Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938


Feature article

Our Last-Gasp Share of Giant Telescope

Artist's impression of SKA static, low frequency aperture arrays

Artist's impression of SKA static, low frequency aperture arrays to be built in Phase 1 at the Murchison site in WA. Credit: SKA Organisation/TDP/DRAO/Swinburne Astronomy Productions

By Peter Pockley

What was the back story behind the decision to split the Square Kilometre Array between southern Africa and Australia?

The scientific goals for the SKA are truly grand. “The SKA will transform our view of the universe,” according to the Interim Director General of the SKA Organisation, Dr Michiel van Haarlem, when announcing the decision on 25 May. “With it we shall see back to the moments after the Big Bang and discover previously unexplored parts of the cosmos. The SKA will enable astronomers to glimpse the formation and evolution of the very first stars and galaxies after the Big Bang, investigate the nature of gravity, and possibly even discover life beyond Earth.”

Peter Pockley has been reporting the SKA saga for Australasian Science since the project was first conceived. © Peter Pockley (

Where to look for life on the red planet


The potential biosphere of Mars can extend from the surface in some locations to a typical depth of 37 km, with many subsurface environments potentially hospitable for life.

By Eriita Jones & Charles Lineweaver

By determining the minimum criteria for life, researchers have narrowed down the locations where life may lurk on Mars.

Is there life on Mars? It’s a difficult question to answer when we have only closely investigated the Martian surface in six locations where missions such as the Phoenix Lander and the Spirit and Opportunity rovers have sampled it directly.

Making the question even more challenging is that it is entirely plausible that the kinds of organisms that could have evolved to inhabit Mars’ unique environments have a different biochemistry to those on Earth, and would therefore be difficult to detect.

Eriita Jones is a PhD candidate with Charles Lineweaver at the Australian National University’s Research School of Astronomy & Astrophysics. They originally published the research descreibed here in the journal Astrobiology (10, 349–61; 11, 1017–33).

SCIENCE INKorporated

Fry's tattoos include CT scanned images of Komodo dragon skulls, a stylised snak

Fry's tattoos include CT scanned images of Komodo dragon skulls, a stylised snake and an adrenalin molecule.

By Matt Finch

His body may be adorned by tattoos of snakes, Komodo dragons and an adrenaline molecule, but Bryan Fry is only one of many scientists whose research interests are glorified in ink.

The phone rings for a long time before the call goes through.

“Who is this?”

I introduce myself.

The speaker repeats: “Who is this?” It sounds like he’s outdoors. A gust of wind blots out his voice and we lose the connection.

I wait and call again. “Dr Fry, I’m calling from Australasian Science.”

“I’m sorry, I was taking out the trash when I saw a venomous swamp snake. Of course I had to try and catch it.” The term “scientific pursuit” is a literal – and hazardous – one for Brian Grieg Fry of the University of Queensland.

Matt Finch is a freelance writer and education consultant.

The Evidence for Meditation



By Jonathan R. Krygier, Sara Shahrestani & Andrew H. Kemp

Meditation has traditionally been associated with Eastern mysticism, but science is beginning to show that cultivating a “heightened” state of consciousness can have a major impact on our brain, the way our bodies function and our levels of resilience.

Our minds and bodies are inextricably linked. For example, in 2006 Dr Michael Gonzales of Duke University reported that people with depression are at an increased risk of heart attack and up to 40% of patients with cardiovascular disease suffer from depression.

Jonathan Krygier is a PhD candidate, Sara Shahrestani is a third year psychology student, and Andrew Kemp is a NHMRC Career Development Award Fellow at the University of Sydney's School of Psychology.

A Burning Question



By Karl-Heinz Wyrwoll, Michael Notaro & Guangshan Chen

For thousands of years, indigenous Australians modified the landscape of the continent through regular and widespread burning of vegetation. Their use of fire was in part for hunting purposes and also for clearing pathways, for signalling other tribal groups and for promoting grass regrowth. Results from a recent climate modelling experiment suggest that these traditional burning practices may have been of sufficient magnitude to change the climate of northern Australia.

During the past few decades, human-induced climate change has been a persistent theme in the scientific literature. In more recent times it has been the subject of considerable argument in the public domain. Central to the discussion of human-induced climate change is the role of greenhouse gas emissions during the industrial era.

