November Aus Science

The November edition of Australasian Science has been on the shelves for a while, but it’s still there for anyone I can inspire to buy a copy.

Many people will have already heard of the discovery that the dolphins of Port Phillip Bay and the Gippsland Lakes are a new species, Tursiops australis. This explains the previous confusion as to which of two much more widespread species the dolphins the Bay representatives belong to. There is no evidence the dolphins are in decline, and so far they don’t appear to have been affected by the dredging of the Bay, but they are rare enough that they’re almost certainly vulnerable, purely through lack of genetic diversity if nothing else. BTW, the print edition contains a truly magnificent photograph taken by PhD student Kate Charlton-Robb, who made the discovery. It’s so good my editor couldn’t believe it was taken of the Bay dolphins, thinking it must be some iconic dolphin image.

Amongst my pieces there are two rather controversial ones. For those committed to renewable energy the idea that the industry is receiving a boost from the military creates some qualms. However, the light, thin and flexible SLIVER cells produced in Idaho but based on work by the ANU’s Prof Andrew Blakers have great appeal to the department of defense, who are sick of lugging heavy batteries around when soldiers are in the field. The military are notoriously unconcerned about cost savings, so while the quantity of such cells will be small they could provide a significant source of income to the SLIVER manufacturers, as well as the ANU research team, increasing the viability of cells for peaceful uses.

The other article is more tricky for me to write. A/Prof David Austin of Swinburne University has claimed that survivors of an epidemic of Pink Disease are much more likely to have autistic grandchildren. The problem here is that Pink Disease was caused by exposure to mercury in teething powders. Austin suggests the link is that people with certain gene variations are particularly susceptible to mercury poisoning and this caused them to be affected by Pink, while their decedents are more likely to have the same genes, and can have autism triggered by mercury exposure. Austin carefully did not suggest vaccines as a source of mercury, but the tricky thing here is that the suggestion of a mercury/autism link is usually confined to the anti-vaccination movement, despite the fact that mercury has now been removed from infant vaccines. Austin’s work has been pilloried online, and while some of the criticism may be overly harsh, there are some serious questions about this work, and ones with huge ethical implications. A 400 word article is not a good place to explore these issues, but I did try to make clear that this work should not be accepted at face value.

A scientific controversy of interest, but more modest social impact, is the question of when during the history of the Earth did the atmosphere and oceans become oxygen rich. The great age of much of the Australian continent means that many of the best clues lie here. A combination of Australian and American scientists have concluded the process was a much more drawn out one than previously thought. While much evidence has been produced recently suggesting the atmosphere became oxygenated earlier than previously thought, a paper in Nature suggests it took almost two billion years for the oxygen to change the chemistry of the deep oceans. Personally I have trouble getting my head around that.

The Cool Scientist for the month is more controversial than usual as well. Dr Kirsten Heimann is an algal expert, and has recently made significant progress is breeding large amounts of algae by feeding them carbon dioxide. Her work has potential to turn the waste gasses from power plants into algal growth which can then be turned into food of fuel. Heimann’s process is both safer and more realistic than geosequestration, and she is adding some impressive touches, such as using local algal strains to avoid environmental problems if her holding tanks leak. Nevertheless, the process is open to the criticism that it provides cover for the fossil fuel industry to keep polluting while suggesting work such as hers will save us.

I’ve also got a long feature on the challenges facing the peer review process, particularly the concern that bad papers are getting through because reviewers now lack the time to consider them in the detail they should.

Amongst the other articles my favourite is one rewriting our ideas on how Antarctica transformed from a warm forested environment 34 million years ago to the icebox we know today. There are also pieces on renewed hope for an HIV vaccine, how children respond to trauma and the processes that led to the creation of the Universe. You know, little topics.


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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