Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938


Bigger or Better?


Would you rather be 30% wealthier retaining the liveability of your area or 38% wealthier with much more crowding?

By Ian Lowe

A number of commentators and interest groups extol the need to increase Australia’s population, but how well do their arguments stand up to scrutiny?

I was provoked to write a book about the population debate when Kevin Rudd calmly told Kerry O’Brien that he believed in “a big Australia”. His off-hand comment created a storm. One insider admitted: “The focus groups went ballistic”.

The fundamental reason is that most of us living in or around our major cities accurately perceive that our quality of life has steadily declined as urban populations have grown. And all the important environmental indicators are getting worse as a direct result of the increasing demands of our growing population.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of Science, Technology and Society at Griffith University and president of the Australian Conservation Foundation. His new book, Bigger or Better? Australia’s Population Debate, is published by University of Queensland Press.

Patently Mad About Patents

Credit: iStockphoto

Credit: iStockphoto

By Ian Maxwell

Recent changes in the US patent system have been promoted as a boon to the US economy, but are the benefits of these changes universal?

In most countries, liquid volume is measured in metric litres. In Australia, we once had fluid ounces but we wisely switched from the imperial to the metric system in the 1970s. Our American cousins eschewed such change and they still have fluid ounces, but different fluid ounces from the English imperial system that we abandoned. Back in their distant history the Americans decided to come up with their own measure of fluid volume, but didn’t bother to change the name from that used in the rest of the non-metric world.

Ian Maxwell is a venture capitalist and Adjunct Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT who started out his career as a physical polymer chemist. This article was first published in Chemistry in Australia.

Demystifying a Sea Monster

Credit: David Wachenfeld, Triggerfish Images

A freshwater sawfish rests on the bottom. Credit: David Wachenfeld, Triggerfish Images

By Barbara Wueringer

The use of the sawfish’s saw has been widely speculated upon, but a recent study has finally revealed its dual purpose.

Catching prey might be one of the most difficult tasks that animals face every day. This task can be even more difficult for aquatic predators, whose prey can escape into three-dimensional space.

Barbara Wueringer is now an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at James Cook University’s School of Marine and Tropical Biology. The study was conducted at both the University of Queensland and the University of Western Australia.

Conservation Needs More Bite

Credit: Angus McNab

Recent science suggests that the dingo holds the key to protecting mainland Australia's unique biodiversity. Credit: Angus McNab

By Euan Ritchie

What role can devils and dingoes play in curbing Australia’s rate of species extinctions?

It is apparent to anyone walking through the Australian bush that there is little to be concerned about – other than deadly snakes and spiders. In Australia, unlike in Africa’s savannas or North America’s forests, you won’t be eaten by a large predator.

Euan Ritchie lectures in ecology at Deakin University.

Green Symphonies

Plants may be just as noisy as other organisms.

Plants may be just as noisy as other organisms.

By Monica Gagliano

New research reveals plants emitting and responding to sounds.

Monica Gagliano is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Centre for Evolutionary Biology at the University of Western Australia.

Bird Brains? Pigeons Move Up the Pecking Order

When the pigeon pecks the image correctly a border is displayed and a short tone

This pigeon, named Einstein, correctly pecks the lower number (8) of the pair 8 vs 9. When the pigeon pecks the image correctly a border is displayed and a short tone sounds.

By Damian Scarf

Research into the intellectual abilities of pigeons reveals that the brains of birds, while very different to our own brains, are capable of much more than they’re given credit for.

Many people think pigeons are not the sharpest crayons in the box, and I must admit that I shared this view at the beginning of my PhD. But I was wrong.

My research has shown that pigeons are intelligent and, remarkably, can handle numbers in sophisticated and abstract ways, just like humans and other primates. My findings add to a growing body of work showing that you do not need to have hands or a primate-like brain to be intelligent, and add to the evidence showing that there are a number of evolutionary paths that lead to intelligence.

Damian Scarf is a Research Fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of Otago, New Zealand.

NBN to Crunch SKA

The data volume flowing from the SKA can’t possibly be stored and kept long-term

The data volume flowing from the SKA can’t possibly be stored and kept long-term. Credit: CSIRO

By Dennis Godfrey

The National Broadband Network will help scientists access the huge amounts of data generated by the Square Kilometre Array.

The speed and ubiquity of the National Broadband Network (NBN) will revolutionise how we connect with each other, with massive benefits to society, including in the major fields of aged care, health, business, education – and science.

One of the most important areas of cooperation between the US$2 billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope and the NBN initiative has been the Australian government’s $250 million NBN Regional Backbone Blackspots Program (RBBP), which has delivered 6000 km of competitive fibre backbone across regional Australia.

Dennis Godfrey is a Senior Communication Adviser within the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy.

On the Crest of a Gravity Wave

Credit:Henning Dalhoff / Science Photo Library

Credit:Henning Dalhoff / Science Photo Library

By Stephen Luntz

Gravitational wave detectors may soon provide a new way of viewing the universe, but Australia has passed up the chance to have one located here – for now at least.

The recent detection of the Higgs boson represented the final frontier for the Standard Model of Particle Physics, for once putting science on the front page of the world's newspapers.

The search for the Higgs boson parallels the quest to detect gravitational waves, a key feature of General Relativity. Both require enormous facilities to detect something both subtle and hugely significant, and in both cases it is hoped that their discovery will be simply the first step to far greater insight into the workings of the universe.

New books

By Stephen Luntz

Your guide to new science books this month.

Lily’ Numbers Puzzles
Lily Serna, Hardie Grant, $19.95
For teachers sick of hearing their students complain that maths is neither relevant nor fun, Lily Serna is here. The co-author of SBS’s Letters and Numbers Australia series says that maths is in her blood: half of her close relatives are engineers along with an analyst and a math’s teacher.

Lily’s Numbers Puzzles contains more than 300 mathematical puzzles demonstrating both the everyday use of mathematics and providing enjoyable challenges to stretch one’s skill.

Fertility on Ice

By Michael Cook

Cryopreservation and eventual transplantation of ovarian tissue may delay menopause, but what are the consequences?

One seldom-mentioned element in the bioethicist’s skill set is a wild imagination. Perhaps that’s why I’m a journalist and not a bioethicist.

Take the novel technique of fertility insurance through ovarian tissue cryopreservation (OCT). So far, nearly 30 babies in the US and Europe have been born to mothers who had a slice of their own frozen tissue grafted onto an ovary to restore their fertility. In all these cases the surgery was needed because the woman was about to have chemotherapy, which would destroy ovarian function.

Michael Cook is editor of the online bioethics newsletter BioEdge.