Could we colonise another planet to save this one?

27 10 2015

© Auston Habershaw

Let’s do a little thought experiment, shall we? The late, great Douglas Adams wrote about a planet (Golgafrincham) that decided to ship all its undesirables (it was not made clear to them that they were in fact considered ‘undesirable’) to another planet to cut their population by a third. As it turns out, it wasn’t such a great idea.

This idea — shipping people to another planet — is a common theme in the sci-fi genre when there is an impending disaster, such as the planet becoming unsustainable, too many humans over-consuming, or because some great natural calamity is about to occur. Many think Mars is the most likely possible place to get the first sustainable human colony going, but it’s going to be a logistical nightmare to put together even a small colony.

Could moving to a planet like Mars stem the inexorable increase in the human population and save planet Earth? Not likely, and here’s why.

Let’s throw caution to the wind and make some outlandish assumptions just to make this point even stronger.

Read the rest of this entry »

Scientific conspiracies are impossible

9 06 2015

madscientistWe’ve all heard it somewhere before: “It’s all just a big conspiracy and those bloody scientists are just trying to protect their funding sources.”

Whether it’s about climate change, pharmacology, genetically modified organisms or down-to-earth environmentalism, people who don’t want to agree with a particular scientific finding often invoke the conspiracy argument.

There are three main reasons why conspiracies among scientists are impossible. First, most scientists are just not that organised, nor do they have the time to get together to plan such elaborate practical jokes on the public. We can barely keep our own shit together than try to construct a water-tight conspiracy. I’ve never met a scientist who would be capable of doing this, let alone who would want to.

But this doesn’t necessarily prove my claim that it is ‘impossible’. Most importantly, the idea that a conspiracy could form among scientists ignores one of the most fundamental components of scientific progress — dissension; and bloody hell, can we dissent! The scientific approach is one where successive lines of evidence testing hypotheses are eventually amassed into a concept, then perhaps a rule of thumb. Read the rest of this entry »

Twenty tips for writing a research proposal

4 05 2015

Proposal FormatThis post’s title might promise a lot, but it would be disingenuous of me to imply that I could cover all of the essential components of this massive topic in one blog post. Many people (my wife included) have made careers out of teaching people how to write successful grant proposals, so I won’t pretend to be comprehensive and insult their expertise. That said, I’ve been reasonably successful on the grants’ side of the science game, and I’ve assessed a fair few grant proposals in my day, so I think I can offer at least a few pointers. As usual, each person probably has her or his own way of doing things, so there’s unlikely to be a single, winning method. Approaches will also vary by funding agency and country of origin. I am therefore targeting the earlier-career people who have yet to get fully indoctrinated into the funding cycle, with generalities that should apply to most grant proposals.

1. A proposal is not an article, so don’t try to write it as one.

In the huge list of things ‘they never taught you as a student, but need to know to be a successful scientist’, this has got to be one of the biggies. Now I’m mainly talking about science here, but grant proposals cannot and should not follow the standard format of peer-reviewed articles. Articles tend to put an elaborate background up front, a complex description of hypotheses followed by an even more complex description of methods and results. Do not do this for a proposal. A proposal should be viewed more as a ‘pitch’ that hooks the assessor’s attention from the get-go. More on this aspect below.

2. Understand what the funder actually fundsRead the rest of this entry »

Write English well? Help get published someone who doesn’t

27 01 2015

imagesI’ve written before about how sometimes I can feel a little exasperated by what seems to be a constant barrage of bad English from some of my co-authors. No, I’m not focussing solely on students, or even native English speakers for that matter. In fact, one of the best (English) science writers with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working is a Spaniard (he also happens to write particularly well in Castellano). He was also fairly high up on the command-of-English ladder when he started out as my PhD student. So. There.

In other words, just because you grew up speaking the Queen’s doesn’t automatically guarantee that you’ll bust a phrase as easily as Shakespeare, Tolkien, Gould or Flannery; in fact, it might put you at a decided disadvantage compared to your English-as-a-second- (-third-, -fourth-, -fifth- …) language peers because they avoided learning all those terrible habits you picked up as you grunted your way through adolescence. Being forced to learn the grammar of another language often tends to make you grasp that of your mother tongue a little better.

So regardless of your background, if you’ve managed to beat the odds and know in your heart that you are in fact a good writer of science in English (you know who you are), I think you have a moral duty to help out those who still struggle with it. I’m not referring necessarily to the inevitable corrections you’ll make to your co-authors’ prose when drafting manuscripts1. I am instead talking about going out of your way to help someone who really, really needs it. Read the rest of this entry »

Psychological toll of being a sustainability scientist

8 12 2014

depressed scientistLike many academics, I’m more or less convinced that I am somewhere on the mild end of the autism spectrum. No, I haven’t been diagnosed and I doubt very much that my slight ‘autistic’ tendencies have altered my social capacity, despite my wife claiming that I have only two emotions – angry or happy. Nor have they engendered any sort of idiot savant mathematical capability.

