Cris Burne

Science writer, children's author, editor

closer encounters with puma


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Urban pumas kill more, eat less

closer encountersEver see a kangaroo hopping past your window? In parts of the United States and Canada, instead of wild grass-eating kangaroos, they have wild flesh-eating pumas. And when humans are around, these pumas kill for food more often, but eat less of each kill.

Wild pumas are known as cougars or mountain lions and roam some neighbourhoods in Canada and the U. S.

Usually, a puma can feed on the carcass of a killed deer for up to five days.

But, as humans encroach on their territory, this slow-paced luxury is one that urban pumas cannot afford.

GPS tracking in Santa Cruz Mountains
Researcher Justine Smith used GPS collars to track the hunting patterns of 30 wild pumas in the Santa Cruz Mountains, California.

She found female pumas living close to human neighbours were changing their behaviour, spending less time eating what they kill, and killing 36% more deer each year to compensate.

“When females make a kill in a highly developed area, they spend less time at their kill site, and move farther away to bed down during the day,” says Justine.

Puma mums too busy to kill, eat and care?
But avoiding humans and missing meals can leave a big cat hungry.

With female pumas also responsible for raising kittens, Justine’s guess is that puma mums may end up exhausted.

“Killing deer takes tremendous effort… Such a dramatic increase in kill rates could have effects on reproduction,” she speculates.

I wrote this article for CSIRO’s popular science magazine: Double Helix.
Be sure to check out Justine’s youtube channel to see the big cats in action:


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Ballet bugs: designing robots using spider crickets

ballet bugs HelixWant to design the very coolest robots? Look to nature…

I wrote this article about spider crickets for CSIRO’s Double Helix magazine. Be sure to also check out the video below of the crickets in action. They really are beautiful!

BALLET BUGS

Spider crickets can jump almost 60 times their body length—that’s like an adult human jumping across an Aussie rules football field.

Then the crickets land on their feet, ready to jump again. How do they do it? What if robots could move like that?

Rajat Mittal is using high-speed video cameras—able to snap 400 frames per second—to record how these wingless crickets can ‘fly’ so far.

“Watching these animals in slow motion is exactly like watching an elegant ballet,” Rajat says.

While rocketing up, the crickets streamline their six legs to maximise flight time. Once they start to fall, they spread their limbs, opening like an umbrella to stabilise them on the way back down.

“It’s kind of beautiful in a really weird way,” says Rajat’s teammate Emily Palmer.

“Ultimately, the application would be in really tiny robots.”

Jumping micro-robots could efficiently cross rocky ground, helping us to search for earthquake victims or explore other planets.


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Print your own 3D robots

Disney robotsWant to customise and 3D-print your own walking robots? Disney researcher Bernhard Thomaszewski is part of a team that invented software to let you do just that.

1) Drag and drop the skeleton
Create a virtual robot, using the drag-and-drop software to design its skeletal structure.

“So-called ‘bones’ represent the individual body parts and ‘joints’ represent the motors,” Bernhard says.

2) Decide what you want your robot to do
How will it walk? Trot? Canter? Gallop? And what you want the robot to do? Go straight? Speed up? Spin round?

Don’t worry about falling over… the software coordinates your robot’s limbs and its balance, so it can walk.

“My own favourite is the five-legged creature that we designed,” says Bernhard. “I like it because five legs are really unusual and hardly found in nature.”

3Disney robots) Press ‘print’
If you’re happy with how your virtual robot is moving, it’s time to 3D print it. A 3D printer will build the parts, typically by putting down many thin layers of a material until each shape is built.

The average robot needs 15–20 pieces of plastic, which you connect to motors using a screwdriver, and a bit of patience. Check out some of Disney’s prototypes in action below:

I wrote this article for CSIRO’s popular science magazine: Double Helix.

gold medal teeth2


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Performance-enhancing toothpaste

Want to win gold at the Olympics? You need talent, training and good teeth.

This is my short article about why flossing is so vital to Olympic glory…First published in CSIRO’s Double Helix magazine.

gold medal teethGOLD MEDAL TEETH

By Cristy Burne

It’s hard to break Olympic records when you’re suffering from toothache.

But nearly one in five Olympians at the London 2012 Games said poor oral health had impacted their performance, and only half of them had been for a dental check-up in the last 12 months.

Professor Ian Needleman surveyed 302 of London’s Olympic athletes, finding 55% of them had tooth decay, more than 75% had early stage gum disease, and 15% showed signs of periodontitis, an irreversible gum infection.

Ian says that while many elite athletes have access to the best of everything—personal coaches, specialty diets and computer-enhanced training—they’re missing out when it comes to one virtually free and entirely legal performance enhancer: It’s called brushing your teeth. Closely followed by flossing.

