Thought-provoking gifts are tricky to think up. So to help out, we took a wander around the interwebs to gather some ideas for those science-minded giftees in your life. From the social media team to you, here are our suggestions for science-themed presents – including crafts from Etsy, and pop-science books.
Scientific gifts from Etsy
Etsy is a great place to shop for niche gifts for loved ones. Here is a quick list of scientific present ideas from some e-stallholders on Etsy:
The owner of this stall is an ecologist and Ph. D. Candidate who crafts handmade jewellery and science-themed drink coasters. The coasters are marble and have antique-inspired scientific illustrations such as micro-organisms and cellular division:
3. iPhone and business card cases by T Rowan Design
This stall prints custom or science-themed images onto cases for Samsung and iPhones (generations 4-6) as well as business card cases.
Antique Wall Prints has more science-themed prints than there is wall space. They are based in Adelaide, too, so the shipping should be snappy.
These educational scrolls from Lunartics are vintage, so they are more costly than the above prints. But, they look amazing and are in great condition.
And of course, we can’t forget our beloved CSIRO shop for all of your microscopy and sticky, tumbling frog needs.
Popular science books of 2014
We at CSIRO love a good read, especially when it’s science material delivered at its most evocative. Here are six of this year’s pop-science books that we highly recommend this Christmas:
1. Night School: Wake up to the power of sleep by Richard Wiseman
Richard Wiseman is a psychologist, illusionist, and fantastic writer. In this book, Professor Wiseman expounds the latest research on sleep, dreams, nightmares, and other strange night-time phenomena. The book also has interactive elements, including sleep-related surveys, and downloadable, sleep-inducing tracks.
2. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker
This is not strictly a science read, but it is written by a world-class science writer – Steven Pinker. Pinker is also a psychologist who specialises on the evolution and acquisition of language. In this book he advocates a common-sense use of language over the arbitrary rules of some grammarians. And he should know, Professor Pinker also chairs the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. We highly recommend his previous books, too: The Blank Slate and The Better Angels of Our Nature.
3. Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach
Ever wanted to shrink down and travel through innerspace, all the way through the alimentary canal, from the mouth to the ar…other end? This book by Mary Roach might allow such a journey, albeit a vicarious version. Mary’s books tackle the quirkier and sometimes more vulgar aspects of science, and this book is no exception. The reader is taken on a ride into the mouth, down the oesophagus, into the belly, and then the various tubes that come afterwards, learning all the way how each section contributes to our greater good.
4. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield
Chris Hadfield is a retired astronaut and a former commander on the International Space Station. He has gained widespread popularity through his use of social media, connecting the public with the processes and experiences of life in space. Last year Colonel Hadfield produced the first music video clip in space, a cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, which can be viewed here. His latest book describes the life of an astronaut (how to be the ultimate renaissance man) and his various trials as an astronaut, in space and on Earth.
5. Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation by Bill Nye
Here, Bill Nye, host of ‘Bill Nye the Science Guy’, uses his clear and accessible communication skills to explain one of the greatest ideas in all of science: Evolution by means of natural selection. Inspired by a recent debate on the topic, Nye took to writing a description of evolution for a popular audience. If you’re looking for a breezy brush up on biologists’ favourite subject – try this one.
6. The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew by Alan Lightman
Alan Lightman is an MIT physicist and popular science writer. This book travels through space and time, to the beginning, to the smallest scale, and through dimensions – all in under 200 pages. In this pithy travel through physics, you also get a little bit of science-inspired philosophy, what a treat. As well as a genius physicist, Lightman is also a humanitarian, starting up foundations to support women in developing countries. This book is sure to get you thinking about sciences tell on reality and our place in it.
That’s it for our Christmas-themed posts this year. We hope you enjoyed them! In the New Year we’ll be compiling a list of staff-recommended scientific attractions for the holidays, as well as some science-themed apps for your smart machines. Wishing you a merry Christmas and happy New Year!
With the year winding up, we thought we’d look back on the stories that struck a chord – or a nerve – in 2014. It was a mixed bag, ranging from the sublime to the implausible.