But I’m reasonably comfortable with mathematics, I can do a single task for hours once it consumes my attention, and I’m excited about discovering how things work. And I love to code. Rather than academics having a higher innate likelihood of being ‘autistic’, I just think the job attracts such personalities.

In the past few years though, my psychological state is probably less dictated by the hard-wiring of my ‘autidemic’ mind and more and more influenced by the constant battery of negative information my brain receives.

Read the rest of this entry »

Get serious about divestment

21 11 2014

dh-logo1We are a sensitive and conflict-avoiding lot, aren’t we? Most scientists I know absolutely dread reprisals of any form, whether they are from a colleague commenting on their work, a sensationalism-seeking journalist posing nasty questions, or a half-wit troll commenting on a blog feed. For all our swagger and intellectual superiority complexes, most of us would rather lock ourselves in a room and do our work without anyone bothering us.

Fortunately for the taxpayer, we should not and cannot be this way. As I’ve stated before, we have at the very least a moral obligation to divulge our results to as many people as possible because for the most part, they pay us. If you work in any applied form of science (most of us do) – such as conservation, for example – then your moral obligation to make your work public extends to the entirety of humanity and the planet. That’s a staggering responsibility, and one of the reasons I’ve embraced many other forms of communication beyond the bog-standard scientific publication outlets.

There are many great examples of impressive science advocates out there – a few that come to mind are people like inter alia Lesley Hughes, James Hansen, Michael Mann, Paul Ehrlich, Bill Laurance, Barry BrookOve Hoegh-Guldberg, Tony Barnosky, Gretchen Daily, Emma Johnston, Stuart Pimm, and Hugh Possingham. There are even others willing to go to extraordinary lengths to make an evidence-based protest against society’s more inane actions. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating – evidence-based advocacy can work.

To the topic at hand – I’ve been a little disappointed – to say the least – with the near-total silence emanating from my colleagues about the fossil-fuel divestment wave sweeping the world. While gaining traction worldwide, it wasn’t until The Australian National University took the bold move to divest (at least partially) from many of its fossil-fuel financial interests that it became a reality in Australia. Let’s face it – of all the types of institutions in our world, universities should be at the forefront of good, morally grounded and socially responsible investment strategies. They are, after all, meant to be filled with the most erudite, informed and cutting-edge people in the world, most of whom should have the best information at their fingertips regarding the precarious state of our environment. Read the rest of this entry »

Give some flair to your scientific presentation

18 11 2014


As the desert spring came to the great Centre Red,
Scores of sandalled folk from tin birds descend-ed.
Alice Town had been invaded,
Bearded alike and unshorn-legged.
They sat and stared at words and the odd trend.
Billies boiled to get them through to day’s end
They swapped bush stories that made good sense,
Trying to understand Aussie environments.
One bloke‘s tales caught the punters’ attention,
So this bush poet deserves special mention.
To standard rules he would not kowtow,
So his special science verse I present to you now.

If none of that made any sense, then let me help you out. At the last Ecological Society of Australia meeting in Alice Springs, I witnessed a rather unique way to give a scientific presentation – via bush poetry. Dr. Dale Nimmo of Deakin University was particularly engaging, and he agreed to have his presentation poem reproduced here. Who said scientists were boring? Honourable mention too to Simon Watson for another audience-engaging, bush-poetry seminar (but I don’t have that to reproduce here). There also might be a slidecast of Dale’s presentation coming soon. For now, please enjoy the poetic delivery of science in text.

The Old Grey Box of Heathcote Town

Dale Nimmo

Down around old Heathcote town, just east of Bendigo,
A big old grey box tree casts an eye.
The sallee fills the understory bright as sunlights glow,
As the silvereyes and thornbills flitter by.
This landscape, bruised and battered from 200 years of change,
Holds the secrets of a time lost somehow.
One of Jaara land, where lowan dug and dingoes howled,
The latter two, here, just distant memories now.
The gold rush came like bushfire, ring barked trees fell like boughs
Of the red gums scattered on the old flood plains,
That made way for sheep and cattle, while, fighting a losing battle,
rufous bettongs were never seen again.
When a man of English gentry, Professor Bennett was his name,
Found the woodlands to his aristocratic tastes.
Many days he’d venture in, binoculars under his chin,
He never let a single bird call go to waste.
While at the old St Arnaud Inn, over a couple pints of gin,
Bennet and a bloke called Radford got to talking.
Stealing horses was his game, but he’d give it all away,
To join Bennett in woodlands, bird walking

Read the rest of this entry »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,804 other followers

%d bloggers like this: