Scientific Scribbles

The voice of UniMelb Science Communication students

Feel this energy


Imagine that you do not need to refuel your car every week. Instead, you can drive your car for a year using only a spoon amount of fuel which would cost only a few cents. Apart from that, imagine that your car does not produce any emissions anymore — only water which can hardly do any harm to the environment. Let’s go further and let yourself imagine that humanity doesn’t use the energy produced by combustion anymore. And the icing on the cake — you pay times fewer bills for electricity in your house.


‘This is ridiculous!’ you might say ‘This is dreaming!’


Well, all scientists do dream. How else can they create something that does not exist yet?

Atom, proton, science, structure, education by gr8effect (CC0 1.0 Universal), via Pixabay


Confusion about cold fusion 


In 1989, Fleischman and Pons, two electrochemists, claimed that they had achieved cold fusion experimentally. For their experiment the scientists used heavy water. Heavy water chemically has H2O formula but containing deuterium instead of hydrogen. Deuterium is a hydrogen atom with an extra neutron. Palladium cathode and heavy water Fleischman and Pons launched electrolysis, using electrolytic cell. The measurements performed by chemists showed the power 10% greater than they were using to run the cell. The scientists supposed that the power comes from cold fusion occurring on the palladium. By their guess, deuterium was supposed to be accumulated on the palladium and fuse producing helium.


This announcement called up a lot of scepticism from the informed audience. Normally, nuclear reactions occur in exotically high temperatures. Although there were concerns about how palladium could catalytically affect deuterium nuclei, the statement seemed to be untruthful. The scientific community did not believe that two nuclei of hydrogen are able to get that close even in the presence of palladium to perform nuclear fusion. And since then no one could give clear explanations where did the heat was coming from. So their result was marked as a scientific error.

Cold fusion electrolysis by Theresa Knott via Wikipedia


Cooling down the debates


However, the idea of cold fusion remains intriguing until today. The main difference between cold fusion and hot fusion is temperature.

The idea is based on the possibility to bring two hydrogen close together enough to overcome repulsive force. As a result, the nuclear reaction could occur and a great amount of energy could be released. The classic nuclear reactions tend to exist in very exotic conditions such as high temperatures. Such nuclear reactions with hydrogen occur in stars where hydrogen atoms are able to fuse under extreme temperatures (millions Kelvin degrees) and enormous pressure. 


Modern nuclear plants produce nuclear waste, primarily uranium. But if the radioactive waste can be kept safely for the environment, then the main terrifying side effect of nuclear energy production comes from nuclear accidents. Everyone remembers Chernobyl catastrophe. Even nowadays it’s dangerous to go to that area. Another case of Three Mile Island. Most harmful consequences of the accident were eliminated, but this case made scientists feel a shiver went down their spine.


Will cold fusion ever be invented? Let’s keep fingers crossed about it. Today a lot of research and experiments put in the investigation of hydrogen possibilities. Cars with hydrogen engines have already taken place. If eventually the process of cold fusion is discovered, it will solve many environmental and political issues. Hydrogen can be a potentially efficient boundless source of energy. 


Goldilocks’ Outdoor Hammock

‘The Goldilocks Zone’. The name given to the distance from the sun where liquid water can exist. Earth is thought incredibly special and lucky because it orbits the sun in this zone, and as a result is covered with liquid water. In the search for extraterrestrial life, people have often thought of the Goldilocks Zone around other stars as the most important place to look, perhaps the only place worth looking. But this could easily be false. There are other places in our solar system where life forms could conceivably exist, and they probably aren’t where you expect.

Look away from Earth, towards Mars. And then keep going because we’re not talking about Mars. Stop at Jupiter. The big one. Jupiter’s a gas planet, in that while there is a rocky core at the center, The bulk of the planet is swirling gas. We’re not going in there. We’re talking about Europa.

Out of Jupiter’s 60-and-counting moons, The four most ‘important’ are Ganymede, Callisto, Europa, and Io. With these four being so far from the sun, they would almost be completely overlooked in any search for life.

