid-research, that he’s a clinical psychopath, gives a fascinating insight into how his brain works, from both a personal and a scientific point of view, over at the Atlantic. He also makes a convincing argument for why children can and should be recognised and diagnosed as psychopaths at an early age, to prevent them from becoming violent.

Why the mental health of astronauts matters

What’s the biggest challenge for successful space missions – including the coming attempt to colonise Mars? Among them is a problem both seemingly simple and insanely complicated: the mental health of astronauts. More than one space mission has been called off due to astronauts' psychological problems. And it’s not just hallucinations due to cosmic rays or lack of exercise for gravity reasons. ‘Studies have found that many basic mental abilities, like attention, task switching, bodily co-ordination and problem solving seem to work less well in space.’




10 October 2014


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Faster pasture

Don’t have a cow, man. Technology Review this week spoke with Andras Forgacs about his plans to ‘brew’ meat in cell-culture vats. Forgacs is the CEO of Brooklyn-based startup Modern Meadow. As he explains in this short interview:

The company was founded to expand the ideas from biomedical tissue engineering: if we can grow skin, can we make leather? If we can grow muscle, can we make meat? We’ve now done so—and are working with chefs and leather artisans to perfect our materials.

Artistic foresight

If you didn’t see that one coming, perhaps you should pay more attention to artists like Slovenian native Maja Smrekar, a ‘bioartist’ collaborating with scientists to produce informed visions of possible human futures.

In a profile on io9, Annalee Newitz explains that the artist’s relationship isn’t a one-way street; through her work, she actively contributes to pioneering research.


Maja Smrekar’s ‘BioBASE’ explored what would happen to native crustaceans in Slovenia’s Lake Topla once an invasive species arrived – due to warmer waters caused by a nearby power plant.

Creativity unlocked

Earlier this month, New Yorker archives editor Joshua Rothman put forward a compelling account of our creativity fetish – including the ways in which we currently define and measure this ineffable phenomenon, and how it made the journey from abstract quality to concrete outcome.

How did we come to care so much about creativity? The language surrounding it, of unleashing, unlocking, awakening, developing, flowing, and so on, makes it sound like an organic and primordial part of ourselves which we must set free—something with which it’s natural to be preoccupied. But it wasn’t always so; people didn’t always care so much about, or even think in terms of, creativity.

Skin-deep digital journalism

Jeremy Meeks: Not a professional model on a $30,000 contract.

Writing for Playboy, Luke O'Neil articulates what’s become an increasingly common argument – that digital journalism lacks standards. The internet’s preoccupation with viral content, combined with a lack of negative consequences for poor reporting, means that ‘the real threat we face is a world in which parody, such as found in The Onion and Weekly World News, becomes indistinguishable from reality.’

Oh, and remember Jeremy Meeks – aka ‘sexy mugshot guy’ or ‘hot felon’? Several news outlets reported that he’d snared a US $30,000 modelling contract. Did any of them bother to try and verify that information? No prizes for guessing this one.

Whistles blown

Late this week, landmark amendments to national security legislation were passed by the Australian Senate – and are subsequently expected to pass in the Coalition-dominated House of Representatives. The Guardian summarises the proposed changes and explains some of the ramifications.

Not so long ago, we hosted a Fifth Estate discussion with whistleblowers Thomas Drake and Jesselyn Radack. In part of the conversation, they discussed their views on potential changes in Australian privacy and security law. You can watch the full video online.


Click to watch the Fifth Estate: The Whistleblowers.



26 September 2014


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highlight When we think about China, we think of it as of the world’s leading polluters, and biggest obstacles to keeping climate change to habitable levels. But while it’s the world’s leading producer of power and source of carbon emissions through burning fuel, it’s also leading the world in the production of renewable energy, including wind turbines, solar-photovoltaic cells, and smart-grid technologies.

And as the scale of Chinese manufacturing has grown, costs have correspondingly dropped.

What does this mean for Australia? Most obviously, that we could follow China’s example and make renewable energy a priority. But it also means that China, one of Australia’s biggest customers for our coal exports, is becoming less reliant on our coal, and may import less of it in the future.

China’s ‘mammoth green energy system’

‘While the rest of the world has been fixated on China’s build-up of black, fossil-fuelled energy systems, the country has been quietly building a mammoth green energy system, based on water, wind and solar power,’ write John Matthews and Hoa Tan on The Conversation. ‘China’s renewable power capacity now exceeds that of every other country.’

In Australia, around 75% of our energy is produced by burning coal. This makes us one of the highest polluters, per capita, in the world.

But there is good news, too.

Australia’s opportunity to transition to a ‘decarbonised economy’

An August report by the Australian Energy Market Operator found that, for the first time in history, Australia will need no new coal or gas power capacity over the next ten years. The Climate Council (formerly the government-run Climate Commission, now independent and crowd-funded), has called for Australia to begin phasing out inefficient power stations.

‘A step change in the rollout of wind and solar power, combined with battery storage, will help the renewable sector to begin the heavy lifting in the generation of Australia’s electricity, whilst simultaneously helping to achieve deeper emissions cuts,’ wrote the Council’s Tim Flannery and Andrew Stock.

They believe that we now have the opportunity to transition to a decarbonised economy, without sacrificing our energy security.

Wind and solar capacity grows in SA and ACT

According to Flannery and Stock, South Australia’s wind farms have produced enough electricity to meet a record 43% of the state’s power needs during July of this year, making the state a world leader in wind capacity. (It accounts for 28% of the state’s electricity generation). The ACT is on track to make 90% of its power from wind and solar by 2020. By 2013, 1.1 million solar PV systems were installed across Australia.

‘This growth has been assisted by the falling costs of renewable energy, with wind projected to be 20-30 per cent cheaper by 2020 and solar PV is expected to halve in cost.’

Clean energy future versus support for coal industry

In the US, president Barack Obama has introduced environmental rules that will cut carbon pollution from power plants by 30% by 2030. He has said that ‘a low-carbon, clean energy economy can be an engine of growth’.

Here in Australia, prime minister Tony Abbott has said he can ‘think of few things more damaging to our future’ than leaving coal in the ground and that the current government doesn’t ‘believe in ostracising any particular fuel … For many decades at least, coal will continue to fuel human progress as an affordable energy source for wealthy and developing countries alike.’

But while the government has committed to supporting the coal industry, the groundswell support for renewable energy is already creating change, slowly but surely – from the crowd-funded existence of the Climate Council to the record-making decline in energy demand. And renewable energy costs are set to continue to plummet – and its technology to improve – driven partly by the rise in its use and investment in countries like China and Germany.

You can ask the experts all about Australia’s renewable energy future in our Question time event, Renewable Energy, next Wednesday 24 September at 6.15pm. Free, bookings recommended.



16 September 2014


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After a week in which too many good people died, Bronwyn Meyrick reflects on death, drawing on some very different books that debate the existence (and dubious comfort) of an afterlife, and blend neuroscience and experience.


Image by 55Laney69, Flickr.

Last week, a friend, not a close friend, but a friend all the same, died suddenly. He was not even 30 years old. Earlier the same week, the famous actor and comedian Robin Williams took his own life. Williams was a bloody genius, but is also said to have had his demons. He was just 63 years old. This week, on Wednesday, BKS Iyengar, the founder of the eponymous Iyengar form of yoga, died. He was 95 years old.

I read a book recently about near-death experiences  − Proof of Heaven  −  by American neurosurgeon Dr Eben Alexander. A few years ago, Alexander caught a strain of bacterial meningitis so bad that he was left in a coma. In fact, he was in such a bad state that he was expected to die. While in the coma, Alexander says that he observed himself journeying beyond this world, passing through a white light into the ‘deepest realms of super-physical experience’: an ‘immense void, completely dark, infinite in size, yet also infinitely comforting’. Apparently this is reasonably typical for near-death and out-of-body experiences, but Alexander claims his was an encounter with heaven. During the coma, a part of his brain, the cerebral cortex, had stopped functioning. And so, reasons Alexander, because it’s the cerebral cortex part of your brain that creates such near-death experiences, his experience offers proof of heaven, and so grants the book its title.

Eminent neurologist Oliver Sacks is not very satisfied with Alexander’s reasoning. Being the party-pooper that he is, Sacks argues that a person needs a functioning cerebral cortex in order to create a near-death experience and therefore his experience was a humanly one (as opposed to a divine one). However, it’s quite probable that Alexander’s experience occurred while he was coming out of the coma – i.e. when his cerebral cortex was starting to work again – thus making it nothing extraordinary.

Another, very different, book on death is Christopher Hitchens’s posthumously published essay collection On Mortality, which is really about dying. Hitchens depicts his experience of being diagnosed with, and eventually subsumed by, oesophageal cancer. But as he bears witness to the loss of his instrument − his voice  − Hitchens is not soothed at all by the possibility of an afterlife, fictitious or not.

I’m no scientist, and I’m definitely not a neuroscientist. But I have to say that I found the conclusions that Alexander drew from his experience somewhat tenuous. I’m not religious either. I remember trying, and failing, to explain this to my second-grade teacher.

Nevertheless, in a way I felt an affinity with Alexander in feeling that there must be something more to this, this universe. I think it’s beyond the realm of scientific proof, but that doesn’t make it any less relevant – it’s just that no amount of triangulation will get you the answer. It’s not necessarily something pre-determined or orderly, but there are definitely greater forces at play in this universe than I’ll be able to compute. I’m not quite sure why. Maybe it’s because sometimes things happen that are extraordinary and you just can’t work out how they happened.

But also, maybe it’s because sometimes people die − really good people − for seemingly no good reason at all, when there really should be one.

Bronywn Meyrick is a Melburnian currently based in South Korea. This piece was first published on Medium.



25 August 2014


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The majority of Australians accept the science of climate change these days. But it seems to have made little difference to the way we behave.

Jane Rawson is former environment and energy editor at The Conversation and author of the ‘cli-fi’ novel A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists. She’s uniquely placed to ask the question: can climate change fiction make a difference, where scientific argument hasn’t? Can it get help us to truly imagine the future – and act to change it?


Last month, three separate scientific papers came to the same conclusion: the West Antarctic ice sheet is melting, and it’s too late for us to reverse the process. If you heard the news you’d have realised, at an intellectual level, that we’re in serious trouble and something needs to be done.

So what did you do? Did you quit your job and travel immediately to the Leard Forest Blockade to stop Australia’s massive coal exports? Did you call your bank and demand they pull all your money out of fossil fuels ? Did you move to New Zealand and buy a house a long way up a mountain? Maybe you did, but it’s more likely you felt awful for a bit, maybe even a day or two, then you got on with your life. I know I did.

There are two kinds of climate deniers. There is the small group of people who deny human behaviour is affecting the atmosphere in a way that is disrupting the climate. This group is beyond the reach of persuasion; their objection to accepting climate change is ideological, financial or both and facts don’t enter into it.

So let’s forget about those guys (and they mostly are guys) and focus on the much bigger group – the rest of us. We think humans are changing the climate, but live as though nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, we drive less, buy more efficient appliances and maybe even install solar panels, but it’s disproportionate to the size of the threat we face.

Why do we behave this way? Fear, distraction, convenience, busyness, conviction this will happen somewhere else to other people or species: they all play their part. But over-arching all of this is, I think, a failure of imagination. Climate change just doesn’t feel real, not like trying to get the kids to school on time or wondering whether you can afford a decent holiday this year or what that pain in your stomach is. Perhaps cli-fi is the answer. You know, cli-fi: fiction which explores what climate change will do to the world. Over the past year or so there’s been a surge of interest in cli-fi, a ‘genre’ which has arguably existed since 1962. The Conversation, NPR and the Guardian have all run features; Time magazine has looked at the rise of cli-fi in film.

