Perkin’s Purple

Episode 1 of Scienstorical is up and running!

Tried to cure MalariaMade purpleIf you were a snail, living in the Mediterranean, you were probably going to have a pretty bad time. There was one species of snail you could find exclusively off the coast of what’s now Lebanon that, when boiled into a mush, made a vivid purple colour. It was called Tyrian Purple and was used to dye silks and other eye-wateringly expensive cloths. Charlemagne was buried in a shroud made of gold thread and Tyrian purple-dyed silks for example. He was an obscenely rich dude.

Fast forward to the 1800s to an 18 year old Chemistry whizz-kid named William Perkin and his attempt to cure malaria…

… and the rest is history.



Why you should be excited about Gravitational Waves

If you had asked me before Wednesday last week, the implications of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory’s (LIGO) impending announcement, I would have spent about thirty seconds floundering wildly before sighing and admitting that no, I hadn’t a clue.

And so I did some reading.

Turns out, the discovery of Gravitation Waves, announced on Thursday, is one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the 21st Century so far. Here’s why.

First things first, we need to understand a little bit of history, specifically the work of the one and only Albert Einstein. In 1916, on the back of his Theory of General Relativity, Einstein predicted the existence of minuscule ripples in the fabric of space and time. Remember the Gedanken experiments I mentioned in my last post? Well General Relativity began as a giant thought exercise.

The effects of objects with mass on the curvature of spacetime (
Imagine you’re sitting on a trampoline underneath an oak tree. An acorn falls onto the stretched material; where does it go? It rolls towards you. The trampoline is spacetime, and you are the Earth. Gravity, Einstein realised, is caused by objects of mass warping the curvature of space and time. (Wibbly wobbly, timey wimey).

So how do we know this is actually a thing?

Well my favourite example of this warping can be found in the practicalities of timekeeping in GPS satellites. Because of the effects of the Earth’s mass on time itself, the closer you get to the centre of the Earth, the slower time moves. So satellite clocks need to be set slightly faster (about 45 millionths of a second faster) than those on the surface of our planet or else they would give us a location up to 10 km out of sync! Isn’t that insane?

Everything in the universe that has mass causes waves. There are waves moving through you right now. The thing is, these waves are smaller than miniscule. Which is why we needed to wait for something immense. Billions of years ago and light years away, two black holes began to circle one another. Black holes, in terms of general relativity, form gigantic warps in spacetime due to their mass. When these two began to merge, it resulted in giant ripples, like when you throw a rock into a pond. On September 14th, 2015, LIGO was able to measure one of these ripples.

LIGO is a facility in the USA specifically designed to look for gravitational waves. Its strange cross shape is deliberate. A laser runs down each arm of the in order to measure the distance between the detector and the end of the arm with an intense level of precision. Any changes in the distance the laser travels indicates a distortion in spacetime.

Einstein himself never thought a day would come when technology would reach a level of sensitivity able to detect gravitational waves. And it wasn’t as though he didn’t have faith in the scientific and engineering communities. According to Jorge Cham of PhD comics, finding these waves is like detecting a change of 5 mm in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 metres.

So now that scientists have proven without a shadow of a doubt that they exist (you can read the paper here), what next?

This discovery means about as much to the field of astronomy as the invention of the telescope. It opens up an entirely new way of observing our universe. We’ll be able to see closer to the moment of the Big Bang than ever before. Theoretically, galaxies and stars that are beyond the current range of our telescopes, will be reachable.

I don’t know about you, but I think Einstein would be more than proud.



To my dear, valued and loved four subscribers to this languishing blog.

I’m back!

Which can only mean one thing: I’VE HANDED IN MY THESIS!


and done

That’s right; that glorious image is me holding it. It was tangible. It existed. It was done.

Of course, I can’t really jump the gun just yet. There’s still a bunch of editing left to do once my anonymous examiners get back to me with comments and changes but submitting the thing is huge.

So what now?

Well for one thing, you’ll get to see this face some more. Focusing on my thesis was the right choice but I missed writing here. I’ve missed writing about things that interest me, things that are exciting, things that make you laugh and writing for its own sake. I’ve loved dabbling with science communication so much that I’m going back to University for another year (I know! Don’t look at me like that. After this year, that’s it. I promise) to study how to do it properly. Until November, I’ll be studying with the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science (CPAS) at the Australian National University (ANU), learning all about exhibition design, new media, science writing and how to use these to effectively communicate complex concepts to a non-scientific audience. It’s a lot trickier than it looks, I’m discovering… not to mention exceedingly out of my comfort zone.

