Circus truck at QuestaconIn 2001 I joined the circus.
In 2014 I urged you to join it too.

And in 2015, I joined 150 other circus scholars in Canberra to celebrate 30 years of taking science to the streets (and the outback communities, the rural schools, the town ovals…pretty much anywhere we could unpack the truck).

As well as being a super-incredible year of facing challenges, making friends, developing skills and blowing things up, 2001 was also an invaluable opportunity to show thousands and thousands people how much fun science is, and how cool your world can become if you understand how it works.

And 2001 was just one of the circus’ 30 years.

If you want to get goosey tingles, check out this video, which played Thursday night to a packed room at the National Arboretum.

After the evening of #SQSC30 celebrations, I spent a couple of days re-exploring Questacon – The National Science and Technology Centre.

This involved screaming “Oh!” and running up to hug friends from 15 years ago (!), meeting colleagues working over the world in a (wooden, handmade) kaleidoscope of science communication roles, recording animated grabs of circus experiences as part of a video archive, losing the video microphone down my shirt, meeting the next generation of Double Helix readers, investing in glow-in-the-dark tarantulas, and drinking lots of champers, and then even more coffee. Great. Times.

Here’s to the next 30 years of developing much-needed skills in science communication, and inspiring a much-needed love of our incredible world and how it works. Thanks SQSC!

And if you’ve read this far, a bonus: The story of how Graham Walker and I were (not) nearly kidnapped for Science on the Move in South Africa.

YouFly_UWA_resizedI’ll admit it. I had a major thing for Michael J. Fox. I still do.

I realised this when rewatching the Back to the Future trilogy (including the third installment, which I’d never seen because of its average preview)(but I really loved it…if you haven’t ventured Back to the Past and you enjoyed the Back to the Futures, give it a go :-)).

Luckily, I had an excuse for watching MJF for six blissful hours. Science writing!

That’s right. I was on assignment, so that’s why I had to watch.

BTTFIIdateI was working on a story about flying cars to celebrate Back To The Future day: Wednesday 21 October 2015.

The date that Marty and the Doc fly forward to in BTTF II.

Which was, (ahem), last week, actually.

I wrote the story for ScienceNetwork WA, looking at a Perth company with their own version of Doc Brown’s DeLorean. It doesn’t time travel, but it does fly. Awesome.

Here’s what you can expect for your future commute:

YouFly is capable of vertical take-off and landing, and operated with just two joysticks—one for height, the other for direction.

“You sit in the middle of a 2m diameter fan, in a nice cockpit,” says developer Kim Schlunke.

“You can’t touch the fan or reach it, and when it starts it becomes transparent, so you can look through it.”

The enclosed fan pumps air from the top to the bottom of the car, generating lift that is controlled by a flexible skirt around the car’s body.

“It’s flown with enough weight to fly a person…it flies around very stably and parks in carparks and things like that.”


Unfortunately, the YouFly has no room for McFly: it’s a one-seater.

Crushing, I know.

Do you have children in primary school? 

If your answer is yes, then like me, you’d probably jump at any chance to help your kids feel successful, happy, accepted and respected at school.

But what if a key to your child’s feeling of belonging–and ultimately their academic success and mental health–is your involvement at school? I recently wrote this article for ScienceNetwork WA, and its findings surprised me…

Before you shirk canteen duty (again), consider your kids.


Research by Curtin University’s Dr Sharmila Vaz suggests involvement in your child’s primary school environment improves their perception of belonging at secondary school.

“To belong in school is to feel personally accepted, respected, included, and supported,” Sharmila says.

“Students who report greater belonging in school are more likely to succeed academically, less likely to engage in health-compromising behaviours such as alcohol or drug use, and are more likely to have better mental health.”

Sharmila’s research suggests children who feel they belong in their final year of primary school more likely to feel they belong in secondary school.

Her data comes from 266 students transitioning from 52 primary schools to 152 secondary schools.

So how can we give our children a strong sense of belonging?

“Student attributes such as resilience and coping skills matter the most,” she says.

“Promoting students’ sense of competence and self-worth is very important, ensuring they cope well and use productive coping strategies like problem solving rather than worrying and escapism,” she says.

