Meet the next generation of Aussie scientists and engineers

Taking a closer look at this years teen-scientists

Taking a closer look at this year’s teen-scientists

How much did you love your Bunsen burner time at school? Or were you more of an adoring-algebra type?

To us, nothing is more valuable and important than nurturing a love of science and technology in the next generation. This is why the BHP Billiton Science and Engineering Awards are such a terrific motivator for students looking to turn their great ideas into reality.

So, before you get lost in your high-school reminiscing, we thought we should share a couple of the entries which have made it to the finals this year.

Prepare to be humbled.

Nick's treatment of honey bee silk has some amazing potential for industries

Nick’s treatment of honey bee silk has some amazing potential for industries

Silky Smooth

The honey bee doesn’t normally come to mind when you think about the production of silk. Interestingly honey bee silk has some amazing industrial uses, particularly in biomedical work.

Nick East, 15, from Canberra has discovered a way that honey bee silk can be purified and treated more cost-effectively than current methods. Honey bee silk can be used for replacing parts of the human body – from ligaments to supporting the immune system. Nick went even further to investigate how the honey bee silk protein could be used to deliver a controlled-release of drugs into the system.

Nick’s entry created a buzz in our team, as we’re no strangers to working with bees for science.

Katherine's project looks at improving building safety in cyclone-prone areas

Katherine’s project looks at improving building safety in cyclone-prone areas

Raising the roof. And the bar.

Hailing from cyclone-prone northern Queensland, Kimberley Hardwick, 17, is in the running for the awards for her investigation into how different roof designs stand up in windy conditions.

Kimberley’s project isn’t a whole lot of bluster, in fact it stands up really well against the competition.

By looking into how roof features – such as pitch and surface area – would affect uplift during a cyclone, Kimberley was able to develop a series of recommendations to reduce the pressure placed on a house.

This entry has the potential to save money, houses and people’s lives.

The youngest finalist Dhruv, shows off his in-home sensors, PROTEGO

The youngest finalist Dhruv, shows off his in-home sensors, PROTEGO

Keeping a digital eye on the elderly

To our youngest finalist, Dhruv Verma, 14, from Victoria. Dhruv has developed PROTEGO, or PROactive Technology for Elderly on the GO.

Inspired by his great grandfather who lived independently into his nineties until he had a fall, Dhruv designed PROTEGO to help address the increasing strain on our aged care system by allowing elderly people to live independently in their own homes for longer.

Harnessing some clever technology, such as in-home sensors and real-time alerts sent to carers via their smartphones, this entry is all about using latest tech for social good.

If great minds think alike, then Dhruv is in good company – our scientists are trialling a similar system in Queensland.

We wish all the young entrants the best of luck at the awards next week, and we look forward to working with you in the not too distant future.

The BHP Billiton Science and Engineering awards are a partnership between BHP Billiton, CSIRO and the Australian Science Teachers Association. They are sponsored by BHP Billiton and managed by CSIRO. The awards are also supported by the Intel Corporation.

The winners will be announced in Melbourne next week by Mr Bryan Quinn, Head of Group Technology and Geoscience and Engineering, CSIRO Board Member, Professor Tom Spurling and Australian Science Teachers Association President, Ms Robyn Aitken.


Cosmic radio burst caught red-handed

Nicholas Kachel:

An international team of scientific sleuths are putting together the pieces of a cosmic puzzle – attempting to identify the source of powerful “fast radio bursts” that have originated from the far corners of our known Universe.

Originally posted on Universe @ CSIRO:

News this week that astronomers using our Parkes radio telescope have detected a short, sharp flash of radio waves from an unknown source up to 5.5 billion light years from Earth is the latest chapter in a cosmic ‘whodunnit’ mystery. We have mounting evidence, a team of detectives, and a good pinch of suspense. All we need now is to find the body.

The evidence
‘Fast radio bursts’ are short and bright: they last only milliseconds but give out an enormous amount of energy.

The first burst was discovered in 2007 by astronomers combing old Parkes data archives for unrelated objects. Five more detections were made from Parkes data before researchers using data collected with the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico made the first finding using another facility.