Writer Danny Bloom blogs extensively on the topic at Cli-fi Central; he claims responsibility for classifying ‘cli-fi’ as a genre. New genre or not, climate change has definitely become a popular topic for novelists in recent years, with more than 100 books listed on Cli-fi Books. A lot of them are rubbish. Some of them are bestsellers, or at least critically acclaimed, including Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, Ian McEwan’s Solar, Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow, Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. Australia got in on the action with Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming, and two of the Aurealis Award’s science-fiction shortlist for 2013 take place in a climate-changed world – Andrew Macrae’s Trucksong and my own A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists. Cli-fi may be headed for its biggest coup yet with Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book shortlisted for a Miles Franklin award, a prize not normally associated with speculative fiction.

A lot of is getting written, but will cli-fi make any difference? Will it give us the material we need to imagine a climate-changed world – and finally behave as though our future is under threat?

Researchers in a number of fields think it could certainly help. The Climate Outreach and Information Network recently interviewed leading climate change communicators (admittedly, a bunch biased toward storytelling) and concluded:

Stories are the means by which people make sense of the world, learn values, form beliefs, and give shape to their lives. Stories are everywhere [but] they are absent from climate change communication. The careful, considered science and statistics of the IPCC cannot compete with the siren stories of climate change scepticism … (where one man’s fight against a wind turbine trumps a thousand scientists setting out the case for decarbonisation).

Scientists working in climate adaptation have been planning for an uncertain future using ‘scenario building’. They collaborate with communities to imagine what will happen to their home in future decades under a range of different climate change projections; it prepares them better than statistical data could. John Wiseman, Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Sustainable Society Institute, says:

This process of using alternative futures and pathways to test strategic choices was originally popularised by companies such as Shell, which was famously well-equipped to respond to the 1973 OPEC oil embargo due to prior imagining and careful consideration of this scenario … Scenario planning techniques help open our minds to the future and hold it open.

Far more anecdotally, some of the people who have read my novel – set in a hot, dry and occasionally flooded Melbourne where the electricity is always going off, the trains barely run and the divide between the handful of rich and great mass of poor has become canyon-like – reckon it’s made climate change feel like a thing that happens here and now, not in the far-distant future to Bangladeshis and polar bears. For most Australians, climate change pops into their heads when their train gets cancelled or they have to slog their way up a city street on a summer day.

But there are plenty of readers who are alienated by any hint of a polemic when they’re reading fiction. While many thousands of readers loved Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘climate change is here and now’ book Flight Behavior, there’s no shortage of reviews such as ‘I don’t like to feel like I’m being beat over the head with it’, ‘one long, preachy slog to the finish line’ or, from the Washington Post’s Ron Charles : ‘Imagine if “most characters in most novels” lectured each other about climate change. I’d push the last polar bear off his melting ice floe to avoid that’.

Danny Bloom reckons if someone would just write the climate change equivalent of Nevil Shute’s anti-nuclear On the Beach, everyone would be convinced and everything would be solved. I don’t think that’s true. Fiction is great – it can help us really feel the horror of what we’re headed for, change our lives in a deeper way than scientific projections alone could do, and give us ideas to help us adapt to the change – but it’s up against entrenched interests, big money and corrupt politicians who love convincing us to vote against our best interests.

Some very powerful people have a lot invested in us mining and burning fossil fuels. Even a Margaret Atwood trilogy may not be enough to stop them.

Jane Rawson is the author of the Aurealis Award-shortlisted novel, A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists. She was environment & energy editor at The Conversation.



02 June 2014


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The five writers involved in the Weather Stations project around storytelling and climate change have been travelling Australia, consulting with climate change experts and observing the effects of climate change in action.

The Wheeler Centre’s Jo Case sat in on a session at University of Melbourne with the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science.


Headlines during one of our – more frequent – hot summers.

Climate change ‘a fact, like gravity’

Oceanographer Eric van Sebille, from University of New South Wales, gave a presentation explaining the science of climate change to set the stage for discussion.

‘In science, there’s not really a debate anymore,’ he said, showing a graph that demonstrated that 97% of climate scientists agree that climate change is happening, and that it’s caused by humans.

‘There’s a consensus of science because there’s a consensus of evidence,’ he said. ‘We work with this data every day. There is no debate anymore. We’d like to move on.’

‘The theory stands against all the tests we can throw at it. It’s gone beyond a theory. It’s a fact, like gravity.’

’The real uncertainties are in our politics’

He explained that climate scientists came up with a list of 20 fingerprints of climate change – effects that would be caused by an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, like increasing sea level and ocean temperatures, ice sheets decreasing, and species migrating poleward and upward. All 20 of these things are happening.

‘You couldn’t explain the observations of scientists without the presence of increased carbon dioxide. And without human activity, you can’t explain the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since the 1970s.’

The real uncertainties are in our politics – what we will do with our emissions and how much fuel we will burn in the future. If we continue with business as usual, there will be a rise in temperature of four and a half degrees Celsius by 2100. In the best-case scenario, where we reduce our emissions, the temperature will rise by two and a half degrees Celsius.

‘We can change the temperature if we want to.’

’A writer can imagine scenarios’

The scientists gathered to consult with the writers were speaking from three locations – live at University of Melbourne, and remotely from the University of Tasmania and University of New South Wales.

Professor Steve Sherwood of UNSW, described as one of the world’s leading atmospheric scientists, said that he was enthused about the Weather Stations project’s potential to communicate the urgency of climate change to a wide audience. ‘To me, the hard part is sketching something the average human would relate to. That requires a lot of detail, the level of detail a novel can have. A writer can imagine scenarios and make them seem real.’

’People believe them because they sound sure’

Oisin McGann, a children’s writer and illustrator from Ireland, said he worries that detail can get in the way of understanding. ‘People aren’t persuaded by detail.’ He believes that people don’t understand because of the facts and figures – these things can make it harder for them. Part of the problem, he said, is that the scientists who know what they’re talking about sound less sure than those arguing against the facts of climate change, because the scientists adhere to the details, the proven facts. Those who argue against climate change ignore the detail and privilege certainty. ‘People believe them because they sound sure.’


Oisín McGann, Mirko Bonné and Jaś Kapela at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science.

‘Now that we’ve been informed, how do we transfer this knowledge back to people?’ asked Chinese novelist and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo. ‘I’m feeling powerless when it comes to action. We know the facts, but how can we influence policy?’ The problem, she said, is that governments are ‘in bed’ with the corporations who believe it’s not in their interests to take meaningful action on climate change.

‘We need to show people things that are happening now and how it could get worse,’ said McGann. ‘That very human stuff that people can relate to.’

Climate scientists on their inspirations

Van Sebille spoke about being inspired to work in his field because of his personal experience and observations; having grown up in Holland and then lived and worked in Miami, now (in Australia) is the first time he’s lived above seal level. ‘It’s always frightened me, the idea of the sea getting higher and higher.’

He spoke about growing up near a river that was three or four metres higher than his house. When he was 13 years old, Holland needed to raise the dykes to ready the nation for rising sea levels. A few years later, it needed to be done again.

Sherwood spoke about being driven by the legacy we’re passing on to the next generation through our inaction. ‘My greatest fear was having to explain to my kids that there’s this problem we’ve known about not just since they were born, but since I was born, and we’ve nothing about it. It’s really disturbing that we’ve done nothing for four decades.’

’People are choosing not to make this important’

‘If people wanted to do something, they would put climate change priority number one, not whatever it is they’re worrying about this week, whether it’s going to McDonalds or not,’ said Alvin Stone, media and communications manager the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Systems Science, UNSW. ‘They would agitate and governments would respond, because at the end of the day, they respond to the concerns of people.’

‘The problem is that people are choosing not to make this important and using the excuse of powerlessness or apathy and they are not wanting to believe it because it involves some hard changes. It’s like being told to tidy up your room when you don’t want to do it. Until your parent gets you to do something, you’re not going to do it.’

‘I’m tired of this powerlessness argument, because people are not powerless. History has shown us that. To me, people are making a clear choice. They’re choosing what to believe and how to act.’

Hope for the future: new technologies

Van Sebille refuted the argument that we can only fix climate change by making big changes to the way we live our everyday lives – he believes that it’s possible to ‘engineer our way out of this’ with advances in renewable energy and similar changes. ‘I’m not sure it’s going to happen, but it could.’

He explained that the old technologies we use, like carbon-based electricity, are ‘extremely inefficient’. For example, only 15% or so of the energy we burn to is used to propel the car; only 1% is used to propel a person. ‘From an economic point of view, it doesn’t make sense to burn oil to drive a car.’

‘It’s a really stupid 150-year-old technology that we’re using.’

The scientists explained that one of the things that could really change how we use renewable energy and how viable it is as a major power source is developing battery power: the ability to store it. Stone suggested that once we can store renewable energy, it will be cheaper than carbon-based electricity and we’ll be able to generate it on a house-by-house basis. Some houses will be off the grid.

‘You need to have support at the top of governments,’ said Stone. ‘I do believe that there is a solution. I do believe that if we take action and focus on it, that it won’t be this mad transition that will send us back into the caves. It will be a consistent and economically decision to make. But it requires people to take the lead.’

We have more Weather Stations events with the resident writers this week: Xiaolu Guo will be at the Wheeler Centre tonight; Mirko Bonne will be doing a German-language event tomorrow night; and on Saturday, Oisin McGann will give a storytelling workshop for kids on Saturday afternoon.

You can read original writing from the Weather Stations writers at the Weather Stations blog.



08 May 2014


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AdamAlterHeadshot_Size4Adam Alter, professor of marketing and psychology at NYU, reveals the world is full of such hidden forces that shape our every thought, feeling and behaviour, without us ever realising. Understanding these cues, Alter argues, is key to smarter decision-making, more effective marketing, and better outcomes for ourselves and society.

I spent my primary and high school years in Sydney, and often my teachers told the class to ‘kiss’, or keep it simple, stupid. They were trying to tell us to stop using the word ‘utilise’ when ‘use’ would do; to stop saying ‘on the mat was perched a feline’ when ‘the cat sat on the mat’ was clearer, simpler, and easier to understand.

I’m a big supporter of this march towards plain English. It embodies some of my favorite human characteristics: unstuffiness, unpretentiousness, unabashedness. It’s also a big improvement over the way we communicated in the 1800s and 1900s. Take the classic English legal case of Davies v. Mann, decided in 1842. Justice Erskine in the Court of Exchequer handed down a judgment that represents the height of convoluted legalese. In describing the facts of the case, Justice Erskine wrote:

The declaration stated that the plaintiff theretofore, and at the time of the committing of the grievance thereinafter mentioned, to wit, on, etc., was lawfully possessed of a certain donkey, which said donkey of the plaintiff was then lawfully in a certain highway, and the defendant was then possessed of a certain waggon and certain horses drawing the same, which said waggon and horses of the defendant were then under the care, government, and direction of a certain then servant of the defendant, in and along the said highway; nevertheless the defendant, by his said servant, so carelessly, negligently, unskilfully, and improperly governed and directed his said waggon and horses, that by and through the carelessness, negligence, unskilfulness, and improper conduct of the defendant, by his said servant, the said waggon and horses of the defendant then ran and struck with great violence against the said donkey of the plaintiff, and thereby then wounded, crushed, and killed the same, etc.

Another way of expressing the facts would be to pluck just 12 words from this mess (bolded above): ‘The servant of the defendant negligently struck the donkey of the plaintiff.’ You lose some meaning, perhaps, but not enough to justify turning 12 words into 160.

