Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Briefs

Awards for Australasian Science, and other brief bites of science news.

An Unsung Hero of Science Communication
Writing Recognition for Australasian Science
Friends of Science in Medicine – and Skeptics
Video Games Stop Sleep
Folic Acid Prevents Cancer
Lighter Indigenous Smoking
Possum Rediscovered
Generational Obesity Competition
Reserves Making Fishing Easier
Barley Genome Sequenced
Australian Species on Endangered List

An Unsung Hero of Science Communication

The Australian Science Communicators has named the Editor of Australasian Science, Guy Nolch, as the 2012 Unsung Hero of Science Communication.

The President of ASC, Jesse Shore, said the award is “to honour a person or group who exemplify science communication, who have not yet received significant recognition for their contribution to science and its promotion, and for work done in Australia over a considerable or prolonged time”.

Shore said: "The judging panel selected Guy as the standout choice from a number of worthy nominees. The judges mentioned Guy’s many notable achievements and attributes:

  1. his long period of distinguished science publishing;
  2. training and mentoring science communicators;
  3. making scientists’ work accessible to and understood by the public;
  4. dealing with controversial issues;
  5. his major contributions to the discussion of science policy and scientific issues in Australia;
  6. and for the fostering of good science journalism in Australia and for promotion of leading Australian scientists and their research.”

The award came a week after Nolch celebrated the 20-year anniversary since he first became publisher of the former ANZAAS journal Search, which merged with Australasian Science in 1998.

Writing Recognition for Australasian Science

An account of how physical attributes such as strength and vision have declined in modern humans, first published in Australasian Science, has been judged runner-up in the inaugural Bragg UNSW Press Prize for Science Writing. The award was sponsored by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.

Peter McAllister’s article, Evolution of the Inadequate Modern Male, was the cover story of the May 2011 edition, and revealed his efforts to compare the physical capacities of Neanderthals and Homo erectus with modern humans through bone size and density.

Joint runner-up was Ashley Hay for The Aussie Mozzie Posse, which was published in Good Weekend. Both runners-up received $1500.

The $7000 first prize was awarded to Jo Chandler for Storm Front, which was published in her book Feeling the Heat (MUP, 2011).

The winning entries have been published in The Best Australian Science Writing 2012, which is now available through UNSW Press (AS, December 2012, p.40).

Friends of Science in Medicine – and Skeptics

Friends of Science in Medicine, which contributes Australasian Science’s “Bitter Pill” column (p.45), has been named the 2012 Skeptic of the Year by Australian Skeptics Inc.

Tim Mendham, executive officer of Australian Skeptics Inc, said: “Friends of Science was only formed at the end of 2011, and instantly became a major force in bringing Australia’s universities to task for running courses in unproven and over-hyped medical treatments such as chiropractic (AS, July/Aug 2011, pp.35–36), naturopathy, acupuncture, reflexology etc. FSM quickly garnered support from hundreds of academics and senior medical researchers from Australia and overseas.”

The Bent Spoon award – issued to the “perpetrator of the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudo-scientific piffle” – was awarded to Fran Sheffield and her organisation Homeopathy Plus for “continued promotion of some of the most ludicrous claims for an already ludicrous product”. Australia’s consumer watchdog body, the ACCC, described some of the claims regarding homeopathic treatment of whooping cough as “misleading and deceptive”.

Video Games Stop Sleep

Long periods playing video games interfere with sleep quality, a study at the Flinders University Sleep Laboratory suggests.

Researchers allowed 17 teenage boys to play video games for either 50 or 150 minutes before trying to get to sleep in the sleep lab. Their progress was recorded using sleep and heart rate monitors, as well as subjective reporting.

Those who played for the longer period of time took 17 minutes longer to get to sleep and lost a total of 27 minutes of sleep time, according to research published the Journal of Sleep Research. REM sleep was reduced by 12 minutes.

“This may not seem like a significant reduction but REM plays an important part in helping us remember content we learnt that day, so for adolescents in their final years of school who are revising for exams, winding down at night with a video game might not be the best idea,” said Flinders University sleep psychologist Dr Michael Gradisar.

Folic Acid Prevents Cancer

Women planning to become pregnant have another reason to take folic acid supplements, according to Prof Elizabeth Milne of the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research.

Besides the well-known risk of neural tube defects, folic acid deficiency during pregnancy is associated with an increased risk of childhood brain tumours, Milne reported in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention. She found that children of mothers who took supplements in the lead-up to pregnancy had half the rate of brain cancer of those who did not.