This latest discovery, made by Swinburne University of Technology PhD student Emily Petroff, is the first ‘live’ detection of one of these mysterious bursts…

View original 442 more words


A shark’s tale: is there something fishy in the waters off Newcastle?

shark 4

A shark off Burwood beach, Newcastle, on Thursday. Pic: Peter Stoop, courtesy Heliservices Newcastle

The coastal city of Newcastle is in the midst of a media frenzy, thanks to a string of shark sightings close to popular swimming beaches.

A 15 kilometre stretch of beaches has now been shut for a record six consecutive days, with lifeguards and police craft reporting shark sightings seemingly by the hour. Of most concern have been a purportedly 5 metre, 1,700kg White shark that has been lingering along the coastline; and what is suspected to be a 3 metre tiger shark that was photographed attacking and killing a small dolphin only 50 metres from the shore yesterday (warning: graphic images).

While no attacks on humans in the area have yet been recorded, the sharks have become national celebrities in their own right, with widespread media coverage and commentary. There has even been a Twitter account set up for the @Newy_Shark (which is one account you probably don’t want to be “followed” by).

So what’s the deal here? Are we seeing the real-life return of Jaws? Has a curse been struck down upon the town of Newcastle by Poseidon himself? Is a Sharknado next?

Our resident White shark expert, Barry Bruce, knows a thing or two about these ancient predators. He is one of Australia’s pre-eminent authorities on the species and is the head of our White Shark Research Program. But he is perhaps most famously known for having one of Finding Nemo’s most famous characters named after him.

According to Barry, the story behind Newcastle’s shark saga is far less salacious. Thankfully, we’re not gonna need a bigger blog.

The coastline just north of Newcastle (stretching from the appropriately named Stockton Bight to the even tastier-sounding Seal Rocks) is famously known as being a nursery ground for White sharks. These juveniles are usually about 2-3 metres in length, and a tagging program undertaken by Barry and his team has shown that they are more than prevalent in the area.

Satellite positions for 19 tracked juvenile White sharks in the Port Stephens region 2007 – 2010. Registered positions are colour-coded for each shark. Dotted pink line denotes approximate boundary of the White shark nursery area.

Satellite positions for 19 tracked juvenile White sharks in the Port Stephens region 2007 – 2010. Registered positions are colour-coded for each shark. Dotted pink line denotes approximate boundary of the White shark nursery area.

Seeing a larger sized White in this area, like the infamous #NewyShark, is slightly less common, but still not at all unusual.

Large White sharks are well known to move up and down the New South Wales coastline, stopping in certain areas when food is prevalent. White sharks have been exhibiting this exact behaviour for countless millennia – it is only when they stop near a heavily populated area like Newcastle that we would notice.

But these are nomadic creatures, and they won’t stay in one spot for too long. We know through collaboration with our colleagues in New Zealand that white Sharks will travel as far north as the Great Barrier Reef – and even across the Tasman to NZ – in a span of just months.

Bruce and his team tagging a white shark with an acoustic tagging device.

Barry and his team tagging a white shark with an acoustic tagging device.

Barry puts the current concentration of sharks in Newcastle purely down to natural variability. Sharks go where the food goes – if there are more sharks in one area at one point in time, it means there will be less in others.

And while we’re in the mood for debunking myths, here’s another one: dolphins are just as much a food source for sharks as are any other species of their size. While it is uncommon for us to observe – and the images were undeniably distressing – sharks are well-known to attack dolphins. Unfortunately, what Flipper taught us was wrong.

More than anything, Barry says that this is a positive advertisement for the health of marine ecosystems in Australia. That there is a large enough food source to sustain shark populations is a good thing, and should be celebrated.

But of course, it is important for beachgoers to take advice from authorities when entering the water. While this is a natural spectacle that should be enjoyed, it is advisable to do so from a distance – and on land. In time it will run its course, and we can all return to the water.

