Film: Chromatography


Career milestone: made a film. A science film.

A simple experiment using chromatography to separate out the colours in black pens – with some unexpected results! Of course, experiments aren’t always meant to go to plan.

Shot in one day, by myself, with a tripod that’s older than I am. Had a couple of issues with the automatic focus, but otherwise not too bad. Gotta say, I’m pretty pleased with it. (Despite the Steve Irwin-esque thumbnail, the best of a bad bunch preselected by YouTube.)

Take a look:

Solar eclipse – an Aboriginal interpretation

Solar eclipse 2012. Credit: Tom Lee /

This morning Cairns and far north Queensland experienced a spectacular full solar eclipse – people crowded on beaches, in Skyrail cable cars over the rainforest, and in the baskets of hot air balloons to get a glimpse of the eerie event.

Two weeks ago I was travelling around Tropical North Queensland, and spent a couple of hours at the Mossman Gorge Centre, an impressive new Indigenous eco tourism development in the Daintree Rainforest run by the local Kuku Yalanji people.

One of our party asked our guide what the solar eclipse meant for his people.

For us, he said, the Sun represents man, and the Moon is a woman. So the Moon passing across the Sun signifies that women are becoming more and more important in society this century.

The women are eclipsing the men – today was both a win for astronomy and gender equality.

Talking elephant ‘speaks’ Korean

Amazing footage of an elephant imitating Korean speech. As elephants have no lips, Koshik here (a 22-year-old Asian elephant from Everland zoo in Yongin, South Korea) puts his trunk in his mouth and moves it around to formulate different sounds.

A YouTube transcript documents the following vocal interaction with the trainer:
Koshik: “choah” (good)
Trainer: “choah choah annyong” (good good hello)
Koshik: “choah” (good)
Trainer: “choah choah annyong” (good good hello)
Koshik: “choah” (good)
Trainer: “choah choah” (good good)
Koshik: “choah” (good)
Trainer: “annyong” (hello)
Koshik: “choah” (good)
Trainer: “annyong” (hello)

Apparently, he has also mastered the sounds annyong (hi), anja (sit down) and aniya (no).

High hopes for HIV prevention

Ealier this year I attended the 2012 Microbicides conference in Sydney, learning about new technologies for HIV prevention.

Microbicides are products designed to help stop HIV transmission – including topical gels and creams, slow release vaginal rings, films, enemas and suppositories. They’re aimed to work alongside condoms, which are still #1 in our anti-AIDS arsenal, but might not suit everyone’s lifestyle and preferences.

Studies have been both promising and disheartening for some of these products – with the main issue appearing to be adherence. As the advocates say, any treatment is useless if you don’t actually use it.

Delegates from places like Uganda and other African nations, where the rate of HIV infection is very high, were amazed to hear that HIV AIDS is not often discussed in my corner of the world… I was humbled to hear how desperately these preventative treatments are needed.

I tracked the development of some promising microbicides in a feature, ‘New leads in HIV prevention‘.

Delegates from all round the world discussing HIV prevention at the 2012 Microbicides conference.
Credit: Kay Marshall

Macquarie youth Sino-Australia festival

Kevin Rudd speaking at the Sino-Australia Youth FestivalI wouldn’t normally post my Xinhua news stories here, but I wanted to mark this one as a great experience for a young journalist, interviewing an A-lister in Australian politics.

The event was a cultural festival hosted by Macquarie University, organised by the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, aimed at “breaking the ice” between Chinese exchange students and their Australian counterparts.

Both former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and the Chinese educational consul attended. And while I think it’s important to maintain objectivity in political reporting, I don’t mind saying that Mr Rudd was treated like an absolute rockstar by the Chinese students!

In his speech, the former PM addressed the students in Mandarin, shouting out to their provinces and hometowns. After the formalities, fans rushed in for handshakes and autographs. Rudd is clearly a successful ambassador for Australia-China relations. Kudos to the students who organised the day.

Xinhua story:

Even news journalists sometimes get to write about Quantum Computing

After dipping my toes into QE3 and global economics these past few weeks, I was all too ready for some nerdy science news. And what could be a better story than researchers building a computer out of atoms and electrons?

Subatomic scientists get all the good conceptual artwork.

Writing on electrons.

Writing on electrons. Artist’s impression of a phosphorus atom (red sphere surrounded by electron “cloud”, with arrow showing the spin direction) coupled to a silicon single-electron transistor. A burst of microwave radiation (light blue) is used to ‘write’ information on the electron spin.
Credit: Tony Melov

‘Australia makes breakthrough in quantum computing’, news story @ Xinhua.

Review: People of the Book

People of the Book - Geraldine BrooksGeraldine Brooks

Penguin Books, 2008

Historical fiction

A fragment of an insect wing, wine stains, salt crystals, a white hair – these tiny clues are trapped in the pages of the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, giving us insights into the strange story of the historic codex in Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book.

Hanna Heath, an Australian book conservator, is hired – under tense political circumstances – to work on the Haggadah in the stricken city of Sarajevo, Bosnia. The book is extremely unusual in that it is a Jewish text illuminated in the Christian style – with gold leaf and crushed lapis, saffron, silver, and butterfly wings, painted on vellum from the skin of a now-extinct mountain sheep.

As Hanna examines the book, we touch on the lives of the people who created the Haggadah and protected it throughout centuries of Jewish exile and war. Geraldine Brooks has woven a beautiful work of faction from the known history of the real codex and a drop or two of imagination informed by her research.

Sarajevo Haggadah         

The novel contains plenty of fascinating glimpses into manuscript conservation – the author was lucky enough to be present as the real Haggadah was repaired and stabilised by Austrian conservator Andrea Pataki at the European Union Bank in 2003.

Thought to have been lost in the Bosnian war of the 1990s, the Haggadah was actually safe and sound hidden in an underground bank vault, brought back into the public eye in 1995. Conservators, historians and diplomats alike were keen to see how well it had fared in the vault’s environment, and looked on as Pataki carried out the conservation work.

Although she had to repair the 19th century binding and end papers, Pataki didn’t need to touch the magnificent 14th century illustrations. “I checked under a 25X microscope and I didn’t see any flaking or powdering of the pigments,” she told journalists. “The overall condition is very good for its age.”

In the wake of Brooks’ other successful novels, Year of Wonders and March, People of the Book won the 2008 Australian Book of the Year award and the Literary Fiction Book of the Year award.

More images from the Sarajevo Haggadah: