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 csiro.au for our website (as opposed to csiro.org.au or csiro.com.au)

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

Fluffy feel, hard impact: Why fabric softener is amazing

We’ve written before about why we love science and even the awesomeness of plants. While we get excited about what science and technology has done for us, many take innovations that improve their daily lives for granted. Occasionally I fall into the latter category.

This is why, until recently, I dismissed the vital importance of fabric softener.

There are many ways the work of CSIRO, over our 88 years of research and development, has improved your day to day life: handy reference graphic below. As I’ve used this handy reference graphic in my work, one icon has always baffled me. Softly. The washing liquid. Sure it makes me want to rub my face all over my towels, but how could some detergent be one of the top ten inventions of Australia’s national science agency?

Seriously, who cares about fabric softener?

Inventions à la CSIRO: From the plastic banknotes in your pocket to the WiFi in your devices

Inventions à la CSIRO: From the plastic banknotes in your pocket to the WiFi in your devices.

As many before me, I experienced an epiphany last week while browsing the pages of CSIROpedia.

“Softly® detergent was developed as result of claims that woollen blankets harboured disease because they couldn’t be laundered at high temperatures.”

Oh. It’s about more than scratchy cardigans.

As the story goes, in the 1950s a medical journal claimed woollen blankets could harbour disease that could be carried through the wards of hospitals. Staff at Royal Melbourne Hospital urged their Board to change to cotton blankets. Realising this could have serious impacts on the wool industry, the Chairman of the Board asked us to help.

And we got to work: testing the distribution of bacteria in fibres in hospital wards and looking at the durability of various blanket types (wool was the clear winner, surviving 300 washes compared to cotton at 150 or less). While it wasn’t confirmed that the blanket fibres carried bacteria, it was still necessary to find a way to sterilise wool.

Working wonders with wool. Softly and the man behind it, Tom Pressley

Working wonders with wool. Softly and the man behind it, Tom Pressley.

From there Softly was born, a pH neutral dream boat in the world of detergents. Shrinking or scratchy wool was an itch of the past. And the pH is important: the detergent holds the fibre particles suspended in water, coats them with a thin layer of conditioner, but stays chemically neutral so the wool isn’t damaged by boiling.

The Royal Melbourne Hospital’s blankets were clean, disease free and oh so fluffy.

It's so softly. Image: Flickr/

It’s so softly. Image: Flickr/ynaka29

And Softly’s impact didn’t stop in hospital wards. It’s still available on supermarket shelves today and is recommended to clean and soften wool, silks, fine cotton and linen.

As you rug up for winter over the next few weeks, remember all the fabulous things science has done for your everyday life. As I launder, I certainly will be.

Saving daylight

Bird on branch

Don’t be a confused cuckoo. Turn back your clocks this weekend. Image: Flickr / Sean MCann

This coming Sunday when the clocks are wound back one hour, the curtains will stop fading faster, birds and cows will no longer be confused by the ‘extra’ sunshine and life will return to its natural rhythm.

For those living in South Australia, NSW, Tasmania, Victoria and the ACT, Daylight Saving comes to an end this week.

Daylight Saving has caused much debate since it was first conceived by Benjamin Franklin in 1784.

Not that “adjusting” time to suit our needs was new then.  Ancient civilizations adjusted daily schedules to the sun – often dividing daylight into 12 hours regardless of day length, so that each daylight hour was longer during summer.

Roman water clocks had different scales for different months of the year. In Rome the third hour after sunrise started just after 9am and lasted 44 minutes at the winter solstice, but at the summer solstice it started just before 7am and lasted 75 minutes.

George Vernon Hudson

The granddaddy of Daylight Saving, Mr George Vernon Hudson

Modern Daylight Saving never really got off the ground until 1895 when an entomologist from New Zealand, George Vernon Hudson, wrote a paper that proposed a two-hour shift forward in October and a two-hour shift back in March. He followed up his proposal with an article in 1898, and although there was interest in the idea, it was never followed through.

Some places in Argentina, Iceland, Russia, Uzbekistan and Belarus have introduced permanent Daylight Saving and the United Kingdom stayed on it from 1968 to 1971.

There are also apparently some health issues related to Daylight Saving.

People who are already vulnerable to heart disease may be at greater risk right after sudden time changes.

Recently a study was released in the US which showed that people who were already vulnerable to heart disease may be at greater risk right after sudden time changes.

According to the study, turning clocks forward an hour for Daylight Saving time was followed by a spike in heart attacks on the Monday following. Monday is traditionally the day when most heart attacks occur  – it is suggested that the stress of returning to work may be a cause. There was a 25 per cent jump in the number of heart attacks occurring the Monday after the spring time change – or a total of eight additional heart attacks. But when clocks fall back and people gain an hour of sleep, there was a drop (21 per cent) in heart attacks on the Tuesday.

So, it seems the odds are increased that I will live a bit longer – at least until Daylight Saving comes back.

While it seems that every article about Daylight Saving has to have the curtain fading gag, is there ‘extra’ sunshine?

In the 1950s scientists in our Division of Physics were using a flare-patrol telescope to observe disturbances in the Sun’s chromosphere. It showed the appearance and growth of several flares and surges. Some of these disturbances are observed against the disk of the Sun. Those too faint for this are studied at the limb, or edge, of the Sun.

Aurora over the frozen forests of Sweden

Aurora over the frozen forests of Sweden. Image: RainbowJoe

Coronal mass ejections on the Sun release huge amounts of matter and electromagnetic radiation which can cause particularly strong aurorae (Northern and Southern Lights), disrupt radio transmissions and cause damage to satellites and electrical transmission line facilities.

Coronal mass ejections reach velocities between 20km/s to 3200km/s with an average speed of 489km/s. They take between one and five days to reach Earth.

So is that extra sunshine?

Teat time: puggles like you’ve never seen them

Head shot David Attenborough

Oh, to be that close to the Sir.

The saying goes that if Sir David Attenborough says it, it must be true.

I may have made that one up, but I’m sure you’ll agree that the Sir commands a level of respect about all things in the natural world above any other living scientist. I would even go so far as to say that if the Sir gave me advice on my home loan or hair style, I’d probably take it.

So you can imagine our delight when, while watching the Sir’s ‘Rise of Animals’ last week, we saw footage from our film archives, dating back to the early 1970s. The Sir spends some time talking about echidnas, one of only two mammals that lay eggs (the other is the platypus). The soft, leathery egg is deposited into the pouch and hatches approximately 22 days later. Welcome to the world, little puggle.

This reproductive process is quite unique and, in the Sir’s words, ‘the hatching process itself has only rarely been captured on film’. So pleased are we to have been the ones to capture it.

If you’ve only got 10 seconds to spare you can watch our highly-anticipated GIF series of a puggle hatching below… or scroll right down for the full rare footage (all 1 minute, 3 seconds of it).


‘I’m gonna go lay me an egg’




The tiny, terrifying tooth

Get ready for the puggle in full hatching glory.

Our archive videos make for great viewing. If you loved watching a puggle hatch, then you’ll squeal with delight watching the slightly more grotesque ‘Birth of the red kangaroo‘. Or better yet subscribe to our YouTube channel where every Throwback Thursday we treat you to an archive classic.


PS. Before someone else points this out, I am well aware that echidnas don’t have teats. They have milk patches. Let’s be honest, saying ‘Patch time’ wouldn’t have made for such an interesting headline… so let’s just call it artistic licence.


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