Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938



By Stephen Luntz

Cannabis risk in pregnancy, IVF risks for multiple embryos, early birth better for twins and more.

Previous Cannabis a Pregnancy Risk

Consumption of marijuana doubles the chance of premature birth, Prof Gus Dekker of the University of Adelaide has reported in PLoS ONE. But it doesn’t have to be taken during pregnancy to have an effect.

A study of 3000 Adelaide and Auckland mothers found that the highest risk factor for spontaneous pre-term birth was a strong family history of low birth weight babies. This increased the risk for women in the sample by a factor of almost six.

Wind Turbine Syndrome: A Classic “Communicated” Disease

Credit: iStockphoto

Credit: iStockphoto

By Simon Chapman

Is there any evidence that wind farms cause illness in the community?

At the beginning of this year I started collecting examples of health problems some people were attributing to wind turbine exposure. I had noticed a growing number of such claims on the internet and was curious about how many I could find. Within an hour or two I had found nearly 50 and today the number has grown to an astonishing 155.

I have worked in public health on three continents since the mid-1970s. In all this time, I have never encountered anything in the history of disease that is said to cause even a fraction of the list of problems I have collected.

Simon Chapman is Professor in Public Health at the University of Sydney. This article is reproduced from The Conversation (

Dead Hands and Phantoms

Credit: iStockphoto

Credit: iStockphoto

By Lee Walsh, Janet Taylor and Simon Gandevia

Recent studies have highlighted how central signals in the brain can change our sensation of the position and movement of joints, and how phantom limbs form when sensory information is lost.

You have probably woken at night occasionally with a “dead” hand or arm due to compression or stretching of the nerves going down your arm. The hand can be both paralysed (it won’t move when you try to move it) and anaesthetised (you can touch it with your other hand, but it feels numb and “dead”).

Logically you might expect to feel nothing – or the absence of an arm – when your brain receives no input from sensory nerves. Instead, you feel the presence of a real “dead” hand.

Lee Walsh completed his PhD on proprioception at Neuroscience Research Australia under the supervision of Janet Taylor and Simon Gandevia.

Collision Course

Comet McNaught

Comet McNaught photographed from Perth revealing why it was sometimes called a “fountain in the sky”.

By Stephen Luntz

Rob McNaught discovered the brightest comet of recent years and alerted observers to a meteor storm, but is now struggling for funds to detect asteroids on a collision course with Earth.

Twice in the past dozen years, amateur astronomers have had reason to thank Rob McNaught as he has provided warning of possibly the two most spectacular events of those times. However, discovering comets and predicting meteor storms are sidelines to his work – detecting asteroids that may one day pose a threat to the Earth, or at least a small portion of it.

McNaught has enabled millions to witness astronomical events that put any fireworks display to shame, yet his efforts may cease for the lack of a budget smaller than what large cities spend each New Year’s Eve on their local fireworks show.

A Century of Australian Antarctic Medicine

A winter afternoon in the living hut at Commonwealth Bay.

Left: A winter afternoon in the living hut at Commonwealth Bay. (L–R) Dr Xavier Mertz in charge of Greenland dogs (reading); Archie McLean, Chief Medical Officer and bacteriologist; Cecil Madigan, meterologist; and John Hunter, biologist. © Frank Hurley/Commonwealth of Australia

By Desmond Lugg and Jeff Ayton

Medical care and research in Antarctica has come a long way since the first expeditions took place 100 years ago.

From the outset, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition 1911–14 (AAE) was recognised by Antarctic historians as an important expedition. In 1928 J. Gordon Hayes wrote: “Sir Douglas Mawson’s expedition, judged by the magnitude both of its scale and of its achievements, was the greatest and most consummate expedition that ever sailed for Antarctica”.

Desmond Lugg was Head of Polar Medicine at the AAD from 1968–2001, and Chief of Medicine of Extreme Environments at NASA from 2001–06. Jeff Ayton has been Chief Medical Officer for the AAD since 2002. Drs Lugg and Ayton are currently writing a book on the centenary of Australian Antarctic medical practice. This article is adapted from an article published in Australian Antarctic Magazine. ©Commonwealth of Australia

Is Coal Seam Gas Polluting Groundwater?

Protesters called for no further expansion of coal and coal seam gas.

Protesters called for no further expansion of coal and coal seam gas outside the Gunnedah Basin Coal and Energy Conference held in Newcastle on 25 June 2012. Photo: Kate Ausburn

By Kate Osborne

Landholders are adamant that coal seam gas is contaminating their groundwater, but natural geological processes make their accusations difficult to prove. Now science is starting to fill in the cracks.

Brian Monk calls himself a coal seam gas refugee. At a protest rally in October 2011 he described the series of events that led him to conclude that his drinking water had been contaminated by coal seam gas activity.

Kate Osborne is an ecologist and science writer.

Escape to Madagascar

Propithecus diadema, the diademed sifaka.  Credit: Mitchell Irwin

Propithecus diadema, the diademed sifaka. Credit: Mitchell Irwin

By Karen Samonds

Madagascar’s bizarre assemblage of fauna didn’t evolve from the fossils found on the island, so how did they get there?

‘‘For naturalists Madagascar is the true Promised Land. Nature seems to have withdrawn there into a private sanctuary, to work on models different from any she has used elsewhere. There you meet the most unusual and marvelous forms at every step . . . What an admirable country, this Madagascar!’’ Joseph-Philibert Commerson, 1771

Karen Samonds is a palaeontologist and Senior Lecturer in the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Queensland.

A Dose of Science

By Rob Morrison

Alternative health practices pirate the terminology and titles of real science to gain credibility, but it is what their practitioners do, not what they say, that gives the game away.

The federal budget contained an overdue recommendation for the Chief Medical Officer to assess several complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs) to determine those that are not evidence-based and should no longer receive taxpayer-funded rebates for treatments. Listed were homeopathy, reiki, aromatherapy, ear candling, crystal therapy, flower essences, kinesiology and rolfing. It follows the British government’s decision to cease funding the teaching of these CAMs in British universities.

Rob Morrison is a Professorial Fellow at Flinders University. A scientist by training, he is one of the founders, and current Vice-President, of Friends of Science in Medicine.

The Canary in the Medical Coal Mine

By Michael Cook

A steroid is being used off-label early in pregnancy to “normalise” the gender of the foetus.

By and large, genetic engineering of human embryos is still science fiction. But there are other ways to alter the development of an unborn child.

Bioethicist Alice Dreger, of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in the US, and colleagues recently documented in the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry extensive off-label use of a synthetic steroid, dexamethasone, which is being used to engineer the development of foetuses for sex normalisation purposes.

Michael Cook is editor of the bioethics newsletter BioEdge.

Tasmania’s Logging Industry Cut Down to Size

By Ian Lowe

A study has found that Tasmania’s forestry industry “is not economically viable”.

Forestry talks in Tasmania have provoked two Canberra observers to calculate the cost to the community of subsidising the logging of native forests. Richard Denniss, who heads the Australia Institute, and Andrew Macintosh of the Australian National University’s Centre for Environmental Law, have concluded that Forestry Tasmania “is not economically viable”.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.