But while Europa’s surface is ice, there is evidence that there could be a liquid ocean of water beneath the surface. For one thing, the ice appears fairly smooth, not heavily eroded, as if it froze recently (relatively speaking), which would mean the water below may have a greater chance of remaining liquid under the insulating ice surface. Europa’s ice also has characteristic cracks that you might see if there was a great body of liquid beneath, rising and falling with tides and straining the surface. Furthermore, since Europa is orbiting Jupiter, it gets gravitationally “stretched” and “flexed” during its orbit, which provides heat energy to the moon, the same way pulling a rubber-band repeatedly warms it up. This process would be important in keeping Europa’s under-ocean from freezing.

Europa’s surface of seemingly young ice, with tell-tale stress-induced cracks. This could be the roof of a living ocean. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona. Photo from European Space Agency, taken from Flickr.

So if deductions about Europa’s sub-surface ocean are true, that means there’s a huge body of water in our very solar system, and a prime candidate for the search for life. And plans have been suggested to search for it there. In the coming years, NASA has plans to send spacecraft to the moons of Jupiter, observing them more closely. Eventually even landing a craft on Europa to analyse the chemistry of the ice. As always, they will have to be careful to keep the spacecraft completely sterile, to avoid releasing Earth-life into Europa’s ocean!

There’s another moon we need to talk about though, and it’s even further out. Around Saturn is the moon Titan, which has a lot in common with Earth. A thick, nitrogen-heavy atmosphere, liquid oceans on the surface, and even rain. The difference being that the liquid here isn’t water. It’s made of hydrocarbons like methane and ethane, what we’d call natural gas on Earth. The life we’re used to is dependent on water, but organic carbon molecules like these could be the basis for a completely different kind of life. Our biological molecules are based around carbon because of its chemical versatility in building large complex molecules. In an ocean full of carbon, there is no telling what kind of complex molecules may arise.

Titan’s hazy surface. Credit: ESA, NASA, JPL, University of Arizona. Image taken from Flickr (John Batchelor)

We can’t afford to be narrow minded about the possibilities of where and how life may exist, or what life looks like and what it even means. Perhaps the Goldilocks zone is an outlier, and the really reliable places for life in the universe are outer moons, sheltered by ice and parent planets from the heat of stars and from asteroid impacts. Earth life has always been at risk to these forces, while Europan and Titanian life would have a different set of challenges. It’s a chilling thing to think of something swimming quietly in an underground ocean far away, unaware that there’s even a sky.


Further reading:

I’ll finish this blog … later.

Imagine if you had an assignment due on Sunday, 27th of October and you’ve been putting it off until it’s 11:59 pm

Author’s own image

Procrastination – you probably do it casually; I seem to do it like it’s a competitive sport. Let’s be honest, procrastination affects all of us. Even though you’re stressed and know that you’ll have to do that big assignment eventually, the temporary relief you feel when pushing it back to tomorrow is far too alluring. But when tomorrow inevitably comes, you start being burdened by that same familiar stress and it drives you to push back the assignment again, thus the vicious cycle continues until it’s an hour before the due time and you’re staring at a blank Word document, thinking where all the time went. So why do we do something that’s so obviously negative and counter-intuitive, surely there is something to blame other than my own indolence … right?

Blame your ancestors 

No, I’m not talking about your great grandparents, I’m talking about your Pro-Magnon ancestors that went around clubbing mammoths. According to a research in 2014, procrastination may have given our ancestors an evolutionary edge.

To figure out if there was a genetic component to procrastination, the researchers asked identical twins (who share all of their DNA) and fraternal twins (who share some of their DNA) about their work habits. The researchers found that in about 50% of the cases, differences in procrastination habits could be a result of differences in genetics; similar to many other inherited behavioral traits. Additionally, the researchers also reproduced the findings of other studies and discovered that procrastination habits seem to be correlated to another trait – impulsivity, suggesting that these two traits may be inherited together.

Currently, it is believe that procrastination habits are caused by an imbalance between the prefrontal cortex – an area of the brain that is in charge of planning and decision making, and the limbic system – a series of structures that house the pleasure and reward centers of the brain. Anatomically, the prefrontal cortex is less developed than the limbic system, every time we think about procrastinating, these two areas of the brain go to war, but most of time the limbic system is able to bully the prefrontal cortex into submission. Thus, our brain often prefers receiving short term pleasures over making long term goals. This anatomical difference is believed to be an evolutionary relic, left behind by our ancient ancestors.

