Saturday, November 25, 2006

In which we discover that a) Red Square is not in Moscow; b) Thursday nights are free again; and c) rats like beer

This week was my last Modern Astronomy class on a Thursday night. I will miss it (although it does mean I may be able to start playing volleyball again), and I will miss all of the great speakers we heard and our discussions in the tea break.
This week we had the young and enthusiastic Peter Tuthill, the latest in a line of young and enthusiastic astronomers. (I didn't get around to reporting on our lecture from the young and enthusastic Laszlo Kiss last week, who was so endearing, bouncing on his toes as he introduced interesting facts about pulsating stars and leaping about at the front of the lecture theatre, speaking in melodic Hungarian-accented English.)
Peter Tuthill's talk was a demonstration of how a $200 aluminium plate, based on telescope technology from the mid-19th century, can actually produce higher resolution images of distant objects than that multi-billion dollar piece of space junk they call the Hubble Space Telescope. (Okay, not being very fair here. He didn't run down the Hubble like that: of course it has its uses.) Check out his web page (linked above) to see some amazing images that his little invention has produced, including the Red Rectangle. He also told us that he had just heard that very morning that a paper on his latest observations had been accepted by Science magazine -- a discussion of a galactic object he calles the Red Square.
In the tea break, our usual gang sat around and my fellow student, the Neuroscientist, told us about a paper he's submitted for publication on his latest experiment: beer-drinking rats. Seriously, it's an experiment designed to see what genetic and/or neurological expressions in the brain are involved in recidivism in alcoholics (or something like that).
First, he set up a little beer garden for the rats, with a "bar" where they had to go and push a lever to get beer. When they were all well and truly sozzled, he put them in a detox centre -- a different environment where they pushed the lever but didn't get any beer. Then, when they were thoroughly dried out and had given up pushing the lever, he put them back in the first beer garden to see how long it would take them to go back to the "bar". Turns out rats like beer so much they headed straight for the lever!
He showed me a bite on his finger, and I said, "Wow, they must really want their beer."
His reply: "This rat was from the cocaine experiment."
"I thought cocaine was supposed to make you happy."
"Not when you don't give it to them."
I couldn't help it. I had this mental image of a whole lot of drunk, stoned and hyped up rats hanging out at Madame Fling Flong's. I had to apologise profusely to the Neuroscientist for seeming to belittle his work by laughing at it.
The things you do in the name of science, eh? Oh, and it turns out that rats like Coopers.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Stereotype threat

About a week ago, I read about a phenomenon called stereotype threat -- a condition which causes human beings to live up, or down, to people's expectations of them. It applies to racial, ethnic and gender stereotypes, among others.
Since then, I've had almost daily conversations with my family and friends that have coincidentally raised examples of stereotype threat. It seems that, now that I know what to call it, I see it everywhere. Having a label to apply to certain events or attitudes in one's life is handy, although there is a risk that applying a label will lead to further stereotyping...
Unfortunately, the knowledge that there is such a thing as stereotype threat probably does not help in overcoming it in one's everyday life. Especially if you don't recognise the stereotype that is threatening you.
And, of course, the "threat" of a stereotype is not always negative: for instance, growing up as the eldest of three girls had, I think, more positive effects on my character than negative (although maybe my sisters would argue against that). The stereotype of being the eldest and therefore the one responsible for the others meant that I had to live up to the expectations that I would be able to take charge and look after my sisters. This probably gave me more confidence to take on responsibility in other areas of my life: I'm not naturally a "leader", but living up to the stereotype of "the eldest" did instil some leadership qualities in my character, I think.
I would be interested to learn of examples of stereotype threat that you think have affected you in either positive or negative ways. Please leave comments or email me privately if you prefer.

Spike suit

How cute!

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Sculpture by the Sea

This time last year the Upstaters visited from New York and we went to Sculpture by the Sea. It's hard to believe a full year has passed since then, and now the Upstaters are celebrating the very recent birth of an addition to their family: Spike (born 10th November).
I've posted a selection of my favourite sculptures at flickr, so take a look if you'd like to see some great public art. As one of the sculptures says, "Free Art, before it frees you".

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

In which we discover that young astronomers can get very excited about their new discoveries about the universe

The last two weeks of my Modern Astronomy classes have been conducted by two young, exciting astronomers talking about their work. One was Ilana Klamer, a specialist in supermassive black holes (SMBHs) with some groundbreaking ideas on how it is possible that quasars (the emissions from the accretion disks of super-supermassive black holes) formed in the early universe. Ilana was so keen to tell us about her SMBHs and her research in particular that I matched her disappointment when she realised that the time alloted for the lecture was at an end.
(The security guy prowling around the doorway to the lecture theatre was the clue -- he wanted to go home and have his dinner, I think.)
The other young astronomer was Bryan Gaensler, who was named Young Australian of the Year in 1999. Back in his home town, he was the ideal lecturer. He impressed me with his ability to deliver a coherent, structured lecture at the same time as he answered questions that caused him to skip around his PowerPoint slideshow in non-consecutive order. He talked about an event that happened on December 28, 2004, when a magnetar on the other side of our galaxy sent out an "insanely powerful" half-second flash that was a thousand times brighter than all the stars in the Milky Way. Fortunately for us, the flash was mostly gamma rays, which don't penetrate the earth's atmosphere and can't be seen by the human eye. Phew!
These youngsters (!) have such a fresh approach to their research and they are very easy to listen to. How inspiring.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

What Sydneysiders look like

This fascinating image is a computer-morphed picture of what the average male and female residents of the City of Sydney look like. Do you recognise me? Or His Dagginess? The Dude? Check out the website to see how the image was made. There are also more localised images: not surprisingly, the average resident of Haymarket has slightly Asian features (for non-locals, Haymarket is where Chinatown is located in Sydney); the average resident of the Rocks is slightly older-looking and the average resident of Surry Hills is more youthful.
I think what I love about these images is that it reinforces the idea that, despite our skin, hair or eye colour; no matter what language we speak at home or how much money we have; underneath it all we're pretty much just ordinary human beings.
Wouldn't it be great if someone did a portrait like this for the whole world?

Friday, November 03, 2006

Makes it all worthwhile

Spell-checkers are great, but sometimes they just don't cut the mustard. Here's an example of why you really need to employ a sub:

“The male rufous whistler is quite a handsome bird with distinctive rufous underparts, grey head and white throat, combined with a black mask. The female and immature birds are more subtly coloured, but can be distinguished from most other whistlers by heavy streaking on the underpants.”

[From an actual article I was subbing for the January issue of a magazine I work for.]

I thought it was just 11-year-old boys who could be identified by that means, due to their lax personal hygiene habits.