The science to being crowned king of the crackers


Image credit: Flickr/Parlsa. Traditionally crackers contain hilarious jokes such as this one: Where do snowmen go to dance? To a snowball!

With the festive season in full swing, many of us will soon find ourselves sitting around a dinner table, tugging on a Christmas cracker then poring over the goodies found within.

Traditionally, cracker etiquette dictates that the person left holding the larger portion is dubbed the cracker king (with flimsy paper crown to prove it).

However, have you ever wondered what ‘cracker strategy’ you should employ to increase your chance of securing the win and looking like one of the Wise Men?

Naturally, our researchers Emma Huang and David Clifford along with their equally-festive colleague from the University of Queensland Kim-Anh le Cao, were wondering the same thing. So they turned to science to find out.

Firstly, they got cracking on identifying three cracking cracker-pulling techniques:

  1. The ‘angle’ strategy: A firm two handed grip, tilting the cracker between 20 and 55 degrees downwards, and applying a steady force with no torque
  2. The ‘passive aggressive’ strategy: a firm two handed grip at no angle, no pulling at all, and letting the other person do the work
  3. The ‘control’ strategy: typical of Christmas parties around the world, where both participants pull at no particular angle, but roughly parallel to the floor

In this festive study, volunteers were randomly paired, employing different strategies multiple times in order to leave us with robust data about the validity of each technique.

Image credit: Flickr/Sanickels. Just this this gentleman, you too could be crowned King of the Crackers.

Image credit: Flickr/Sanickels. Just like this gentleman, you too could be crowned King of the Crackers.

So, what were the results?

If you’re an angler, we’ve got bad news. With just a 40 per cent win rate, this technique isn’t likely to secure your spot as cracker king anytime soon. The traditional ‘control approach’ produced the results closest to random chance, resulting in a win 53 per cent of the time.

For those saying bah-humbug to the passive aggressive approach, you might want to rethink things. With an impressive 92 per cent success rate, it turns out the key to securing the win is to let your partner do all the hard work.

As our researchers describe in their study, the passivity of this approach could have important implications for future Christmas parties. Aside from the obvious reduction in cracker-related injuries, the strategy has another major benefit – it is easy to employ with subtlety, unlike strategies involving an angle, which must surely arouse suspicions in your pulling partner.

While we wish you well on your cracker journey, we’ll leave you with a word of caution – while the ‘do nothing’ approach does have a high success rate, it only works if you’re the only one who knows about it.  If both you and your partner employ the same strategy, the party could stretch on forever, resulting in a burnt dinner and no paper crown for you.

Want more festivity? Read the full study or check out ‘a statistician’s Christmas party’

A different kind of show and tell

Science partnership between Marnie Sparrow from Sandringham College (Vic) and Felix Lipkin, CSIRO Land and Water Flagship

Science partnership between Marnie Sparrow from Sandringham College (Vic) and Felix Lipkin, CSIRO Land and Water Flagship

Imagine you’re back at school, and one day the teacher has something for show and tell. Someone, actually. A real live scientist, or mathematician, or ICT specialist. And not just the once.

It’s been happening regularly in Australian schools since 2007. All levels of schools, from kindy to Year 12. In the only program in the world of its size and scope, Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools (SMiS) puts practicing STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) professionals into school classrooms. We also do the same thing with ICT professionals.

The program was a response to the decline in the numbers of students electing to study STEM subjects. It seemed that a promising strategy for arresting this would be to find a way for students to see the relevance of their science courses, and see that people working in science aren’t the caricature nerds represented in the media. But how to get them into the classroom? One way was to combine two kinds of outreach, and get involved with teachers’ professional development.

So we started a program to mentor teachers – and by doing so, provide students with a positive image of people working in the STEM sector. Seven years later, there have been more than 4000 partnerships between teachers and STEM professionals in schools. At the moment there are more than 1600 active partnerships.