The sublime was definitely the Rosetta mission and Philae’s (not quite) perfect landing on the surface of the (not quite) evocatively-named comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Thanks to the wonders of modern communication, never before in the field of exploration have so many people so fervently urged a fridge-sized box on legs half a billion kilometres away to succeed against the odds.
We played a back-up role in the landing. Using the DSS34 antenna, NASA’s Deep Space Communication Complex (managed by CSIRO at the Tidbinbilla site) provided ongoing back-up communication coverage between Rosetta/Philae and the anxious science team at ESA’s mission control centre in Germany.
It’s a lot more down to earth, and of more practical use at the moment, but some news about renewable energy was just as exciting. If there was one good thing about the alarmingly warm autumn eastern Australia had in 2014, it was this: a team of solar thermal engineers and scientists at our Energy Centre in Newcastle used the sunlight flooding their solar fields to produce ‘supercritical’ steam, at the highest temperature and pressure levels ever recorded using solar power.
That sounds impressive when you just say it, but to realise how impressive it is, you need to know that supercritical steam is the ultra-hot, ultra-pressurised steam used to drive the world’s most advanced power plant turbines. This is the solar energy equivalent of breaking the sound barrier. Solar thermal power plants have traditionally only operated at ‘subcritical’ levels – the heavy lifting was left to fossil fuels. But now we’ve demonstrated that the power plants of the future could feasibly use the zero emission energy of the sun to reach peak efficiency levels – and at a cheaper price. The technology’s not ready for commercialisation yet, but the breakthrough has attracted a lot of interest.
There are other kinds of stories that always attract a lot of interest, and food safety – as we’re discovering yet again with the current raw milk controversy – is one of them. Fortunately, there was a pretty positive reaction to our story on whether it’s safe to cut the mould off food. Unlike supercritical steam, the comments generated more light than heat, which is always both gratifying and a relief. We came down firmly on the side of a conservative approach (and that’s not conservative of the food, more of the health). And in response to the comments, we published a clarification about spoilage in other kinds of food – the beauty of a blog is that you can incorporate the feedback from your readers. We love intelligent, constructive comments. So a big thanks to those who made them.
We got a lot of interest, too, for a story about 3D-printed mouthpieces for people with sleep apnoea. Sadly, a lot of this interest seemed to be tinged with a note of desperation. While we were delighted to be able to tell a story that gave hope to so many stressed snorers and their loved ones, it wasn’t nearly as enjoyable to have to let people know they couldn’t be part of trials for the mouthpieces. On the up-side, however, Oventus, the company making the mouthguards, tells us that they’re steadily getting closer to being commercially available. Since we’ve had interest from several countries, we think they might have a hit on their hands. We just hope they’re able to help the man who told us his snoring is so bad that the cat left home. The cat would probably be grateful too. We suggested a cat hammock in the meantime.
And just to continue on the camping theme, we got a lot of love for a story about backpacks. Bees with backpacks. This is just a terrific bit of research. We’ve put tiny 2.5mm sq RFID chips on the backs of 5000 bees. Now, this sounds a bit weird, but there’s an excellent reason for it. Collecting bee movement information at this scale will allow researchers to generate a four-dimensional model (three dimensions plus time) of bee behaviour and the way they move through the landscape. This is vital information: wild honey bee populations are dropping drastically or vanishing altogether. In some cases this is because of the parasitic Varroa mite. In others it’s Colony Collapse Disorder, believed to be caused by diseases and agricultural pesticides.
Everybody seems to love stories about 3D printing (and who can blame them?). We had a couple of rippers this year. First, there was the 3D-printed bike. More specifically, the bike with 3D-printed titanium parts, specifically engineered to provide ‘infinite flexibility’ and give a far superior riding experience, along with quite a bit of bike envy. It also looks seriously good, and its proud owner/designer seems to be very pleased with it. We don’t know if the man at the centre of our other big 3D printing success this year (there’s one other, but we’ll come to that later) is a bike rider, but thanks to some brilliant work by our titanium printing team, he has the option. He had cancer in his heel bone, and the standard treatment for that is to amputate the leg below the knee. Fortunately, his surgeon had seen a story we did last year, about 3D-printed shoes for horses, and wondered if it was possible to print a new heel bone to replace the cancerous one. It was. One of the strengths of 3D printing is its ability to produce complex structures quickly: within two weeks of his surgeon making the call, the new heel bone was in place. We can now reveal that we sat on that story for months, busting to tell everyone, but couldn’t until after the three-month check-up showed everything was working well. We were very relieved – but not nearly as relieved as the recipient.