New Zealanders have embraced the march towards plainer English, so much so that an organisation called WriteMark hosts an annual Plain English Awards ceremony. In 2012, for example, Annette Hamilton won the Best Plain English Sentence Transformation Award for simplifying a mangled Telecom New Zealand sentence. The original sentence told the customer, unhelpfully, that:

One of our technicians will enable the DSL port on the DSLAM at our exchange and we will send you an e-text when ADSL is active on your line.

Hamilton’s jargon-free alternative told customers only what they needed to know:

Your broadband connection is underway. We will send you a text message when it is ready for you to use.

highlight Some academic papers are so filled with jargon that no one in the world can understand them. In March this year, a journalist reported that editors removed more than 120 fake academic articles from journals between 2008 and 2013. These articles had been peer-reviewed, which means that ‘experts’ decided they were worthy of publication. The journalist wrote her own example with the help of an online article-generator, a nonsensical postmodernist mess that sounded intelligent but meant absolutely nothing.

Not all complexity is bad, though. Humans are very sensitive to complexity in the environment around us, and often it guides us to make wise decisions. One classic example comes from the game show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Contestants answer trivia questions with the ultimate goal of answering a very difficult million-dollar question. Ogi Ogas and John Carpenter were two very successful contestants on the US version of the show. Ogas is a neuroscientist and author, and Carpenter is a tax officer. They both answered 14 questions correctly, and ultimately arrived at the million-dollar question.

Ogas struggled. The host asked him the question and asked him to choose one of four multiple-choice answers:

Which of these ships was not one of the three taken over by colonists during the Boston Tea Party?

A. Eleanor

B. Dartmouth

C. Beaver

D. William

Ogas, a fan of flowery prose, described the experience on his blog:

My neurohormones whipped from black misery to shining ebullience, saturating my brain in a boiling cauldron of epinephrine and endorphins. I gaped at the azure screen in front of me as the ultimate question coalesced in hot white font …

… I immediately had an intuition that one of the ships at the Tea Party was Dartmouth. I reflected on Dartmouth, using it as a prime. I repeated the ship’s name aloud and silently to myself. Gradually, the name of another ship formed in my mind, echoing each repetition of Dartmouth: Beaver…And then, faintly, like the reflection of the moon on a midnight lake, the name of a third ship dimly waxed upon the murk of my mind: Eleanor.

… I blinked. Suddenly, I became aware of the wobble of the chair, the murmurs of the audience…Intuition? What are you thinking?! You’re risking a house! You can’t possibly know the answer to this arcane question! There’s no such thing as intuition!

… I believe I’ll walk with the money I’ve got. That’s my final answer.

Ogas decided not to answer the question, and instead left with the handsome sum of $500,000. As his blog post explains, he was sensitive to cues that betrayed his uncertainty.

Carpenter’s experience was very different. The show’s host, Regis Philbin, asked him:

>Which of these US Presidents appeared on the television show, *Laugh-In*? 

A. Lyndon Johnson B. Richard Nixon C. Jimmy Carter D. Gerald Ford

Just once during the show, contestants are allowed to ‘phone a friend’ for help. Carpenter decided to phone his father. No one had ever won the million dollar prize in the US in 1999, when Carpenter was on the show, so the audience waited anxiously, believing that Carpenter was unsure of the answer. His father answered the phone:

Carpenter’s Father: Hello.

Host: We’ve got your son John with us; he’s doing pretty well. He’s won a half million dollars and he’s going for a million dollars. He needs your help to get there …

Carpenter: Hi, Dad … I don’t really need your help, I just wanted to let you know that I’m gonna win the million dollars … because the U.S. president that appeared on Laugh-In is Richard Nixon. That’s my final answer.

Carpenter had known the answer as soon as he saw the question. In contrast to Ogas, who experienced all the hallmarks of mental uncertainty, Carpenter knew the answer as surely as he knew his own name.

Humans, like Ogas and Carpenter, are very sensitive to cues that signal certainty and uncertainty. In much of my research, I’ve focused on one such cue, known as disfluency. Disfluency is the experience of struggling to make sense of any mental task—pronouncing a difficult word; making sense of a complex sentence; answering a tough mental puzzle; reading a word printed in ornate font, and so on. Ogas’ experience was disfluency whereas Carpenter’s was perfectly fluent.

Fluency, like plain English, is usually desirable. Why print an essay in hard-to-read Impact font when you can print it in easy-to-read Times New Roman font? Why force your readers to work harder than necessary?

The answer is that, like Ogi Ogas, we need help recognising what we don’t know − that we need to spend a bit more time and effort making sense of the world before we respond. Nowhere is this truer than in the land of education, where I began my discussion, and where keeping it simple, stupid, is usually desirable. With Danny Oppenheimer and Nick Epley, fellow psychology professors in the United States, I explored the benefits of disfluency in a number of experiments. For example, we asked two groups of people to answer the same mental puzzle. For half of them the question was printed in easy-to-read font:

If a bat and ball cost $1.10 in total, and the bat costs $1 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?

For the other half, it was printed in hard-to-read font:

If a bat and ball cost $1.10 in total, and the bat costs $1 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?

The question is deceptively tricky. At first, almost everyone decides that the bat costs $1 and the ball 10 cents, since those two numbers add neatly to $1.10. Solved! Not so fast, because the bat only costs 90 cents more than the ball. The correct answer is that the ball costs 5 cents (and the bat $1.05), but many people rest with their intuitive response and answer the question incorrectly. When we presented the question printed in the easy-to-read font, only 63% of people gave the correct response. In contrast, when we printed the question in the hard-to-read font, a more impressive 82% answered correctly. Researchers see the same pattern with other, similar questions, too. When they ask people how many animals of each type Moses took aboard his ark, 88% answer ‘2!’ when the question is printed in clear font, but only 53% give the same response when it’s printed in hard-to-read font. The answer, of course, is not ‘2’, but rather ‘Noah boarded the ark, not Moses’.

With some of his students, Oppenheimer carried this idea into the classroom. At a school in Ohio, they created fluent and disfluent versions of the course material in six courses, including English, mathematics, and chemistry. The fluent versions were printed in clear font; the disfluent versions were printed in one of several harder-to-read fonts. Lo, several weeks later, when the students took their exams, the students who studied from harder-to-read materials achieved scores that were, on average, 16% higher than the scores of their counterparts who studied from easier-to-read materials. Disfluency seemed to deepen their attention and, consequently, how much they learned.

Keeping it simple, stupid, is a valuable and valid aim, but occasionally it pays to inject brief bursts of artificial complexity into our lives, and the lives of our children. Most of the time it doesn’t hurt to pay only superficial attention to the world around us − but sometimes, if careful, systematic thinking is the only route to the right answer, keeping it simple fares more poorly than keeping it complex.

Adam Alter is an associate professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, with an affiliated appointment in the New York University Psychology Department. His research focuses on judgment and decision-making and social psychology, with a particular interest in the sometimes surprising effects of subtle cues in the environment on human cognition and behaviour.

This is the edited transcript of a Lunchbox/Soapbox address given at the Wheeler Centre last week.

Lunchbox/Soapbox events are hosted every Thursday at the Wheeler Centre 12.45-1.15pm. Lunchboxes available from the Moat lunch cart for $10 – or bring your own!



06 May 2014


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Literary criticism: art, science or both?

‘Should literary criticism be an art or a science?’, asks Joshua Rothman in his piece for the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog. In other words – should criticism be about close, insightful particular readings (art) or should it aim to trace general trends and patterns in literary culture (science)?

As Rothman continues, it’s a question that Franco Moretti is trying to answer definitively: ‘he thinks that literary criticism ought to be a science’. Find out why and explore what this entails in this fascinating profile: ‘An Attempt to Discover the Laws of Literature’.

Say my name

On the topic of criticism – last week, we looked at the debate surrounding anonymous book reviews (in the Saturday Paper and beyond) – and that’s a subject we’ll be exploring further in coming weeks.

But what if it weren’t just books being reviewed anonymously; if it were your personality, your work ethic or your place in an unusually competitive community? The answer is being played out in the real world. From the New York Times:

highlight A five-week old social app, Secret, is testing the limits of just how much sharing Silicon Valley thinks is a good thing. That’s because the sharing is done anonymously. And, as it turns out, much of the chatter is about Silicon Valley itself – offering a rare, unvarnished look at the ambitions, disappointments, rivalries, jealousies and obsessions of the engineers who live and work there.

The app’s website proffers the opportunity to ‘share with your friends, secretly’ and ‘speak freely’. Is anybody else getting the shivers?

A lesson in persistent privilege

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs, for short) have been a hot topic in the world of education for the past couple of years – flagged by many as a democratising revolution in access to quality, specialised learning for anyone with access to the internet.


But while popular sites like Coursera ‘envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education’ – a future which Thomas Friedman has hoped might ‘unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems’ – a recent study by the University of Pennsylvania has revealed a less than revolutionary beginning. From Slate: ‘Who Takes MOOCs? Educated, Employed, First-World Guys.’

Stay classy

Class in Australia: it’s a discussion that’s well and truly on the minds of writers and artists of late, and it’s never escaped the interest of the politically minded. Over the past few weeks, The Conversation has been exploring the topic in detail – covering how your living environment affects your health, whether the way you speak affects your future, how bogans and hipsters are linked to class, and much more.


Aussie battlers finding their place: the cast of The Castle (1997).

Bee eternal, big bang

It’s the sweetness that lasts forever… almost. reports that honey has a near-eternal shelf life; archaeologists have often found unspoiled pots of honey, thousands of years old, whilst excavating ancient Egyptian tombs. What’s the secret to honey’s extraordinary staying power? Pretty simple, mostly: keep the lid on.

Of course, we couldn’t let this week pass without making mention of what – if independently confirmed – will be remembered as a monumental discovery in the history of science. The physics world lit up as astronomers announced they had detected a signal from the beginning of time.

If the scientific detail escapes you, check out the moment when an emotional Andrei Dmitriyevich Linde is delivered the news that his inflationary universe theory appears to be true.

‘Let’s just hope that it’s not a trick.’



21 March 2014


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Why editing Alice Munro isn’t (always) easy

Acclaimed Canadian short-story writer Alice Munro has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, becoming its 13th recipient. In a wonderful New Yorker essay, Munro’s editor Deborah Treisman takes us inside the process of editing her prize author – and the way Munro thinks about her work. ‘Editing Alice Munro’s stories is sometimes a lesson in feeling extraneous. As I’m preparing to tell her that the final paragraph isn’t landing right, she is already faxing a new ending; as I mark up page 5, to show that something hasn’t been properly set up, she is calling to say that she has put a new page 5 in the mail.’


Why literary journals exist: A response to Robyn Annear

The internet has been abuzz lately with chatter about Robyn Annear’s recent review of Australian literary journals in The Monthly. She questioned the purpose of these journals, and concluded that they seem generally to support emerging writers rather than to serve readers; she didn’t have much that was complimentary to say about the ten journals she surveyed.

Bronte Coates, one of the founders of Stilts literary journal, has written a thoughtful response on the Readings blog, exploring why her literary journal exists, and why it’s not just okay, but indeed vital that journals be, in Annear’s words, ‘playgrounds for emerging writers’ – and ‘editors, project managers, policy changers and more’.

Buzz Aldrin reviews Gravity

Alfonso Cuaron’s space adventure Gravity is the film of the moment, taking off with critics and audiences alike. James Cameron said, ‘I think it’s the best space photography ever done, I think it’s the best space film ever done, and it’s the movie I’ve been hungry to see for an awful long time.’ In one of the very few dissenting reviews, the New Yorker’s Richard Brody said, ‘It’s hard to recall a movie that’s as viscerally thrilling and as deadly boring as Gravity’.