White shark fast facts:

    • A common mistake people make is calling these awesome creatures, ‘Great White Sharks’, it’s actually just ‘White shark’ (Carcharodon carcharias). But we still think they’re still pretty great.
    • Sharks play a vital ecosystem role as top predators. Declines in top predators can cascade through the food web, seeing some species groups increase while eliminating others.
    • We have one of the most comprehensive White shark research programs in the world, with over 250 tagged White sharks in Australian waters. Check out a few shark tracks on our website.
    • Our tagging program provides us with a good idea of migration patterns – we know for example that there is an East and a Southwest population.
    • Our research on White sharks is a collaborative project funded under the Australian Government’s National Environmental Research Program.
    • We tag these beauties in a very humane way – in a sling, in the water:


Bushfires kill, but knowing exactly how might make them less deadly

Whether leaving early or staying to defend, a reliable and adaptable bushfire survival plan is a must. AAP Image/David Mariuz

Whether leaving early or staying to defend, a reliable and adaptable bushfire survival plan is a must. AAP Image/David Mariuz

By Justin Leonard, CSIRO

The latest round of bushfires, which claimed 27 homes in the Adelaide Hills, has once again highlighted the importance of planning for the worst. Mercifully, no human lives were lost, and it will be important to learn whatever lessons we can to avoid future tragedies.

My colleagues and I analysed 825 deaths in 260 Australian bushfires from 1901 to 2011, and our research has revealed some compelling evidence to help guide residents to plan for future bushfires.

Most people (58%) lost their lives when caught out in the open. Strikingly, 72% of those people were within 200 m of their own homes (this statistic is based only on cases where details are accurately known).

I encourage you to imagine what circumstances and decisions might have led to these outcomes. Do a large number of people simply wait to see if the fire is really going to arrive on their doorstep?

Bushfire deaths within a house are most prevalent during our most severe fire events, representing 75% of all fatalities during bushfires that occurred on days with “catastrophic” (code red) fire danger conditions. This is despite them representing only 27% of all bushfire deaths.

Of those who died inside homes, 92% were in rooms that did not have a door that led directly to the exterior of the house (once again, this is based only on cases where circumstances are accurately known). This raises uncomfortable questions: why did these people apparently not try to leave the home as the house fire developed? Were they monitoring the conditions outside as the fire passed? Had they thought about which exit was the safest?

Homes under attack

When a fire arrives at a property, the house will experience “ember attack”. This attack is strongest as the main fire arrives and will persist for a long time after it has passed, and may also start to happen before the fire actually arrives. If the house is close enough to the bush it may also be affected by radiant heat, and if very close then direct flame contact is possible, although most houses are lost without any direct interaction from a bushfire front – which goes some way to account for the seemingly random loss patterns that occur.

Given the timing and intensity of ember attack, it is no surprise that our data show that houses can ignite before, during, and after a fire front’s passage – with the most likely time being during and immediately after the fire front has passed.

For the relatively small number of houses that ignite before the fire front arrives, the occupants may be faced with life-threatening conditions both inside and outside at the same time. There are also a few cases were houses are built so close to the bush or other combustible elements that even the low-level fire that persists after the main fire front has passed is too intense to survive outside.

Nevertheless, for the vast majority of homes that burn in bushfires, it is likely that at any given time, conditions would be survivable either inside or outside the house. That means that, with the right strategy, lives should not be lost.

Designing a lifesaving strategy

It is interesting to note that the current building codes for bushfire-prone areas include specific fire weather severity limits beyond which these standards may no longer be effective. The standards aim to reduce the risk that a building will catch fire, but they also rule out any guarantee that it won’t. The code also doesn’t address the issues of how fast burning homes might succumb, or of how to provide a safe or effective exit path from the building.

So even if your bushland home is fully up to code, you need to plan for a wide range of scenarios. Fire agencies across Australia have stressed the importance for people living in bushfire-prone areas to develop a fire survival plan, and your local fire agency is the best place to start on developing a plan and educating yourself about the specific local fire conditions you might face.