Not all health problems have as quick a fix as supplying a new part. It would be good if they did, but sometimes treatment is a long haul. Overweight and obesity fits into that category, but our new Impromy™ diet program helps to make the long haul as pleasant as it can be. Our talented team worked with Probiotec Ltd to develop a holistic program that includes meal replacements. This is a big help for people with busy lifestyles: often a reason that cooking and meal preparation fall down the priority list. It’s a research-based program that builds on our Total Wellbeing Diet research and leverages it to use with smart phone technology in a community pharmacy setting.
But we’d be very grateful if you disposed of the wrappers from the meal replacements carefully. Sometimes the big science stories aren’t good news, and this one certainly wasn’t. We went looking for rubbish, and what we found was sobering. In a survey of the entire Australian coast at 100 km intervals, with help from school groups and citizen scientists, we found that our shorelines are littered with debris. About 75 per cent of it is plastic, and, in a pretty grim indictment of our throwaway culture, you can expect to find anything from a few thousand to over 40,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre in our coastal waters. Worse, we can extrapolate from this to predict that by 2050, 95 per cent of seabirds will have plastic in their gut.
If it’s bad news you want, though, our biannual State of the Climate report is – sadly – hard to beat. It’s getting warmer. Seven of the ten warmest years on record in Australia have occurred since 1998. When we compare the past 15 years with the period between 1951 and 1980, we find that very warm months are five times as frequent. The frequency of very cool months, conversely, has dropped by about a third. Extreme fire weather risk has increased, and the fire season has lengthened across large parts of Australia since the 1970s. Autumn and winter rainfall is declining, particularly in south-western and south-eastern Australia. Heavy rainfall events with the potential for flooding are projected to increase. Australian average annual rainfall has increased slightly, largely from increases in spring and summer rainfall. Unfortunately, this doesn’t offset the autumn and winter declines in southern parts of Australia: it’s mainly concentrated in north-western Australia.
We don’t want to end on such a depressing note though, so … DRAGONS! This is the implausible bit, and it was absolutely, positively our biggest hit of the year. You might remember it. Seven-year-old Sophie wrote to us, asking if we could make her one. So we, er, did. Not a flying, screeching, fire-breathing one (we haven’t got the lab space), but a 3D-printed (there it is again) titanium (there’s that again too) one. This story captured the imagination of many people (140 000 page views worth), and might even have inspired Sophie, or another child, to become a scientist. We loved the comments we got on this story nearly as much as everyone seemed to love Sophie’s original letter. The erudite discussion on the history and physiology of dragons was a delight. Thank you to all the readers and dreamers who contributed.
Now, how would we go using dragons to generate supercritical steam? Just a thought…
Milk is a highly nutritious food, and an important source of amino acids and minerals such as phosphorus and calcium, which contributes to bone health.
Historically, milk was prone to contamination by bacteria from cows that could cause severe illness in humans. This remains the case with raw (unpasteurised) milk. The tragic death of a Victorian toddler this week is a stark reminder of these risks.
Pasteurisation involves heating the product to 72°C for 15 seconds. The method was originally employed to destroy bacteria in wine and beer that caused these products to spoil. It was quickly realised that this process could also be applied to milk to destroy harmful bacteria, and make milk safer for human consumption.
Pasteurisation was first introduced in Australia in the late 1950s and remains a legal requirement for milk produced for human consumption in Australia.
Nowadays, some of the important bacteria that pasteurisation targeted, such as those that cause tuberculosis, are no longer as problematic. So why do we continue to pasteurise milk?
