2009 International Year of Astronomy

What is your local school doing for this year’s theme?
Here are some easy ideas that can be run in class:
  Image courtesy National Geographic
– Construct a scale model of our solar system and use your school oval to demonstrate the distances between the planets and our Sun.- Organise a telescope evening at your school. In many average sized schools there are at least a few parents with telescopes that can be counted on. If not, we have our own that we can bring along on an astronomy night. If you are in Australia we can combine this with our NSW DET authorised Stars & Planets workshop.- Construct some constellation viewers and a film canister rocket
 using the instructions on our website

– Donate your computing power to the SETI project. See below…

– Use your school’s Lego robotics kits to investigate the use of sensors in robotic probes currently on other planets. Don’t have Lego Robots? We do, and they’re been newly enhanced to perform data logging functions just like a real space probe. Click here for more information

– Explore the NASA website to find out what current research is being run as well the benefits of this research to the community. You’d be surprised!

– Check out International Year of Astronomy Website to see what else is happening around the world.


 SETI: Get Involved!
Always wanted to participate in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence? How about donating some of your computing power at your school, office or home to the http://setiathome.berkeley.edu/ project!
The SETI project is specifically looking for narrow bandwidth radio signals originating from celestial sources that should not naturally occur. Finding such signals may warrant further investigation into their origin… hey, there could be a slight possibility of it being from an intelligent source!  
So, where could you come in? Join the SETI@home project!
This project was developed by the UC Berkley SETI team to allow Internet-connected computers around the world to help provide computing power in searching through radio transmissions. The way you can participate is by running a free program that downloads and analyzes small amounts of radio telescope data that would otherwise need a gigantic supercomputer to analyses as a whole.  By providing additional computing power enables searches to cover greater frequency ranges with more sensitivity.
So, how would it affect me if I joined up?
Normally you run a screensaver when you’re not at your desk right? Well, the SETI@home project gives you a different screensaver that performs the same function but also downloads and analyses data from the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico. Once the data is analyzed the screensaver uploads the results back to the UC Berkley team. Each data file is only 0.34 megabytes, about the size of a glossy internet picture. Doesn’t seem like much, but when you have thousands of computers doing this across the world it all adds up.
The best bit, you dont have to do a thing and you’re contributing to scientific knowledge.

 Video experiment: A Fizzy Experiment!




Get messy with your students… make your next class Slime Time!

  Biological slime!
Slime – you may or may not be the type who revels in it, but a quick web search will show that the educational and entertainment value of slime is bigger than you think. From the 1968 Japanese-American sci-fi thriller, which saw green slime take over a space station with monstrous effect; to scientists at the
Scripps Institution of Oceanography, at UC San Diego, who late last year warned of the “Rise of Slime
due to a combination of climate change, ocean acidification and excess nutrient run off. Biological slime forms when millions of microorganisms combine to create a gooey mass. Algae and “blue-green algae” – actually cyanobacteria – are the culprits, and can form oxygen-inhibiting blooms in lakes, rivers, dams and the ocean. These blooms have played a significant role in the evolution of life. In fact, algae have flourished for 2.7 billion years, and are currently thriving in the conditions created by warming, nutrient-rich waters, at the cost of more complex organisms such as corals and fish.

In November 1991, an estimated 1000-kilometre stretch of the Barwon and Darling rivers in New South Wales gained the dubious privilege of hosting the world’s largest recorded blue-green algal bloom. A state of emergency was declared and drinking water had to be brought in to the area. It was reported that from the air it looked “like a long ribbon of pea soup.” http://www.science.org.au/nova/017/017key.htm

More on algal blooms in Australia: Tamanian DPI

Kids love slime and a few activities can combine the chemistry and physics of slimy materials and Science & Environment themes. Toxic algal blooms are caused by nutrient run off from household and agricultural use of phosphorus-containing compounds such as detergents and fertilisers. Most household detergents contain phosphorus, so read below for how you can make your own phosphorus-free, cheap, safe detergent with some simple ingredients available in most supermarkets.