“Caveman”, by cuurchk via Flickr

Early hunter gathers had a focus on short term survival, you don’t have time to think about the distant future when you could be mauled by a saber-toothed tiger tomorrow. It was hypothesized that our ancestors chose to focus on making short term objectives, which often involved making impulsive decision and procrastinating goals that had distant and uncertain rewards. By constantly making short term decisions, our ancestors were more likely to survive and pass down their behavioral traits and genes to the next generation. But in modern times, as life expectancy increased, our focus in life shifted from surviving each day to making long term goals like: “plan for your career”, “save for your retirement”, and “know what you’ll be doing by the end of university”. So the thought process that prioritized short term goals had suddenly become obsolete, but the genetic factor that made us prone to procrastination still remained. Thus what made our ancestors successful had become detrimental to us.

However, it is rather deterministic and childish if we just blamed everything on genetics. Everyone is affected by their genes to a certain degree, but we’re not dictated by it. Many studies have found that managing procrastination often has a psychological factor and just by adjusting the way we think about a daunting task, we could overcome it. So get out there and finish whatever it is that you need to finish. As for me? I’ll start … tomorrow.

Does GMO denial come from a place of privilege?

Let’s have a chat. The health-conscious and enviro-conscious among us have likely heard of the genetic modification of food. In short, it’s a breeding method which adds a specific gene to a food or turns off a specific gene already present. This is in comparison to traditional breeding methods (such as crossbreeding) which mix two different food types together – mixing thousands of genes in an uncontrolled environment – to try and breed certain characteristics into a new variety of food.

Humans have been selectively breeding for nearly ten thousand years. It allows for the creation of more hardy traits such as drought resistance, greater yield, and disease resilience. Using the tradition process of mixing thousands of genes and hoping for a specific outcome is incredibly slow, unreliable, and uncontrollable.

Credit: The Royal Society, 2016.

Eventually, technology was developed to a point which allowed us to discover what DNA was and how it contributes to the traits of foods. Norman Borlaug, an agronomist, was hired in 1944 to improve the US’s maize and wheat. He figured out how to get the gene from a disease resistant wheat and add it to a stiff-stalked wheat (which was important for effective yields). He successfully created the new variety of wheat just in time to combat huge food shortages that were hitting the US at that time.

Credit: Art Rickerby.

After a great deal of research, development, and ample safety testing, we have been able to control exactly which gene we are targeting and can accurately place it within another food. This allows us to achieve the same results, in basically the same process we have been using for ten thousand years – but in a much shorter timeframe!

Thanks to this technology, Ugandan banana breeders are saved from poverty and death due to ruined crops. Nigerian cowpea farmers can fight off diseases which wipe out their crops every year. Burkina Faso cotton farmers can enjoy greater yields which lift them out of poverty. Children in Bangladesh can finally have appropriate dietary levels of vitamin A and will now no longer go blind. Corn farmers in the Philippines no longer stress about their crops being wiped out by diseases.

Credit: Cornell University, 2016.

Why then, in the face of such wide successes around the world, do a small portion of Western country populations fear this specific breeding technique? Long-term safety ramifications are often cited as a major concern, that more research and safety studies must be conducted before allowing genetic engineering into our food supply.

Fortunately, thousands and thousands of studies have been conducted over the past decades. Much of this research was independently funded (so no fudged numbers from Monsatan!) and a strong consensus arose showing the safety and efficacy of this breeding technique. Hundreds on government and independent research organisations around the world now accept these findings. But why do those, who often quote the consensus on climate change, now choose to deny the consensus on GMO safety?

Some suggest denial of GMO safety stems from Western privilege.­ Citizens of wealthy nations simply aren’t exposed to the realities of agricultural livelihoods in their own country, let alone poorer countries. I encourage you to look up the stories of farmers in other countries, and how their lives have been saved from ruin thanks to the quick action against agricultural diseases. Rest assured, genetic modification is just as safe and helps to feed millions of people.

Further reading

An introduction to GMOs, 2019, SciMoms.

Are GMOs good or bad?, 2017, Kurzgesagt.

Compilation of studies on GE food safety, 2015, The Credible Hulk.

GMOs in South Africa, 2017, Farmer’s Weekly.