The animals we use for milking can sometimes carry other pathogenic organisms that are capable of causing disease in humans. They can be found on hides or shed in the faeces.
Even healthy animals may be a source of organisms that are harmful to people. Such pathogens may be present in the farm environment, including soil, water, on pasture and in animal feeds. These pathogens can enter the milk during milking and if such milk is consumed, it can cause disease.
The most common pathogens found in association with dairy farms and milking animals include bacteria such as Escherichia coli (E. coli), Campylobacter and Salmonella, but other pathogens such as parasites like Cryptosporidium, a type of gastro, may also be present.
Campylobacter and Salmonella can cause severe diarrhoea and certain types of E. coli, particularly those known as Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC), can cause very severe disease which impairs kidney function and may result in death.
Milk is highly nutritious to bacteria. Bacteria can quickly proliferate if their growth is not inhibited. Stopping the growth of bacteria in milk requires either heating to kill the bacteria, or chilling, which will not kill the bacteria but will slow down their growth.
E. coli, for instance, can go from ten cells to 100 million cells in just over six hours at 30°C. Only ten cells may be required to make someone ill. If such an organism is likely to be present, it’s important that any potential growth is stopped.
These harmful bacteria have caused outbreaks and disease associated with the consumption of raw milk in many countries. Data from the United States indicates that over a 13 year period to 2011, there were 2,384 illnesses, 284 hospitalisations and two deaths associated with the consumption of raw milk.
In Australia, raw milk contaminated by bacteria such as Campylobacter and Salmonella caused at least nine outbreaks of disease between 1997 and 2008, leading to 117 cases of illness.
So why do people choose to drink raw milk?
Advocates of raw milk often claim improved health benefit and nutritional value, or desiring a product which has not undergone further processing, retaining bacteria naturally present in milk.
But there is no evidence that the health benefits of milk are compromised by pasteurisation.
The defining difference between pasteurised and raw milk is the bacteria that are present. As soon as milk is secreted from the udder, it is at risk of contamination by many different bacteria as it makes its journey to our table. This includes harmful bacteria. These bacteria can lead to severe illness in humans, particularly children and the elderly.
For these reasons, raw milk continues to have a far higher risk of causing illness. Pasteurisation remains an important step in ensuring we can continue to enjoy safer, nutritious milk.
Further reading: Bath milk crisis must prompt better cosmetic safety regulation
This is our second of three Christmas-themed posts – enjoy!
For many of us, the summer holidays are a chance to enjoy some of the sweeter things in life: catching up with loved ones over a bee-bee-cue, going for hikes through our unique Australian bush, kicking it at the beach, eating lavishly, or relaxing in the cool indoors and enjoying a new book. If you’re lucky, maybe it’s even all of the above.
We know to thank Gnowee, the solar goddess, for our glorious summer warmth, but you might not know a few of the ways CSIRO is helping to make your summer better. Here goes:
This time of year you can’t leave the house without getting harassed by flies and mosquitoes trying to drink your blood, sweat, and tears (probably). Of course, for anti-fly protection we head straight for the Aerogard. But who do we thank for such miracle spray? Dr Doug Waterhouse, of course – former chief of CSIRO’s entomology (insect) division.
Doug was working on a spray to protect Australia’s sheep from blow flies when the Second World War broke out. This prompted Dr Waterhouse to develop his spray to protect Australia’s soldiers from malaria, instead.
Despite its success in World War 2, it wasn’t until the Queen used the spray during her visit in 1963 that its status as an effective anti-fly agent took off. It soon caught the nose of Mortein, who were ever-so-casually provided the formula by Dr Waterhouse. With Mortein on board it became known as Aerogard and the rest, as they smell, is history.
- Scanning the sands and seas
Can’t stand the summer heat? Then get out of the kitchen and go to the beach. We wish our beaches were pristine oases, but instead, many of them are turning into stretches of refuse.
For three years, Dr Denise Hardesty and a devoted team of scientists and volunteers helped to survey Australia’s entire coastline, cataloguing the types of rubbish in and on the sands. The group found that three-quarters of the waste was plastic, and the majority of that waste didn’t wash up from distant lands, it was ours: Australians’ waste.