It’s not just CSIRO scientists who are involved. Scientists in Schools volunteers can be research scientists and engineers, science and engineering postgrads, and applied science professionals like doctors, vets, and park rangers. Mathematicians in Schools wants to hear from anyone who did a degree with a maths focus and works in a job that uses maths: economists, accountants, surveyors and mathematical scientists, among others. If you’re an ICT professional working in research; a postgraduate ICT student or you’re involved in ICT in industry, like programmers, ICT security specialists, and systems analysts, you’re suitable for ICT in Schools.     Mathematician-microchip-focus-web

When teachers ask for a mentor to be paired with them, we select appropriate matches very carefully. We’re a bit like the Blood Bank: we have to find suitable partners for the procedure to be a success. And we don’t think any of our volunteers are the equivalent of Type O.

Teachers might be looking for someone with expertise in a particular topic. We also have to consider time constraints – some volunteers might only be available at particular times, and there are logistical considerations such as transport availability to take into account as well.

But this doesn’t mean that areas that aren’t readily accessible miss out. We can arrange long-distance partnerships too – Skype, email and block visits are our friends here. Some of the partnerships can be surprising – at present we have a scientist from the Australian Antarctic Division paired with a teacher in Townsville, based on common expertise and interests. And we cherish the pictures from a previous partnership between a teacher in a Northern Territory school and another Australian Antarctic Division scientist. When she visited the school, she took her polar suit with her, and the photos of her all rugged up in the NT heat just to show the kids are incongruous and charming.

It’s not all feel-good and cute pictures though. It provides a valuable resource for teachers, and gives them far greater confidence in their teaching. It enables the volunteer scientists to brush up on their communication skills – something which is ever more important in science careers. As one of our volunteer scientists from Tasmania says, ‘There is no room for jargon and big words when you talk to kids. I think it helps me understand better what I’m saying when I have to explain it in words an 8-year old can follow’. And our volunteers also say it re-enthuses them about their science – the kids’ enthusiasm reignites their own.

The students also get to practice some real science, and learn about experimental design, as this story shows. And yes, that’s a professor from the University of NSW mentoring a Year 7 teacher. An ACT school gets a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. CSIRO CEO Megan Clark was also a volunteer.

Maths partnership between Stephen Robey from Gungahlin College (ACT) and Billie Ganendran of University of NSW, Canberra (ADFA)

Maths partnership between Stephen Robey from Gungahlin College (ACT) and Billie Ganendran of University of NSW, Canberra (ADFA)

We see this combination of results as a win-win-win. And the three evaluations the program has had so far agreed with us. More importantly, so did parents, teachers and students. A parent from NSW says, ‘It’s fantastic that individuals are willing to offer their time to help facilitate the learning of our children. Please pass on a big thank you for being an inspiration for my son’.

While a teacher from SA tells us that ‘Our mathematician really is terrific in the way he volunteers his time to work with the kids. They love his knowledge, teaching skills and mathematical challenges’.

But this one … This comment, from a student in the NT, brings it all home: ‘The opportunity that we had to work with you was one of the greatest ones in my life. You made science fun for us and getting us involved in the science was a great experience’.

We think this is a pretty special program.

Making molecules crystal clear

A crystal image of a breakdown pathway of atrazine

A crystal image of a breakdown pathway of atrazine

The International Year of Crystallography is drawing to a close, and we’re not going to let it finish without showing you something about what crystallographers do. Which is not what most people would assume when they hear the word: there are crystals involved, but it’s not exactly the study of crystals as we generally think of them. It’s the study of how matter is organised, using crystals as a tool.

Now, naturally we want to know how matter is arranged. Apart from being very, very interesting to find out about, it also helps in many different fields, from drug delivery to materials science. In fact, it was crystallography that provided – controversially – the key to understanding the structure of DNA.

So assume you want to look at something in the greatest possible detail, seeing its smallest possible components. Obviously, you’d use a microscope. But there’s a limit to the smallness of things you can see that way: the wavelength of the light human eyes see. Visible light has a frequency of between roughly 400 and 700 nanometres, and can’t detect atoms, which are separated by 0.1 nanometres. This is the perfect frequency for X-rays.

We can’t make appropriate X-ray lenses to make x-ray microscopes to study molecules: we have to do it in a roundabout way. We beam X-rays onto crystals, scattering the rays, in just the same way that light reflects when it hits an object. Then we use a computer to reassemble the rays —the diffraction pattern —into an image. The diffraction of a single molecule would be so weak that we couldn’t get any meaningful information from it, so we use crystals, which have many molecules in an ordered array, to amplify the signal so we can see it. Crystals are highly ordered structures, made up of 1012 or more molecules, makes the x-ray diffraction patterns — the main tool of crystallography —possible to analyse.

