Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

A new bird field guide

Wednesday, 13 September, 2017

After donating blood today (my 58th donation), I went over to one of my favourite bookshops, Abbey’s on York Street in Sydney. I hadn’t planned to buy anything in particular; mostly I wanted to check up on the status of an order I put in for Star Wars Art: Ralph McQuarrie (Publisher | Amazon). Good news: a new shipment of these arrived in Australia today, and I should have my copy within a week.

I also saw that Volume IV of Peter Ackroyd’s History of England: Revolution (Publisher | Amazon) was finally out in the smaller paperback size that I have been collecting, so I picked up a copy of that.

And then browsing the science section, my eyes fell on not a book, but one of those notes that bookshops have nowadays handwritten by a staff member, telling you how much they enjoyed a particular book. It was sitting under copies of a book titled The Australian Bird Guide (Publisher | Amazon). The note said that the writer was a keen birdwatcher and had all the other Australian bird field guides, and really wasn’t sure if yet another one would be capable of adding anything. But she was converted by the unprecedented depth and detail of this guide, saying it contained hundreds of facts and distinguishing features not mentioned by any of the others. This really is the one Australian bird guide to Rule Them All.

So on that recommendation, I bought it. And flipping through it now at home, I too am blown away by how detailed and lovingly produced it is, with lashings of amazing quality illustrations – often 4, 5, 6, or even more different images of each species, showing both sexes, juveniles, intermediate growth stages, moulting phases, breeding phases, perched, in flight, and regional plumage variants. Picking a bird at random – the ubiquitous and boring silver gull – it has eleven different illustrations showing different growth stages and regional variations in the black and white plumage of the wing tips.

My previous guide was The Slater Field Guide to Australian Birds (Publisher | Amazon), which I chose over the slightly more popular The Field Guide to the Birds of Australia by Pizzey and Knight (Publisher | Amazon) after browsing through both in a bookshop some years ago. I preferred Slater because it was lighter, I preferred the illustrations, and it had more description of bird behaviour and less of things that I wouldn’t normally see like nests and egg colouration. But this new book definitely wins on all fronts, except the lightness and portability.

I guess this is a recommendation, then! If you’re in the market for a field guide for Australian birds, look no further than the new Australian Bird Guide.

Black-crowned night heron

Wednesday, 9 August, 2017

I really should go through all my old travel photos and specifically look for photos of birds that I never identified. I just found another species of bird that wasn’t in my list of photographed species, lurking in some old photos from my 2011 trip to South America.

This is a black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax).

Black-crowned night heron

Ethics & photoelectrics

Wednesday, 21 June, 2017

This morning I was setting up the school classroom for teaching my Primary Ethics class when one of the Year 4 boys in my class came up to me and asked, “Can you explain the photoelectric effect?” This is a nine or ten year old kid, remember.

He has no way of knowing I have a Ph.D. in physics, and so yes, this is actually something I know about and can explain to people. I tried to tone it down to a nine-year-old’s level.

“Well, it’s a thing that happens when light hits some materials, like metals. The light hits an atom… do you know about atoms and electrons and …”

“Yeah!” he says, in a tone of voice that indicates “of course I do, who doesn’t?”

“Okay,” I continue, “The light hits an atom and it makes an electron jump out of the atom, so it can then travel through the metal as electricity.”

“Hmmm,” says the boy, “Does the electron just jump up to a higher energy level shell, or does it jump completely out of the atom?”

I skilfully hid my internal jaw-drop, as I replied, “All the way out of the atom.”

“Huh,” he said, “Well that’s pretty simple. I don’t know why someone else told me it was so hard to understand.”

He want off to his seat, and I started teaching my class…

Doing commercial research

Tuesday, 9 May, 2017

I do scientific research in my job, but I don’t work in academia. I work for a company, and my research goes into commercial products. If I was in academia, I’d be publishing my work and presenting it at conferences all the time. Working for a company, things are rather different.

