story, science, technology and creativity

Leave a comment

One year anniversary of wreck discovery

SS Macumba_2_Credit Marine National Facility.jpg

Sonar pulses were used to map the 40-metre-deep wreck, showing its broken bow. Photo: CSIRO Marine National Facility

Last October, I was lucky enough to cover the thrilling discovery of a lost wreck. One year on, let’s revisit the events of that time…

On August 6, 1943, two Japanese airplanes attacked the SS Macumba, a 2500-tonne merchant ship in waters north of Arnhem Land.

The ship’s engine room was hit, three crewmen were killed, and the boat sank, disappearing into the ocean.

For seventy-four years, despite many searches, its final resting place was a mystery.

Then, in the dead of night on October 4 last year, the mystery was solved.

Wreck mystery solved

On October 3 2017, the crew onboard the CSIRO research boat Investigator was given just twelve hours to find the Macumba. The vessel was passing by the spot where the Macumba had last been seen, and though many previous searches had uncovered nothing, they wanted to give it another try…

The crew used sonar pulses to search the seafloor in a grid pattern. By studying how the pulses bounced back to the top, the team could work out what might be on the ocean’s bottom.

After ten hours of searching, they spotted some “unusual” features. The ship turned for another look.


Shark about to attack dropcam_Credit CSIRO.png

A specialised drop camera was used to photograph the wreck—and this resident reef shark.  Photo: CSIRO Marine National Facility

Midnight success


“It was very early in the morning, about 1 am, so everyone was very tired,” says Hugh Barker, voyage manager onboard Investigator. “As soon as [the wreck] appeared on our screens, everyone was celebrating. It was quite special to be the first to see the Macumba in 74 years.”

The team used sonar to map the wreck, which was 40 metres down. They also dropped a camera to photograph it. They discovered the wreck was teeming with life, including “an inquisitive reef shark that seemed to be guarding the site,” Mr Barker says.

The wreck will now be protected as a historic shipwreck.

Frozen in time

Shipwrecks are like time capsules, says Dr Ross Anderson, Curator of Maritime Archaeology at the Western Australian Museum.

“Everything on a shipwreck is frozen in an exact moment of time,” he says. “Shipwrecks, like all archaeological sites and heritage places, are tangible links to our past.”

Dr Anderson’s favourite wrecks are the HMAS Pandora, which ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef in 1791, and the Batavia, Australia’s second earliest shipwreck, which was wrecked off Western Australia in 1629.

Items discovered on both wrecks help us understand how people lived hundreds of years ago.

And there’s still treasure to be found. “There are still many ships lost that were carrying bullion [like precious metals and coins] and other high value cargoes,” he says.

CSIRO research vessel Investigator_Credit CSIRO.jpg

CSIRO’s research vessel Investigator solved the 74-year-old mystery last year. Photo: CSIRO

Searching for treasure

Finding a wreck can be low-tech or high-tech. The divers who re-discovered the Batavia were shown where to look by a crayfisherman who’d spotted the curve of a giant anchor deep in the water.

The Pandora was re-discovered using a magnetometer, which measures changes in the Earth’s magnetic field. In this way, metal objects such as anchors and cannons often help us find lost wrecks, Dr Anderson says.

Other times, colour can point the way. If you’re keen on discovering sunken treasure, keep your eyes peeled for the green of tarnished copper, or the black of crusted silver.

This article first appeared in Crinkling News.


Leave a comment

My top five activities for book and science lovers

Fremantle Press recently featured my top five activities for teachers to use with their book and science lovers in the classroom.

In case you missed it…here it is again!

Activities for Science Week and Book Week.JPG

1. Design your red planet submarine
We’ve just discovered a giant underground lake on Mars! Now we need to find out what’s in it. Imagine you’re in charge of designing the Mars Submarine Explorer. Draw it and label the features that’ll help you in your adventure. Then, when you’re ready, jump in and take it for a ride … Write down what happens and let us know what you discover!

