Sounding out the ghosts of the depths

Sonar image of shipwreck

MV Lake Illawarra lies on the floor of the Derwent River

Nearly 40 years ago, on 5 January 1975, the 135m bulk ore carrier MV Lake Illawarra was heading up the Derwent River in Hobart to offload its cargo of 10 000 tonnes of zinc ore concentrate. It was off course as it neared the Tasman Bridge linking Hobart’s eastern suburbs to the rest of the city.

MV Lake Illawarra wreckThere was a strong current running at the time, and the ship was travelling too slowly. It became unmanageable. Several unwise decisions by the captain added up to disaster: the ship drifted towards the eastern shore of the Derwent, striking two of the bridge pylons. Three spans of the bridge and a 127m section of roadway came crashing down into the river and onto the vessel’s deck.

Twelve people died as a result. Five were in cars that were on the bridge at the time and drove over the gap, falling 45m into the water below. The others were trapped crew members of the MV Lake Illawarra, which sank almost immediately after the impact in 34m of water. It was never salvaged, and remains there to this day.

The Geophysical Survey and Mapping (GSM) Team on our new research vessel, RV Investigator, works on mapping any part of the ocean floor to any depth. They recently took delivery of a new EM2040c, a High Resolution Multibeam Echosounder (shallow water sonar) that can map the sea floor to 500 metres. To calibrate it, they took out a support vessel and had a closer look at the wreck of MV Lake Illawarra.MV Lake Illawarra wreck

With this new sonar equipment, mapping the whole wreck took about an hour. It’s just an example of its capabilities. The EM2040c is mobile, can be lifted by a single person and can fit on almost any vessel. The beam can be up to four times the water depth and it’s able to send and receive signals at a rate of 50 times per second.

And there’s a lot to use it for. Only about 12 per cent of Australia’s ocean floor has been mapped: there’s a great deal to find out yet.

Under a blood red moon … or not

We asked, and you surely delivered. We put out a call for your photos of the lunar eclipse, and got so many that for a moment we were afraid we might break Facebook. Here are some of our favourites.

It was a little cloudy in Melbourne, but Rhonda Baum still managed to sneak a shot through the gloom.

Eclipse through clouds

Image by Rhonda Baum

Clear skies in Port Lincoln helped Peter Knife get this.

Lunar eclipse Port Lincoln

Image by Peter Knife

Meanwhile, in Albury, the eclipse really turned it on for Petra de Ruyter.

Eclipse from Albury

Image by Petra de Ruyter

And Tamworth lived up to its claim to be Big Sky Country.

Lunar eclipse from Tamworth

Image by Ekiama Apalisok-Brice

Some managed to catch the purple tones.

Purple moon

Image by Lisa Belgrave

Lunar eclipse purple

Image by Samantha Bright

Others managed to catch tones we found a little surprising. There’s always one, isn’t there, Peter Feeney?

Green moon

Image by Peter Feeney

We got images from Japan.

Lunar eclipse Japan

Image by Ivy B Ueama

And Indonesia.

Lunar eclipse Indonesia

Image by Muhammad Hasbi Alfarizi

We got spectacular montages.

Lunar eclipse montage

Image by Kelly Wilson

But for some of us, the weather didn’t co-operate at all. Kim Cook was able to remind those of us who missed out that clouds can be beautiful too.

Sunset clouds

Image by Kim Cook

But if we’re honest, we have to admit that Ali Ceyhan spoke for all of us who didn’t get to see it.

Lunar eclipse meme

Image by Ali Ceyhan

Next time, next time … And our sincere thanks to all of you for your photos.

Seven things you didn’t know about Ned Kelly

Ned Kelly skull lasers

Laser examination of what was thought to be Ned Kelly’s skull. Image: Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine

  • No one knows when Ned Kelly was born (see page 29)

True. What we do know is that Ned was the third of 12 children born to Ellen Kelly (from three different fathers). There is no clear evidence of his actual birth, but it was most likely 1854 or 1855, near Beveridge north of Melbourne, meaning he was just 25 or 26 when he died.

  • Ned Kelly was illiterate (see page 222)

False. There are enough surviving examples of Ned’s handwriting to know that he could write. This myth most likely evolved from the belief that fellow Kelly Gang member, Joe Byrne, penned the famous Jerilderie letter. This letter has been described as Ned Kelly’s ‘manifesto’ and is a direct account of the Kelly Gang and the events with which they were associated.

Death mask of Ned Kelly

Ned Kelly’s death mask. Image Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine

  • How did he wear such a heavy helmet? (see page 135)

If you have ever seen or tried on a replica of one of the Kelly gang’s helmets, you’ll be struck by how heavy they are and how much they cut into the collar bone. The fact is that the weight of the helmet was not meant to be borne on the collar bones at all. The helmets have holes punched on front, back and sides of each helmet, through which leather straps were strung, meaning most of the weight was felt on top of the wearer’s head. Ned Kelly is reported to have worn a woollen cap to pad his head.

