Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938


Coal Industry Uses the Dope Dealer’s Defence

By Ian Lowe

The coal industry needs to take responsibility for the consequences of selling their product.

I recently appeared as an expert witness in the environment court of one state. The case concerned a proposal for a massive new coal mine. If approved, it would result in the release of at least 1.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the global atmosphere – about as much as New Zealand will release between now and 2050. The proponent – and their expert witnesses in the court case – advanced what can be called “the dope-dealer’s defence”: if we don’t supply it, somebody else will, and in any case we aren’t responsible for what the buyers do with our product.

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

Kuru Was No Laughing Matter

By Stephen Luntz

Michael Alpers’ work in Papua New Guinea helped to explain one of the strangest known diseases, and opened the way to understanding several related infections.

When Prof Michael Alpers went to the Fore territory of Papua New Guinea in 1961, the people were dying of an apparently inexplicable disease. Known as kuru, the neurological condition’s name comes from a local word meaning “to shake”. Sufferers became weak, started to shake and had uncontrollable bursts of laughter. It was always fatal.

Kuru’s cause was particularly obscure. Was it a genetic or an infectious disease? If infectious, what was the transmissive agent?

No sign of a bacterium or virus existed. The disease was clearly in decline, but this only added to the mystery.

Soccer Ball Nebula Undermines Theory

By Stephen Luntz

The confirmation of a planetary nebula, recently discovered by amateurs, may lead to the overthrow of an astronomical theory that is currently taught as confirmed knowledge.

In 1994 photographic plates of the entire northern sky taken with the giant Mt Palomar telescope in California were digitised, allowing their widespread access, and a group of amateurs known as the Deep Sky Hunters set about combing the plates for new objects such as nebulae. The Hunters have come up with around 100 planetary nebulae, but the object Kn61 could prove unusually significant as a result of its location in the sky.

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A New Type of T-Cell
An unexpected observation has led to the discovery of a new type of immune cell, although so far its role in the immune system remains largely unknown.

The new cell is a form of natural killer T-cell (NKT). Most of the immune system’s T-cells attack proteins on the surface of viruses or bacteria, but NKT cells attack fatty lipid-based molecules.

Neutrino Hint from Radioactivity Puzzle

By Peter Pockley

The discovery that the decay rates of radioactive isotopes may not be immutable "constants of nature" could open fresh ways of detecting neutrinos and protecting astronauts and satellites in space.

A Mystery of Astronomical Proportions

By Christine Nicholls

At least one-third of all red giant stars have a mysterious variation in brightness that has astronomers stumped.

Rise of the Machines

By Trevor Lithgow

The cells in our body work because of the many "molecular machines" within them – but where did these machines comes from?

Sea Slugs Turn up Heat on Bleaching

By Ingo Burghardt

Symbiotic sea slugs employ similar zooxanthellae species as corals, offering fresh insights into why heat-stressed corals bleach.

NASA's Uncharted Future

By Morris Jones

What does the scrapping of NASA's plans to revisit the Moon mean for space exploration?

Supercapacitors Increase Battery Life

By Stephen Luntz

A team at Waikato University has demonstrated that supercapacitors can be used to capture electrical energy that would otherwise go to waste in portable electronic devices, significantly increasing the efficiency of high-tech gadgets.