A year in review: Scope 2013

Thanks to Victoria Leitch for the Scope ‘year in review.’

I might be a little biased, but I think we have had a great year with the ASC newsletter – Scope!

As current editor, I can proudly say that in the past year Scope has seen a number of improvements – many of which were implemented by (and should be attributed to the hard work of) my predecessor Sally Miles. A move to mailchimp has seen a greatly improved look and feel to the newsletter, and the introduction of a Scope writing team has allowed us to continue to improve our provision of new and varying content for members.

The newsletter has a very good open and click through rate, for those numberophiles (not a word, I know!) among us here are some stats since our move to mailchimp:

  • Sent to an average of 480 subscribers (min was 434 in March, max was 547 in June)
  • Average open rate of 50.1% (min was 43.3% in June, max was 56% in July)
  • Average link click rate of 21.9% (min was 15.1% in August, max was 34.1% in April/May)
  • The majority (>90%) of the opens are coming from Australia, but we also have opens in USA, Japan, New Zealand, Canada, UK, Poland and India

As a comparison for you, although stats vary pretty widely, an average open rate for a list our size would be up to 20% – so we really are doing very well.

Although we generally receive very positive feedback from readers, current discussion on the ASC discussion lists gave me cause to reflect on the format and content of Scope, and on that matter I offer the following thoughts.

I acknowledge that the current Scope format or content might not be to everyone’s taste, or might not be what you want to see. There is no way this can change unless people come forward and say something. There is a constant call for suggestions and opinions – this is included in every newsletter – and there is, and I believe always will be, an open call for content for the newsletter. The ASC communications team work damn hard on an essentially volunteer basis to bring you the newsletter and we desperately want to give you a quality publication that encompasses your vision for an ASC newsletter. Although we do receive some very positive feedback, which is always nice, we also invite any negative feedback or suggestions.

For those of you that have contributed content in 2013, I sincerely thank you for the effort you have put into improving our newsletter. Particularly to the Scope writing team, who put in many hours of blood, sweat and typing as volunteer writers – thank you!

We look forward to bringing you even more new and improved content in 2014.

… and I’ll say it one more time, please, if you ever have any thoughts, suggestions, events, or even if you simply want to tell me what the correct name for a numberophile is – email me at editor@asc.asn.au or if your comment is suitable for sharing, post it below!


Event review: Canberra’s deadliest air disaster re-examined

Thank you to Melissa Snape, Secretary of the ACT branch, for providing this event review.

With the 73rd memorial of the Canberra Air Disaster fresh in the minds of those who attended the crash site at Fairbairn Pine Plantation (near the Canberra Airport) just a day before, the ASC-ACT branch brought in the experts to delve into the mystery surrounding this historic episode – with a bit of a science twist.

The sell-out National Science Week event was held in the Japan Theatre at Questacon on August 14 and gathered a diverse crowd of local eye witnesses, aeronautical enthusiasts, relatives of the deceased and detectives at heart – and thrilled them all with never-before-seen in public footage of the wreckage (filmed within hours of the crash), a lesson in state-of-the-art forensic techniques by Mardi Southwell (AFP Forensic Science Team) and an in depth interview with Mr Andrew Tink, local expert and author of ‘Air Disaster Canberra: the plane crash that destroyed a government’.

A close re-examination of the fatal event, which killed ten people in total (including 3 war time government ministers), uncovered evidence indicating that Air Minister Fairbairn (and not the experienced RAAF pilot Bob Hitchcock) may have been flying the plane when it met its fiery destiny. Tales were also told of the charred bodies of victims being misidentified as smouldering stumps and improper collection and documentation of evidence resulting in the true nature of the tragedy being shroud in mystery forever.

To add our science twist, Mardi then gave a fantastic presentation briefing the audience about how forensic scientists in 2013 would approach such a scenario and what techniques are available to us now that were not in 1940.

The evening was rounded off by competitions for prizes (including two signed copies of Andrew’s book), a bite to eat and a glass or two to drink – all on the house. We only hope that those attending had as much fun as we did hosting.

Want to see what we go up to?

  • Short video clip produced by Alex Harrod (played at the event) – click here
  • Photos of our event taken by David Wong – click here

We also had a massive amount of local media attention surrounding the event including TV, print and radio interviews. Also, two days after our event the ABCs 7.30 report even got on the band wagon and did a story about the Canberra Air Disaster- see the link here which mentions our society.