GMOs in Uganda, 2018, Genetic Literacy Project.

GMOs in Burkina Faso, 2019, Cornell University.

GMOs in Bangladesh, 2019, Neurologica.

GMOs in Philippines, 2019, Cornell University.

The Art of Scientific Illustration

Have you ever wondered how scientific illustrators in the pre-camera era were able to paint such extraordinary detail? As an artist obsessed with details, I am often amazed at the mastery of their technical skills without the aid of a zoom function on digital photographs.

The Early Days

Nowadays, scientific illustration can be done in any medium, but traditionally they were done on paper with watercolour, ink and sometimes gouache. Some of the early works intended for reference books were even engraved on wood, which could be easily reproduced using inks. Figure 1 is the first published illustration of a wombat and was engraved on wood by Thomas Berwick for A General History of Quadrapeds, 4th edition, 1800. Berwick hadn’t actually seen a wombat himself but had created the engraving after a sketch by John Hunter, who had seen it in captivity. This was often the case where professional artists had not been on expeditions relating to the work, but had to create lavish detailed illustrations based on sketches by people who had seen the flora or fauna being described.

Figure 1. Berwick, Thomas. A General History of Quadrapeds, 4th ed. (1800). Digitised in The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) by the University of Pittsburgh Library System.

The purpose of scientific illustration is for the artist to show all the necessary parts clearly and often to scale. English artist John William Lewin (1770-1819) was the first professional artist of New South Wales and made significant contributions to science through illustrating Australian flora and fauna. The Regent Honeyeater illustrations come from Lewin’s book A Natural History of the Birds of New South Wales, 1822 (figure 2, left image) and 1838 (figure 2, right image). The left illustration was painted in watercolour and first appeared in the 3rd edition (1822). In 1838, Lewin’s book was revised and the illustrations were updated in gouache, a water-based paint that is more opaque than watercolour. This was done because it was thought that gouache would render the birds more life-like, and as you can see the difference between the two illustrations is striking.

Figure 2. Plate III. Lewin, John. A Natural History of the Birds of New South Wales. 3rd edition (1822) (left image) and 4th edition (1838) (right image). Digitised in the BHL by Museums Victoria.

Elizabeth Gould was a British artist who also illustrated many ornithological works for scientific literature in the early 19th century, including Charles Darwin’s The Zoology of the Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle (1838-1843). Her husband, author and ornithologist John Gould had started out his career as a taxidermist with an obsession for birds, and many of Elizabeth’s illustrations were created using stuffed birds as references for her work. In 1838, the Gould’s travelled to Australia with their eldest child and spent two years in the country researching, collecting and illustrating Australia’s bird biodiversity, which would result in one of the most significant contributions to Australian ornithology, Gould’s The Birds of Australia (1840-1848). While in Australia, Elizabeth spent more time sketching live birds in the field as well as many botanical sketches, which she believed would “render the work on ‘Birds of Australia’ more interesting.” Her illustrations were printed in Gould’s books as lithographs, a traditional process of printing from stone. Once the illustration had been applied and etched into the stone, ink was then used to transfer the image to paper, which was then hand-coloured using pencil and paint.

Figure 3. Gould, John. A Synopsis of the Birds of Australia, and the Adjacent Islands. (1837-38). Art by Elizabeth Gould. Digitised in the BHL by Museums Victoria.

Another female artist to make a significant contribution to the field of scientific illustration was Margaret Flockton. She emigrated to Australia in 1881 and was the first botanical illustrator at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney where she began illustrating in 1901 and worked for 26 years. The hand-coloured lithograph of her Waratah illustration (figure 4) is from a book she published on her own called Australian Wild Flowers (1908). At the time, she was the only female lithographer in Australia.

Figure 4. Waratah (Telopea speciosissima). Flockton, Margaret. Australian Wild Flowers. (1908). Digitised in the BHL by Harvard University Botany Libraries.

The beauty and detail of scientific illustrations by artists like John Lewin, Elizabeth Gould and Margaret Flockton have not only made important contributions to science, but also inspire many artists in the modern era. My own art has been inspired by scientific illustrators of the past, and although today we have photographs, the process of expressing a part of nature leaves a deep appreciation for the details and diversity that exist in the natural world.




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