Soapy, Sudsy & Phosphorus-free Detergent Experiment

Concentrated washing powder

4 cups grated laundry soap or soap flakes
2 cups borax
2 cups washing soda


~9 L water
1 bar grated generic laundry soap or 1 cup of soap flakes
1/2 cup washing soda
1/2 cup borax

Option: essential oils such as tea tree, lavender, eucalyptus or rose oil
Melt 1.5L of water and soap in a saucepan until completely dissolved. Stir in washing soda and borax and remove from heat. Pour mixture into a large bucket and add remaining water. Stir and leave to cool. Use around ¼ cup per load, more for top loaders.
Again, maybe use commercial detergent if you want to be carfeul with your good clothes.


Flubber science experiment!
Can’t get enough of slime and have some borax left over?
Try these this recipes from our website:
Gooey Slime (PVA/Borax slime)
Video experiment: Cornflour slime in just over 30 seconds! 


Magic, illusions and the mind

Magicians have exploited people’s limited perceptions for years.  
So, we’re going to pIay a game, all in the name of science of course!
Is it possible to read your mind? Let’s have some fun and find out! 

Choose one card from cards pictured below but DONT click on any cards with the mouse!

Now, say your chosen card’s name aloud 5 times so you won’t forget it. We will now attempt to read your mind and try to remove your selected card from the card series. To do so, we need you click on one of the following images, which will bring up our website to complete the task:

The above ‘magic trick’ is all about taking advantage of your brain and eye’s ability to perceive reality.  This ‘magic trick’ is based on distraction and ‘change blindness’, a phenomenon where people miss changes despite them being plainly visible. You know if you have suffered ‘change blindness’ if going back through the steps will only provide the answer. Change blindness can occur even when a change is expected. All that is needed is the change to occur during a blink, a slight involuntary eye movement (known as a saccade) or just a flicker in the scene itself. Psychologists that study change blindness have found even big obvious changes can sometimes be invisible until you take another look. Check out the brilliant video by Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire to see change blindness in action.

The question now for researchers is to why various magic tricks involving misdirection or inattention work, specifically, what is happening with the neurons in the brain to achieve the cognitive illusions we see at a magic show. Why might we want to do this? Exploring the neurons responsible for attention and awareness will gain insights into patients suffering from specific conditions such as brain trauma, Alzheimer’s disease, ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) or even just very clever people who aren’t fooled by casual magic tricks. Moreover, not only can we study the brain structures and functions but illusions can also give insights into how the eye itself works. Look at the illusion below:

You may see a ‘flowing’ effect as you look towards the centre of the circle. Researchers have shown that it is not so much as the brain causing the illusion but more the small involuntary movements of the eye (microsaccades) that occur when you look at an object.

Scientists have a bit of a way to go when it comes to being master magicians. Still, this avenue of research might provide a fruitful way of probing into conscious and sub-conscious awareness. Our bet is that magicians may want to hold onto their secrets just a little longer.

By the way, in the next newsletter we will publish the percentages of people who select the specific coloured birds; an experiment itself in colour and spatial preferences.

Information sourced from:

Conde, S. & Macknik, S. (2008) Magic and the Brain Scientific American, New York.

Death by chocolate!

Heard of this saying before? There’s science in chocolate – try bringing in a bar of chocolate to class and watch the students start tuning in… as if they might just get a piece!
Chocolate comes from the beans of the cacao plant, Theobroma cacao. It has been used over a thousand years, where Aztec and Mayan villagers were known to add chilli into a cocoa broth, quite different to the sweet flavours we know of today!

You may have heard that chocolate is bad for dogs… quite right we’re afraid. Dark chocolate is rich nutrients but also in the stimulant caffeine and it’s related compounds of theobromine and theophylline (collectively known as methylxanthines). Certain animals including dogs are highly susceptible to these compounds, for instance, 240 grams unsweetened dark chocolate contains enough methylxanthines to kill a 40kg German shepherd (New Scientist,No2635/6, December 2007). The reason that we don’t keel over after scoffing midnight munchies is largley due to our fast ability to metabolise (break down) theobromine. We would need to chow down at least 50kg of chocolate in a single sitting to get the same toxic effect.
So, how could chocolate be used in science?
Unfortunately the darker side of national park management is the control of mammalian pests. Coyotes in the US are serious pests in terms of livestock deaths, property damage and the inherent danger to humans. Currently US parks use non-selective poisons such as sodium cyanide as animal baits – these are toxic for non-target animals including us! Field studies have found that baits of caffeine mixed with the methylxanthines from chocolate kill coyotes quickly and with minimal distress. Further tests are needed but future baits may prove to be a more selective and humane treatment method for coyotes.