The oral conditions that can affect performance are all easily preventable,” Ian says.

Things like better tooth brushing techniques and higher fluoride toothpastes could prevent the toothache and associated sleeping and training difficulties that can make the crucial difference between gold and silver.

Ian says elite athletes need to spend extra time on their teeth since heavy training schedules mean that many rely on acidic, sugary drinks and regular high-energy snacks.

—-> So what are you waiting for? Go brush! And check next month’s Helix mag for more great tips on keeping your toothy pegs sparkling.

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Chillies: how to cook, eat, grow and love the red devil’s bite

Chillis3Feel like turning up the heat? Check out this article I did for Cravings magazine on the science of chillies.

They send your body wild and keep you warm at night. They leave you red-faced and panting. They’re chillies, and they’re red hot.

Spicing it up

Munch down on a chilli and you’ll do more than cause a meltdown in your mouth. Chillies can boost your metabolism, control your cholesterol, reduce fat deposits, and lower your blood pressure. And they taste great too.

Turning up the heat is a natural chemical called capsaicin, which works by aggravating pain sensors in your mouth. The pain sends your entire body into overdrive, opening blood vessels, increasing blood flow, and flooding your system with endorphins.

Endorphins are your body’s natural painkillers and are also associated with that feeling of pleasure after orgasm. Regular chilli-eaters become addicted to the endorphin release, but must eat spicier chillies to trigger the rush.

Hot for healthIMG_7430

Chillies have twice the vitamin C of citrus fruits, and also contain vitamin A, vitamins B1, B2 and B3, beta-carotene, folic acid and potassium. Studies have shown that capsaicin reduces the amount of fat stored in the blood cells, reduces fat deposits in the liver, and helps you burn more calories after a meal.

Chillies have been used to treat coughs, colds, asthma and laryngitis, and creams containing capsaicin have been reported to reduce the pain associated with shingles, arthritis, and diabetic neuropathy.

Yale University School of Medicine has even devised a chilli candy to help ease mouth pain in cancer patients. There are also reports that eating chillies can assist with cold sores, cold feet, nosebleeds and varicose veins.

Turning up the heat

Not all chillies are created equal.

In 1912 a chemist named Wilbur Scoville invented a way to determine just how hot different chillis could be. The test involved a panel of tasters sipping sugared chilli juice until their tongues stopped burning. The unit for chilli spiciness, the Scoville unit, was named after this brave chap.

How hot? Ordinary capsicums rate a lacklustre zero; Jalapenos hit you with around five thousand Scoville units; Cayennes are around ten times hotter than Jalapenos, and Habaneros provide up to 350,000 Scoville units of fun. To put this in perspective, one teaspoon of Habanero chilli should be mixed with 1.75 litres of sugar water for you to avoid its heat.

Did you know? Capsaicin is used in pepper sprays, which rate around two million Scoville units. The hottest chilli in the word is rumoured to be India’s Naga Jolokia, at a fiery 855,000 Scoville units.

Hot tip: Reduce firepower by removing chilli seeds and the veins that attach them to the chilli pod.

Cooking with chillies

Beware! Chillis may put a love-buzz on your tongue, but they cause deep regret when near your eyes. Always wash your hands, chopping boards, knives, and immediate vicinity after handling chillis.

Hot tip: Need protection? Wear gloves or coat your hands with cooking oil before handling chillis.

Overdosing on chillis won’t kill you, but if the pain is all too much, try a nice glass of red. Capsaicin will wash away in fats, oils or alcohol. A glass of iced water won’t make any difference because capsaicin won’t dissolve in water.

The seeds of love

Want to grow your own? The secret is a good soil: “Lots of sheep and cow manure,” says chilli connoisseur Claude Micale of Herbs R Us. “Also full sun, a weekly feed of seaweed solution, and an organic fertilizer…high potash will help them fruit more”.

“Chillis need to be outdoors, especially in our climate, and they won’t grow through winter. You can pick them while they’re green, or wait till they go red. If you pick them regularly they’ll flower and fruit through spring, summer and autumn.”

“I’m not a hot chilli person so I go for the anchos and the anaheims. Big Jim is an Anaheim-type chilli that grows about a foot long and 3-4 inches wide, excellent for stuffing and then roasting.”

Claude’s chilli tip: “Leave chillies in the sun until they’re crunchy dry, then put them in a bag and roll them with a rolling pin. You can also put them in a coffee grinder or food processor; it’s better a bit coarse than too powdery.”

IMG_7428What to look for

There’s more to chillies than heat. Start to explore the sunny colours and sparkling flavours, and you’ll find a whole garden of tastes just gasping to get on the plate.

Fresh chillies should have a shiny smooth skin; dried chillies should be flexible enough to bend without breaking.