The Hollywood Reporter has taken a novel approach to reviewing the film, inviting Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, to do the honours. His verdict? He was ‘extravagantly impressed by the portrayal of the reality of zero gravity’.


How true are Malcolm Gladwell’s universal truths?

Should we stop believing Malcolm Gladwell? His books combine storytelling and science to tell vital truths about what it is to be human, exploring what makes us tick. But how true are those truths? A writer at MIT’s science blog Tracker brings together various questionings of Gladwell’s use of academic research over the years, particularly the way he sometimes presents scientific findings removed from context (including how solid the research is, and whether it was subsequently disproved). A Wall Street Journal reviewer says ‘He excels at telling just-so stories and cherry-picking science to back them.’


Does literary fiction teach empathy?

New research published in Science found that after reading literary fiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence. The researchers say this is because literary fiction leaves more to the imagination, leaving it to readers to ‘make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity’.



11 October 2013


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By Annalee Newitz

Annalee_Newitz Mass extinctions have decimated our planet on a regular basis throughout its history. The worst known mass extinction, nicknamed The Great Dying, involved climate change similar to the one our planet is undergoing right now. Annalee Newitz takes us through the signs that we’re undergoing a new mass extinction – and tells why we shouldn’t just give up, but should shift gears into survival mode.

Over the past four years, bee colonies have undergone a disturbing transformation. As helpless beekeepers looked on, the machine-like efficiency of these communal insects devolved into inexplicable disorganization. Worker bees would fly away, never to return; adolescent bees wandered aimlessly in the hive; and the daily jobs in the colony were left undone until honey production stopped and eggs died of neglect. In reports to agriculture experts, beekeepers sometimes called the results ‘a dead hive without dead bodies.’ The problem became so widespread that scientists gave it a name – Colony Collapse Disorder – and according to the US Department of Agriculture, the syndrome has claimed roughly 30 percent of bee colonies every winter since 2007.

As biologists scramble to understand the causes, suggesting everything from fungal infections to parasites and pollution, farmers worry that the bee population will collapse into total extinction. If bees go extinct, their loss will trigger an extinction domino effect because crops from apples to broccoli rely on these insects for pollination.


‘If bees go extinct, their loss will trigger an extinction domino effect.’

At the same time, over a third of the world’s amphibian species are threatened with extinction, too, leading many researchers to call this the era of amphibian crisis. But the crisis isn’t just decimating bees and frogs. The Harvard evolutionary biologist and conservationist E. O. Wilson estimates that 27,000 species of all kinds go extinct per year.

Are we in the first act of a mass extinction that will end in the death of millions of plant and animal species across the planet, including us?

That’s what proponents of the ‘sixth extinction’ theory believe. As the term suggests, our planet has been through five mass extinctions before. The dinosaur extinction was the most recent but hardly the most deadly: 65 million years ago, dinosaurs were among the 76 percent of all species on Earth that were extinguished after a series of natural disasters. But 185 million years before that, there was a mass extinction so devastating that paleontologists have nicknamed it the Great Dying. At that time, 95 percent of all species on the planet were wiped out over a span of roughly 100,000 years – most likely from megavolcanoes that erupted for centuries in Siberia, slowly turning the atmosphere to poison. And three more mass extinctions, some dating back over 400 million years, were caused by ice ages, invasive species, and radiation bombardment from space.

Scatter_cover_240113 The term ‘sixth extinction’ was coined in the 1990s by the paleontologist Richard Leakey. At that time, he wrote a book about how this new mass extinction began 15,000 years ago, when the Americas teemed with mammoths, as well as giant elk and sloths. These turbo-vegetarians were hunted by equally large carnivores, including the saber-toothed cat, whose eight-inch fangs emerged from between the big cat’s lips, curving to well beneath its chin. But shortly after humans’ arrival on these continents, the megafauna populations collapsed. Leakey believes human habitat destruction was to blame for the extinctions thousands of years ago, just as it can be blamed today for the amphibian crisis. Leakey’s rallying cry has resulted in sober scientific papers today, where respected biologists detail the evidence of a mass extinction in the making. The New Yorker’s environmental journalist Elizabeth Kolbert has tirelessly reported on scientific evidence gathered over the past two decades corroborating the idea that we might be living through the early days of a new mass extinction.

Though some mass extinctions happen quickly, most take hundreds of thousands of years. So how would we know whether one was happening right now? The simple answer is that we can’t be sure. What we do know, however, is that mass extinctions have decimated our planet on a regular basis throughout its history. The Great Dying involved climate change similar to the one our planet is undergoing right now. Other extinctions may have been caused by radiation bombardment or stray asteroids, but as we’ll see in the first section of this book, these disasters’ most devastating effects involved environmental changes, too.

My point is that regardless of whether humans are responsible for the sixth mass extinction on Earth, it’s going to happen. Assigning blame is less important than figuring out how to prepare for the inevitable and survive it. And when I say ‘survive it,’ I don’t mean as humans alone on a world gone to hell. Survival must include the entire planet, and its myriad ecosystems, because those are what keep us fed and healthy.

There are many ways we can respond to the end of the world as we know it, but our first instincts are usually paralysis and depression. After all, what can you do about a comet hurtling towards us through space, unless you’re Bruce Willis and his crack team of super-astronauts on a mission to blow that sucker up with a bunch of nukes? And what can you do to stop global environmental changes? This kind of ‘nothing can be done’ response is completely understandable, but it rarely leads to pragmatic ideas about how to save ourselves. Instead, we are left imagining what the world will be like without us. We try to persuade ourselves that maybe things really will be better if humans just don’t make it.

I’m not ready to give up like that, and I hope you aren’t either. Let’s assume that humans are just getting started on their long evolutionary trek through time.

How do we switch gears into survival mode?

This is an extract from Scatter, Adapt and Remember by Annalee Newitz (Black Inc.), published this month.

Annalee will be talking to Tanya Ha about how humanity can dodge extinction at the Wheeler Centre this Thursday at 6.15pm.



02 July 2013


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By Michael Green

mg One of the world’s fastest-growing social movements is calling for citizens and institutions to sell out of fossil fuels – but it’s not just a matter of morality. Hard-headed analysts say there’s a growing risk of a collapse in the value of fossil fuel investments. Taken together, these warnings present a new way to understand our climate crisis.

In this edited version of his Lunchbox/Soapbox address, Michael Green takes us inside the movement – starting in the offices of Goldman Sachs, listening to US climate activist Bill McKibben.

Away from the glare and confusion on climate change, there is a deeper conversation going on. It is changing the way climate activists plan their campaigns, and it is changing conversations behind the doors where money talks.

Here is one example: on Tuesday, I went to a lunchtime meeting at Goldman Sachs, at 101 Collins Street, the swankiest office building in town.

In Rolling Stone, in 2009, journalist Matt Taibbi described Goldman Sachs like this: ‘The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.’

But, arguably, this meeting on Tuesday was an unusual one. There were about 100 people from the superannuation and fund management industry, in a big teleconference in Sydney and Melbourne, and they were there to talk to the American climate activist Bill McKibben.

Now McKibben, who is touring Australia this week, also writes for Rolling Stone. In one article last year he wrote this: ‘We need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth.’

McKibben got arrested twice last year for his climate activism. The event went for nearly two hours – McKibben gave a short spiel, and then there was an extended discussion session with a panel of super fund managers and investment analysts. Why were they engaging with this guy? Before I get to why they’re all willing to be there, I want to offer one small update on our current climate projections.


Image from Bill McKibben’s groundbreaking 2012 Rolling Stone article.

Turn Down the Heat: The World Bank report

Late last year the World Bank put out a report called ‘Turn Down the Heat’ report, which stated that even if all nations fulfill their pledges to reduce emissions, we’re still on track for 3.5 to 4˚C warming by the end of the century.

A 4˚C world means: ‘Extreme heat waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.’ They concluded that there is no certainty that it’s possible for humanity to adapt to a 4˚C hotter world.

It’s a terrifying thought – put out by a very conservative public institution. It’s also hard to really comprehend what kind of changes that would involve, and what kind of suffering it would entail. But one thing it makes me think is that we need to do a better job of avoiding that situation.

Carbon budget: We’re blowing it

And that’s why I come back to that meeting at Goldman Sachs. The reason I was there and those finance types were there, is that a different way of thinking about the climate crisis has sharpened the debate. It’s the idea of a carbon budget. In 2009, scientists from the Potsdam Institute in Germany produced a set of emissions scenarios together with their likely influence on global temperatures.

Their paper says that to keep an 80 per cent chance of staying at 2 degrees or below, we can only release about one-fifth of the carbon dioxide in current proven fossil fuel reserves.

It’s worth noting that at the rate we’re going, we’ll have blown the budget by mid next decade. And of course, the fossil fuel industry is always searching for more.

Even for a 50/50 chance of going over 2 degrees, the report said, two-thirds of our coal, oil and gas must stay in the ground.

Subsequently, a British organisation called Carbon Tracker added to that analysis. They released some research saying that the reserves held by the world’s 200 largest listed coal, oil and gas companies alone is more than enough to exceed that threshold.

The moral case

Since the carbon budget idea has become more common, there have been two kinds of responses: the moral case and the business case. I’ll cover each one, and then the way they cross over, because that’s particularly unusual and relevant for us as citizens.

As I’ve mentioned, Bill McKibben is the person most associated with the moral case. Simply put, his argument goes like this: ‘if it’s wrong to wreck the planet, then it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage’.

Based on the unexpected popularity of his Rolling Stone article, he and others started a new campaign for calling for universities, churches, cities and pension funds to sell out of fossil fuel companies. It’s called Go Fossil Free, and it’s spread like wildfire across the US. In just over six months there are already several hundred campaigns, and a dozen or so institutions have agreed to divest.

The argument isn’t so much that they’ll bankrupt the companies, but that they’ll undermine their social licence, and that open up room for regulation.

People are working on this moral divestment case here already. If you haven’t seen any yet, you can expect to. As with the US, it’s not only targeted at universities, but also churches and local councils, and for banks not to fund new fossil fuel projects.

They’ve had two wins so far: the NSW Synod of the Uniting Church has announced plans to divest from fossil fuels. And a couple of years ago, ANU students successfully campaigned for the university to sell stocks in a coal seam gas company called Metgasco. Those students are a cheeky bunch – they’re part of the national Lock the Campus campaign and they’ve since filed FOI requests for all the details of the university’s fossil fuel holdings. Now they’re moving onto the ACT government.

But most of all, the campaign here is aimed at superannuation funds.

There’s a campaign called the Vital Few – which is run by an organisation chaired by former liberal leader John Hewson. It hasn’t had much success yet, but they say it’s early days. The Vital Few campaign says that across the super industry, about 55 per cent of funds are held in high carbon investments and only 2 per cent in low (although there’s no standard definition for what that means).

One plank of their campaign is a moral call to action for citizens: there’s no sense in greening your home if you’re investing in climate change all the while. You’ve got to change the way you invest.

All these campaigns have different approaches and different targets, but share a common thread – there’s a moral reason not to invest in fossil fuels, both for us as individuals and for our institutions.

The business case

But there’s another way to look at those numbers, and it’s this: ‘Holy heck, if four-fifths are going to stay in the ground, then someone is going to lose a lot of money.’ Essentially, the argument is that investing in fossil fuels is risky, and you’ll want to sell down your stake, because if you don’t, at some point you’ll lose it.

In the case of listed companies, the value of their reserves is factored into their share price. Those reserves are assets on their books, and investors currently have an expectation that they will deliver an income stream in the future. And of course, it’s not just fossil fuels – all kinds of industries have a lot of assets tied up in the carbon economy.