Once a plan has been developed I encourage residents to test their fire plan by checking whether it answers the following questions:

  • At what level of forecast fire weather severity will you retreat to a non-bushfire-prone area for the day?
  • Do you understand the local potential fire severity for weather conditions below this level?
  • For any given circumstances, what are the signs or triggers that indicate that it is no longer safe to evacuate to a non-bushfire prone area? For some isolated communities this will be when fire weather severity passes a certain level; for other, less isolated residents it will be when they are no longer certain that the roads are moving freely and fire will not impact their travel route.
  • What and where is your personal protective equipment and firefighting tools?
  • Is the property free from combustible items under or adjacent to the home?
  • Is the home in an acceptable state of repair to survive a bushfire?
  • Which areas would be the safest external location to move to if it becomes impossible to stay in the house?
  • Does the path leading to this cleared area involve walking over or past combustible elements such as vehicles and decking?
  • How do I monitor all rooms and cavity areas of the home for signs of ignition of fire development inside the house?
  • What do you have on hand to monitor and put out these fires (stored water, ladders to monitor internal roof space, etc.)?
  • If you can’t put them out, which exit path is the most appropriate?

And remember:

A deep understanding of the nature of bushfire threat is your best tool in assessing and managing your own risk.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.


Viva Parkes-Vegas!

Viva Parkes-Vegas!

When stars collide: Elvis meets The Dish

By Glen Nagle

The town of Parkes, NSW – home of our famous Parkes Radio Telescope – has slipped on its Blue Suede Shoes.

In the second week of January each year, Parkes marks the birthday of Elvis Presley with a massive festival celebrating everything Elvis. It started over 20 years ago as a one-day get together of just a few hundred fans. In 2015, the festival has grown to cover a week of events, shows, parades and exhibits and over 15,000 visitors more than doubling the town’s population.

Along with one of the largest collections of Elvis memorabilia on permanent display at the Henry Parkes Visitor Centre (donated by Wiggles performer, Greg Page), the Parkes Elvis Festival is one of the town’s major icons.

The other great icon of course is the Dish – our very own Parkes radio telescope – so combining these two great icons into one stellar event was always going to be, quite literally, a match made in Heaven.

'Return to sender' took on a new meaning for the Dish last night.

‘Return to sender’ took on a new meaning for the Dish last night.

On Wednesday, 7th January an inaugural concert was held at the Dish to help mark the opening night of the Festival – and to celebrate what would have been the King’s 80th birthday the following day.

Starring popular Elvis tribute artist, Shakin’ Rick Mackaway, and backed by the fabulous rock band, The Wilsonics, the dinner and show night attracted hundreds of people from across the region and as far and wide as Canberra, Wollongong, Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne.

Storm clouds threatened earlier in the day, but nothing was going to rain on this parade of love for the King and the Dish. The clouds almost magically bypassed the telescope and the brightest stars in heaven came out for an incredible night of songs, dancing and laughter against the impressive backdrop of Australia’s iconic radio telescope.

Shakin' Rick, rockin' in to the night.

Shakin’ Rick, rockin’ in to the night.

Continuing to observe the heavens throughout the show, the Dish even performed during the intermission with several large moves enthralling the audience and provoking  questions about both the science behind, and the history of, the Dish.

As the evening came to a close with a final encore performance and the audience departed, the number one question was, “Are you going to do it again next year?!”

Hmmm? Elvis and the Dish 2! Two icons, exciting audiences everywhere with music and astronomy.

The possibilities are endless. Watch this space.


Dieting in the Digital Age: The Total Wellbeing Diet online program

Mushroom, Ricotta and Herb Omelette from the Total Wellbeing Diet online program.

Mushroom, Ricotta and Herb Omelette from the Total Wellbeing Diet online program.

Our Total Wellbeing Diet (TWD) is always on the move – in fact, you could call it a moveable feast. Since we launched the program in 2005, we’ve refined and improved both the ingredients and the way they’re delivered, with five TWD books released in those nine years.

Now, after a short trial, we’re officially moving the TWD online. In collaboration with the GI (Glycemic Index) Foundation, the new Total Wellbeing Diet online program brings low-GI options to our carbohydrate recipes using a comprehensive, personalised platform.

So how does it work?