Crystallographers were among the first scientists to use computers, and used them to do the advanced calculations needed to reassemble diffraction patterns into coherent images. That’s why it seemed fitting to name our supercomputer after the founders of crystallography – Lawrence and Henry Bragg. Lawrence was the first person to solve a molecular structure using x-ray diffraction.

Today we can not only view molecules in 3D, but also study the way they operate. Improvements in x-ray machines have also led to synchrotron facilities, which can produce far more efficient and precise beams.

And speaking of synchrotrons …

One of our crystallographers, Tom Peat, has deposited more than 120 structures in the Protein Data Bank using data collected at the Australian Synchrotron. They were all derived from crystals developed in CSIRO’s Collaborative Crystallisation Centre.

This is one of our favourite structures.

AtzF structure (the Australia crystal)

AtzF structure (the Australia crystal)

It’s the structure of AtzF. This enzyme forms part of the breakdown pathway for atrazine, a commonly used herbicide. We’re trying to understand enzymes better and use them for bioremediation – cleaning up environmental detritus such as pesticides and herbicides – and we’ve now solved the structures of four of the six enzymes involved in the atrazine breakdown pathway. We also look at protein engineering, to see if we can make these enzymes even more effective at cleaning up the environment.

Before we get to the crystal image, there are other steps on the way. First, someone has to grow the crystals (clone the protein, express it, purify it and crystallise it). Then it’s off to the Synchrotron to get a data set (many diffraction images in sequence). Here you can see an actual protein crystal.

An actual protein crystal

An actual protein crystal

The picture on the right is the diffraction image.

Diffraction image

Diffraction image

The crystallographers measure the intensity of the reflections (the dark dots). They combine that with the geometry and use some complicated maths (a Fourier Transform) to produce an electron density map. They then use that map to build a model.

Not all our crystallography work is in the same area. We also work on some pharmaceutical applications. One of our projects, with hugely important implications for human health, is on the design of desperately needed new antibiotics.  We’ve been collaborating with Monash University, looking at the pathway that sulpha drugs (such as sulfamethoxazole)– the ones we used to treat bacterial infections prior to the discovery of penicillin – take to treat Golden Staph infections in humans. The aim is to design new antibiotics that target the same pathway. You can read a paper that describes our recent findings in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, and here’s a picture of what we’ve been doing.

Golden Staph treatment pathway

Golden Staph treatment pathway

We think this deserves its own Year. And we hope it’s clear just how important it is. Crystal clear.

Making STEM deadly

Picture of Tayla Macdonald

Tayla Macdonald

Before she went on a science and maths camp, 19-year-old Tayla Macdonald says, she didn’t have a huge interest in science. She wanted to be a journalist.

But the camp made science significant and meaningful to her, and to her family’s Aboriginal roots. Tailored for Indigenous students, the camp blended science with Aboriginal culture, involving fieldwork and activities at culturally significant sites.

‘The camp gave me the belief that a science degree could be possible and that perhaps it wouldn’t be as difficult as I thought it was. I felt like it opened up new possibilities and choices I hadn’t considered before,’ says Tayla.

Three years later and Tayla is studying medical science, hoping to specialise in paediatrics and work either in regional communities or in humanitarian aid.

Initiatives like this are important, because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students’ participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects at university and in related professions is significantly lower than the Australian average.

Alarmingly, an international survey showed that, overall, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are around two-and-a-half years behind their peers in scientific and mathematical literacy, and this gap has remained the same over ten years.

The reasons for this are complex, but our research shows that tailored learning programs can make a real difference.

That’s why we’ve partnered with BHP Billiton Foundation to deliver a new education project for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students that aims to increase their participation and achievement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (also known as STEM).

The five-year project is expected to involve Aboriginal students from all states and territories, from primary school through to tertiary education. It will cater to the diversity of learners – from those in remote communities through to high-achieving students attending mainstream schools.

Our research shows that community engagement, learning on-country and long-term investment and collaboration are vital for improving Indigenous education outcomes in science and maths subjects.

