Interactive Periodic Table

Another in my loose series of great science-imagery websites: visit for an illustrated, interactive Periodic Table of the Elements. Hover your mouse over any element for a picture and basic facts or click for more information and pictures. It’s more fun than it sounds, since the graphics are great and all of the information is solid but some of it is quirky. Ages: 9 – 90.

Geeks will appreciate the fact that the website’s author, Theodore Gray, is responsible for the user interface of Mathematica. He has an interesting background essay to the Periodic Table site here; as someone said, it is inspirational in a sobering kind of way.

More netizen science

Encyclopedia of Life

One of my first posts to this blog mentioned Encyclopedia of Life, a major international collaborative effort to document the living world around us. Its list of sponsors and supporters starts at the highest possible levels (Smithsonian Institution)  and goes all the way down to amateurs like myself, contributing by uploading photographs of my local wildlife.

Dragonfly perched on twig
Local wildlife: Australasian Slimwing, Lathrecista asiatica festa

There is only one way for an ordinary person to contribute images, i.e. the EOL Flickr group at The rules for the group basically say that images need a creative commons license allowing third parties to use them free of copyright and a ‘machine tag’ which will enable automated harvesting of images from the group to EOL itself.

Flickr membership needn’t cost you anything. A free account allows you to upload 300MB worth of photos per month and if you resize them to roughly screen resolution (say 1000 x 750 px) they will be under 1MB each, allowing you hundreds of uploaded images per month if you have that much free time.

It takes a bit of time and fiddly work to set up a Flickr account, choose photos and tag them, but anyone can make a useful contribution to a worthwhile project. And any Australian photos will be picked up automatically from EOL by the Atlas of Living Australia, a similar project run by CSIRO and most of our state museums.

Climate science

A question that popped up on RealClimate recently was, “In what ways could an amateur scientist contribute to the study of climate, and assist the professionals?”

The question continued, “I don’t mean advocacy, but assist in actual research. As an example in a different field of study, amateur astronomers are playing key roles by looking for supernovae and then alerting professionals when one is first found so that the far more powerful telescopes can be directed towards the exploding star to collect data …  Just like there are certain tasks that professional astronomers ‘downsource’, so to speak, to amateurs, I am curious if there are certain tasks that professional climatologists are looking to downsource.”

A good question, and it promptly got a good answer from Gavin Schmidt, one of the core members of RealClimate: “Some of the most active ‘citizen science’ projects related to climate are focused on the digitisation of old weather records (here and here), and phenology projects (for instance, here or here).” (The third of these four starts by defining ‘phenology’, in case you wondered.)

The best Australian equivalent to the US phenology projects Gavin mentions is probably Climatewatch, but there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other citizen science projects ranging from divers helping count marine life to students trapping and identifying barley mildew. Search the net for “citizen science projects [your state]” and find one that appeals.

The Magic of Reality

Book cover imageRichard Dawkins: The Magic of Reality – how we know what’s really true
Illustrated by Dave McKean
Bantam, 2011.

Richard Dawkins made himelf famous decades ago with The Selfish Gene (1976) and famous all over over again with The God Delusion (2006), a merciless attack on religion in general and Christianity in particular. Between those two he wrote a string of popular science books, mostly about evolution but including Unweaving the Rainbow (1998) which was a reply to those who said his hard-line scientific approach took all the pleasure and poetry out of life. He argued in that book that there was as much pleasure and as much magic in science as in art or mythology, with the significant bonus that science was really true.

The Magic of Reality is a combination of The God Delusion and Unweaving the Rainbow, but for younger readers. The first and last chapters are ‘What is reality? What is magic?’ and ‘What is a miracle?’ Reality, he says, is what we can perceive with our five senses, aided if necessary by extensions such as telescopes and microscopes. Magic, he says, is slipperier but can be divided into ‘stage magic’, which tricks people into believing things which didn’t actually occur, ‘poetic magic’, the feel-good magic of a starry night or great painting, and ‘supernatural magic’, the magic of fairy stories and J K Rowling, which he rejects outright, saying, “we all know this kind of magic is just fiction and doesn’t happen in reality.”

