Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Expert Opinion

Experts pick apart the veracity of claims made in research papers and the media.

Who to Kill? An Ethical Dilemma for Driverless Cars


A study published in Science has found that people generally approve of autonomous cars that have been programmed to sacrifice their passengers if it will save others, yet these same people aren’t keen to ride in such “utilitarian” vehicles themselves.

Given that driverless cars are less than a decade away, we need to work out, as a society, how we program such systems. Unlike the past, where if you survived an accident you could be brought in front of the courts if you drove irresponsibly, we will have to program computers with behaviours in advance that determine how they react in such situations.

Who to kill? The dilemma of driverless cars


Driverless cars hold the promise of safer transport. But how should they react when loss of life appears inevitable? Should a car swerve to miss a pedestrian on the road, even if doing so would kill the passenger?

New US research, published in Science (, explores this ethical dilemma in a series of surveys, revealing that people generally want automated cars to be utilitarian (i.e. prevent the greatest loss of life) but, when pressed, admit that they would prefer to buy a driverless car that protects the driver at all costs.

Nanotech Cleared in Food Additives and Packaging


Food Standards Australia New Zealand has released two reports reviewing the evidence for the safety of nanotechnologies in food packaging and in food additives. Based on patent searches rather than on nanotech declarations to the regulator, the reports suggest there is no direct evidence that novel nanomaterials are currently being used in food packaging applications in Australia or New Zealand.

“The use of nanomaterials in food packaging offers a lot of benefits and new opportunities. These include the promise of offering extended shelf-life to perishable foods such as red meat and chicken, giving significant food safety and health benefits – not to mention the cost and environmental savings associated with less food wastage. This report is a positive step forward to allowing this to happen in Australia and letting us catch up to other parts of the world.”

Very Hot Drinks Are a Likely Cancer Risk

The World Health Organization has found that drinking very hot drinks is a likely cancer risk but there is no evidence of a link between coffee and cancer.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of the World Health Organization, has found no conclusive evidence that coffee causes cancer. The group did however find that drinking very hot drinks (65 degrees or above) probably causes cancer of the oesophagus. This finding suggests that it is the temperature of drinks rather than the drinks themselves that is important when it comes to cancer.

Federal Budget 2016


The Federal Budget announced an additional $100 million for geographical modelling of mineral, petroleum and groundwater resources, and $200 million over 10 years for Antarctic research. However, there were no direct budget measures relating to CSIRO.

“The government is maintaining support for the science budget: the Academy is pleased to see this indication of a long-term commitment to science in Australia.

“We warmly welcome the announcement of additional funding for Australia’s Antarctic program. Australia is a leader in Antarctic science, and it’s great to see a long-term commitment like this.

Second Genetically Modified Human Embryos Created


A second case of gene editing of human embryos has attempted to introduce resistance to HIV infection, but only four of the 26 embryos were modified successfully.

“These Chinese researchers are trying to perfect the art of modifying genetic expression in human embryos. It follows on from a similar publication last year, also from China, which demonstrated... that genetic changes can be made but cannot be controlled. The implication is that if the embryo was implanted and a baby eventually born, the genetic makeup would be uncertain.

Wi-Fi Fears Disputed


The ABC’s science program Catalyst drew widespread criticism after giving precedence to the views of US cancer epidemiologist Dr Devra Davis in an episode that examined “whether our wireless devices could be putting our health at risk”.

“I was particularly disappointed to see “Wi-Fried” air yesterday in the guise of science journalism, and felt it important to reassure other viewers that the fringe position provided by Dr Davis and associates is merely that: a fringe position that is not supported by science.

How Safe Is Australian Honey?

How Safe Is Australian Honey?


A study has reported that Australian honey has liver-damaging toxins at levels that exceed European standards. How concerned should we be?

"Plants often use toxic chemicals to stop animals eating them. One class of toxic chemicals are the pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which can cause liver and lung damage. Long-term consumption of pyrrolizidine alkaloids may increase the risk of cancer.

Gravitational Waves Detected


Australian astronomers involved in the detection of gravitational waves discuss the significance of the discovery 100 years after Einstein predicted them.

“We built the most massive scientific instruments in the world and made them so sensitive that they approach limits set by quantum mechanics. On September 14 last year they directly detected for the first time the weakest signals in the universe, gravitational waves, generated in the most violent event yet recorded – the collision of two solar mass black holes.

Gravitational Waves Detected

Australian astronomers involved in the detection of gravitational waves discuss the significance of the discovery

"For the first time, we’ve been able to observe a gravitational wave, created 1.3 billion years ago by the collision of two massive black holes. This observation confirms that gravitational waves do exist. It is a moment that will be remembered for 1000 years.

Sensing for the first time these rumbles in space–time will go down as one the major events in the history of physics, made possible by a close-knit, world-wide collaboration using instruments whose sensitivities are approaching limits imposed by quantum mechanics. And this is just the beginning.