I have just finished (yesterday) writing a presentation that I hope to give at the Electronic imaging 2018 conference in San Francisco, in February 2018. If accepted by the conference, this will be my first conference presentation since 2014. The deadline for submission of my presentation is 15 August, so I’ve completed it more than 3 months in advance. And I haven’t just completed the slides; I’ve also written a talk script, which will be almost word for word what I say during the presentation. And in the time between now and February next year, I won’t be able to change either the slides or the talk script.

The reason for this is that my talk has to go through the company intellectual property and legal department, to make sure that I am not disclosing anything which is a corporate secret. Besides writing my slides and script, I also had to highlight everything in my talk that was about scientific or technological knowhow from my research, and cross-reference it to published patents that I have written. This is to make sure that I don’t disclose anything that the company hasn’t protected in a patent application. Note that this is published patents. The patent office publishes patent applications 18 months after the filing date. So there could be some technology for which we filed a patent a year ago… and I wouldn’t be allowed to talk about it.

The process of vetting and approval by the IP and legal department takes up to 10 weeks. Thus the need for me to finalise my talk nearly 3 months before the conference submission deadline. Assuming my talk passes the IP/legal checks to make sure I’m not disclosing anything we haven’t got protected by a published patent, the company then still has to decide if it wants to let me talk about my work, or if it would simply rather keep it a secret. (At least, as secret as it can be if it appears in a published patent. It makes no sense to me, but yes, sometimes they quite specifically do not want you to talk about work that is disclosed in a published patent application.) This is the gamble phase – it’s impossible to know if the company will approve or reject the application to publish at this stage. So the only way to find out is to go to all the effort of writing your publication and putting it through this process. I could very well have wasted the past two weeks at work writing my complete, finished talk, hoping to present it, and be shot down at this stage. The same would go for a journal paper.

Speaking of journal papers, I am going through this long process for the first time in four years because Electronic Imaging has started accepting “oral presentation only” papers. These are delivered as talks at the conference, but do not appear as printed papers in the conference proceedings. They did this specifically to allow industry researchers such as myself to give talks. Because if I had to submit a written version of my work to go into the conference proceedings (as I did 4 years ago), it has to go through the same external disclosure approval process as the talk slides and script. This makes it much more difficult to publish, because as a printed paper it goes through anonymous peer review. And peer reviewers often request small additions or clarifications to the paper before they agree it is suitable for publication. That can be the kiss of death for my paper, because (a) I often don’t have additional time to devote to revising a paper, particularly if they ask for additional experimental results, and (b) the referee’s request may involve needing to disclose further potentially secret information. I have managed to pull all of this off before, but after the difficulty I had in 2014 getting my previous paper through, I had all but given up, until Electronic Imaging instituted the “oral presentation only” papers.

Anyway, assuming all of the IP/legal and corporate secrecy checks are passed and the company is okay with me disclosing the aspects of my research in my talk script, I can submit it to the conference! And if it’s approved, I can give the talk next February.

As I mentioned, I’m not allowed to change the content of my talk between now and then. If I do more research which improves on the results I plan to talk about, or which solves one or more of the outstanding problems before February, I won’t be allowed to mention it. If I’ve already done work now which improves on the results in my talk, but which I couldn’t include because it’s covered by a patent that has been filed but will not be published by the conference submission deadline, I’m not allowed to talk about that either.

This was in fact the situation for my last talk in 2014. I presented some work, and at the end I mentioned the elephant in the room: the most obvious problem with the results. I had already solved that problem and filed a patent describing the technique. It’s a beautiful piece of science and I am incredibly proud of it – it is I think the best piece of science I’ve done at this job. But the patent was not published by the time that talk had to be submitted to the conference (in mid 2013), so I had to leave it out. And then during the talk I had to raise this very obvious problem as an “unsolved problem”, and stay mum about the fact that I had already solved it over a year earlier. And hope that nobody in the audience pointed out the same solution during question time after my talk! (They didn’t – thankfully it’s not an obvious solution. It took me a lot of effort to come up with it, prove it worked, and solve the secondary problems it raised.)