The outer chapters bracket Dawkins’ examination of the standard Big Questions – the origins of animal life (including ourselves) and the universe – and the causes of such natural phenomena as rainbows and earthquakes. Each of them begins with myths ‘explaining’ the answers, which the author counters with the scientific answer. The myths come from people all around the world – Maori, Japanese, African, American Indians, Jews … yes, Judaism and Christianity are in there on an equal footing. The science, in reply, is genuine but lucid and nontechnical.

His next-to-last chapter, structured the same way, is ‘Why do bad things happen?’ and he discusses demons, angels and original sin before explaining chance and evolutionary necessity: ‘bad things’ happen because ‘things’ happen, and life is a constant struggle for survival which some of us, inevitably, lose. That leads naturally into his discussion of miracles. He argues, of course, that the universe doesn’t care about fairness or mercy and that miracles don’t exist, saying that anything that looks like a miracle is a natural event which we can’t yet explain but should work on understanding, or something that didn’t really happen in the way people thought, i.e. the observers were mistaken, or reports were exaggerated.

Summarised as quickly as this, The Magic of Reality is transparently an attack on religion and celebration of science – on this side, science; on that side, superstition; which side are you on? That is, indeed, what the book does but the young reader is unlikely to be fully conscious of it because my summary doesn’t accurately reflect the space given to the issues in the book. In reality, those first and last chapters add up to barely 40 pages with 220 between them.

In its favour, the writing is lively and direct, the information is accurate and brilliantly presented and the illustrations are colourfully inventive. But The Magic of Reality left me slightly uneasy.

Why? Because of a gap which Dawkins doesn’t acknowledge and (for all I know) may not even be aware of: art, mystery, magic and religion do have functions which do not conflict with the functions or discoveries of science and yet cannot be addressed by science. If we teach our children to throw them out, we impoverish our civilisation. Morality and ethics? Science says nothing, but hints that Darwinian survivalism is the only rational rule. Art? Science says nothing but seems to suspect that it is a delusion or a mating ritual. And so on.

Science is so strictly focused on objective observational evidence that it is deliberately blind to anything that happens behind the eyes and between the ears of every one of us. Love and hate, generosity and compassion, ambition and lust, joy and despair – science doesn’t want to know about them. But they are intrinsic to our make-up and if we don’t somehow learn about them we have no way of understanding them.

I find myself applauding the book for its many good points but hoping that readers balance their diet. The Magic of Reality is food for the growing brain, but we do need food for the heart and (dare I say it) the spirit as well.

Grab bag: Just for (slightly geeky) fun

The web brings me lots of cute and/or entertaining snippets which are worth sharing but don’t really deserve a whole page to themselves. Here’s a selection of recent ‘grabs’, with thanks to those who pointed them out to me.

Tata Develops Car That Can Run On Air

A car that runs on air sounds like an interesting idea that’s too good to be true. I followed it up to the extent of finding more technical details, here, and it is, in fact, both.

It should indeed be cheap to run and reduce pollution in the cities – both good – but it is essentially another ‘long tail pipe’ technology in that the power source is really  mains electricity, since the compressed air, like hydrogen or batteries, is just a way of storing energy. Until the mains electricity is generated from renewable sources the Tata ultimately runs on coal or oil, so there is still a pollution cost. This link points to a way around that problem, but it is some distance into the future.

IgNobel prizes

The Ignobels are awarded annually for ‘achievements that first make people LAUGH then make them THINK,’ as the website says. They do that.

Fate of the World game

Computer strategy game Fate of the World gives gamers the chance to save a virtual world from climate catastrophe.

Using real climatic models, it gives gamers and environmentalists the chance to test policy ideas on a global scale. Its developers intend the game to be fun and to help increase awareness of the complex nature of fighting global warming.

Initial reviews (linked from bottom of this Greenpeace review) are positive in terms of game enjoyment.