We’ve designed the project incorporating these elements, along with hands-on, inquiry-based learning approaches. There’s an awards program to recognise and reward high-achieving students.

This tailored approach will provide students with the learning setting and support they need for their best chance to achieve.

We hope students who participate in the program will consider taking up a career in science, just like Tayla.

Read more about our education program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

The spice is right: how curry and the cloud may improve Alzheimer’s testing

By Carrie Bengston, James Davidson and Olivier Salvado

Mmm . . . lovely! A hot Indian curry is simmering away on the stove on a wintry night. The smell of spices fills the kitchen. One of the spices is turmeric, from the ginger family. Its vibrant yellow colour comes from the compound curcumin which is finding a use in clinical tests for Alzheimers disease (AD).

Who knew? Soon everyone will! We’re presenting our research this week at a major conference in Copenhagen, AAIC2014.

Indian curry in a dish

Curry night! The golden yellow spice turmeric contains curcumin – a key ingredient of a new eye test for Alzheimer’s

A clinical trial of the spice-infused eye test is being led by our own Dr Shaun Frost and team, with WA’s Edith Cowan University, US company NeuroVision Imaging, and the McCusker Alzheimer’s Research Foundation in Perth. Several hundred volunteers have taken part. They include healthy people, mildly cognitively impaired people and patients with AD. It’s all part of the Australian Imaging Biomarkers and Lifestyle study of Aging (AIBL)

The trial asks volunteers to come along to two visits for retinal fluorescence imaging, ie an eye scan. This is quick and painless. Patients sit in front of a specialised camera and a photo is taken of the retina at the back of their eye.

Patient having eye scanned by researcher

Dr Shaun Frost takes a photo of the back of a patient’s eyes, not for Instagram but for a clinical trial

Between visits, volunteers eat some curcumin which binds to beta-amyloid plaques, the sticky proteins that indicate Alzheimers, and fluoresces. The plaques (if there are any) show up in the eye scans as bright spots which can be counted and measured. The data is then used to calculate a special number for each patient, a retinal amyloid index (RAI), and compared between healthy, mildly cognitively impaired and AD patients.

Bright spots showing Alzheimer's plaques in retinal scan

Amyloid plaques, a sign of Alzheimer’s, show up in retinal scan as fluorescent spots as curcumin binds to them

Encouragingly, as we announced this week, early results show the amount of plaque in the retina closely mirrors the amount in the brain. If confirmed, retinal imaging may be the beginnings of an easy, non-invasive test for early detection of AD. Combined with results of cognitive tests and other markers it could help doctors diagnose AD more confidently.

Eye scans like this also find plaques when they’re smaller than the ones in brain scans, potentially finding signs of AD earlier – maybe up to 20 years before cognitive symptoms appear. If diagnosed, AD patients could start treatment sooner and have regular eye scans to see which treatments work best for them.

Brain imaging on the cloud

From curry to the cloud. More research presented this week is about more accurately interpreting brain images sometimes used to diagnose AD.

To get a brain scan, a patient lies on a bed in a large machine like a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) or Positron Emission tomography (PET) scanner. These machines record a series of images through the brain, which are then visually checked by a radiologist who compiles a report for the patient’s doctor.

This visual inspection can be subjective, tedious and time consuming. But recent advances in scientific computing and machine learning allows systems to accurately measure features of the 3D scan, such as brain size or concentration of a tracer molecule, that support a diagnosis.

Using these techniques, a new trend is emerging for improving radiologists’ productivity. Scanners and specialised medical software can report quantitative values and compare them to the values expected for normal, healthy patients – just like blood test results from a pathology lab do.

Our researchers, led by health imaging specialist Associate Prof Olivier Salvado, have just released a new cloud computing application, MILXCloud, that automatically delivers standardised radiology reports.

brain surface showing the concentration of a radioactive dye imaged by PET scan

Our new software, MILXCloud, automates brain scan analysis and reporting on the Cloud

Users will be able to upload a PET scan and within 15 minutes be emailed a one page quantitative report showing a diagram of the brain with colour coded values compared with what’s normal. This data will help support diagnosis by the radiologist and enhance delivery of eHealth services.

Whether it’s curry or the Cloud, the future of Alzheimer’s detection sure looks bright.