Ongoing microbial studies are using extracts from cocoa to investigate the control of Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria that causes stomach ulcers. Two Australian researchers, Barry J. Marshall and J. Robin Warren, received the 2005 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for their discovery that stomach ulcers are actaully infectious because of H. pylori.
There is also work being placed into isolating the compounds in chocolate that help prevent tooth decay! Research into certain compounds known as polyphenols has found that they help discourage mouth bacteria from sticking to teeth and causing plaque build up.
Sorry, the average chocolate bar does not have a great enough polyphenol concentration to be used as toothpaste, you still have to brush your teeth to get rid of the sugar!

Economy vs environment… who wins?

Hmm, we wonder…(!).

We’re a science education company that specialises in running incursion workshops for Australian schools. Lately we’ve been posed a few questions from high school students about whether the current economic climate will affect the environment. So, during our last email newsletter to teachers we went through some of the details… a little preachy, but hopefully food for thought!

Anyone who has seen their investments fall apart due to the current economic climate might hopefully be wondering how the economy got to this stage in the first place. Let’s not go through the high end economic modelling as to how various credit agencies work (we dont have the room!), instead, let’s just have a think about the inherent assumptions of how modern capitalism works and contrast these against the reality of a finitely resourced planet:

Economic assumptions (simplistic, but it works):

1. Market forces always apply, eg cost of goods vs demand
2. A ‘need’ in the marketplace will be satisfied by innovation within the marketplace to meet that need. i.e. “We need safer cars!”
3. A modern economy needs to grow to improve quality of life

In some ways the above three assumptions are broad and simplistic but they suit our purposes here. For all of the above assumptions to be met, the following needs to occur:

1. There is enough cash flow to invest in projects to meet market needs
2. There are enough bright people to come up with the innovations necesary to meet new market needs.
3. If innovation requires new resources, those resources will be available for use.

Fair enough. The availability of cash is not so bad as tweaking here and there between government policy and corporations can make that happen. We have many a bright person ready to meet the challenges of today’s era – of course, we’re not assuming that this availability of intelligence is infinite however! Our concern lies in the resources sector… are the resources really available to sustain continual innovation and economic growth ad infinitum? Another way to put it, can you keep squeezing resources out of a planet forever? Think about it… it can only go on for so long.

Ecologists will recognise this argument as the ‘carrying capacity’ of a system – the idea that any finite system has an upper limit as to the number of animals or plants that can be sustained by the natural resources of that system. easy analogy, if you have a bucket of water that you keep drawing water from, eventually you will run out. Why do we expect a planet do work any differently?  Of course there are such things as recycling and reductions in resource use, but environmental scientists are coming to the agreement that keeping up current world economic growth needs new ideas and a change in the way we use the resources that we currently have. You cant just assume that resources will just keep being there to use… yet it’s not that find syndicated columnists arguing that the world is huge and that we’ll just ‘find’ those resources needed – hey, we got smart people, they will work it out! Those of you who are aware of the peak oil scenario might see the same being applied to other mineral resources or worst still, food. More importantly, many noted scientists are pointing to a reduction in economic growth might just be the only sane solution. Most developed countries economies having been growing at around 3 – 5% annually for the past twenty years – we’re just not sure if you can keep that up for next 2000 years! Especially as the world’s population is threatening to increase to 9 billion by 2050.

As usual, such an argument risks the writer being branded yet another environmentalist bent on slowing down the economy and asking the world to return to a prior hunter/gatherer status. Worse still, that same writer must be living in a utopian dreamland hoping everyone else can come on board. Oh well, at least this writer has some very esteemed company (ie., most of the PhD on the planet). 

Yes, solutions to our resource situation will take much more than a simple blog commenting on the current situation. Unfortunately, we dont have the answers here either. The best we can do is to send such emails so that people might just consider the resources they use in a different light.

Now, we guess it’s time to sit back and watch the games begin! Ladies & gentleman, in the red corner…(!)