Quantum levitation

I sent this link to a young relative (relatively young, anyway) working in quantum physics and he sent me this link by way of explanation. Another knowledgeable friend said, ‘What you are seeing with the superconductor is a result of the diamagnetism and flux pinning of the superconductor,’ and pointed to

Aah! not Eeek!

The day after a post about a tiny, cute (if doughty) spider may be a good time to post this (oldish) book review. I never had any dislike or unreasonable fear of spiders myself but I know people who do … 

Lynne Kelly: Spiders – Learning to Love Them

book cover image
It's all right, the spider is far smaller than this image.

Lynne Kelly suffered horribly from arachnophobia so she set out to cure her terror by familiarising herself with its cause. From watching small spiders at safe distances, she worked up to letting a tarantula walk on her hand. This book details her healing – and learning – process.

She is now a confirmed arachnophile and her book is full of affectionate observations of the spiders in her Melbourne garden, with their bizarre hunting and mating habits, complemented by a generous amount of scientific detail. It is probably more than you ever wanted to know about spiders, but she is a science writer so it is all accurate, clearly written and well illustrated.

Allen & Unwin, $29.95, Feb 2009

Kelly’s latest project is The Spiderblogger. I did call her a ‘confirmed arachnophile’, didn’t I?

Reading about the Reef

Having mentioned this book in connection with Tribal Science, I’m posting my review of it here in spite of the fact that it has already appeared in slightly different forms in the Townsville Bulletin and in Waves, the newsletter of the Reef HQ Volunteers Association.

Woodford's 'The Great Barrier Reef' cover picJames Woodford, already an award-winning environmental journalist with several books to his credit, decided in 2008 to tackle a really big subject, the two and a half thousand kilometre long Reef. Wanting to learn about it from those who know most about it and see parts of it that are usually out of reach, he signed on as a volunteer on scientific expeditions from the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) between the beginning of 2009 and the middle of 2010.

It was a big commitment of time and effort (earning the scuba tickets he needed was a major exercise in itself) but it took him from Townsville past Lockhart River to Raine Island in the north, to the Swain Reefs in the south, to Heron and One Tree Island research stations, and even to Lord Howe Island, that last outpost of reef life far south of the Reef itself.

Slightly sceptical about the impact on the Reef of global warming when he began, he was convinced – and deeply concerned – by the time he finished. One expedition member after another pointed out the dangers to him, and in August 2009 he heard their research summarised at a conference in Brisbane: “Speaker after speaker made one point clearly … we were already in dangerous territory with regard to CO2 levels … the question right now is not whether the reef will suffer, but rather how bad the injury will be.” But this is a relatively small element in Woodford’s book. He dives some spectacularly beautiful coral reefs, has close encounters with cyclones, sharks and turtles, and meets a great range of colourful people.

The Great Barrier Reef is very readable, details of reef science emerging naturally from Woodford’s conversations with scientists (endlessly passionate about their work) and the experiments and underwater life he observed. This is a book for all of us who live near the Reef yet know little about it, and for visitors who would like to take away more than a memory of dazzling beauty.

The Great Barrier Reef
James Woodford
Macmillan, Sept 2010, $32.99

Woodford blogs on the Australian environment at

Tribal Science

Cover image "Tribal Science"

The fact that we are basically smart monkeys underlies a lot of our not-so-smart behaviour but Mike McRae focuses on only one aspect of it, that is, how it affects our relationship with science.

On one level we know we know science is our best means for discovering the truth, but on another we distrust it. McRae wanted to find out why, since our distrust encourages irrational and potentially dangerous responses to real-world problems.

His evolutionary history of our big brains leads into a brief history of philosophy and science. A recurring theme is that our social relationships, still tribal after all these years, often trump our rationality and make us reluctant to oppose authority or stand out from the crowd by accepting an idea which is rejected by most of our tribe. He doesn’t discuss the reception of climate science in any detail but that, to me, would have been the perfect case study, demonstrating all of the features he mentions.

Thinking about how we think is often fun, and Tribal Science is far more entertaining than my quick summary suggests, rambling amiably through scientific errors and frauds, logic puzzles and psychology.

UQP, $32.95, March 2011.