Media: Andreas Kahl  |  0407 751 330  |

Baking bread by the numbers

Whether it’s sourdough, seeded rye, gluten-free or plain old white, there’s nothing like tucking into a fresh slice of bread. And it’s little wonder this age-old staple tastes so good – experts have been perfecting the art of bread making for thousands of years.

If we had to name who’s involved in bread making, most of us would probably identify the baker, the farmer who grows the wheat and maybe even the miller who grinds the wheat into flour. But how many people would think of the humble statistician? Dr Emma Huang would – and she’s eager to prove their worth in the process.

Statistical genius (er, geneticist) Emma Huang (second from left) is crunching the numbers for a better loaf of bread.

Statistical genius Emma Huang (second from left) is crunching the numbers for a better loaf of bread.

Emma is a statistical geneticist working with our Computational Informatics and Food Futures teams. She spends her days searching through thousands of genes for the few that affect yield and disease resistance in wheat.

By understanding the complex genetics of cultivated plants like wheat, Emma is helping farmers select the best crop varieties needed to produce the perfect loaf of bread.

“The impact of statistics in bread making starts well before preheating the oven. Statisticians are crucial in implementing efficient experimental design to compare different varieties of wheat for desirable characteristics,” says Emma.

After completing a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics at Caltech and a Doctor of Philosophy in Biostatistics at the University of North Carolina, Emma left the States to join our team in Brisbane.

Here she is using her mathematical expertise to detect regions of the wheat plants genome – or its inheritable traits – that are directly related to enhanced crop performance. This allows breeders to selectively breed specific genes, reducing the amount of time it takes to improve our food supply.

Her goal is to eventually be able to model the entire process of bread making, incorporating the effects of environment and genetics all the way from growing plants in the field, to milling the flour and baking the bread.

Performing some personal culinary research at the world famous El Celler de Can Roca restaurant in Spain.

Performing some personal culinary research at the infamous El Celler de Can Roca restaurant in Spain.

When she’s not crunching numbers in the name of food, Emma does her own private research into the best cuisine the world has to offer, indulging at world class restaurants like Spain’s El Celler de Can Roca. But fitness freaks don’t fret, she works off the extra calories playing water polo and going for ocean swims.

“Sometimes I think I was destined to be a statistical geneticist. Both my mother and aunt are qualified statisticians, my siblings all studied mathematics at university, and even my fiancé is a statistician!”

Who better to investigate the impact of genetics on our everyday life?

For more information on careers at CSIRO, follow us on LinkedIn.

The maths behind a zombie apocalypse

Could maths help us prepare for a zombie apocalypse? Image: Pedro Vezini.

Could maths help us prepare for a zombie apocalypse? Image: Pedro Vezini.

By Carrie Bengston

What would happen if zombies invaded the planet? World War Z tells the story with Brad Pitt and a much bigger film budget than we have.

But it will hearten you to know that a team in Canada has actually crunched the numbers for a zombie apocalypse. They created a mathematical model for zombie infection, suggesting that only quick, aggressive attacks can stave off the doomsday scenario.

The take home message from the maths? Hit ‘em hard and hit ‘em often.

Maths can help us explore all kinds of real and hypothetical scenarios. You might not think it, but maths is vital in understanding the complex and dynamic planet we call home.

This was made clear last week at Mathematics of Planet Earth Year: The Conference, where over 200 people gathered to hear what maths is telling us about our precious planet.


Maths helps us accurately measure organism characteristics through 3D phenotyping.

For our young graduate fellows who are test driving a maths research career, the conference was a chance to see the limitless applications of their chosen field. These include an amazing variety of natural and human-organised aspects of planet Earth discussed during the conference.

From understanding climate and weather patterns to identifying pests that threaten our biosecurity using 3D insect imaging, it was evident how important maths is in understanding the many challenges facing Earth today.

Mathematical modelling has even been used to protect people in earthquake-prone areas, promote sustainable dairy farming and watch a virus spread within a plant.

Maths adds a lot of value to our own research too. For instance, our mathematical scientists have contributed to important discoveries about Alzheimer’s disease. Take a look:


2013 is the International year of Mathematics of Planet Earth. Learn more about how maths and stats are helping us understand the challenges of our world.


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