Anyway, if my current application for the talk next year, in 2018, is approved by my company, I will finally be able to talk about the solution to that problem to an audience of fellow researchers. A solution I came up with in 2012.

I’m not sure I could survive in academia with its “publish or perish” mindset. I don’t have the workaholic temperament necessary to do well there. I’m happier in my corporate research job. But this approach to publication and dissemination of my work is incredibly frustrating. I have good work that I’m proud of and want to share with fellow experts in my field, and I want to establish a reputation as a quality researcher, but I have to jump through these multifarious hoops to do it.

So, if you’ve read this, I hope it provides some insight into the life and publication trials of a corporate research scientist.

Parkes Radiotelescope diary 1989

Monday, 4 January, 2016

I was cleaning out the garage and found some old stuff, including a written account of a trip I took to observe at the Parkes Observatory radiotelescope as a summer student in 1989. So, without further ado:

Hooray! I’d been accepted for a summer vacation scholarship at the Australia Telescope National Facility. This means a wonderful opportunity to engage in some scientific research and to gain experience in working in professional astronomy. There’s also the small matter of earning three hundred bucks a week…

It was all set. I was to begin working on Monday, the 4th of December. That gave me a week off after my last exam at uni. Whoah, a holiday! When was the last time I had one of those?

During my exams, I received a phone call from my ATNF supervisor, Dick Manchester (the man who was once heard to say, “There are more things in life than pulsars.” This is a second hand account, so its veracity is to be questioned).

“How would you like to go to Parkes?” he asks.

“Great, when?”

“November 27.”

There goes the holiday! But wait, I have already planned to do things with friends nearly every day of that week. The last thing was an ice skating trip on the Friday, the 1st of December. I said I was busy until at least then.

“Well, do you want to fly up on Friday evening?”

I’m not one to knock back a free plane trip, so on the appointed Friday there I was, sitting in a minute ten-seater plane with blistered feet and aching legs from the skating and almost falling asleep due to the several late nights just gone. (I’d just made the plane by a mere ten minutes, but that’s another story.)

An hour later and the plane had touched down at Parkes. There were about six cars and a dozen or so people waiting for their friends and relatives. I hadn’t the foggiest who would meet me and take me out to the telescope. Walking across the tarmac, I noticed one guy whose sloppy joe was emblazoned with a star-field and a radiotelescope dish. Okay, that was easy enough.

The Parkes Observatory radiotelescope


Personality pigeonholes

Friday, 8 August, 2014
Myers-Briggs types
Image CC-BY-SA by Jake Beech.

Over the years I’ve seen many people refer to the Myers-Briggs personality types, often giving a four-letter code to describe themselves or other people.

I’ve never liked this sort of pigeonholing of people and have long resisted looking up much about the Myers-Briggs classification. I’ve specifically avoided any sort of test which might purport to tell me what my “personality type” is. I don’t want to be known by a shorthand label which will almost certainly misrepresent critical aspects of who I am.

But I had my curiosity piqued yesterday and actually found myself looking at the Wikipedia page for the Myers-Briggs stuff. And I saw the image shown here. Zooming in to read the text, I found it gave a short list of tendencies designed to determine which side of the four different personality dichotomies you belong to. Unable to avoid the temptation now, I read some of them, and immediately found a problem.

The very first choice at upper left, trying to decide if you are extroverted or introverted, asks if you could be described as (a) talkative, outgoing, or (b) reserved, private? Well, I think I could easily be described as both (a) and (b). The next question asks if you (a) like to be in a fast-paced environment [yes! I do!], or (b) prefer a slower pace with time for contemplation [yes! I like that too!]. I really like fast-paced stuff and I really like slow-paced stuff with time for contemplation! Okay, moving on to question three: do I (a) tend to work out ideas with others, think aloud [yes, I do this all the time], or (b) tend to think things through inside your head [yes, I do this all the time as well]. You can see where this is going. The final question for the extrovert/introvert “dichotomy” asks if I (a) enjoy being the centre of attention [why yes, I do], or (b) would rather observe than be the centre of attention [and yes, I often feel like this too].