Climate risk

This is one element of a broader set of risks that are described as ‘climate risk’ – the prospect of reduced earnings or devalued assets, caused by climate change.

The first, as I just mentioned, is the ‘carbon bubble’ or the ‘unburnable carbon’ scenario. It’s the prospect that we’ll get our act together to prevent emissions, and fossil fuels will lose value. That could be due to tough policy measures, such as robust carbon pricing or regulations, here, in China or elsewhere.

There are other kinds of climate risk too. For example, the risk that cheap clean technology will out-compete fossil fuels. Or, curiously, if you’re a long-term investor, there’s a risk in the possibility that others will switch away from fossil fuels.

Then there’s the mother of all climate risks: the physical impacts. At the lower end of the scale – which, as we’ve seen around the world already, is by no means low – and, perhaps it’s a flood that destroys infrastructure. But remember the World Bank’s scenario of a 4-degree hotter world: it’s safe to assume that a climate to which humanity can’t adapt is not consistent with steady returns for investors.

Reports on reports on reports

When I started researching this stuff, I was overwhelmed by the vast quantity of reports on it. The finance world is rife with warnings about it. Most of the words spilled have been about climate risk in relation to ‘asset owners’: pension funds, super funds, insurers and sovereign wealth funds, such as the Future Fund. Among investors, they have a uniquely long-term perspective. In Australia the average super member has 20 years before they’ll retire.

Last year, the Asset Owner’s Disclosure Project – the organisation chaired by John Hewson, and which also runs the Vital Few campaign – released ratings of the way the funds are dealing climate risk. Australia had six of the top ten funds around the world (Local Government Super, CareSuper, Cbus Super, VicSuper, UniSuper and AustralianSuper). But there’s no cause for celebration. The report concluded that no fund had ‘accurately assessed or managed its climate risk’. The highest rating fund, Local Government Super, estimates that it has about 10 per cent of its money in low-carbon assets, and 45 per cent in high.

The head of sustainability for Local Government Super, Bill Harnett, was at that meeting at Goldman Sachs, and he said this: ‘There is an inescapable logic that there are more fossil fuels on balance sheets around the world than we will ever be able to realise in our investments. There is an inevitability. We don’t know when, but we know it will come.’

And yet, his fund’s portfolio is still a long way from investing in a way that is consistent with limiting global warming to 2 degrees.

Why isn’t there change?

At that meeting at Goldman Sachs, everyone in the room accepted the broad numbers that McKibben stated – that four-fifths must stay in the ground. I’m assured that all the big Australian superannuation funds accept that this risk exists, in a broad sense.

Much of the discussion was about how they don’t know how to evaluate it. A couple of large financial analysts have tried. In recent months, HSBC in London did some modelling that showed a deflating carbon bubble could nearly halve the value of coal assets on the London exchange, and knock three-fifths from the value of oil and gas companies. Citi Research did a similar exercise for the Australian stock exchange and found that 14 per cent of value of the ASX200 is in coal, oil and gas, and related industries.

But the superannuation funds in the room say they don’t know how to incorporate those scenarios into their investment decisions.

Ian Wood from AMP Capital said there are two broad reasons. One is that conventional financial modelling gives greater weight to short-term earnings. Future dollars are discounted, so if a coal project is making money now, then that matters more.

The other reason is the immense uncertainty about how those scenarios could play out. What will government policy be, here and around the world? If the carbon price spreads, what will it be? When and where will it be brought in? What will happen to technology? What will China do? Here’s the upshot: for the time being, almost all of our superannuation funds are taking a position that that we won’t limit warming to 2 degrees. They’re betting that we’ll exceed the safe threshold for human civilisation. And they’re not just betting on the game, they’re playing it as well. Their investment policy helps shape that 4-degree world, and helps us on course for a world where they won’t get a good return on very many of their investments.

With a couple of minor exceptions, they’re all just sitting there, watching each other and saying they accept that it’s all true, but they can’t do anything about it.

Bad news and good news

I left the meeting with two conflicting thoughts. The 100 people there that day, they’re the ones in the whole industry who are the most engaged. And even they can’t find it in their modelling to take account of a risk they all acknowledge to be real. They’ll figure out a way at some stage, but it’s clear the change isn’t happening fast enough. Right now, the business case isn’t enough to convince super funds to change.

But there was something else. The really interesting thing about that meeting on Tuesday was this: McKibben was in the room. And the fact that he was in the room made the climate risk more significant for everyone there who was listening. The same goes for all of the campaigns, both the moral and business ones, the civic and corporate pressure.

As McKibben put it at Goldman Sachs: ‘For our purposes the fight is as good as the win.’ There’s a kind of vicious cycle in the way we’re investing at the moment – it reinforces the systems that cause climate change.

But the carbon bubble idea is so uncertain at the moment, and public policy is so uncertain, that the more people are talking about the carbon bubble, the more likelihood there is one. So there’s a virtuous circle too. If these big institutions move their money, and if individuals badger their funds and their friends about it, then it becomes more of a reality for the people who are deciding how money is invested. It becomes more likely that governments will implement policy and regulations consistent with 2-degree warming.

Because of the nature of investment decisions, the tipping point isn’t the day when all governments sign off on a radical climate justice agreement. It’s the day when enough people think that significant action is possible. Or when they believe that China really is shifting away from coal. Or when they accept that the cost of solar panels has come down so fast that our centralised, fossil fuel energy system is going to change. Or when they get frightened that others are going to trade out first.

There is a deeper conversation occurring, and it is one that accepts the science, and one that includes both climate activists and market analysts. It has the potential to shift rapidly. It is happening – the only question is whether citizens can make sure it happens in time.



18 June 2013


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Hamilton__Clive_-_colour_Size4_Size4 Spraying sulphur compounds into the upper atmosphere to reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the planet? Transforming the chemistry of the world’s oceans so they soak up more carbon? These ideas sound like science fiction, but technologies to ‘geoengineer’ the planet are being developed right here and right now.

In this edited version of last week’s Lunchbox/Soapbox address, Clive Hamilton argues that the potential risks of this meddling are enormous: disrupting the food chain, damaging the ozone layer, loss of monsoon rains in Asia – the list goes on.

By Clive Hamilton

Climate scientists have watched with mounting alarm as carbon dioxide concentrations have increased relentlessly. The anxiety has deepened each year as it has become clearer that the range of emissions paths mapped out by experts in the 1990s and early 2000s were unduly optimistic. The actual growth in emissions – boosted by explosive growth in China – has described a pathway that is worse than the worst-case scenario.

Alarm has spread to staid organisations like the International Energy Agency. In 2011 it declared: ‘On planned policies, rising fossil energy use will lead to irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change.’ Late last year a report by the World Bank warned that ‘we’re on track for a 4°C warmer world marked by extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.’

A world warmed by four degrees

It’s hard to communicate to the public what a world warmed by 4ºC will be like, or even that the IEA and the World Bank should be taken seriously. After all, for many people one unseasonable snowstorm is enough to nullify decades of painstaking scientific study. And psychologists have discovered that, after accounting for all other factors, when people are put in a room and asked about climate change they are significantly more likely to agree that global warming is ‘a proven fact’ if the thermostat is turned up.

So for at least a decade climate scientists have been disturbed by the widening gap between the actions demanded by the evidence and those being implemented or even considered by the major polluting nations. At the same time, their work began to focus on the dangers of feedback effects in the climate system, that is, processes that amplify or dampen the direct warming effect of rising greenhouse gases.

For example, as warming melts the Arctic ice cap, the exposed water is darker than the highly reflective ice it replaces and so absorbs more heat from the sun. Many in the expert community received a fright from the dramatic declines in Arctic summer sea ice in 2005 and especially 2007. And the melting of sea ice this past northern summer set new records.


Photograph of Greenland’s melting glaciers by James Balog, from Chasing Ice, Rizzoli.

The study of feedbacks has been closely related to another idea emerging in the scientific literature – that of tipping points. Small changes in one element of the climate system may initially have only small effects, but at some point a threshold may be crossed where the system, driven by amplifying feedbacks, flips into a new state.

Palaeoclimatologists have discovered many instances in the Earth’s geological record of the climate shifting abruptly from one state to another, within a few decades. The esteemed palaeoclimatologist Wally Broecker warned: ‘The palaeoclimate record shouts out to us that, far from being self-stabilizing, the Earth’s climate system is an ornery beast which overreacts even to small nudges.’

Against this background, climate scientists began to talk about possible responses to a climate emergency – such as a massive methane release with rapid melting of permafrost, the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet, or rapid dieback of the Amazon forests.

Any of these could quickly shift the global climate into a new state, and there would be no way of recovering the situation. How, they asked, could we intervene to prevent these things happening? If Plan A, persuading the world to cut emissions, is failing, shouldn’t we have a Plan B? And so in the last few years, research into various schemes to engineer the climate has been accelerating rapidly.

Mirrors in space and painted roofs: Geoengineering technologies

Geoengineering may be defined as deliberate, large-scale intervention in the climate system designed to counter global warming or offset some of its effects. More than 40 schemes have been put forward, with some the subject of intensive research.

They are usually divided into two types: methods to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – such as by capturing it from the air, making biochar and adding lime to the oceans – and solar radiation management technologies aimed at increasing the Earth’s reflectivity. Methods include painting roofs white, putting mirrors in space and brightening marine clouds.

Let me describe very briefly the two leading methods – ocean iron fertilisation and sulphate aerosol spraying.

earthmasters When we dig up and burn fossil carbon we make use of its trapped energy; but the carbon atoms do not disappear. So where do they go? First they go into the atmosphere. Some is then soaked up by vegetation. Some sooner or later ends up in the various layers of the oceans. The deep ocean has the capacity to absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and it would help if we could get more carbon down there and hope that it stays.

But how do we get carbon to the deep ocean? The answer lies in what is known as the biological pump. Tiny marine plants known as phytoplankton grow by combining carbon dioxide, various minerals and sunlight to multiply into blooms. On death, gravity causes the plankton to sink, taking its carbon to the deeps.

The effectiveness of the biological pump depends on the suitability of conditions for marine life, including the availability of micronutrients, especially iron. If a shortage of iron is limiting plankton growth in an area of ocean then perhaps the artificial addition of the missing ingredient can stimulate algal blooms.

Fertilising some areas of ocean with iron slurry does indeed induce algal blooms. But it turns out that much of the carbon fixed in the phytoplankton does not find its way to the ocean floor but circulates in the surface waters, feeding the food chain, before being emitted as carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.

And while iron fertilisation stimulates biological productivity in one area, nutrient stealing can see it fall in others. As one expert said: ‘you might make some of the ocean greener by iron enrichment, but you’re going to make a lot of the ocean bluer’.

It’s been estimated that a massive fertilisation effort over 100 years could absorb perhaps three per cent of cumulative emissions from burning fossil fuels over the same period. In the meantime, ocean acidification and temperatures would reach a level at which algal populations would be severely reduced. This is one reason why climate engineering without emission cuts would be disastrous.

Mimicking volcanoes: Sulphate aerosol injection

The form of geoengineering most likely to be deployed is known as sulphate aerosol injection. The proposal is to spray sulphur dioxide or sulphuric acid into the upper atmosphere to form tiny particles that would reflect an extra one or two per cent of incoming solar radiation back into space, thereby cooling the planet.

The aim would be to mimic the effects of volcanoes. The particles spewed into the atmosphere by large eruptions have been known to cool the planet by a degree or more for a year or two, and to change the colour of the sky. In 1883, the spectacular sunsets in Oslo after the eruption of Mount Krakatoa inspired Edvard Munch to paint The Scream.


Images from The Munch Museum, The Munch-Ellingsen Group.