With these extensive surveys, we can identify the sources and hotspots of rubbish, and better target the problem. As well as fishing tackle, two major sources of marine debris were littering and illegal dumping. Click here to find out what else Denise and the team found.
- Wining and dining
Who could say there was no such thing as a perfect creature when presented with our Perfect Prawns? We teamed up with the prawn industry, put our rostrums together, and came up with a larger and tastier Black Tiger prawn.
We analysed the genes of wild prawns to identify the ideal populations – and then worked out how to breed all our prawns with those best features! Our perfect prawns have won us a medley of gold medals from the Sydney Royal Easter Show.
Not only are they delicious, but you can eat them with a clear conscience because they are farmed sustainably (half of Australia’s prawns are imported from Asia with varying levels of sustainability). Our Black Tigers are fed with Novacq™, a CSIRO-developed solution made from microorganisms that makes the prawns grow faster, healthier, and without the need to be fed wasteful fish products. Click here to read more about our Perfect Prawns or Novacq™.
Wine grapes evolved in the Northern Hemisphere where they had plentiful water, cooler climates, and nutrient-rich soils. Australia’s often drought-stricken, scorching, and infertile soils are no place for such thirsty fruits. To help out Australia’s wine industry, we got our hands dirty – with Science.
We used traditional breeding and genetic methods to not only improve the root systems of vines – helping them cope with our soils – but also to foster characteristics for fruit colour, flavour, and aroma.
Apart from improving flavour, we’re also helping our grapevines survive the blights of various mildews. Since grapevine mildews are a distinctively American phenomenon, our vines have not had the chance to evolve any resistance. To fight the blight, our researchers analysed American grapevine varieties that were hardened to the mildews, identified genes for resistance, and then introduced them to the varieties of grapevines used here. Cheers to that!
Keep an eye out for the wines cultivated with our research: Tarrango, Tyrian, Cienna, and Rubienne.
- Wellbeing Diet
After pining over seafood and vineyard delicacies, we bring you our Total Wellbeing Diet: a worthy adversary to combat holiday kilos. Designed to reduce blood pressure, glucose, and insulin, minimising the chances of cardiovascular diseases, the CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet is also crafted to please gourmands.
The diet was published with Penguin in 2005, and due its success has appeared in numerous releases since. More recent editions of our wellbeing diet cater to those on a budget and those with no meal preparation time to spare.
Our Total Wellbeing Diet online program launches on the 5th of January, and you can pre-register here.
- Bushfire prevention and control
For some Australians, summer is synonymous with bushfires and a constant state of high-alert. And until we can understand them better, bushfires will continue to be a destructive force, especially over summer.
Bushfires are chaotic systems. They can strike almost randomly, and grow and move unpredictably. Before we can predict and control bushfires, we must learn more about them. The best way to do this is through experimentation, but this is difficult precisely because bushfires are so chaotic.
Enter, the Pyrotron, a giant vacuum chamber to tame the bushfire beast. We made the Pyrotron so we can study bushfire movement under controlled conditions, allowing us to understand the fire’s behaviour better, and make more accurate predictions.
You can read more about our very own Decepticon, here.
Or watch this fun, fun, fun clip from the BBC:
Over the next couple of weeks when you’re enjoying the fermented fruits of our labour, there’s no need to thank us, because we love what we do.
By Dr Helen Cleugh, Science Director, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship
The World Meteorological Organization reports that 2014 is on track to be possibly the world’s hottest year on record. Meanwhile, there’s been a lot of public commentary lately about the so-called “hiatus” in global surface temperature over the past 18 years, recent sea-level rise, and what it all means.
So what do CSIRO’s research and observations tell us?
They show that average surface air temperatures have continued to rise during the past two decades, but not as fast as in preceding decades. In other words, while the rate of temperature increase is lower, the temperatures themselves are not lower.
It is also important to note that when climate scientists use the term “global-mean surface temperature” they refer to near-surface air temperatures. Surface air temperature is an incomplete measure of warming of the planet; oceans store huge amounts of heat, with about 93 per cent of the extra heat stored by the Earth over the past 50 years being found in the oceans.