  • A film about Ned Kelly was the world’s first feature film (see page 111)

True. It is often reported that Charles Tait’s 1906 film, The Story of the Kelly Gang, was the world’s first full-length feature film. Its first screening was at the Athenaeum Hall on 26th of December 1906 and is alleged to have prompted five children in Ballarat to hold up a group of schoolchildren at gunpoint! This resulted in the Victorian Chief Secretary banning the film in towns with strong Kelly connections.  And for many years the film was thought to be lost, but segments were found in various locations, including some found on a rubbish dump.

In 2007 the film was inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register for being the world’s first full-length feature film.

  • Ned Kelly’s last words were ‘Such is life’. (see page 8)

Many believe that the last utterance by Ned Kelly just before his hanging were three simple word, ‘Such is life’. Whether uttered with weary resignation or an acceptance of misfortune, the notion that the quote is attributed to Ned Kelly survives  today (even inspiring one or two tattoos!)

But what Ned Kelly actually said as his last words is uncertain. Some newspapers at the time certainly reported the words ‘Such is life’, while a reporter standing on the gaol floor wrote that Ned’s last words were, ‘Ah well! It’s come to this at last.’ But one of the closest persons to Ned on the gallows, the gaol warden, wrote in his diary that Kelly opened his mouth and mumbled something that he couldn’t hear.

We will never know exactly what Ned’s last words were – such is life.

Kelly execution

Ned Kelly goes to the scaffold. Image State Library of Victoria

  • Ned Kelly courtroom curse killed the judge  (see page 204)

It is true that judge Sir Redmond Barry died 12 days after Ned Kelly was executed. The two men, Kelly and Barry, had been antagonists for some time, so after being sentenced to death at his trial, Ned Kelly famously replied to Sir Redmond Barry, ‘I will see you there where I go’ or a version of that quote.

Ned Kelly was executed on the 11th of November 1880 and Sir Redmond Barry died on the 23rd of the same month. However Barry’s certificate did not list the cause of death as “curse”, rather it is more likely that the judge died from a combination of pneumonia and septicaemia from an untreated carbuncle.

  • If you have a Ned Kelly tattoo you are more likely to die violently  (see page xvi) 

Depending on how you interpret the forensic data, wearing a Ned Kelly tattoo can be very dangerous! A study from the University of Adelaide found that corpses with Ned Kelly tattoos were much more likely to have died by murder and suicide. But it was a pretty small sample size.

Ned Kelly: Under the Microscope, edited by Craig Cormick, available now, in book shops and online $39.95. Meet the author and  Dr Richard Bassed from the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine at Discovery Centre on 19 November. For more information visit:

Celebrating our heroes of science

The IgNobel Stinker

The Stinker. Official mascot of the IgNobel Prizes

The winners of the 2014 IgNobel prizes have just been announced, and there’s an Australian among them. Peter K. Jonason from the University of Western Sydney shared the IgNobel for Psychology with Amy Jones and Minna Lyons, for providing evidence that people who habitually stay up late are, on average, more self-admiring, more manipulative, and more psychopathic than people who habitually arise early in the morning.

We are filled with admiration.

CSIRO wasn’t among the winners this year, but we’re going to take the opportunity to boast about our earlier winners.

In 2011, David Rentz (formerly of CSIRO) and Darryl Gwynne shared the IgNobel Prize for biology, for their groundbreaking discovery that a certain kind of Australian beetle attempts to mate with stubby bottles. Specifically, that male Buprestid beetles (jewel beetles or metallic wood-boring beetles) had a particular attraction to brown stubbies – none of this fancy craft beer in clear glass for them. In true scientific spirit, having noticed this occurring, they took steps to confirm the mating hypothesis. They ruled out the beetles being attracted by beer residue – the stubby bottles were completely dry. Nor were the beetles interested in a discarded wine bottle nearby – suggesting the colour of the bottle was the source of the attraction.

They then placed several more stubby bottles within range of the male beetles, and found that these too were extremely appealing to the beetles. So appealing, in fact, that they didn’t give up of their own accord, but had to be physically dislodged from making their amorous advances.

This, of course, provides a valuable lesson about the unintended consequences of littering. Throwing away a stubby can cause grave disappointment for beetles.

But these are not our only IgNobelists.

In 2006, Nic Svenson and Piers Barnes took out the IgNobel in mathematics for working out the solution to a problem that has confounded photographers for many years: how many photos do you need to take to be sure no-one is blinking.