Scrumptious chillies to look out for include:

  • Anchos: Just a whisper of heat and a sweet mellow flavour, these chillies are great in mole sauces to add body and texture.
  • Anaheims: Large, mild, and perfect for stuffing or roasting, they make delicious stews and sauces; usually eaten green.
  • Arbols: Add some zing by popping one of these punchy numbers into an entire soup or stew; don’t forget to remove before serving.
  • Birds Eyes: Great in Thai and Asian cooking; super-hot so use sparingly.
  • Black Princes: Some say these look too good to eat; black fruits that mature to red with a mild, crisp flavour.
  • Cayenne peppers: Hot, sweet and best eaten red, they are great in Hungarian and Mexican cuisine, or can be used whole in Szechwan cooking.
  • Habaneros: Proceed with caution, these may be the world’s hottest chillies; best fresh rather than dried.
  • Jalapenos: Small, fleshy and packed with attitude, these old favourites are great raw in salsas or salads, or cooked in sauces and soups.
  • Serranos: Similar to Jalapenos but with more bite, these meaty chillies also suit salads and salsas, and are also delicious when roasted.

Hot cooking tips: Oven roasted chillis are easier to peel if you leave them to cool in a closed bag for ten minutes after roasting. Peel from the tip to the stem. Escape any threat of exploding chillis by stabbing a small hole into the side of each chilli before roasting.


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Gelato unplugged: a (not) icecream dream

IMG_7424

Royal Ice first appeared in Cravings magazine

It’s way too freezing for icy treats, but this was too delicious not to share.

I wrote this article for Cravings magazine, and am also sharing some of their amazing photography. Delicious, right?

So let’s get one thing straight: Gelato is not icecream.

Get that bit wrong, and Carmelo Messina, a gelato artisan with 39 years of experience, will really give you an earful.

Gelato is an Italian word that roughly translates to “icecream,” but only because we have nothing but icecream to compare it with.

Gelato has more form than icecream, more texture. It’s richer, denser, and creamier, but contains less fat.

And it’s an authentic Italian experience now increasingly available on Perth’s streets.

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We’re all one, we can all eat gelato!

“People want to rekindle their memories of traveling in Italy,” says Izzi Messina, son of Carmelo and co-founder of the Perth-based Gelatino gelaterias. “People want to experience the Italian way of life.”

“In Italy there’ll be about ten gelaterias right next to each other,” explains Melissa Romano, his business and life partner.

“They’re open till ten, eleven at night. We have gelato kiosks on the beach, with little buggies driving around selling it. It’s a lifestyle.”

Izzi and Melissa launched Gelatino in 2005, and Carmelo’s sumptuous gelato is already sweeping the state. “In summer in Freo we’ll stay open till twelve or one,” says Melissa. “We’ve gone through 4800 litres of gelato in one week. At the Rottnest store people will queue for 45 metres in the summer.”

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“Normally the fat in icecream lines your taste buds, so your absorption of flavour isn’t as strong. Gelato is on average 94% fat free, so you get the true flavour” Izzi Messina

The couple buzz with passion for their families, for Italy and its culture, for its lifestyle and its gelati.

“We’re very proud of being Italian,” enthuses Izzi. “My family has been in the food industry since day dot. They had a gelato bar in Catania and a bar in Augusta. Dad’s still got my grandfather’s recipe book.

“Its pages have gone brown, it’s marked with egg white, with sugar; its pages are stuck together. I would be destroyed if Dad lost that.”

Ask for their favourite flavour, and they erupt into mouth-watering debate.

Melissa opts for donatella (“hazelnut with nuts wrapped in chocolate”) while Izzi favours passionfruit sorbet. Other favourites include coconut, tiramisu, blood orange sorbet (“that’s a real Sicilian favorite!”), and real banana (“see how it’s gray, not yellow”).

“Dad’s really creative,” says Izzi. “We’ve done a lemon, lime, basil and vodka flavour. He’s done beer sorbet. He’s done wine, fig…he’s done prickly pear and Parmesan…prickly pear is a hard one to make. But he’ll do it all by hand. He’ll roast his own pistachio nuts. His crusher is at least 30 or 40 years old.”

A scoop of Italy

Sicily, say the couple, is the world’s premier gelato destination.

“It’s the jewel of the Mediterranean. The Sicilians are famous for their desserts, hands down. Sorbet is very, very popular down there. We manufacture gelati differently in different regions. It all comes down to the artisan.”

“It’s all made by hand,” says Izzi. “Each artisan has little tricks that differentiate their products. Dad’s been making gelato since he was 14; that’s four generations in my family, all Messinas, all making gelato.”

IMG_7427By the bucket!