The ocean today is warmer, and sea levels higher, than at any time since the instrumental record began. As the oceans warm, they expand and sea levels rise. Using a combination of coastal tide-gauge and satellite-altimeter data, CSIRO and others have shown that, globally, sea level has been rising since the late 1800s. Global-averaged sea level rose at an average rate of about 1.6 mm per year over the 20th Century, but this rate has accelerated to about 3 mm per year as measured by satellite altimetry and tide gauges since 1993. So the rate of sea-level rise has not slowed; it has increased.
Our measurements across the land, atmosphere and oceans show that warming has continued unabated throughout the past 18 years.
Last year was Australia’s warmest year on record, followed by 2005 and 2009. For global land and ocean temperatures, 2013 tied with 2003 as the fourth warmest year globally; and 13 of the 14 warmest years ever measured occurred in the 21st Century. As reported by the World Meteorological Organization, this year is shaping up to be the world’s warmest year – the year to the end of October is the planet’s warmest on record.
It is not unusual to see changes in the rate of surface warming. Over the past 120 years, there have been decades where global-mean air temperature has warmed more rapidly, and decades where relative cooling has occurred.
Increases in greenhouse gases provide a warming effect but, due to natural variability, climate trends based on short records are very sensitive to the beginning and end dates, and do not reflect long-term climate trends.
The rate of warming in any shorter period fluctuates because of factors such as short-term natural variability, ocean absorption of heat from the atmosphere, volcanic eruptions, changes in the 11-year solar cycle, and so on. This does not change any conclusion about the long-term trend of warming due to human activities, which have increased the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
CSIRO research has shown that there is less than 1 chance in 100,000 that global mean air temperature over the past 60 years would have been as high without human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. That is, the probability of global temperature increases being due to human activity exceeds 99 per cent.
The world is not cooling.
*Note (1) net increase in glacier volumes have regional variation (almost all glaciers worldwide losing mass but some gaining) but overall net loss; and (2) net decrease in global sea-ice extent has regional variation (over the period 1979–2012 it is very likely that the annual mean Arctic sea-ice extent decreased 3.5 to 4.1% per decade, and it is very likely that the annual mean Antarctic sea ice extent increased by 1.2 to 1.8% per decade) but overall net loss. Source: CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology.
This article was originally published in The Canberra Times.
Our world is becoming increasingly urbanised. In 1950, just 30% of the world’s population lived in urban areas. This number is now over 50% and rising.
By 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population are expected to be urban dwellers. Although much of this growth will occur in developing regions, northern Australian cities are likely to see significant expansion.
The successful growth of cities will undoubtedly be critical to the economic health of Australia and the surrounding region. However, the increasing size and density of human populations are creating challenges for human health.
A CSIRO report published today, Australia’s Biosecurity Future: Preparing for Future Biological Challenges, highlights the biosecurity risk of urbanisation as cities become hotspots for new and emerging infectious diseases.
The number of emerging infectious diseases that infect people has more than tripled since the 1940s. Around two-thirds of these are zoonotic, which means that they have spilled over into human populations from animals. The number of emerging diseases is likely to continue to increase, driven by the globalisation of travel and trade, climate change and, of course, urbanisation.
Urbanisation modifies the environment rapidly and permanently, creating irreversible changes in biodiversity. Animal species that can adapt to disturbed or fragmented environments (urban adapters) or thrive when living closely with people (urban exploiters) will prosper in cities. But those that cannot adapt (urban avoiders) may die out. This process contributes to the reduced biodiversity seen in urban environments.
In Australia, urban adaptors include familiar species such as the noisy miner bird and the common brushtail possum, while urban exploiters are often invasive species, such as rats and pigeons.
The high prevalence of urban adapters/exploiters in city environments means people may be at risk from the diseases they carry. Possums have already been identified as potential sources of zoonotic bacteria in drinking water in Australia, while rats have been associated with many zoonotic diseases, including leptospirosis, toxoplasmosis, the plague and hantavirus infection.