The most likely delivery method is a fleet of customised high-flying aircraft fitted with tanks and spraying equipment, although a hose suspended in the sky is also being investigated. In effect, humans would be installing a radiative shield between the Earth and the sun, one that could be adjusted by those who control it to regulate the temperature of the planet.

How effective would such a solar filter be in suppressing warming? All the models indicate that if we reduced the amount of sunlight reaching the planet, the Earth would indeed cool fairly quickly and evenly, although with less effect at the poles. The models also show that rainfall would be returned some way towards pre-warming patterns. Crucially, the solar shield would do nothing to offset the acidification of the oceans due to carbon emissions.

However, other atmospheric scientists argue that the complexity of the climate system means that it is impossible to draw any firm conclusions about the consequences of such a radical intervention in the Earth system. They point out, for example, that the chemistry of the atmosphere is complicated, so turning down the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth in a model can give little clue as to what would happen in the actual climate system.

One important question is how the extra sulphur compounds put into the stratosphere would interact with the ozone layer. The most comprehensive study concluded that injecting enough sulphur to suppress the warming associated with a doubling of carbon dioxide would indeed deplete ozone in polar regions, delaying the recovery of the Antarctic ozone hole by 30 to 70 years.

Other studies indicate that the Indian monsoon could be seriously disrupted, affecting food supplies for up to two billion people, although the disruption may be less than in a scenario of warming without the solar filter.

Even so, our understanding of what influences the monsoon is weak, our knowledge of how global warming would change the monsoon is weaker, and trying to estimate the combined influence of warming and solar radiation management is little more than educated guesswork. Who knows what would happen to rainfall patterns, but if catastrophe ensued after sulphate spraying at least we would know whom to blame. Or would we?

Playing God – and risking the planet

Here we get to one of the strongest objections to sulphate aerosol spraying. We cannot know how it would affect the global climate system through models or even by conducting experiments. Only by full-scale implementation could we get a clear idea of its impacts.

Even then we would need at least ten years of global climate data before we had enough information to separate out the effects of sulphate aerosol spraying from natural climate variability and, indeed, from the effects of human-induced climate change. The levels of omniscience and omnipotence required to make it work really would have us playing God.

To compound the risks, if after ten years, when we accumulated enough data to decide that our intervention was not a good idea it may be impossible to terminate the solar shield. Why should this be so?

For some time ecologists have known that the rate at which the globe warms is a greater threat to ecosystems than the amount of warming because a slower rate of warming gives plant and animal communities more time to adapt. It’s estimated that if warming occurs at a rate of 0.1ºC per decade, half of ecosystems have time to adapt. At a warming rate of 0.3ºC per decade only 30 per cent of ecosystems can adapt.

According to one study, if sulphate aerosol spraying began in 2020 and had to be stopped after 40 years, we would see a surge in average temperature by a scorching 1.3ºC in the first decade, falling back to 0.33ºC in the following decade.

Few ecosystems could survive the first decade of rapid heating after the solar shield had been turned off. So once deployed it is likely that we would become dependent on our solar filter, the more so if we failed to take the opportunity while it was in place to cut greenhouse gas emissions sharply. This is perhaps the solar filter’s most dangerous drawback.

Bill Gates’ climate warriors: The geo-lobby

A constituency advocating investment in a major research program has now emerged, and is gaining influence. At the centre of this network is a pair of North American scientists actively engaged in geoengineering research – David Keith, a Harvard physicist, and Ken Caldeira, an atmospheric scientist based at Stanford University.

For some years they have been Bill Gates’ principal source of expert knowledge on climate change. Gates was persuaded to commit several million dollars to finance research into geoengineering. (Richard Branson is also promoting geoengineering as a response to climate change.)


Bill Gates is an investor in Silver Lining, a company pursuing marine cloud brightening methods.

Bill Gates is now the world’s leading financial supporter of geoengineering research. He is an investor in various geoengineering enterprises, including Silver Lining, a company pursuing marine cloud brightening methods. He is an investor in Carbon Engineering Ltd, a start-up company formed by David Keith to develop technology to capture carbon dioxide from ambient air on an industrial scale.

Gates is also an investor in a firm known as Intellectual Ventures, led by Nathan Myhrvold, formerly chief technology officer at Microsoft. The company has developed what it calls the ‘StratoShield’, a hose suspended by balloons in the sky to deliver sulphate aerosols. The device is marketed as ‘a practical, low-cost way to reverse catastrophic warming of the Arctic—or the entire planet’.

Why oil companies back geoengineering

In recent years there has been a flurry of patents taken out over methods to engineer the climate. One of them is so broad that, if enforceable, it would place fertilisation of the oceans in the hands of one man. We are approaching a situation in which international efforts to protect humanity from climate catastrophe could depend on whether or not one company wants to sell its intellectual property.

Oil companies, anticipating a shift in the political landscape, are quietly backing research into geoengineering. Royal Dutch Shell is funding study of liming the seas. The chief scientist at the oil giant BP was the convener of an expert meeting that in 2009 produced an influential report on climate engineering as a response to climate emergencies.

Exxon Mobil, for years the principal funder of climate science disinformation, has inserted itself into climate engineering. The corporation’s point man on geoengineering is Haroon Kheshgi, who leads its Global Climate Change program. In 1995, he was the first to propose liming the oceans as a means of reducing acidification due to escalating atmospheric carbon. Through Kheshgi, Exxon has begun to influence various ‘independent’ reports into geoengineering, including one by NASA in 2007.


‘Exxon Mobil, for years the principal funder of climate science disinformation, has inserted itself into climate engineering.’

Burgeoning commercial engagement in geoengineering is creating a constituency with an interest in more research and, eventually, deployment. Such a lobby is naturally predisposed to argue that pursuing emission cuts is ‘unrealistic’ or ‘politically impossible’ and therefore geoengineering is the sensible alternative. This is the slippery slope concern about researching geoengineering. Already the chorus of demands for public funding is loud and governments are beginning to show interest. China recently decided to include geoengineering among its earth science research priorities, initiating a marked shift in the international climate change landscape.

It is fair to expect that if we reach the stage of deployment any move to terminate it (due, for example, to evidence of unexpected environmental damage or international conflict) would be fought by the new industry with complaints of asset devaluation and job losses.

Eroding incentives to cut emissions

Today it may seem absurd that factors like these should play a role in deciding the fate of the entire planet, but the history of environmental policy-making shows that these kinds of decisions are never based solely on scientific considerations.

All of which points to perhaps the greatest risk of research into geoengineering—it will erode the incentive to cut emissions. In a political and commercial environment where cutting emissions appears too hard, geoengineering arrives as the next great white hope.

Already in the United States, right-wing think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, which have for years promoted denial of climate science, are now advocating geoengineering as a substitute for cutting emissions. Economists like the authors of Superfreakonomics have joined in.

Which government would not be enticed by the technofix to beat all technofixes? Think about it: no need to take on powerful fossil fuel companies, no need to tax petrol and electricity, no need to ask consumers to change their lifestyles. And instead of global warming being proof of human failure, geoengineering could be the triumph of human ingenuity.

In short, while climate change threatens to destabilise the system, geoengineering promises to protect it. Yet beneath it all lies a gnawing question: What kind of beings have we become when we believe we can use technology to take control of the climate system of the planet as a whole and regulate it to suit our needs for thousands of years to come?

This is the edited text of a Lunchbox/Soapbox address given by Clive Hamilton at the Wheeler Centre last week.

Our Lunchbox/Soapbox events series runs every Thursday at 12.45pm – 1.15pm. BYO lunch, ideas provided.



07 March 2013


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We collect five of our favourite links and articles from around the internet this week.

Carver’s OK Cupid profile, edited by Gordon Lish

What if Raymond Carver wanted to hook up, and turned to the internet for help? And what if he asked his infamous editor, Gordon ‘Scissorhands’ Lish to help with the ad? It might look a little like this.


Dumb ways to die: A viral sensation

What do you think of when you think of Metro? Many would say late trains, cancellations, or botched Myki touch-ons. But thanks to a clever little campaign that’s gone viral, ‘Dumb Ways to Die’, we think of catchy tunes and cute little dead pod people instead. Way to distract us!

On Mumbrella, one of the brains behind the campaign tells the story of its inception.

And on Crikey this week, First Dog on the Moon used the campaign as a springboard for what many would argue is a far more urgent awareness-raising message.


By First Dog on the Moon

Real-life invisibility cloaks

Do you get nervous or uncomfortable when people look at you on the street? Or would you simply like to hide from people you know, when forced to venture out on an unsociable day? Well, there are a couple of handy devices that enable you to hide in full view. (Albeit in a very obvious and kinda odd fashion.)

The Covert Collar has a camera stitched into its breast that scans the environment for ‘unwanted attention’ (ie. people looking at you). ‘When it locates a persistent starer, it activates a sort of turtleneck that flies over your face like an expanding accordion. Left with nothing but a black cloth to look at, the ogler turns away.’


Or you might prefer the fog-emitting Cloud Cloak?

Science and the search for a ‘healthy’ soft drink

Coca Cola was first invented as a health drink – hard as that concept may be to swallow. And though over-consumption of sugar-heaped soda is a major contributor to the western world’s obesity epidemic, the manufacturers haven’t quite given up on finding health benefits for it. Wired looks at the vitamins being added to Coke and Pepsi.

In Japan, you can now get Pepsi Special, which is touted as a weight-loss elixir. That’s because it has added fiber, which supposedly inhibits fat absorption. Cola with fiber! Even for a nation known for making all foods available in cuttlefish flavor, that’s pretty gross.


Bad Sex Awards 2012 Snub 50 Shades

The shortlist for the Bad Sex Awards 2012 has been announced – and there’s no 50 Shades of Grey in sight. Can all those women reading on trains be right, and the critics be wrong? Is the sex sexy, after all? Nah. At least, not according to the Literary Review, who run the award. It’s because erotic fiction is not eligible.

The shortlist is: Tom Wolfe, nominated for the second time for Back to Blood, The Yips by Nicola Barker, The Adventuress by Nicholas Coleridge, Infrared by Nancy Huston, Rare Earth by Paul Mason, Noughties by Ben Masters, The Quiddity of Will Self by Sam Mills and The Divine Comedy by Craig Raine.

Here’s a sample, from Tom Wolfe:

‘Now his big generative jockey was inside her pelvic saddle, riding, riding, riding, and she was eagerly swallowing it swallowing it swallowing it with the saddle’s own lips and maw — all this without a word.’



23 November 2012


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Robots that look like people, programmed to have their own emotions and facial expressions and to react to human interaction?

It sounds like science fiction, but within the past decade, it’s also become reality. And Japan’s Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro is at the forefront of making it come true, with his remarkably lifelike robots.

He’ll be at the Wheeler Centre next month.

Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro with his robot twin, Geminoid HI-1

Ishiguro completed his first android robot, Geminoid HI-1, in 2006 – modelled on himself. He uses his doppelganger to give lectures to his students, operating his robot self by remote control. He says the idea was to be able to skip the hour-long commute to his classes.

‘I want to check whether students, as well as my family, can feel my presence through Geminoid.’

Geminoid F ‘waits for a friend’ in a Tokyo shop window.

Ishiguro’s twin was followed by Geminoid F, a female robot modelled on an anonymous Japanese model in her mid-20s. She is programmed with 65 behaviours, making her ‘one of the world’s most intelligent robots’, according to Time. She can sing, smile and react by reflecting the emotions of those around her.

Her exploits so far have included acting in a play with human actors (playing an android), posing in a Tokyo shop window while pretending to wait for a friend, and singing at a Hong Kong trade fair.

Geminoid F sings at a Hong Kong trade fair.