The ASC ACT Branch would like to thank those who helped make the event a major success:

  • ACT Branch of the Australian New Zealand Forensic Society
  • Questacon
  • Inspiring Australia
  • ACT National Science Week committee
  • ACT Government

Event review: i Heart music.

Thank you to Nolanne Chang for providing us with the i Heart music event review.


“Don’t worry, you do have a heartbeat,” the technician says. “I’m just trying to figure out where to get the best recording from”. I’m at the i Heart Music event at UNSW, getting my heartbeat recorded so that in a few minutes a jazz band can use it as a base line for a new piece of music.

The iHeart Music event was started in 2011 for National Science Week by Derek Williamson, Director of the Museum for Human Disease at UNSW. The aims of the project are to engage in dialogue with a new audience that might not otherwise come to National Science Week events. Heart health is something that is important for all members of Australian Society to be aware of (one Australian dies every 12 minutes from cardiovascular disease). The scope of iHeart Music serves to bring in a jazz and music crowd as well as the more typical science and health aware attendees.

Simon Barker is a leading jazz drummer, and is well known for his improvisation skills. In the setting of the I Heart Music events, he and the Kimnara band take these skills and applies them to music centered around the beat of a human heart. The event is “fantastic” he says, a “great multi-media cross-pollination event”. And not just any heartbeat is used, but the music actually centers on recordings made from the heartbeats of the event’s attendees (no arrhythmias have yet been diagnosed through the event). On the day I visited, not only did visitors to the Human Disease Museum at UNSW get their heartbeats recorded, used for music, and the recordings emailed to them, but the UNSW site was also live-streaming the event to the Victoria Markets in Melbourne, reaching the Sunday morning crowd.

In 2011 and 2012, the I Heart Music event was only held at UNSW. However, this year, with funding from Inspiring Australia, the team from UNSW have coached 13 venues across Australia to host 17 iHeart Music events over the course of several weeks. For most of these venues, the event was fitted into a larger program, for example, as an event in a science center, or as the musical entertainment at a National Science Week dinner (Ballarat).

The airy trumpet sounds waft over the serene keyboard and drums that complement the beat; the beat of a human heart.

4 beats to the bar

70 beats in a minute

3 billion beats in a lifetime

Event review: Incredible Inner Space Exhibit.

Thanks to Nolanne Chang for sharing her thoughts of the Incredible Inner Space exhibit.


The Incredible Inner Space Exhibit currently on as part of National Science Week at the Customs House in Sydney is a great example of how to bring science to the public.  The exhibit uses sculpture, photography, and video to engage an audience.

The ground floor of the customs house is a relaxing mixed-use space. It serves as the foyer to the Customs House City of Sydney Library, houses a café, and additionally has a selection of daily newspapers available. Businessmen and women come through to get a coffee and relax, and tourists regularly visit in groups to view the miniature model of the city through the foyer floor. The scientific artwork on display draws in all these different types of people to get them to engage with the material presented in a completely different setting then that of an educational museum.

And that’s the great thing about the exhibit, in that it reaches an audience who would not normally be the type to go to, the Australian Museum. Instead, the artwork speaks for itself: crystal structures of metals depicted in glass sculpture that make you pause on your way past, or the title for a video that pulls you across the room, or the vivid colors and geometrical patterns of stunning microscopy photographs that entice you out of your chair to have a closer look. Clear captioning that explains in depth what is shown supports all of the displays. These captions are in no way dumbed down for the audience, but are presented with a complete absence of jargon or unnecessary description.

Importantly, the scale of the image and the type of microscopy used are described. Importantly, many visitors had expressed their enjoyment of the exhibition: “thank you for sharing this research with us”, “who knew the details to be discovered by looking through a microscope”, and my personal favorite, “I just wish I was a cool scientist”.

For visitors who become more interested in the material shown, there is a handy take home brochure that explains more about a select number of displays, with the inclusion of a handy pictographic ruler that illustrates the scale on which the displays are presented. Additionally, many of the images can be found online and downloaded for perusal (great as a screensaver).

As I sat observing the exhibition, a group of tourists came in to view the city model, and several people from the group broke off from the main bunch, branching out to look at the scientific exhibit. Some even took photos of the microscopy and crystal structures, and it was gratifying to know that science had now become a souvenir moment to remember about Sydney.

Event review: The David Malin Awards – From Australia to outer space

Thanks to Brigid Mullane for reviewing the David Malin Awards for Scope.