“A second factor is the way classroom goals are structured, so teachers can empower students by affording direction and initiative on how to pursue academic goals, and providing a landscape where everyone feels empowered.”

But what about your family’s socioeconomic status?

Or those thousands of dollars you’re spending on private schooling?belongingness-high-school

Despite 40 per cent of the primary school cohort moving from the government education system into the Catholic or non-government system for their secondary schooling, Sharmila says the type of school didn’t impact student belonging.

“Being at a government school, or having a lower socioeconomic status, or having a disability didn’t influence belonging,” she says.

“What matters is student empowerment and resilience.

“This is really an empowering message, to say anyone can take the initiative to ensure that kids belong.”

To include, or not to include?

Sharmila says classrooms where everyone is equally valued help promote belonging.

“If the school promotes the fact that everyone is empowered and accepted and included, regardless of whether they have a medical condition, then students have a better sense of belonging,” she says.

Already dealing with teenagers?

If you’re already dealing with teenagers, then you may be reaping what you’ve sowed.

Sharmila’s research indicated that parental expectations for high academic achievement enhanced belonging when children were in primary school, but not secondary school.

She also found that children in secondary school who focused more on effort-based goals rather than socially geared goals were more likely to feel a strong sense of belonging.

This article originally appeared in ScienceNetwork WA. Images from REDCOM and Toshihiro Gamo.

With just one day left of Children’s Book Week, it’s time to share some highlights from the last few days…I’ve just had so much fun, presenting to school groups from Year 1 right up to Year 10, and it’s exciting how much fun we’ve had with science, Japanese ghosts and a whole swimming pool of cabbage juice.

Thanks so much to everyone for organising Children’s Book Week…Books really do light up our world, so a big pat-on-the-back to all of us who do so much to promote reading and literacy in our schools. HOORAY FOR US!



Let’s go! National Science Week and Children’s Book Week! My favourite time of year!

I’ve been lucky enough to spend two days at Williams Primary doing writing workshops (Hi Williams! Thanks Jac for organising!), and today I was at Applecross Primary sharing some tips on science writing, fiction writing and the power of believing in yourself (Hi Applecross! Thanks for a fab day!).

I’m super-excited this Children’s Book Week to be focusing on non-fiction writing, and especially to be sharing the story of Robin Warren and Barry Marshall, Western Australian winners of the 2005 Nobel Prize for Medicine.

And, even luckier, I have these amazing *signed* posters to give to each school, with big thanks to the Nobel Office. How awesome is that!?!


Do books light up your life?

This year the themes for Children’s Book Week (Books Light Up My Life) and National Science Week (International Year of LIght) combine…If you’re an adult and want to know more about the science of light, check this out.

If you’re a kid and don’t believe me about putting the head in the fridge…

And if you’re interested in tarsiers, check out this article, which appeared recently in CSIRO’s Scientriffic magazine:



Cute, furry and critically endangered, tarsiers are distantly related to someone you know very well: you!

Fact file

SCIENTIFIC NAME: Tarsiers share the family name Tarsiidae. There are 5–15 species of tarsier.

DIET: Entirely carnivorous: they prefer cockroaches, crickets and other insects.

STATUS: Threatened by the illegal pet trade, hunting and habitat destruction.

Living fossils

Until around 50 million years ago, tarsiers and humans shared the same genetic path. Then, while some of us evolved into modern primates—animals like monkeys, apes and human beings—tarsiers did nothing much at all.

“They look remarkably like primates that roamed the earth 50 million years ago,” says researcher Sharon Gursky-Doyen.

Nicknamed “living fossils,” tarsiers live in forests across the Philippines and Indonesia. They are active at night, when their huge eyes help them see in the dark. Each eye is around the same size and weight as their brain.

By the light of the moon

Most nocturnal animals are afraid of the moon, but not tarsiers.

“They like full moons and are more active during full moons,” says Sharon. “This increases their exposure to potential predators, but also increases their ability to see.”

Sharon recently found that instead of seeing mostly black and white, like typical nocturnal animals, tarsiers can see red, green and blue, just like you and me.