And so this blog is going to turn into my chance to practise skills I’ll learn throughout this year… and to brag about how my homework for tonight was to learn and perfect the art of balloon animals. My life is hard.

Previously in Science….

Recently I’ve been trawling around the internet to find interesting things to write about. I think I may have been slightly overenthusiastic and ambitious about the list I’ve created. So I thought:

“Meh! I’ll include them all!”


1. 25th of February – PLOS Medicine

Cutting edge research out of Estonia (not a sentence you hear often…) has revealed bio-markers that could be used in the identification of risk in seemingly healthy people. Plasma albumin, alpha-1-acid glycoprotein, very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) particle size and citrate can all predict short-term risk of death for a wide variety of diseases. This begs the question – would you really want to know?

It should be pointed out that there are limitations – the researchers note that some other factor not measurable by the technique they use (NMR for those interested), could be the actual cause of these deaths… but it’s still promising.

2. 26thof February – Nature

NASA announced 715 exoplanets had been discovered by their spacecraft, Kepler, including 4 in the magical “Goldilocks” zone. These planets are close enough, but not too far away, from their stars, for the temperature to be “just right” for water to exist as a liquid.

Kepler is now effectively dead in the water due to a mechanical malfunction, but the data it transmitted before it shut down is still revealing interesting things about our galaxy. Stay tuned.

3. 28th of February – Scientific Reports

Surprise! Large cities are less green. Interestingly, I don’t mean large in terms of population so much as size. Sprawling suburbia, while definitely nicer on a psychological level, means further for commuters to travel to get to work which means a higher level of CO2 emissions than smaller, more compact cities.

However, the results of this study also proved a positive link between population and emissions. Which makes sense – the larger the population, the larger the city….

Unless you live in Australia… we like to spread.

3. 3rd of March – Nature Communications

Findings by the University of Western Australia discovered that 95% of the world’s fish are currently hiding in the deeper ocean in order to avoid birds. This is also about 30 times more biomass in this layer than was previously thought. Turns out these fish are exceptionally good at detecting fishing nets and have been diving out of the way resulting in low estimates of numbers. Instead of using nets, the researchers counted the fish numbers using sonar.

This is good news for the oceans. These fish can’t be caught with nets – oceans are actually a good deal more healthy and vibrant than we thought. That sound you’re hearing is thousands of sushi chefs rejoicing.


5. 4th of March – PNAS

It finally happened: the genome of the pepper plant has been sequenced. In the ongoing quest to find the hottest chilli in existence, scientists have identified the genes within the pepper Chiltepin annuum which could lead to bioengineering chillies with mind-numbing heat.

You know… for science!

6. 4th of March – State of the Climate 2014

Australia’s temperature is on the rise. For me, this is really not surprising. Last summer news broadcasters had to add an entirely new colour to their maps to depict temperatures over 50oC (122 oF). The 2014 State of the Climate report by the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology said that an increase of 0.6 – 1.5oC was likely by 2030.

Unfortunately this means less rain and more bush fires for us. Although there may be a silver lining. The chief executive officer of the Climate Institute, John Conner (that made me laugh), said:

“The government’s self-identified ‘primary advisers’ on climate, BoM and CSIRO today clearly linked carbon emissions, climate change, fire and drought in stark contrast to their own reluctance to do so.”

I call that a win… sort of.

7. 5th of March – PNAS

This headline in the New York Times immediately caught my attention:

“Scientists revive ‘giant virus’ from Siberian permafrost”

Doesn’t that sound like a B-grade sci-fi movie plot? I love it. The idea behind this seemingly foolhardy research is to look into whether or not ice melts are dangerous to humans. According to The Times, researchers have discovered a multitude of freakishly well preserved specimens include a seed that Russian scientists managed to grow, and a group that feasted on Mammoth… you know… for science.

The virus is the latest find in a group called “Pandoraviruses” of the family Megaviridae. These viruses are HUGE – this one is 1.2µm in diameter (the largest known previously was 0.5µm!) and have the ability to infect amoeba in the lab. The next step is figuring out if any of these viruses are human pathogens or have the ability to develop into such things. If the ice around the world is melting, and all indications point towards that being true, ancient viruses could be coming back. It would be nice to have some sort of protection.

But on the more optimistic side of the coin, we could discover something helpful…. Who knows?

The Great Barrier Reef (may contain traces of giant sea turtles)

So it looks like the video blogging is becoming a bit of thing. This is part 1 of a series of videos outlining what’s going on in reef systems around the world. I’m hoping to channel the knowledge I’ve been gathering over the last three years and present it to you. Mainly because I think it’s super interesting, but also because I think it helps to understand why the reefs are dying, and why that’s such a terrible thing.