Sydney Observatory is a local landmark, on the harbour near the historic Rocks precinct.  Completed in 1858, it is now part of the Powerhouse Museum, featuring exhibits of the history of astronomy and meteorology, and providing night telescope viewings for the public.

I went there this month to see the winners of the David Malin Astrophotography Awards.  The competition is open to amateur photographers and astronomers across Australia, and is judged anonymously by Dr David Malin, world-famous Australian astrophotographer.

The young man at the desk explained that the images and videos were displayed on two floors of the building, and I started with the upstairs collection. There were deep space photos colour-adjusted with the “Hubble palette” to better display distant objects such as the “Running Chicken” nebula. Romantic shots showed people in the country enjoying a much better view of the stars than we get in Sydney, while eclipses were recorded with photo series that reminded me of Pac-Man. Creative shots included a lone swan’s transit of the moon, and a novel use of the familiar star-trail photo.

There were more pictures downstairs dispersed amongst the permanent exhibits. Apart from the pictures and exhibits inside, there are interesting views of the harbour, city and bridge from the windows and terrace of this charming historic building.

The Malin Awards exhibit is on daily until 20 October, 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. If you happen to visit by 30 August, you might take a stroll afterwards along the Cahill Walk to Customs House at Circular Quay. There you will find the micro-nano-atomic exhibit Incredible Inner Space, reviewed here in Scope by Nolanne Chang.

The rise of the MOOC

Thanks to Brigid Mullane for her review of MOOCs.

MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses, are free courses from major universities around the world, available on the internet through platforms such as Coursera, Udacity and edX.

The first one I heard about was Coursera, and after reviewing its numerous offerings, I started in January this year with a course called Principles of Economics for Scientists from California Institute of Technology.  The title caught my attention because so many science issues have to be understood as economic issues as well, for example, climate change or the use of GMOs in crops.

I found that the course was not about the interaction of science and economics; the science tag related to the fact that students were expected to understand basic calculus to do the course, and many scientists would have this background.  The course dealt with economics using mathematical models, rather than in the descriptive way typical of many introductory economics courses.  Assignments were submitted weekly, and machine-marked.  The turnaround was immediate, with a grade, and an outline of how to solve each problem.  This was a great way to learn.

A feature of the course was an online trading game to help students understand the process of supply and demand in a market.  Unfortunately the system crashed on the first attempt, and so the game had to be abandoned as a component of the course assessment.  However, later in the course, after some repairs, the game was run again as an optional exercise.  This worked mechanically, but the market collapsed because some virtual banksters were going into virtual overdraft, and paying crazy prices for tokens.

Next, having seen how easily markets can be destroyed, I started to think about food security, and signed up in July for the course Sustainability of Food Systems, from the University of Minnesota.  It covers topics of interest to me such as food choices, industrial food production and the effects of national agricultural policies.  The assignments include open-book quizzes on reading assignments, so it would be difficult not to get full marks.  The other assignments involve various projects which are to be reported as forum posts, and we are also asked to comment on, or uptick the contributions of our fellow students.

Comparing the two courses, I’d rate the economics course higher.  Despite that trading game problem, and a few other bugs, it was a great opportunity to brush up on economics, confirm that I could still do some calculus, and hear from students around the world on the course forum.  The food course seems to be pitched more at high-school than university level.  This might have something to do with the need for assignments to be machine-marked for a massive student body, which precludes giving students the more demanding assignments that might be part of a regular course.

Students do not receive credit from the teaching institutions, but for most courses a Statement of Accomplishment is awarded to those who complete the requirements.  For a better class of certificate, Coursera students can join a program called Signature Track.  For this the students are asked to create profiles by recording their typing patterns and taking webcam photos of themselves and their ID documents.  Then they have to use a webcam while submitting assignments so that the system can confirm their identity, as well as their typing patterns.

This all seems very cumbersome and Big-Brotherish, and does not give university credit, but it does allow you to refer people to a website to confirm your course results.  The cost of this varies by course, and was USD29 to USD49 on a few I checked.  I noticed that a couple of these were discounted from a previous higher cost, so perhaps this is not a popular program.

On the question of actual course credit, a survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education in February 2013, found that 72% of professors teaching online courses did not believe that students should get formal credit from their institutions.

So, it will take a while for universities to work out how MOOCs might be integrated into higher education.  Meanwhile, why not sign up for a free course and learn something new?