They also have unusually large babies.

“The infants are a quarter to a third of adult weight at birth,” says Sharon. Imagine your Mum giving birth to a baby already as big as you!

“Instead of carrying their babies on their bodies, like most primates, tarsiers transport their infants in their mouths,” says Sharon.

Not yawning, screaming

Some species of tarsier are very noisy, calling to each other all night long. Others are silent—or so we thought.

One day Sharon noticed tarsiers seemed to spend a lot of time yawning, with their mouths open but making no sound. She was curious, grabbed some equipment designed for working with bats, and set to work.

Incredibly, Sharon’s team discovered these “silent” species are actually communicating ultrasonically, using chirps and whistles so high-pitched that human ears can’t hear them.

Sharon recorded tarsiers calling to each other at frequencies as high as 79 kilohertz, or 79,000 vibrations per second.  She found they can hear sounds up to 91 kilohertz, while humans can only hear up to 20 kilohertz—which to us is a brain-piercing squeal.

Pygmy tarsiers

In the highlands of Indonesia, back in 2000, two scientists were catching rats when they discovered something strange in their trap: a pygmy tarsier. Last seen alive nearly 80 years earlier, pygmy tarsiers are the smallest species of tarsier, about the size and weight of a chicken’s egg.

Sharon and her team were inspired. They searched the jungle to find more pygmy tarsiers.

“It was always foggy and wet,” she says, “…and the moss was so slippery, we were always struggling to stay upright.”

Finally, after two months of searching, Sharon trapped two male pygmy tarsiers and a female, fitting them with radio collars before releasing them.

Now, by tracking the signals from their collars, we can learn more about these shy and mysterious creatures.

It’s August! August is home to National Science Week and Children’s Book Week, so naturally it’s my favourite month of the year :-)

It’s also busy, so I’ve been looking into the possibility of cloning myself, or at least, hiring someone who looks like me and can cook and clean as badly.

the science of stunt doubles

Can’t spot the difference? That’s because of science

This article, called Double Take, appeared in Helix magazine, and it dashes all my hopes of hiring my own stunt double. Unless we’re seen around 15-second apart, it won’t really work :-/

Double Take

Movie stars may be hired for their looks and skills, but stunt doubles are hired to jump from helicopters, fall from cliffs and explode from burning buildings.

A star and stunt double can have very different faces, so why can’t you tell them apart?

Researcher Alina Liberman found the answers are all in your head.

She says your brain deliberately blurs recently seen images in a process called perceptual pull, which helps you to recognise familiar faces.

If we didn’t have this bias of seeing a face as the same from one moment to the next, our perception of people would be very confusing,” says Alina. “For example, a friend or relative would look like a completely different person with each turn of the head or change in light and shade.”

Thanks to perceptual pull, your brain morphs the effect of changing viewpoints, different lighting, blur and noise into a single idea of a particular face.

The connections it makes are especially strong when you see two or three similar faces within a 15-second time frame.

Alina tested perceptual pull in a study where participants had to pick a face that best matched a target face. Every time, they selected a face that combined the two target faces they’d most recently seen.

Here are some of the stunt doubles I’ve considered:

Baby me

Baby me

Man me

Man me

Manga me

Hmmmm. Disturbing. I think I’ll just have to stop messing around on the internet and start doing some work instead :-) Happy August everyone!

One of the things I love about science writing is the absolute variety I meet in my working day. I’m always learning new things, and I get to spend time talking to passionate, clever and interesting people.

Below are some of the stories I worked on last month for the Perth-based ScienceNetwork WA. SNWA articles require a journalistic “hard news” writing style, which is very different to the storytelling style I’m used to, but they’re still great fun to research and write. I’m always learning something new.

From WA’s tectonic foundations to the Bardi Jawi seagrass meadows, from microalgae to Australian football, from our Jurassic past to our (hopefully) glittery future…and all of it researched in Western Australia. Yay us!

WA foundations not as ‘stable’ as previously thought

What’s eating you? Solving the seagrass mystery

Marriage of maths and microalgae a good export

Zeds in bed not linked to AFL injuries

Long-gone bacteria blows the whistle on gold deposits


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