Cool science

BY HELEN HARVEY
Last updated 13:56 01/02/2010
SCIBLOG
Drug money: Most UK bank noteshave traces of cocaine on them.

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Did you know that most banknotes in the UK have traces of cocaine on them?

It's true. Apparently paper money in that part of the world is actually made of paper, unlike in Australia and New Zealand where the notes are made of plastic. Anyway, in the UK, the notes are put in between two heated blocks, which evaporates whatever is on the surface and that is the bit that is analysed by the machine. Money hasn't been tested like that in New Zealand because if our banknotes were put through the same system, it would melt.

They didn't have paper (or plastic) New Zealand banknotes in 1856, but there was scarlet fever. It is shown on a map that highlights disease. Perhaps the most interesting thing is that New Zealand even appeared on a world map in 1856. The map of New Zealand isn't quite right, though. Taranaki is a fraction of its actual self.

These two fascinating tidbits are the subjects of blogs on the new website sciblogs.co.nz. The site was set up in October last year by Science Media Centre manager Peter Griffin and now features 29 bloggers writing on all things scientific.

None of the bloggers are from Taranaki, but the rest of country is pretty well covered. A couple of bloggers are science writers who are not scientists, but they cover their area well, Mr Griffin says. The rest are from universities, Crown Research Institutes and a few are in private scientific organisations. One of the last is Anna Sandiford, an independent forensic scientist who blogged about the cocaine-riddled banknotes. The blog came about after she read that all British banknotes are contaminated by cocaine and was surprised it was regarded as news. Working in forensic science for 12 years, she had heard it all before.

Being a forensic scientist means she has to deal with the inevitable question: Is it like CSI?

No, she doesn't have a gun on her hip, and neither does she run around chasing the bad guys.

"I don't have one of those nice flash cars and the weather is not always good when I go out. And there's no way I'd be allowed into a crime scene without a coverall suit and face mask, boots and gloves. They go traipsing around all these crime scenes, waltz in and go, Look at that. A key piece of evidence sitting in the middle of the floor. Oh, yes, that's great. It doesn't happen like that in reality."

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First of all, no one knows what is going to be important so early in the investigation and the whole crime scene would still have to be processed, anyway.

In the UK she worked with the police, but now Dr Sandiford lives in Auckland she is in private practice and does work for both sides of the divide: prosecution and defence, and insurance companies.

"It's as truly independent as you get."

Therefore, she wouldn't pronounce on the guilt or innocense of David Bain, whose 2009 retrial she worked on as forensic science adviser for the defence.

"I'm a professional expert witness. My duty is to the court, not to those instructing me, and I don't have an opinion on the ultimate issue, which is guilty or not guilty."

Working on that particular case was an interesting experience and very tiring, she says.

"But it was no different to any other case. We just did what we usually do, which was a review of the science and get the expert witnesses there as required. There was just a lot to look at."

A forensic scientist is usually only seen when she turns up in court as an expert witness, Dr Sandiford says.

"We are there for a given purpose. We are vessels for giving information. We don't have personalities, we're not allowed to be a real person. We are there to impart information."

There are so many interesting stories around forensic science, she says, but the scientists have no voice to be able to talk about them.

Which is where the blog comes in.

"And [the blog] stops you feeling isolated and gives you a chance to interact with other scientists who work in something other than forensic science. You can get tunnel vision if stay in one area."

Waikato University first-year biology lecturer Alison Campbell works in the area of biology and evolution and blogs for secondary school biology students, specifically those who are taking scholarship exams.

It's really hard for those kids and their teachers; there's really not a lot of resources out there for them, she says.

Dr Campbell works with about 300 scholarship students in Taranaki, Hawke's Bay, Bay of Plenty and Waikato. The only way to reach students in other parts of the country is through a blog.

"I write about a whole pile of stuff, almost always about biology in one way or another, except when cats come into it."

She uses pictures of cats with scientific captions added to get her points across.

"I focus on evolutionary biology because it is an interesting line. I talk about pseudoscience. I talk about how to sit exams and what life is like at university."

One of her blogs was about turning up to lectures.