This was, again, really fun to do so I hope you enjoy it. Please feel free to share it around and follow me on my new youtube channel; The Confusion Matrix.


(Oh and don’t worry – I’ll still be posting things up on this site – not everything translates so well to video medium…)

10 things to do when everything is broken forever

For all of you potential readers contemplating a career in research, I have one thing to say to you:

Things are going to go wrong. All the flipping time.

On Tuesday, I suffered a bit of a set-back in which my samples, for no apparent reason, tanked. They’re not dead yet, but all of my carefully planned to-do lists for the next month and a bit have been completely thrown out of the window.

This isn’t the first time this has happened and it won’t be the last. In fact, as any PhD student or post-doc will tell you, this happens A LOT. It’s so common it’s almost a rite of passage in the lab. So I thought I would channel all of my unintentional experience into a list of 10 things to do when everything is broken forever.

It’s foolproof (note a).

Number 1: Cry


There is no shame in being the crazy person crying in the middle of the laboratory. Extra style points can be earned by weeping on public transport. (this is also a tried and tested method for obtaining a seat during peak hour)

Number 2: Throw things

It is advisable, however, to go for the less expensive laboratory equipment such as the box of centrifuge tubes, rather than the hideously expensive Mass Spectrometer (note b).

Number 3: Glare at strangers and acquaintances

For extra points, combine this with number 1 for a seat all to yourself on the train.

Number 4: Drown your sorrows in chocolate cookies which you happened to make the day before 

Alternatively, if you possess markedly less foresight than myself, you can closet yourself in your university’s chemical storage room and pour a glass of phenylethylamine (note c).

Same thing (note d).

Number 5: Re-evaluate your life choices

It’s never too late to quit and start that bakery or write your magnum opus.

Number 6: Re-evaluate the finely honed to do list you had planned down to the minute

See number 1.

Number 7: Sing to your samples

Let’s face it, after successfully completing numbers 1-4, you’ve probably lost the ability to feel shame. Singing, playing music or interpretive dance, will possibly only work for samples which are alive. I will not be held responsible for researchers singing to their glassware.

Number 8: Curl up on the couch and watch people being more successful at things than you in the winter Olympics

Note, this step is time-specific. If you do not happen to be in an Olympic year, other programs to watch include Master Chef, Dragon’s Den, The Biggest Loser or, for extra incentive to stick at your soul-crushing research job, The Bachelorette.

Number 9: Write that paper you’ve been putting off

Because heaven forbid you should actually do something even remotely useful.

Number 10: Accept the fact that it wasn’t your fault, there’s nothing you can do about it and that the world is not going to end in a ball of flame because your samples may or may not have died

Because it’s not your fault. Most of the time things go wrong because an instrument failed or someone got the instrument you need to use booked before you. Or, in my case, things go wrong for no reason whatsoever.

Oh well. If things were easy, they wouldn’t be worth doing now would they?

Would they?



Note a: Disclaimer: Adherence to the advice contained within these ten steps will definitely lead to emotional instability and, in the case of number 3, death.

Note b: The former option does not require the years spent researching gamma radiation in an attempt to “hulk out”

Note c: While chocolate has been shown to contain phenylethylamine, a compound responsible for the release of dopamine in the brain, it is present in significantly lower concentrations than, say, a bottle of pure phenylethylamine. An excerpt from the MSDS for the compound states that it is:

Hazardous in case of skin contact (irritant, sensitizer), of eye contact (irritant), of inhalation (lung irritant). Corrosive to skin and eyes on contact. Liquid or spray mist may produce tissue damage particularly on mucous membranes of eyes, mouth and respiratory tract. Skin contact may produce burns. Inhalation of the spray mist may produce severe irritation of respiratory tract, characterized by coughing, choking, or shortness of breath. Severe over-exposure can result in death.

Note d: It’s not.

The mighty, marvellous, magnanimous, miraculous miracle berry

If you’re a fan of the British TV show, QI, you’ve probably heard of the Miracle Berry. Synsepalum dulcificicum has been used in Western Africa for generations, to make harsh, acidic foods taste like they’ve been dipped in sugar. A few days ago, I got to try some and let me tell you, there is nothing more brain-twisty than lifting a slice of lemon to your mouth fully expecting your face to be turned inside out, but then all you taste is sherbet.

It’s weird. Here’s how it works.

Also please forgive the video quality – the more I venture into this area of media communications, the more I learn about how to frame a shot (… or not, as you’ll see), lighting, flow and a whole pile of other things I want to make better the next time I make a video. I had a blast creating this though so I call that a win. Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did!