Certain flavours or new gelato experiences can rekindle old memories, says Izzi.

“As kids we used to sit on a wall my grandfather built, eating gelato from plastic cups. In Italy we would drive about 15 kays to a gelateria up in the hills, and all of us would sit, eating our gelato.”

“In 1996 I stayed in Sicily with my grandparents, we lived in Catania, with Mount Etna directly behind us and snow-capped…at night sometimes the lava used to flow. In the morning a little van would come past, ringing its bell, selling brioche for breakfast. A brioche is a sweet bread, split in half and stuffed with gelato…for breakfast!

“Everyone would come out on to their balconies and send down a bucket. What’s the point of going downstairs? Put the money in, send down the bucket, and then pull up your breakfast! Every morning.

“They still do it today…what a lifestyle! We want people here to experience some of that.”

You say gelato, I say…

‘Gelati’ is the plural of ‘gelato’, which comes from the Italian word ‘gelare’, meaning ‘to freeze’.

  • Gelato is made from milk, sugar, fresh fruit and other goodies, all whipped up to contain only around 35% air, leaving you with a denser, creamier texture. At around four percent fat, gelato doesn’t qualify as an ‘icecream.’
  • Icecream must contain more than 10% fat and can contain around 90% air.
  • Sorbet is a non-dairy water-based version of gelato, containing more sugar and less fat.
  • Granita is a flavored slushy ice that must be churned before serving, usually made from sugar syrup and fruit juice.

Yum! So why wait for summer?

I’m heading to Rottnest this month for a winter writing retreat… I think a little gelato goodness might be in order.

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Solar Impulse: the future of impossible

IMG_7035YAY SOLAR IMPULSE!!

Last year I had the amazing chance to chat with Solar Impulse pilot André Borschberg. I found André to be an incredibly inspiring guy: brave, dedicated, visionary, charismatic but also humble…and did I mention brave?

His team’s incredible solar-powered plane is right now breaking all kinds of records and changing the way we think about ‘possible’ and ‘impossible’

Below is some of the article that came out of my interview with André, first published in CSIRO’s awesome Double Helix magazine. I hope you find his words as inspiring as I do!

(Interested in science? Want to inspire your kids or grandkids? Subscribe to Australia’s Double Helix mag.)

SEEK THE SUN: Adventures in solar

By Cris Burne for Double Helix

IMG_7036On 9 March 2015, Solar Impulse took to the skies in an attempt to fly around the world.

The plane’s pilots will need courage, speed and endurance…but not a drop of fossil fuel. Because this plane doesn’t need heavy petrol tanks, noisy engines or polluting fumes. What it does need is sunshine.

Solar Impulse’s impressive wings are covered in solar panels: light-weight versions of those you see on rooftops. Silicon in the panels absorbs the Sun’s energy, booting electrons into motion and creating electricity.

We had to build an aircraft that uses very little energy, so we can fly [at night] with batteries that we charge during the day,” says pilot and engineer André Borschberg.

This aircraft is a demonstration of ways we can save energy, and how best to use the energy we have available,” he says.

We can do this not just in aviation, but in everything we do … in the way we build homes, cars, washing machines, refrigerators.”

From problem to opportunity

Solar Impulse’s round-the-world trip is split into 13 stages. But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. The team had planned to fly from China to Hawai’i in June, but bad weather forced a landing in Japan on the way.

When they resumed the flight from Japan to Hawai’i, disaster struck. The plane’s batteries overheated and needed repairs. With winter in the northern hemisphere approaching, Solar Impulse was grounded until sunnier days.

Fortunately in Hawai’i we have the perfect infrastructure in terms of hangar, airport, people who are welcoming … the problem turned into an opportunity,” André says.

We can always get something out of difficulty. People who fail are already much more advanced than people who have never tried.”

The flight from Japan to Hawai’i took five days and nights of non-stop flying, earning it the world record for longest solo flight without refuelling. It’s also the first time a solar plane has crossed an ocean.

Very often we set our own limits, because people tell us something is impossible,” says André.

People say the Earth is completely explored, so what can we do?

“I think for the new generation, what they can do is to develop ways for us to live better, to live with less energy, to live in a way that better protects the wonderful environment we have received. That’s where they can explore.”

IMG_7033Inside Solar Impulse 2

  • From wing to wing and down to the tail, the plane sports 17 248 solar cells
  • The plane weighs 2300 kilograms: about the same as a small car and less than one per cent of the weight of an A380 Airbus
  • Lithium-ion batteries take up a quarter of the plane’s weight and store solar energy
  • Four battery-powered engines receive about 340 000 watts of power each day: enough to drive a motorcycle.
  • Daily rations include 2.5 litres of water and 2.4 kilograms of nutritional and mushy meals.

 

 

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