Instead of exhaustive calorie counting, the online diet tallies food groups to help the individual move towards healthier eating. The online program also generates personalised shopping lists that change to suit your changing meal preferences. Recipes from all five TWD books are included, bringing over 1,000 meal choices. And of course, the personalised plan can be accessed through any smart device.

We take weight loss seriously, and here’s why:

  • Obesity has doubled in the last 20 years.
  • Over half the Australian population is either overweight or obese.
  • The amount of fat Australians have gained in the last 10 years could feed 656,000 people for a year.
  • In 1995 the average man and woman weighed 82 kg and 67 kg, respectively. Now the average man and woman weighs 85.9 and 71.1 kg, respectively.
  • This amount of extra weight carried by Australian men (3.9 kg) and women (4.1 kg) compared with ‘95, equates to the weight of 150 Boeing 747s.
SMH/Australian Institute of Health and Welfare

Statistics for overweight and obese Australians. SMH/Australian Institute of Health and Welfare

…and on the bright side: CSIRO’s Total Wellbeing Diet online program.

The TWD is flexible and allows for one daily indulgence or a weekend splurge. And to sweeten the deal yet further, the complete membership fee of $149 will be waived if you fill these simple conditions:

  • Record your weight loss every week on-time for the full 12 weeks
  • Upload a photo at the start and end of the program
  • Achieve a net weight loss
  • Complete a program survey
  • Submit your refund request within 14 days of completing the program

For more information, visit: www.totalwellbeingdiet.com


All I want for Christmas is a good night’s sleep…

Recently emptied bed

Sleep apnoea can be unbearable for all involved. Photo: Elias Quezada.

…A good night’s sleep, a good night sleep.

Sing it with us now, snorers and snorer sufferers of Australia! Because we might be able to help.

Sleep apnoea is just, well, horrible. It’s a condition where the air passage in the throat becomes blocked during sleep and causes people to stop breathing. Ask any of the million or so Australians who suffer from it – or their sleeping partners – and they will tell you it can cause massive damage: not only physically but emotionally.

Severe cases experience hundreds of blockages per night, leading to high blood pressure, stroke, irregular heartbeats, heart attacks and diabetes. Bed partners are affected too, with their chances of getting a good sleep rendered near impossible. It can lead to relationship breakdowns, and worse.

Thankfully, a new CSIRO-made solution may just offer a Christmas miracle: a 3D-printed titanium mouthguard that helps air flow freely for sufferers while they’re sleeping.

Brisbane-based dentist Chris Hart first had the idea for a mouthguard with airways that would assist airflow past the sleep apnoea sufferer’s soft palate. He approached us for help developing a device 3D-printed from titanium, with a soft medical grade plastic mouthguard.

The result is the Oventus Clearway Device. It’s essentially a ‘duckbill’ which extends from the mouth like a whistle and divides into two separate airways. This allows air to flow through to the back of the throat, bypassing obstructions that cause the problems.

The titanium Clearway Device. It's a mouthguard against restless nights.

The titanium Clearway Device (the world’s shortest snorkel?)

For Gold Coast retiree and sleep apnoea sufferer Maurice Hrovat, 57, the new device – which he was lucky enough to trial – has been not just sleep-changing but life-changing. Hrovat was, in an apparently massive understatement, “quite a good snorer”, and had long ago been banished from his and his wife’s bed, to sleep down the hallway.

Hrovat reported immediate benefits from his trial of the device. “I used to need an afternoon nap, I was so exhausted from a bad night’s sleep,” Hrovat says, but they’re now a thing of the past. “I find I am getting up earlier, and exercising more.” And, most importantly, he’s been allowed back into the bedroom.

The Clearway Device is initially only available through the Turbot Street, Brisbane practice of Chris Hart. With practices in Sydney and Melbourne not introducing the product until the New Year, Santa might have to save your device until Christmas 2015. However, interested patients – or dental or medical practices – can find more information on the Oventus website.

NB: Pricing for the device is around $1500 but depends on the patient’s individual requirements, as well as their healthcare funding and insurance cover.


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