Insects, such as mosquitoes, also differ in their ability to colonise urban environments. Mosquitoes that breed in small amounts of standing water and prefer to feed on humans are often abundant in urban environments. They have been instrumental in the emergence and spread of viruses like dengue and Chikungunya.
A warming climate is predicted to increase the geographic range of some of these urbanised mosquitoes. Growing cities will increase the number of people at risk from the diseases they carry.
Why some diseases spill over from animal to human populations while others do not depends on many factors, including the genetic, cellular and behavioural characteristics of the pathogen, animal and human host.
Although scientists are still trying to unravel the complexity of this process, we do know that the frequency of contact between animal and human populations is a significant contributor to the probability that cross-species transmission occurs.
Processes such as deforestation and urbanisation can change the way human and animal populations interact. Land-use changes such as these have been associated with the emergence of many significant zoonotic diseases, including dengue, malaria, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Ebola.
Although we tend to focus on pathogens that have successfully jumped species to transmit and cause disease in a new host (such as dengue and SARS viruses), most cross-species transmission events go no further than the first infected individual. In these cases, which include hantavirus and rabies virus infection, people are dead-end hosts.
It is not yet clear why some zoonotic pathogens are able to cause sustained human disease, while others are never transmitted between people. We need to unravel the complex interactions between pathogens, their hosts and the environment to begin to predict which diseases carried by animals pose the greatest threat to human health in an increasingly urbanised world.
Reducing the risks
Zoonotic disease outbreaks place significant burdens on public health systems, as well as on local and global economies. Despite the relatively localised scale of the current Ebola outbreak, the World Bank is forecasting costs as high as US$33 billion by the end of 2015, a number approaching the estimated US$40 billion price tag of the SARS epidemic.
Given the extraordinary costs associated with outbreak response and control, it is clear we need to focus on prevention and surveillance to reduce the incidence of emerging infectious diseases in the future.
Despite the challenges of an increasingly urbanised world, the concentration of people in cities also provides opportunities to reduce and control new and emerging infectious diseases. Compared with rural areas, the centralisation of money, power and knowledge can greatly improve surveillance and intervention measures in cities. This includes increasing access to clean drinking water, improved sanitation and urban flood reduction.
City dwellers also often have greater access to mass media than people in many rural areas. This provides a platform for public health campaigns aimed at increasing awareness of behaviours that reduce the risk of acquiring infectious diseases. These include the importance of vaccination, hand-washing, insecticide use and waste management, among others.
Taking steps to improve urban disease surveillance, developing effective prevention measures and initiating appropriate education campaigns will allow us to significantly reduce the impact of emerging infectious diseases.
The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.
Welcome to CSIRO Inventions, a series looking at the discoveries and innovations borne from Australia’s national science agency. In this first instalment, we outline the story behind the plastic money we use today – and the criminal world that drove its development.
The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) and CSIRO’s 20-year “bank project” resulted in the introduction of the polymer banknote – the first ever of its kind, and the most secure form of currency in the world.
The project commenced in 1968 and continued until 1988 with the release of the A$10 bicentennial commemorative banknote. But it’s the story behind this story – a personal note of forgeries, underworld figures and CSIRO – that is just as impressive.
Australia’s transition from the pound to the dollar – on Decimal Day, February 14 1966 – was a momentous occasion. The new currency was seen as being a marker of our independence from the mother country, and the changeover from pound to dollar was well-planned and executed.
(A little-known fact: a nationwide competition was held to find a name for our new currency with an “Australian flavour”. Among the more than 1,000 submissions were the “austral”, “boomer”, “kwid” and “ming”, but “dollar” was chosen.)
By April 1966 most of the old imperial banknotes had been removed from circulation, and a new range of state-of-the-art dollars and coins were doing the rounds of the nation’s tills, wallets and pockets. With designs by leading Australian artists and cutting edge security features such as watermarks and metal thread, things couldn’t have been better for the note-issuer, the RBA.
But the new notes were not infallible, and it didn’t take long for counterfeiters to strike.