They managed to reduce it to a (fairly) simple rule of thumb. For groups of less than 20 people, take the number of people in the group and divide that number by three. If you take that number of photos you can be virtually certain one of them will be blink-free. If the light is bad, divide the number of people in the group by two, because there’s a greater chance people will be blinking whilst the shutter is open.

This doesn’t work as well when the groups get larger: the number of photos grows so large that the group is likely to lose patience. But as they point out, the more people in a photo, the less it matters if one of them is blinking. And you’ll be pleased to know this was all experimentally tested in the canteen at lunchtime.

So congratulations to this year’s winners, commiserations to the losers, and onwards and upwards for the spirit of inquiry that drives improbable research.

Next year, next year …

Top 5 gift ideas for the (Bat)man who has everything

The front cover of Detective Comics Vol 1 #27

Batman first appeared in Detective Comics Vol 1 #27, May 1939. Credit: DC Comics, Inc.

By Carrie Bengston and James Davidson

Happy Birthday, Batman!

This month marks 75 years since the Caped Crusader first appeared on comic book pages in Detective Comics Vol 1 #27.

So, what is Batman receiving for this milestone birthday?

Last week, Hollywood director Zack Snyder presented him with a new Batsuit and Batmobile for his movie due out in 2016.

But Zack’s brooding Batman suggests our superhero is not exactly pleased about being a septuagenarian. Perhaps he’s worried that he’ll struggle to find a place in the Batcave for another bottle of aftershave or pair of socks.

A black and white photo of the new Batman and Batmobile.

“I can’t face getting another pair of socks . . .” Credit: Zack Snyder/Twitter.

So what do you get the guy who already seems to have it all?

A few months back, we offered Batman our portable 3D laser scanner called Zebedee to help map crime scenes. Here are five more Bat-tastic gift ideas from our own tech lair.

1. Batsuit upgrade – Batman is always looking for new ways to improve his armour. He needs it to be lightweight so he can move like a ninja. Move over, movie costume designers! A real-world cape and body armour could be feasible, and we can provide the lightweight protection he needs. Developed for Australian military applications, but very useful for comic book heroes, our ceramic armour is lightweight and offers protection from small-arms fire, as well as high velocity shrapnel from grenades, shells and improvised explosive devices. A bat cape could easily be made from this material.

2. Autonomus Batcopter - Forget fixing the autopilot on The Bat, how about an aircraft that can navigate and manoeuvre by itself while performing operational tasks? Basic remote-controlled helicopters are already in hobby stores, but task-performing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) that pilot themselves without a human operator are advancing every year. We’ve developed specialised UAVs to map plant pests in rainforests and for rescues. Batman could use one of these (pending CASA approval) to locate crime pests in the dense and gloomy landscape of Gotham City.

3. BatVision - We’ve developed bat sensors called Camazotz, about the size of a 50 cent piece that can track fruit bats’ movements and collect environmental data. Even smaller micro sensors are currently used to locate bees and Q-fly, as well as for collecting geochemical data on NASA’s Mars Rovers. They can be used outdoors to keep a close watch over Robin and track Batman’s enemies.

4. Social media BatAlert – hold the Batphone, our Emergency Situation Awareness (ESA) tool for social media provides early notification and real-time awareness of developing emergency situations. Alfred can relax back at Wayne Manor, while ESA keeps Batman informed with evidence of pre-incident activity, near real-time notice of an incident occurring, first-hand reports of incident impacts, and gauging community response to an emergency warning.

5. Cargo BatScan - Contraband in shipping or air cargo containers is a common trick for criminals that Batman hunts down. Using our cargo scanner, he can see what’s inside those containers, find their loot easily and get Commissioner Gordon on to it.

A small rugged four wheeled robot vehicle.

Unwrap this, Batman – the Stealth Robot – Superhero tech in the real world.

These gadgets should certainly see Batman through to his 80th birthday – the new retirement age in Gotham City.

An ocean of plastic

It’s estimated that 80 million tons of plastics are produced globally each year. Because they are so durable, plastics require about 500 years to decompose in the ocean.

It’s like plastic confetti has been sprinkled into every last inch of the ocean, and not in a festive way. This has a major impact on the world’s marine ecosystems.

Some of the plastic pieces collected on board the recently retired research vessel, Southern Surveyor.

We’ve posted before about the National Marine Debris Survey, the first of its scale in the world. The Survey collects and analyses marine debris around the country, sampling rubbish at 100 kilometre intervals around Australia’s 35,000 kilometre coastline.

The project will create a ‘debris map’, comparing the cleanup data, ocean currents and wildlife distribution patterns to see where rubbish goes and locate the types of rubbish most dangerous to our marine wildlife. The final report is due to be released later this year.