Moving on to the sensing/intuition axis, the first question asks do you (a) focus on the reality of how things are [yes, I do, very much so; I’m very pragmatic and realistic about things] or (b) imagine the possibilities of how things could be [yes, I do, very much so; I love fantasising and dreaming of various possibilities]. Second question: do I (a) pay attention to facts and details [yes!! extremely so, I am very detail-oriented], or (b) notice the big picture, see how everything connects [yes! very much so! I am very good at this – people at work have commented how good I am at this sort of thing]. Third question: Do you (a) prefer ideas that have practical applications [yes, I love ideas with practical applications], or (b) enjoy ideas and concepts for their own sake [yes! I love ideas with no practical application]. Fourth question: Do you (a) like to describe things in a specific, literal way [yes! I do this all the time; I really enjoy technical writing for work purposes, describing in detail some highly technical algorithm], or (b) like to describe things in a figurative, poetic way [yes! I love doing this sort of thing; I really enjoy writing poetic descriptions and embellishing things I write with metaphors and literary asides and so on].

Okay, let’s try the third axis: thinking/feeling. Even just the title of the two “sides” has me sure I’ll fit into both. Question one: Do you make decisions (a) in an impersonal way, using logical reasoning [of course I do, it’s only sensible to use logic and be detached for many important decisions], or (b) based on personal values and how your actions affect others [of course I do! What kind of monster would I be if I didn’t base my decisions on my personal values and take into account how they would affect others??]. Second question: Do I value (a) justice and fairness [yes! of course I do!], or (b) harmony and forgiveness [yes! of course I do!]. Third question: Do I (a) enjoy finding the flaws in an argument [well… sort of, here’s one I need to qualify; I get the subdued satisfaction of a job well done, but not hedonistic-style enjoyment out of this – oooh… have we finally found a distinguisher?], or (b) like to please others and point out the best in people [well… sort of; I mean, I like to make people happy, but I’m not above criticising them if I think they deserve it; I’m definitely not a sycophantic yes-man]. I’m not sure how to call this one, other than another tie. Fourth question: Could I be described as (a) reasonable, level-headed [I like to think so, and I honestly believe I come across that way to others], or (b) warm, empathetic [I like to think so, and I honestly believe I come across that way to others].

The fourth and final axis: judging/perceiving. Do I prefer to (a) have matters settled, or (b) leave your options open? Well, I like both. I love being meticulously organised, and I also love flying by the seat of my pants. Question two: Do I (a) think rules and deadlines should be respected, or (b) see rules and deadlines as flexible? You know… I like to strike a sensible balance. Rules and deadlines should definitely be respected, but that doesn’t mean they can’t also be flexible if needed. Question three: Do I (a) prefer to have detailed step-by-step instructions, or (b) like to improvise and make things up as I go? I love both! It’s great to have step-by-step instructions, if I want to go that way and do a thing exactly as other people have done it, but I also love modifying and improvising to come up with something unique. (Examples: in cooking, sometimes I follow a recipe to the letter, sometimes I throw caution to the wind and modify like crazy. Playing music: sometimes I want to reproduce the exact sound of a recorded song using a detailed score, sometimes I want to let loose and do whatever I want.) Fourth and final question: Do I (a) make plans, want to know what I’m getting into [yes, very much so!], or (b) am I spontaneous and enjoy surprises and new situations [I love surprises and dealing with unexpected situations spontaneously].

Well. Maybe this says something about me and my personality, or maybe it doesn’t. All I know is that the Myers-Briggs types are ridiculously narrowly specified and don’t seem to apply to me, not even in the slightest. Every single “dichotomous” question they ask, I have pretty much an equal reaction to both sides. I like all sorts of stuff. I like being quiet and contemplative, I like being brash and outgoing, I like to plan and think things through in detail, I like to just go and spontaneously decide what to do on the spur of the moment, I like to be literal and meticulous and logical, I like to be carefree and expressive and poetic.

Why pigeonhole yourself into some “personality type”? You’re missing half the fun of being alive!

Catch up update

Wednesday, 13 November, 2013

So yeah, I’ve been neglecting the blog lately.