Enter the forgers
By the end of the year, a team of amateurs from suburban Melbourne, armed with simple office equipment and a desire to make some money, were able to produce a batch of fake notes with no intaglio printing, no watermark and no metal thread that would net them almost A$800,000 worth of forgeries. (That figure’s not to be sneezed at – it would be worth A$9.6 million in 2013.)
The nucleus of this team were two “regular joes” with no real criminal history: Francis Papworth, an artist from Bentleigh, and Jeffrey Mutton, who owned a failing milk bar in Moorabbin near a printing plant where Papworth worked.
As with many great schemes, this one was hatched over a beer – Papworth and Mutton often met at the Boundary Hotel in East Bentleigh. It was January 1966, only a few weeks before the introduction of the dollar, and the two mates were looking for an easy way to reverse their fortunes. Papworth worked at a printing plant … so why not print some money?
Deciding it was a “goer”, they enlisted a third contemporary, Dale Code, along with Ron Adam (a professional photographer) and Bert Kidd, a notorious career criminal who was to provide the funding for the scheme. Their original target was the ten shilling note, but on the release of the A$10 note on Decimal Day they decided that the new version was going to be even easier.
What followed was a tale of ingenuity, intrigue and deceit. Using only their basic printing equipment, the forgers were able to produce three batches of fake notes – each more sophisticated than the next – that would stay in circulation for many years. But despite their initial success, the authorities soon picked up on their activities.
Adam, Code and Mutton were tried and found guilty of forgery in 1967 but Papworth, who had been a police informant, was found not guilty. Kidd was arrested in 1969 after Mutton, who was already serving time, gave evidence against him.
Paper dollars looked nice, but thanks to Mutton and his forging mates, were replaced by polymer.
News of the forgery soon became public, and a period of unrest followed. Instructions were issued by the Reserve Bank on how to spot the forgeries, which were then to be handed to authorities. But anybody turning a note in would not receive a genuine note in return, so many continued to be circulated.
A general distrust of A$10 notes permeated Australian society – at one stage, members of the Amalgamated Engineering Union refused to accept them as part of their pay packet.
Call in the scientists
The RBA’s Governor, HC (Nugget) Coombs turned to science – or, more specifically, to CSIRO.
The challenge was set: could we create the world’s most secure banknote? After some preliminary planning, the “bank project” began. Coombs originally enlisted seven top Australian scientists – five physicists and two chemists – to help the RBA develop a more secure banknote. They met on April 1, 1968, and despite the date, these were no April fools – the two chemists were Jerry Price, who went on to become chairman of CSIRO, and Sefton Hamann, chief of the CSIRO Division of Applied Chemistry.
The group was introduced to the general principles of banknote design and production, and sent off to think about it before reconvening for a second meeting at Thredbo in June 1968.
Two more scientists were invited to Thredbo: Neil Lewis, recently retired from Kodak, and David Solomon, a young, award-winning polymer scientist from CSIRO. It was during these first few years that Dr Solomon first hit on the idea of a plastic banknote after being given a business card printed on plastic by a visitor from Japan.
From polymer granules, notes grow.
By February 1972, CSIRO and the RBA had agreed to commence a project to develop polymer banknotes with a range of optically variable security devices. The CSIRO team soon developed a “proof of concept” and presented it to the RBA.
The concept had:
- a see-through panel
- diffraction grating (an optical component which splits and diffracts light into several beams) embedded in the note
- and it was, of course, plastic.
As well as being difficult to forge, these new notes were also more durable than the traditional “rag notes”, more environmentally friendly and less likely to carry dirt and disease.
These technical improvements were made within the first ten years of the bank project, but behind-the-scenes delays prevented the issue of these revolutionary notes until the bicentennial year 1988. In a defiant gesture to Papworth, Mutton and co, the first note issued was – you guessed it – A$10.
Today, there are more than 30 different denominations totalling some three billion polymer notes in service in 22 countries worldwide.
For more information, The Plastic Banknote: from concept to reality is available to buy from CSIRO Publishing.
Tom Spurling was employed by CSIRO during the development of the polymer banknote.
David Solomon was employed by CSIRO during the development of the polymer banknote.