aMAYzing Australasian Science

Despite the headline, I’ll admit none of my contributions to the new edition are likely to make a list of my best ever articles, but there are still some I think are of interest.

The Cool Scientist  is remarkable in part because he’s doing his second PhD. Given the trauma experienced by my friends currently getting to the pointy end of their first it’s hard to believe anyone goes back for another go. Even more surprising is that while Dr Andrey Sokolov did his first thesis in astrophysics – modelling the shockwaves from the jets pushed out by supermassive blackholes – his current work studies money flows between banking institutions. In this he’s part of an emerging field called econophysics, which I will admit I hadn’t heard of until I did the interview.

Econophysics takes the tools physicists have developed to study complex systems and applies them to economics problems. At university I was friends with an economics student who is now quite senior at the Reserve Bank. She had something of an outsider’s view of the profession and liked to say, “The problem is that most economists have physics envy.” She meant they wanted their profession to be as mathematical and precise as physics, and were uncomfortable with the fact that this wasn’t the case, so they tended to ignore the human aspects and pretend the imprecision isn’t there. It would be interesting to discover whether the rise of econophysics will worsen this problem, or whether physicists coming into the field will have a better grasp of how the fields differ.

I’ve also got a feature on tracking space junk via lasers (sub only). This is an Australian initiative, from a company called Electro Optics who are also one of the largest producers of professional astronomical telescopes in the world. As an export market it hardly ranks with coal and iron ore, but it’s a nice example of an industry creating highly skilled jobs that never gets much attention.

The most important of the shorter articles is on the fascinating acidic springs in Cape York. These lie at the edge of a bauxite plateau, and are recharged through the dry season from water percolating through the bauxite. The most acidic spring has a ph of 3.8 (between orange and tomoto juice) which would have been thought far to strong for rainforest species to survive. Yet the springs are home to a flourishing ecosystem which has biologists beside themselves with excitement at the opportunities to study something that is thought to exist nowhere else in the world. Unfortunately, there are plans to strip mine the bauxite, which the discoverers believe will completely destroy the springs. It’s shaping up to be a major environmental battle.

There’s also a great study of purple-crowned fairy wrens. Some fairy wren species display helping  behaviour, where adolescents who are unready to breed feed their younger siblings before they are ready to leave the nest. This is unusual in the animal kingdom, but it fits with Dawkins’ selfish gene theory. After all, the siblings are closely related, so if the younger ones survive the genes are passed on.

However, purple-crowned fairy wrens take this a step forward. Many of those who have not bred in a particular season will feed youngsters, even if they are not particularly closely related. Monash researchers think they’ve explained this apparent example of altruism. To find out how you’ll have to either buy the magazine or ask in comments.

There’s also a piece on the first observation of an extra-solar planet in the process of forming from the gas and dust around a young star, an piece in the puzzle as to why some people find exercise helps them lose weight more than others, and of course something on the proposed cuts to medical research. (Owing to the long leadtimes between when the articles are written and when the magazine comes out this is a bit out of date, but as one of the first articles written before the issue went mainstream it might hold some interest).

Oh and my article on galactic democracy, referred to way back here, is finally out, having been held over from a previous edition.

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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