Since the last spate of updates I’ve visited Brookvale Public School again, this time to talk to the kids there about volcanoes, earthquakes, and plate tectonics. It was another very fun day, with lots of interested kids absorbing what I showed them and asking some interesting questions.

I’ve also run the second session of Ravenloft, which I’d planned to post about soon after it happened, but now the third session is scheduled for this Friday, so I think I’ll just wait and combine the two into one big post.

Science in School!

Tuesday, 17 September, 2013

Galilean moonsI spent the day today at Brookvale Public School, in northern Sydney. It was a visit as part of the CISRO’s (the Australian government research agency) Scientists in Schools program. Working scientists get teamed up with school teachers and organise various programs together. With my relatively limited time, I found a teacher who was okay with a fairly low-key arrangement, in which I visit the school a few times a year and talk to the kids, showing them some cool science stuff. Today was my first visit!

I put together a slideshow about astronomy, starting with planets and moons, and heading towards stars near the end of what I’d prepared. The teachers set me up in their nice new library, and brought various classes in throughout the day for me to talk to. It started at 9am with the oldest kids in the school, years 5 and 6 (ages 10-11 or so). They were very attentive and well behaved, and were clearly bursting with questions at various stages. I showed them the planets stuff for about 45 minutes, and got on to the very start of the material about stars, showing them how spectral lines let us see what stars are made of, and that our sun is a star. Then we had 15 minutes of questions. Some of the things they asked were very deep and took a bit of explaining to answer!

Next was the year 1 and 2 classes (6-7 years old). This was slightly trickier, because I had to adjust my vocabulary more to fit their comprehension. Also, this school has a lot of kids from recently immigrated families, and who are learning English as their second language. After an hour with them, it was recess time! I haven’t had recess for years!

Answering questionsThe next session was with years 3 and 4, and then after them was kindergarten! These sessions were a bit shorter, about 45 minutes each. I think that was enough for the little ones – they were a lot more excitable and broke into chatter a few times. I was glad the teachers were there to calm them down! For the year 3 and 4s, I did a straight 45 minutes of presenting slides and talking about them, with no room for questions. This was because they had a second session with me after lunch, entirely for questions, because they are currently doing a science project on space. I took a well-earned breather at lunch, and then it was a full hour of answering questions from these excited kids.

The slides I showed were mostly images of planets and moons, both from telescopes and also various space probes. I also showed them some of the scientists who discovered various things. I included plenty of females: Annie Cannon, Linda Morabito, Carolyn Porco – in fact I mentioned more female scientists than males – to make sure the kids got the chance to see that girls can be scientists.

The questions were widely varied. One boy had obviously been reading up on things, because he asked me about the metal snow on Venus(!). One of the kindergarten kids had the cutest question, when I mentioned that Mars was a bit like a desert here on Earth, with no trees and no water, and she asked if it had camels. It was a little exhausting, having to talk and think on my feet for a full day with a bunch of excitable kids, but it was a fantastic experience. I’m planning on another visit to the school later this year. I don’t know what I’ll talk about then – I need to work that out with the teachers. But I’m sure it’ll be fun!


Thursday, 29 August, 2013

241/365 Eastern Water SkinkI’ve had a couple of good days for spotting wildlife. I saw this fellow sunning himself on a rock as I was walking home from work today, just 50 metres or so from where I saw the brushturkeys yesterday.

This is an Eastern water skink (Eulamprus quoyii). It was maybe 40 centimetres long. I managed to poke my camera fairly close before it scooted away.


Wednesday, 28 August, 2013

Australian brushturkeyFollowing up my urban bird post of the other day, I was astonished this morning to come across a pair of Australian brushturkeys while walking to the station to catch the train to work. I know these birds are around the city, but I’ve never seen some so close before, nor so close to my home.

They’re very territorial, so I’ll probably see them again in the future if they’ve moved into the area. At this time of year they’re probably either building compost mounds to incubate their eggs, or already looking after a clutch of eggs or chicks somewhere nearby.