Initial results from the survey suggest there are 5.2 pieces of marine debris along our coastline for every person in Australia and so far, the survey has found that 74 per cent of the marine debris around our coastline are plastics.

Many microplastics are so tiny they’re not visible to the naked eye. Image: MinuteEarth

Many of these plastics are bottles, bottle tops and shopping bags. But the story of plastics in our oceans doesn’t end here. These larger pieces are fractured by weathering and break down into tiny pieces called microplastics, smaller than 5 mm and many not visible to the naked eye.

While these microplastics will float through our oceans for many years to come, their long-term environmental impacts are still being determined. Recent research suggests these tiny plastics are ingestible and toxic to plankton, tiny organisms right at the bottom of the food chain.

A 0.0073 millimeters (a.k.a. 7.3 μm) piece of polystyrene seen inside the zooplankton Centropages typicus. Image:  Environ. Sci. Technol.

A 0.0073 millimeters (a.k.a. 7.3 μm) piece of polystyrene seen inside the zooplankton Centropages typicus. Image: Environ. Sci. Technol.

For an ocean of plastic, it’s possible the small stuff is worse than the big stuff.

With support from the Marine National Facility, our friends over at MinuteEarth are telling the story of “Plastic Confetti”. Plastics—and microplastics— and their role in our oceans.

To keep up with the latest from the Marine National Facility, including the latest about their new research vessel Investigator, head over to the Investigator blog.

27 things you didn’t know about CSIRO (that could help you win the next trivia comp)

By Lou Morrissey

We’re often the secret ingredient behind the things that have improved your life. Below are 27 more things you might not have known about us.

Dr John O'Sullivan - the man who made WiFi possible. Image: Australian Geographic

Dr John O’Sullivan – the man who made WiFi possible. Image: Australian Geographic

1. We were the first Australian organisation to start using the internet, which is why we were able to register the second-level domain for our website (as opposed to or

2. Five CSIRO scientists invented wireless LAN technology, these days known as WiFi, which is now used in more than five billion devices around the world

3. The word ‘petrichor’, which describes the distinct smell of rain, was invented by our own researchers Isabel Joy Bear and Richard Grenfell Thomas

4. We’re Australia’s largest patent holder with 3582 patents, 728 inventions and 275 trademarks

5. We run NASA’s spacecraft tracking facilities in Australia

6. The world’s first effective influenza treatment, called Relenza, was invented by CSIRO in 1987

7. We’ve established more than 150 joint ventures from our research

8. We invented Aerogard between 1938 and 1961 to help keep flies off cattle and prevent disease – and even used it on the Queen when she visited in 1963

9. We grant around 80 new commercial licenses every year like BARLEYmax, a low GI ‘supergrain’ with four times the resistant starch of regular grains

You can find BARLEYmax on supermarket shelves across Australia and NZ. Image: Goodness Superfoods

You can find BARLEYmax on supermarket shelves across Australia and NZ. Image: Goodness Superfoods

10. CSIRO stands for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation

11. Staff and our business partners often affectionately call us ‘siroh’

12. We invented a permanent pleat for fabrics (yep, we’ve saved you all that ironing)

13. Boeing named CSIRO their R&D supplier of the year in 2011

14. We’ve earned more than $430 million in royalties for our WLAN invention

15. In 2005, our scientists developed near-perfect rubber from resilin, the elastic protein which gives fleas their jumping ability and helps insects fly

Our contact lenses can be worn for up to 30 days. Image: The Daily Write Up

Our contact lenses can be worn for up to 30 days. Image: The Daily Write Up

16. We invented extended-wear soft contact lenses as part of the Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) program

17. We partner with more than 1800 Australian and 440 overseas companies every year to help them find ways to create new products, save money and improve productivity

18. 2013 Australian of the Year, Dr Simon McKeon, is the Chairman of CSIRO’s Board

19. CSIRO was founded in 1926

20. More than 60% of our staff hold university degrees and 2000 have a doctorate degree

21. We invented plastic bank notes – polymer currency that is now used in more than 30 denominations around the world – to help prevent counterfeiting and to last longer

We even created $7 notes for poops and giggles (and for security reasons)

We even created $7 notes for poops and giggles (and security reasons).

22. When producers of hit Australian film, The Dish, met with staff at our Radio Telescope in Parkes, the scientists initially thought the movie was just another a documentary

23. We’ve developed 100 varieties of cotton to help Australian farmers save water, reduce costs and cut insecticide use by 85%

24. Worldwide, we are involved in more than 700 international research activities, like developing the first biomass powered refrigeration system to keep fruit and veggies fresh in rural India

25. Softly fabric softener was invented by CSIRO

26. We saved lives by developing the world’s first vaccine to prevent the spread of Hendra virus from horses to humans

27. We’ve developed computer models that deliver a 10x improvement in weather forecasting


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