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Feature article

How half our brain keeps watch when we sleep in unfamiliar places

By Masako Tamaki and Yuka Sasaki

Poor sleep in an unfamiliar setting may be linked to an important function of the brain to protect the sleeper from potential danger.

Have you ever arrived in a hotel room after a long flight and, despite being exhausted, found it painfully difficult to fall asleep? And even once you managed to get to sleep, did you still wake frequently in the night, or too early in the morning, feeling groggy and desperate?

Researchers have long known about this phenomenon in an experimental setting, terming it the “first-night effect”. Sleep study participants often sleep poorly during their first experimental session in a new environment and sleep quality usually improves dramatically on the second night.

Native Aussie rat survives sticky situation

Picture: Kath Tuft

Picture: Kath Tuft

By Andrew Spence

Their wooden homes are stuck together with pee and have stood longer than the pyramids.

Once abundant across semi-arid regions of southern Australia, the Greater Stick-Nest Rat, Leporillus conditor, was pushed to the brink of extinction in the 20th Century by competition for food from livestock and rabbits and the introduction of predatory foxes and feral cats.

Now the furry little Australian mammal with a blunt snout and large rounded ears is making a comeback.

The rats earn their Greater tag not from their size, they only grow to 26cm and weigh less than 450 grams, but from their large nests.

China’s growing footprint on the globe threatens to trample the natural world

A queue of logging trucks in Southeast Asia. Credit: Jeff Vincent

A queue of logging trucks in Southeast Asia. Credit: Jeff Vincent

By Bill Laurance

China’s unprecedented development schemes are transforming the entire world, yet its leaders assure us these activities will be environmentally and socially sustainable. Should we trust the promises?

Many observers of China’s escalating global program of foreign investment and infrastructure development are crossing their fingers and hoping for the best. In an ideal world, China’s unbridled ambitions will improve economic growth, food security and social development in many poor nations, as well as enriching itself.

Such hopes are certainly timely, given the isolationism of the US Trump
administration, which has created an international leadership vacuum that China is eager to fill.

Death of Antarctic Physicist Marks End of Era

Dr Neville (“Nod”) Parsons in retirement.

Dr Neville (“Nod”) Parsons in retirement.

By Paul J Edwards

The death in Hobart on 30 December 2017 of 91-year-old Antarctic physicist and expeditioner Dr Neville (Nod) Parsons marks the end of an era of Australian Antarctic research and exploration.

Not many physicists have lent their names to a mountain as did Parsons to a “huge, sheer-sided” peak at the northern end of the David Range in Australian Antarctic Territory. This followed the first exploration of the David, Casey and Masson ranges in January 1956 by an Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition party of five led from Mawson by Antarctic explorer John Béchervaise over heavily crevassed ice. Béchervaise and Neville "Nod" Parsons were subsequently awarded Imperial Polar Medals for their work.

Top 10 science stories of 2017

By Joe Milton

2017 has been a bumper year for science yarns, from exploding neutron stars to a crashing spacecraft, and incredible advances in artificial wombs.

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Trump dumped Paris

‘Rock stars of the sea’ put on amazing underwater show in South Australia

Photo: Carl Charter

Nicknamed “the rock stars of the ocean” because they live fast and die young, cuttlefish have a life span of just 12-18 months, so impressive displays are necessary to attract a mate. Photo: Carl Charter

By Andrew Spence

Flowing arms, skins that change colour in an instant, dance battles and petite males disguised as females to trick their rivals – the courting behaviour of the alien-like Giant Australian Cuttlefish would look more at home in a Star Wars night club.

Each year more than 100,000 of the bizarre creatures gather in South Australia’s Upper Spencer Gulf Marine Park in what is the only known mass aggregation of its kind in the world.

Nicknamed “the rock stars of the ocean” because they live fast and die young, cuttlefish have a life span of just 12-18 months. This makes each May to August breeding season critical because the number of surviving eggs one year directly impacts the number of adult cuttlefish that return the next year to breed.

Personal Deterrents Can Reduce the Risk of Shark Bites

Credit: Andrew Fox / Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions

Credit: Andrew Fox / Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions

By Charlie Huveneers & Corey J. A. Bradshaw

A study tests how effectively commercial shark deterrents reduce the risk of shark bites.

Many things might explain why the number of shark bites appear to be increasing. However, the infrequent occurrence of such events makes it nearly impossible to determine why. Recently, an atypically high rate of shark bites occurred in Western Australia in 2010-2011 and on the north coast of New South Wales in 2015-2016. These highly publicised events — often sensationalised in both traditional and social media — have pressured governments to implement new measures to reduce the risk of shark bites.

Top 10 weird science stories of 2017

By Joe Milton

Weird science was out in force in 2017 - someone named a planet Bernard, sheep were trained to recognise Baaarack Obaaama, octopuses marched out of the sea, and re-inflated dolphin dangly bits revealed some sea sex secrets, among many other peculiar science yarns.

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Sheep recognised Baaarack Obaaama

A Scientist’s Defense of Free Will

By Mahir S. Ozdemir

Why scientists should not jump to the unwarranted conclusion that free will is just an illusion.

Our commonsensical view holds that everything we do in life is a choice and we are totally free to choose between the options which we think are available to us. Many scientists, however, see a fundamental problem with the conventional wisdom about free will and claim that it is nothing more than an illusion.

Top Ten Weirdest Science Stories of 2014

By Australian Science Media Centre

A recap of the weirdest science stories in 2014, from the attractiveness of hipster beards and the induction of a dream within a dream to the number of bacteria transferred during a kiss.

Sorry hipsters, we hit peak beard