The study attempted to distinguish the effects of folic acid from those produced by other vitamins and iron. “Indeed it was folic acid that appeared to be responsible for a [negative diagnosis] association, but it does not harm if it is taken in combination with other micronutrients,” said Milne.

Lighter Indigenous Smoking

Campaigns to reduce smoking among Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders are having an effect, with a near-halving of the proportion of indigenous smokers consuming more than 20 cigarettes per day between 1994 and 2008.

A/Prof David Thomas of the Menzies School of Health Research in Darwin reported in the Medical Journal of Australia that 9.4% of indigenous Australians were smoking heavily in 2008, down from 17.3%. Light smokers had risen, but by a smaller amount, consistent with other research showing that the total proportion of smokers has fallen among the indigenous population.

The improvement was observed in both men and women, and all age groups under 55. It was also consistent in remote areas and larger cities and towns.

The research was based on two surveys that each included around 8000 respondents over the age of 15.

Possum Rediscovered

Almost a century after the last sighting in the area, the scaly-tailed possum has been photographed in the eastern Kimberley. Wyulda squamicaudata was last sighted in the area in 1917, and thought to be either locally extinct or for the report to be an error. The possum’s main habitat is in the gorges in the higher rainfall areas of the western Kimberley.

Dr Sean Doody of the Monash Zoology Department was seeking northern quolls to provide a baseline to study the impact of cane toads in the area when his cameras photographed the possum in Emma Gorge. “I was stunned,” he said. “I’m familiar with the mammal fauna of northern Australia, and knew that there were no brushtail possums with bare tails,” said Doody.

Four possums were photographed at the site 300–400 km from their known habitat. “There are not enough biologists surveying the Kimberley,” Doody concluded.

Generational Obesity Competition

Members of Generation X are almost twice as likely to be obese as Baby Boomers were at the same age, according to data from the National Health Survey. “At the same age, Gen X males have nearly double the prevalence of obesity: 18.3% compared with 9.4% for boomers. There is a smaller but still significant difference in females, with 12.7% of Gen X women being obese in 2008 and 10.4% of boomer females obese in 1989,” said Rhiannon Pilkington.

Pilkington’s PhD at the University of Adelaide is exploring the contributions that workplace conditions, particularly stress, make to obesity. “Obesity has become the new smoking – it’s a major driver of ill health, with coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes highest on the list of preventable illnesses,” Pilkington said. “We have a window of opportunity to change the health path that many boomers and Gen Xers are currently on.”

Reserves Making Fishing Easier

Marine reserves often face intense hostility from recreational fishers, but recent research suggests that such attitudes may be misplaced.

“There are plenty of reports of fish, both adults and juveniles, moving out of reserves and into the surrounding sea. Having grown up in an area where they were protected from hunting, we wondered how naïve they would be with regard to avoiding danger from humans,” says Fraser Januchowski-Hartley of the Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.

Januchowski-Hartley found that fish which have grown up in areas where spear fishing is allowed will flee from divers. However, those leaving marine reserves off the Philippines, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea allowed humans 1–2 metres closer. “The fish are literally more catchable,” he said.

Allowing fish to grow large inside protected zones, while being easy to catch when they leave, could become a valuable approach in these regions where spear fishing provides a major source of protein.

Barley Genome Sequenced

The genome of the barley plant has been sequenced, with a paper in Nature announcing the result.

Barley is Australia’s second most valuable crop, and the fourth most important cereal in the world. “This new analysis of all the genes in the barley genome is a major step forward for agricultural science and industry,” said senior author Professor Peter Langridge of the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics.

Related species wheat, rye and barley still account for 30% of calories consumed by humans worldwide. “Because barley is very closely related to wheat, these results from barley will have a major impact on wheat research,” said Langridge.

The barley genome is almost twice as large as our own and contains many very similar sequences that are hard to locate precisely. The Nature paper identified regions associated with disease resistance that will prove useful in future breeding.

Australian Species on Endangered List

A list of the 100 most endangered species on the planet has included the Kimberley freshwater sawfish and the Western Australian underground orchid.

“Priceless or Worthless identifies the threats that these 100 species face, but it also identifies how they can be addressed,” said Dr Simon Stuart, Chair of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission, whose 8000 scientists compiled the list.

“At a time when thousands of species are truly on the edge of extinction, it is time to ask society to take a stand – to declare that the 100 species in this book, and millions of others like them, have the right to exist on this planet,” Stuart added.

Freshwater sawfish were once common, but species in South-East Asia and eastern Australia have become extinct, leaving the Fitzroy River as one of their last locations.

The underground orchid may provide insights into the malaria parasite, having travelled a somewhat similar evolutionary path (AS, June 2011, p.11).