"It's a culture shock for a lot students . . . especially if they have been at a smaller school where the teachers do have the time to keep an eye on them. Then they get here and they find that a lot of lecturers don't nag. They just say, It's your responsibility. If you don't turn up, tough. Personally, I send at least one email saying You're not turning up, do something about it."

When Sciblogs was set up, Dr Campbell was invited to syndicate her blog across to the new website.

One of her blogs pictures a frog and a joke about a wide-mouthed frog. It began "Frog mouths are quite interesting, actually."

Her aim is to write stories that are quirky and eye-catching, to draw people in, she says.

While secondary school students are her primary audience, she also writes to try to make science more accessible to everyone.

"I try to write stuff that anybody can access and think: OK, science is really cool."

Science does have a bit of an image problem, she says.

"If you ask schoolkids, particularly primary schoolkids, to draw what they think a scientist is like, it will be some old guy in a white coat with bad hair. And explosions."

And scientists aren't very good at explaining things, she says.

"You only have to look at the furore surrounding the whole global warming thing to see that. Scientists have not been good at getting the science across, which I think is a real pity."

A post last week was about a product that Dr Campbell calls pseudoscience - some "quackery" that is sold as a supplement to cure a number of illnesses. It's basically swimming pool water, she says.

The Sunday Star-Times had an article that was quite critical of this supplement, so Dr Campbell blogged on the scientific reasons why the stuff doesn't work.

One of the reasons Sciblogs was set up was to give scientists a platform where they can discuss big issues in the news that are science-related in greater depth than the mainstream media can go into in a short news article, Mr Griffin says.

"We were coming across a lot of scientists who we were dealing with [though the Science Media Centre] who wanted to get into science communication, but weren't really all that comfortable doing radio or TV or even print interviews, but wanted a regular place where they could explore their area of expertise. A blog seemed like a good way to do it."

So he found a bunch of scientists who had set up their own blogs and invited a group of scientists who hadn't blogged before and put them all under a one banner, so people could find them.

"It's really starting to take off. Our stuff is now going on Google news so it's getting picked up easier in search engines. At the moment we have between 1000 and 1500 people using it per day."

Half of the visitors are from New Zealand - institutions, government and private people - and half are international.

"The good thing is we have people covering the entire spectrum and we didn't realise how prolific they would be . . . We are getting five or six new stories every day, so there isn't pressure on any one particular writer to be prolific. We've enough new content going up there every day to keep people coming back for more."

Mr Griffin is looking for a scientist whose speciality is agriculture. There are some big issues in agriculture, such as the feedlot situation in the Mackenzie Country and where New Zealand is going with agricultural emissions, he says.

The blogs aren't always contentious or newsy. Some are about obscure parts of the bloggers' research, Mr Griffin says.

"And that is attracting quite a lot of attention as well. There is all sorts of quirky stuff on there that gets a surprisingly large amount of traffic."

Climate change is very topical at the moment, he says. So the people who are writing about that, such as Grant Jacobs, are really popular.

Dr Jacobs is a consultant who works in computational biology.

"It's a mix of biology, computer science and the specialist knowledge of the particular problem you're working on. Basically you're a specialist theoretical biologist using computer science as the means to do your biology," Dr Jacobs says.

He works in molecular biology and genetics, does data analysis and writes computer software.

"One thing that surprised me when I started blogging the computational biology stuff was that far more [people] read it than if I put the equivalent out in an academic paper. A lot more people see them. So I've recycled some old articles. I was quite surprised how many people read them."

But sometimes he needs a break and blogs about quirky stuff, like ancient science textbooks and old maps that highlight diseases.

"I like little bits that touch on quirky points.

"I try to weave a concept or thought in. A lot of people don't appreciate how much disease was around, because we don't have it now. I got it off a blog I follow in New York. He is a follower of old maps."

Bloggers often pass on what they've read on other blogs and add their own contribution to it, their own angle, he says.

Dr Jacobs had been thinking of doing a bit of science communication work as a sideline to his consultancy for a while and had been doing some background reading and surveying other blogs trying to understand what makes them work.

So Sciblogs popped up at the right time for him.

"I enjoy writing them. I try not to write too much. I can't quite understand the issue of writer's block," he says, laughing. "You just write. There's always more material than you can possible do, anyway"

- Taranaki Daily News

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