Karl-Heinz Wyrwoll is Associate Professor at The University of Western Australia’s School of Earth and Environment. Michael Notaro and Guangshan Chen are based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Climatic Research. The study was funded by Kimberley Foundation Australia and Climate Program Prediction for the Americas, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (USA).

Spoilt by Choice



By David Raubenheimer & Stephen J. Simpson

Our supermarkets provide a wide variety of foods, so why do more than a billion people worldwide eat more poorly than hunter-gatherers? A study conducted in a Swiss chalet was the starting point to test a theory.

The variety of foods now available is unprecedented in history, yet more than a billion people worldwide are overweight or obese. Considering the immense disease burden that this imposes on society, it seems that humans are not very good at making the most of the privileged times in which many of us live.

David Raubenheimer is Professor of Nutritional Ecology and Director of the Bachelor of Natural Sciences degree at Massey University. Professor Stephen Simpson is ARC Laureate Fellow in the School of Biological Sciences, and Academic Director of the Charles Perkins Centre, the University of Sydney.

Sugar’s Role in Climate Change


Phytoplankton living in the surface waters of the oceans are responsible for absorbing up to 40% of all of the carbon that becomes incorporated into living things.

By Christel Hassler

Marine plankton account for up to 40% of carbon absorbed by all living things, but their growth is limited in half of the world’s oceans by iron bioavailability. New research has found that marine plankton can produce sugars that improve iron bioavailability – and hence plankton growth.

Phytoplankton living in the surface waters of the oceans are responsible for absorbing up to 40% of all of the carbon that becomes incorporated into living things, so their health, reproduction and productivity are of huge significance in regulating the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Christel Hassler is Chancellor's Post Doctoral Research Fellow with the University of Technology Sydney’s Plant Functional Biology and Climate Change Cluster. The research described here was a collaboration with the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, CSIRO, the Center for Australian Weather and Climate Research and New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, and was published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science. Co-authors are V. Schoemann, E.C.V. Butler, C.A. Mancuso Nichols, M. Doblin, P.J. Ralph and P.W. Boyd.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bug

Legionella causes about 300 infections per year in Australia.

Legionella causes about 300 infections per year in Australia.

By Michael Taylor

The public may think of Legionella as a deadly disease, but Michael Taylor sees parallels with the structure of the universe in the slimes he examines under the microscope.

When I tell people that I grow disease-ridden slime for a living, I usually get an interesting reaction. Sometimes it involves them sneaking away to wash their hands, but most often people just ask: “Why?”.

Michael Taylor has been investigating the ecology of Legionella in potting mix and human-constructed environments for his PhD, which he completed at Flinders University’s School of the Environment under the supervision of Kirstin Ross and Richard Bentham.

Masters of Illusion

The bower of a great bowerbird with one display court visible in the foreground.

the bower of a great bowerbird with one display court visible in the foreground, the other court is visible through the avenue. Note the green decorations to the side of the court.

By Laura Kelley & John Endler

Male great bowerbirds construct visual illusions that enhance mating success by altering female perception of their displays.

Male animals produce a dizzying array of courtship displays when attempting to attract a mate, but perhaps the most impressive of all are the courtship rituals of the bowerbirds. Of the 20 species of bowerbird that are endemic to Australia and New Guinea, 17 of these decorate cleared areas or construct bowers.

It is a common misconception that bowers are nests. Their sole purpose is to lure females so that the males can mate with them.

Laura Kelley is a Research Fellow at Deakin University’s Centre for Integrative Ecology.

What Illuminated Dark Energy?

Brian Schmidt

Prof Brian Schmidt’s discovery solved three major problems in astrophysics. Credit: Belinda Pratten

By Tamara Davis

Science rarely overturns existing paradigms, so why was the astonishing announcement that a mysterious “dark energy” was accelerating the expansion of the universe so quickly accepted by cosmologists?

Reporting of scientific discoveries usually emphasises the surprises, the awe, the overturning of previous “knowledge”, and the whiz kids showing that commonly held wisdom is wrong. That’s no wonder, because the plodding progress of incremental improvements with frequent missteps but steady growth hardly makes exciting news, even though it’s the more common route to success. In science, just as in music, the “overnight success” of enormous breakthroughs pretty much always rides on the back of years of training and hard work.

Tamara Davis is a Research Fellow with the University of Queensland’s School of Mathematics and Physics.