Actroid F, a version of Geminoid F manufactured for use in hospitals, is in the Guiness Book of World Records as ‘the first true android’. The robot nurse can’t walk, but is positioned by patients’ bedsides to make them feel as if they have company. So far, the patient response has been positive.

Actroid F, the robot nurse.

‘I want to see more androids and robots in our daily life, everywhere,’ says Ishiguro. ‘I’m not sure if that’s good or not, but I really think that’s my role.’

He says that with the right technology, he can build androids that think, act and react like people. ‘What is a human?’ he asks. ‘Please define, and we will make a copy.’

Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro will be at the Wheeler Centre with some of his robot creations on Friday 14 September 2012, 6:15pm.



20 August 2012


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We’ve long wondered about Mars and the question of whether the red planet can support life – so much so that the shorthand for alien life forms is ‘Martian’ (as in, citizen of Mars).

This month’s historic landing of the Mars rover Curiosity – and the incredible photos beaming back to earth – means that Mars is at the forefront of our minds more than ever.


‘In the next six months Curiosity will tell us more about Mars than we have learnt in the last 40 years,’ writes Fairfax online. (Not convinced? Perhaps this incredible 360° panorama will sway you.)


But while the rover’s mission is to find out whether there are (or ever have been) conditions for life on Mars, Curiosity is not equipped to find life directly. ‘Since we have no idea of what Martian life may be like, searching for it would be like looking for a needle in a haystack,’ says Mike Meyer, head of Mars exploration at NASA.

Space superstitions: Peanuts and ghosts

As NASA prepared for Curiosity’s descent onto Mars, the controllers, engineers and scientists in the control room all suddenly began munching on peanuts.

Wired reports that the peanut tradition began in the 1960s, during the Ranger missions – spacecraft designed to fly to the moon and photograph it.

‘The first six Ranger spacecraft failed during launch or while leaving orbit, but on the seventh launch, someone brought peanuts into mission control, and the mission succeeded. It’s been a tradition at JPL launches and landings ever since.’

Wired has published a list of space travel traditions and superstitions held by both the Americans and the Russians, including the American tradition of the commander playing a hand of poker with the tech crew until he loses before a launch, and the Russian tradition of visiting the office of the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, before a flight – signing his guestbook and ‘supposedly’ asking his ghost’s permission to fly.



13 August 2012


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What does global warming look like? We’re beginning to have a pretty good idea. It looks like catastrophic floods in Queensland and New South Wales, like the Victorian bushfires. It looks like the wildfires in Colorado and the droughts affecting the US foodbelt.

Rolling Stone published a frankly terrifying (and brilliant) article last week, using hard numbers to prove just how dire the situation is – and how close and severe the consequences of inaction. It puts the current opposition to Australia’s carbon tax in context.


Image from the Rolling Stone article that has drawn half a million views.

‘I can say with some confidence that we’re losing the fight, badly and quickly,’ says George Monbiot, quoted in the piece. ‘Losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril human civilisation is in.’

The Rolling Stone article, by Bill McKibben, has drawn approximately half a million views, despite being very long (6000 words), with a fair amount of scientific data. Here’s a taste, below, of its main points.

The conclusion? We need serious economic activism on a global scale against the fossil fuel producers, similar to the kind of action the international community took against apartheid in South Africa.

Copenhagen: Below two degrees

At the largely ineffectual Copenhagen climate conference of 2009, the world’s governments formally committed to keeping carbon emissions ‘below two degrees Celsius’.

In Rolling Stone, Bill McKibben writes, ‘So far, we’ve reached the average temperature of the planet just under 0.8 degrees Celsius, and that has caused far more damage than most scientists expected.'


The oceans are already 30% more acidic.

‘(A third of summer sea ice in the Arctic is gone, the oceans are 30 per cent more acidic, and since warm air holds more water vapour than cold, the atmosphere over the oceans is a shocking five per cent wetter, loading the dice for devastating floods.’

Three quarters of the way to reaching the two degree target

‘Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees.’.

‘But in fact, computer models calculate that even if we stopped increasing CO2 now, the temperature would likely still rise another 0.8 degrees, as previously released carbon continues to overheat the atmosphere. That means we’re already three-quarters of the way to the two-degree target.’

Trending towards six degrees

‘Study after study predicts that carbon emissions will keep growing by roughly three per cent a year – and at that rate, we’ll blow through our 565-gigaton allowance in 16 years, around the time today’s preschoolers will be graduating from high school.’


Within 16 years, we’ll have burned enough carbon to have lifted the global temperature above two degrees, suggests the current data.

International Atomic Energy Agency chief economist Fatih Birol says, ‘When I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature rise of about six degrees.’

‘We will keep drilling everywhere we can’

‘That’s the amount of fossil fuel we are currently planning to burn. It’s five times more than 565 gigatons.’

‘We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think it’s safe to burn … Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it’s already economically above ground – it’s figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony.’

In March, Barack Obama promised, ‘You have my word that we will keep drilling everywhere we can … That’s a commitment that I make.’

Fossil fuel: a rogue industry

‘Given this hard math, we need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilisation.’

‘This industry, and this industry alone, holds the power to change the physics and chemistry of our planet, and they’re planning to use it.’

A price on carbon is a moral issue

A price on carbon, McKibben concludes, is the only answer – ‘it would enlist markets in the fight against global warming’.

He points out that BP closed its solar division last December, while Shell shut down its solar and wind efforts in 2009.


A price on carbon ‘would enlist markets in the fight against global warming’.

‘To make a real difference – to keep us under a temperature increase of two degrees – you’d need to change carbon pricing in Washington, and then use that victory to leverage similar shifts around the world.’

At bottom, he says, climate change is ‘not an impersonal force of nature; the more carefully you do the math, the more thoroughly you realise that this is … a moral issue.’



30 July 2012


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The author strikes back

Patrick Somerville’s account of his new book being panned in the New York Times seems, at first glance, like another authorial whinge about being misunderstood by entitled book reviewers. But it’s actually a hugely impressive look at the nuances of what goes on when a creative work is reviewed. When Somerville first reads Janet Maslin’s not-very-impressed review of his novel This Bright River, he’s devastated. But then he realises, when his fictional character receives an email from an editor at the Times, that the reviewer has literally misunderstood the events of his prologue, colouring her reading of the entire book. What happens next is well worth the read.


Patrick Somerville: ‘A part of me … would like to believe that none of Janet Maslin’s points … are valid because of this early flub of hers, but that’s not quite true, I don’t think.’

Contemporary television, the cult of the writer and Aaron Sorkin

Aaron Sorkin’s eagerly awaited new television series, The Newsroom, has been slammed as vigorously as his best-loved show The West Wing is celebrated. The internet is crowded with scathing critiques, but a considered essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books looks at the failure of the show in the context of Sorkin’s wider career and the state of contemporary television.

While television has historically been focused on the producer or even actor as creative agent, and film is still very beholden to the director as prime mover, contemporary television alone is a cult of the writer. Since the days of David Lynch, television has tended toward indulgence with its screenwriters. But Aaron Sorkin, who frequently and publicly claimed unequivocal authorship of The West Wing, was one of the earliest and most visible popularizers of this model in this latest generation of quality TV. The writer is king on television, in part because Aaron Sorkin staged a coup.


Aaron Sorkin with The Newsroom stars Emily Mortimer and Jeff Daniels.

The new public transport: mechanical walkways

Ever dreamed of getting around on foot without breaking a sweat (or burning a single calorie)? Well, that reality has pretty much come true in the Spanish city of Vitoria-Gasteiz,where a mechanical moving walkway has been installed right through the centre of town. Lazy or genius? You decide.


11 ways our shopping brains fail us

The Atlantic, with help from author William Poundstone (Priceless), shares 11 ways that most of us make irrational buying decisions, based on psychology, comparison and our own half-spun logic. These are the inside tricks marketers already know full well – and employ to their advantage.

You walk into a high-end store, let’s say it’s Hermès, and you see a $7,000 bag. ‘Haha, that’s so stupid!’ you tell your friend. ‘Seven grand for a bag!’ Then you spot an awesome watch for $367. Compared to a Timex, that’s wildly over-expensive. But compared to the $7,000 price tag you just put to memory, it’s a steal. In this way, stores can massage or ‘anchor’ your expectations for spending.

Wine-dark: see?

WNYC’s Radiolab podcast has long endeared itself to listeners by virtue of colourful storytelling and vivid sound design, but its most recent full-length episode – ‘Colors’ – takes us literally across the spectrum, as hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich explore colour from a variety of angles.


Mantis shrimps have the most complex eyesight of any known animal, with 12 kinds of colour receptors compared to a mere three in humans.

Along the way, they find animals with far broader colour perception than humans, treat colour-blindness and explore the violent secrets of gamboge’s ‘perfect yellow’ pigment.

But what really piqued our interest was the programme’s profile of (19th century British Prime Minister) William Gladstone. Studying The Odyssey and The Iliad, Gladstone – a devoted fan of Homer – noticed something unusual about the epic poems' descriptions of colour. Where did these inquiries lead? You’ll have to listen to find out; what transpires is fascinating stuff that left us questioning the fullness of our own perceptions.



13 July 2012


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It’s not often that a government public information campaign video goes viral. But the European Commission’s teaser video for their new campaign, Science: It’s a girl thing!‘ has been viewed and discussed all around the world – for all the wrong reasons.

The video (below) was so misguided that it prompted questions about whether it was an exercise in irony. The European Commission cleared this up swiftly. ‘Commission doesn’t really do irony. Hope was to get young people onto site. That seems to be happening!’

‘It’s just not safe to wear clothing like that while working in a lab’

‘I can’t believe how poorly written and directed this piece was,’ said astrophysicist Helene McLaughlin over at Wired. ‘This ad also perpetuates the prevalent mentality that we less-than-model-like women aren’t important enough to nudge towards science.’

‘I am a woman. I am a scientist. I rarely wear make-up. I’m afraid of stilettos. My clothes are more utilitarian than fashionable,’ she said. ‘In my opinion, anyone who loves [this ad] was never likely to be a scientist in the first place. And that is okay.’

She signs off with the practical observation that, ‘I would have been refused access to several of my labs if I showed up wearing stilettos and a mini-skirt, not because I didn’t look cute, but because it’s just not safe to wear clothing like that while working in a lab.’

‘Sexy girl science’ and ‘real guy science’

In the Guardian, Curt Rice, who was a member of ‘gender expert group’ that provided recommendations to the commission for the campaign, has written about the process – and his dismay at the result.

He says his first indication that something was off came with his invitation to the kick-off for the campaign. ‘It worried me. The logo for the campaign was written in lipstick. “What will that convey?” I wondered. Will it suggest that girls wanting to do science not only have to be smart but also feminine? Will it imply that there’s sexy girl science on the one hand and real guy science on the other?’

The teaser video, he says, is ‘completely devoid of any trace of our group’s recommendations’, with stereotypical cliches of sex roles.

‘When the girls did seem to have some interest in science, it was directed towards the science of make-up. Indeed, the video could almost be a hip cosmetics commercial.’

The main body of the campaign itself, he says, is much better; its website ‘full of stories of young women scientists and descriptions of exciting careers’.

Science toys for girls

The video may be shockingly bad, but it’s not a lone incident in the promotion of science to girls using stereotypes, make-up and (of course) lashings of pink.

Just look at these science toys for girls, sold in Australian Geographic shops around Australia.


‘The Wild Science Magic nail lab teaches you about nail health, how to look after your nails so they always look their best. You can then make your own coloured nail polish, nail polish that shimmers and even glow in the dark nail polish.’


‘So much more than just another Lip Balm craft kit! Use industry standard ingredients to create an infinite variety of custom balm bases. For cold or hot weather, for sun or wind with softer or harder feel, and more.’


‘Welcome to the magical world of Chromatography! Your perfume designer lab combines the thrill of real scientific exploration with colourful creativity and wonderful perfume.’



03 July 2012


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We share our favourite internet reads and discoveries over the past week

Why French Bookshops Don’t Get Axed

The New York Times has reported that the French are doing things differently (as is their habit) when it comes to bookshops. Bookshops aren’t closing there; instead, they seem to be booming. From 2003 to 2011, book sales in France increased by 6.5 percent. ‘There are two things you don’t throw out in France – bread and books,’ said Bernard Fixot, owner and publisher of French publishing house XO.


The recently closed Village Voice. ‘Running a bookstore is a combat sport,’ concluded a French Culture Ministry report, which recommended further measures to delay the decline of print book sales.

Looking deeper, what’s saving bookshops (and books) in France is government intervention, with the prices of French-language print and ebooks fixed. While French-language bookshops are doing fine, the Parisian English language bookshop Village Voice, which has hosted everyone from David Sedaris to Mary McCarthy, has recently closed its doors.

Hipster toys: Paper dolls and plush moustaches

It’s the ultimate hipster accessory: Vulture has made print-out paper dolls for the cast of Girls. Fans can now get their Hannah, Marnie, Shoshanna and Jessa fix while they’re waiting for Season 2. The dolls come with fun (paper) accessories like Shoshanna’s ‘just smoked crack’ face, Hannah’s bare chest, diary and memoir manuscript and Marnie’s assortment of overbearing gifts from Charlie.


The Hannah Horvath doll: includes bare chest and memoir manuscript.

For hipsters who’ve graduated to having kids, there’s a whole new world of toy fun. Buzzfeed has compiled a list of essential toys for hipster kids, including a Fisher Price record player (or ‘phonograph’), a scarily hip dollhouse, an assemble-yourself acoustic guitar made of sustainable wood and a plush moustache.


This plush moustache costs US$20. Seriously though, wouldn’t most hipsters of today prefer a plush beard?

Little Women: ‘a ferocious wolf’

In The American Prospect, a fan revisits Louisa May Alcott’s much-loved Little Women and discovers a subversive element to this moral tale, and the intriguing contradictions between a story that ends traditionally, in children and marriage – and the author’s alternative trajectory, finding fulfilment in literary fame. There’s much background information here on how Louisa May Alcott came to write the Little Women books and on her complex relationship with her eccentric father, Bronson Alcott.

Little Women is brutal, a ferocious wolf dressed up in the curly white sermons and sentimental homilies of children’s stories. Though full of references to a kind and loving father, its fundamental faith lies not in God but in books: in life as a literary construct. It is a great and complicated work, Louisa May Alcott’s American response to English writers like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters who had posed similar questions about life and love and ambition.


Christian Bale and Winona Ryder as Laurie and Jo in Little Women. ‘Alcott announced in a letter to a friend that when it came to Jo and Laurie, she was not going to give readers the satisfaction they expected.’

Video: The many faces of Woody Allen

This year’s annual Woody Allen offering, To Rome with Love, is about to hit cinemas. And he’s back on the screen in this one, though he’s given the ‘Woody Allen’ role to an actor surrogate (Jesse Eisenberg). Flavorwire have created a video mash-up of Woody’s surrogates over the years, from the child actors playing young Woody in flashbacks to the likes of Owen Wilson, John Cusack, Kenneth Branagh, Larry David and Michael J. Fox.


Woody Allen directs Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams in Midnight in Paris.

When science fiction becomes science fact

Ten years ago, Stephen Spielberg called a summit of top science and technology thinkers to an ‘ideas summit’, where they were invited to share their thoughts on what society might look like in 50 years. It was in preparation for the film Minority Report, which eventually featured ubiquitous iris recognition technology (used in place of ID and to personally tailor billboard ads at passersby), self-driving cars, ‘predictive’ policing, ‘sick stick’ police batons that can make you spontaneously throw up, and – of course – jetpacks. Wired looks at how close we are to making ten of these technologies real.


‘Steven wanted to make it very realistic, but there were a couple of things he really wanted that were not realistic. The most obvious was the jet packs. But the director gets what he wants!’

And there’s also a fascinating interview with many of those who were at the ideas summit, recalling how it went down. Screenwriter Scott Frank remembers, ‘These are some of the brightest people in the country and they’re helping us make a movie. I couldn’t get over it.’



22 June 2012


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Screenshot from the trailer of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious [1946], via WikiCommons

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who read the last page or two of a book before starting it, and those who insist on knowing as little as possible. To the latter group, one can barely mention a book or a film without them snapping back, “Don’t say anything more! I don’t want to know!” They’ll sanctimoniously stick their fingers in their ears – some of them won’t even read the book blurb on the back cover. And in the process they make those of us who don’t mind knowing the ending feel like second-rate readers. Spoilsports, so to speak. Well, spoilsports of the world, unite! No longer need we skim the last page of a John Grisham in furtive shame, for new research suggests that spoilsports have more fun.

Results of a recent US study suggest that knowing the ending of a story may increase audience pleasure. The Guardian reports that a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science is due to publish results of a survey undertaken by University of San Diego researchers indicating that survey subjects who were given spoiler paragraphs to read before reading 30 short stories across a variety of genres reported higher levels of satisfaction than subjects whose reading wasn’t spoiled. “So it could be that once you know how it turns out, it’s cognitively easier – you’re more comfortable processing the information – and can focus on a deeper understanding of the story,” explained Jonathan Leavitt, a PhD student at the university and one of the study’s co-authors.



24 August 2011


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Image of an ant via WikiCommons

It’s one of the most mysterious aspects of animal behaviour, one even Charles Darwin struggled with: why would an animal choose to sacrifice itself to help other members of its own species, at the expense of passing down its own genes? It’s a question fundamental to biology because it amounts to an investigation into the evolutionary logic of goodness.

An 81 year-old Harvard biologist – a colossus of the science – has stirred a hornet’s nest, so to speak, by turning his back on biology’s most widely accepted explanation for animal altruism. Called the father of biodiversity, Edward O. Wilson has revised his earlier theories on evolutionary altruism. In so doing he’s come under stinging attack from fellow scientists. “I don’t know what’s gotten into E. O. Wilson,” writes one blogger.

An article Wilson co-authored last August in Nature magazine called ‘The evolution of eusociality’ sees Wilson fundamentally reassessing his thoughts on what might be called ‘altruistic’ behaviour in socially highly-developed species like ants and bees. Among the five dissenting letters the magazine published following the article’s publication – which Richard Dawkins slammed as a disgrace – one letter was signed by no less than 137 scientists. Much is at stake – one journalist reporting on the controversy called it “a high-stakes inquiry into the nature of good”.

The theory most commonly accepted for evolutionary altruism is kin selection theory, where the logic of altruism is, roughly speaking, ‘if I can’t pass on my genes, I can at least act to pass down genes that are very similar to mine’. For example, in a eusocial insect colony, according to Wikipedia, “sterile females act as workers to assist their mother in the production of additional offspring.”

In his article, Wilson opts for another, decidedly less fashionable theory, called group selection. Group selection posits that genes survive according to the benefits they bestow a group, regardless of their kinship – in other words, that social cohesion determines genetic survival. One of Wilson’s two co-authors, Martin Nowak, says their revival of the theory is based on mathematics – and that the maths of kin selection theory just doesn’t add up. He adds its a maths the article’s critics haven’t engaged with.

The implications of the argument stretch beyond biology. Wilson claims group selection applies to humans too. “Human beings have an intense desire to form groups, and they always have,” Wilson recently remarked. “This powerful tendency we have to form groups and then have the groups compete, which is in every aspect of our social behavior … is basically the driving force that caused the origin of human behavior.”



03 June 2011


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The federal government is also coming under pressure from health researchers after government spokespeople refused to deny speculation that next month’s federal budget will include a significant cut in funding for medical research. Medical researchers are alarmed at a rumoured cut of $400 million over three years to National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) funding as the government seeks to return the budget to surplus. Speaking on ABC Radio, Professor Julie Campbell, President of the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes, said, “It’s going to mean that a lot of medical researchers are going to be unemployed.”

The health research community has launched a campaign – Discoveries Need Dollars – to raise awareness of the effects of such a funding cut. Rallies will be staged in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide tomorrow in association with the campaign. The Melbourne rally will begin at 12:45 on the State Library lawns.



11 April 2011


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Following Peter Singer's Lunchbox/Soapbox appearance yesterday, we invite Meat & Livestock Australia to respond, as well as asking you to join the debate.


Peter Singer

Watch Peter Singer and join the debate here.

David Palmer Managing Director of Meat & Livestock Australia:


David Palmer

"Peter Singer’s suggestion that red meat should be taxed alongside items that are not good for people, such as tobacco and alcohol, is ridiculous and irresponsible. Red meat is an essential part of a healthy diet and the environmental impacts that Peter Singer is attributing to red meat are incorrect.

"Australian red meat production is amongst the most efficient of the major beef producing nations. A recent study by the University of New South Wales (UNSW) found that Australian production systems use considerably less energy to produce red meat than is often quoted in the media and by people such as Peter Singer."

"The UNSW study was a life cycle assessment, which is a form of cradle to gate analysis that attempts to quantify the important environmental impacts of all processes involved in a production system. Based on figures from the research, eating red meat three times a week results in between 164kg to 258kg of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions a year, vastly different to figures quoted that claim up to 1.5 tonnes.

"Australian farmers are also naturally environmentalists, caring for and managing large parts of our amazing country.

"Despite what Peter Singer would like to have us believe, a recent report by Cranfield University in the UK and commissioned by environmental group WWF, found that vegetarians can do more harm to the environment than meat eaters.

"The study found that switching from a diet of beef and lamb to meat substitutes, such as tofu, soy and lentils would result in more foreign land being cultivated and raise the risk of forests being destroyed to create farmland. Meat substitutes also tended to be highly processed and involved energy-intensive production.

"The red meat industry is the only production industry in Australia to have reduced greenhouse emissions since 1990. According to the Australian Greenhouse office we have reduced our emissions by 7.5%, compared to increases in other industries such as transport and electricity, up 26.9% and 54.1% respectively.

"Whilst we have reduced our emissions over this time, we know there are further improvements to be made. This is why MLA has co-invested with the Federal government and other partners in a $28 million programme with 18 research projects that are looking at how to reduce emissions from livestock.

"Importantly, the livestock industry in Australia produces food on land that often can’t be used to produce any other protein source. If we cut out red meat production on this land it couldn’t be used to grow plant based crops. Australian cattle and sheep are raised in a natural environment feeding on pastures with little or no use of fertilizers, it is a natural part of our environment.

"Calculations that are based on emissions alone, such as the ones Peter Singer has used, are simplistic and ignore the carbon cycle. If the carbon cycle is taken into consideration, as recently was done in a report by the Queensland Government (where the industry in that state is 47% of Australia’s cattle) the industry was found to be close to carbon neutral and potentially a carbon sink in the near future.

"Whilst I acknowledge the views of Peter Singer, he is fundamentally a vegetarian/ part time vegan who wants to force his views on free-thinking Australians.

"I wonder if this is not his main motivator for a tax on beef. Frankly I can’t see Australians responding well to a tax on their food."

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CERN's Large Hadron Collider, the world’s highest-energy particle accelerator

CERN's Large Hadron Collider, the world’s highest-energy particle accelerator

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NASA's cosmic coastline: Ancient Layered Hills on Mars

NASA’s cosmic coastline: Ancient Layered Hills on Mars



30 November 2009


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