2. Forget the Floss, dance the Peacock Spider
Kick off your day with a peacock spider-inspired dance routine to get your creative juices flowing. And while you’re busting moves, marvel at the fact that these incredible arachnids were only discovered last month and they live right here in Western Australia … How lucky are we?! When you have your breath back, imagine how it felt to be the first person in the world to see these spiders in action … Write a scene where you’re that person, sneaking through the bush on the trail of a new and amazing discovery.

3. Billionaire inventor
Ten of the 20 fastest-rising billionaires in the world work with new technologies. Imagine you’re an insanely rich technology entrepreneur. Now imagine you want to spend a wad of cash on a new project. What type of technology will you choose? A robot? A spaceship? A helpful gadget? A crazy invention? Sketch out your project and write an advertisement that explains what it will do. How will you encourage us to part with our money so we can own the Next Big Thing?

4. What if rhinos roamed Australia?
Rhinos are critically endangered, so why not introduce them to Australia? I love this plan! And it’s amazing for story ideas … What if rhinos roamed with kangaroos? What if your part-time job was caring for a rhino herd? What if poachers came to hurt your rhinos? What if we could have pet rhinos? Or use rhinos instead of lawnmowers? Brainstorm some ideas for what might happen in your story.

5. Create an emergency whistle
Hiking in the bush is a fantastic way to learn more about the world around you. There are insects and flowers and birds and trees, and there’s also survival, if things go wrong. When you read my latest book, Off the Track, you’ll learn the best way to stay safe in the bush is to be prepared. You can also learn a sweet trick that just might save your life. Spoiler alert: the trick is how to make a super-annoying whistle from an ordinary piece of paper. And remember, it’s not just super-annoying, it’s also educational! Yay, the science of sound!

Leave a comment

Lost your phone charger? Why not wear it?


Dr Shayan Seyedin with some fibres of MXene

I lost my phone charger, again.

I was alone in the house, running from room to room helplessly picking up bits of lost laundry and shifting bits of important-but-also-lost paper.

And I was sweating. Badly. Because I neeeeeded my phone.

And then I had this idea:

What if you could wear your phone charger, like, as part of your shirt or something? This idea is gold. A killer. Pure genius. Wearable electronics chargers. All it needs is for someone to invent it.

Lucky for me, it’s already being done. Unlucky for me, it’s a fair wait away yet.

So, while I run around the house searching for my charger, why not check out this article (below) that I wrote for Crinkling News.

It’s about dissecting blow dryers, sheets of atoms, and wearable chargers. How cool would that be!?!?!

Blow dryers, persistence and wearable electronics

When Dr Shayan Seyedin was a kid, he liked taking things apart and putting them back together, but things didn’t always work out how he intended.

“I bought a blow dryer for my hair, but it wasn’t fast enough for me,” he says. “So I changed the low-power DC motor to an AC motor…but then it was blowing too much air, so it wasn’t hot enough.”

He decided to upgrade the heating element. “That wasn’t a great idea, it overheated and each time the whole dryer would turn off.” So he made more changes. By the time he’d finished, his hairdryer was so powerful it would interfere with TV reception. “My dad used to shout ‘turn that vacuum cleaner off,’” he grins.

The lessons learned from trying and failing as a kid are important now in his research, Dr Seyedin says. “It’s all about constantly improving,” he says.

Today, that’s exactly what he does: Dr Seyedin is a researcher at Deakin University’s Institute for Frontier Materials.

MXenes, graphene and your pencil

Two-dimensional materials are the thinnest materials known.

  • MXene (pronounced “max-een”) was discovered in 2011. It’s made from several layers of carbon and titanium atoms, all joined together into sheets.
  • Graphene was discovered in 2004. It’s similar to MXene, but made from a single layer of pure carbon atoms. It’s super-light, great at conducting electricity and 100 times stronger than steel. However, graphene fibres aren’t as good as MXene at storing energy.
  • You can see graphene when you use a pencil: the mark your pencil makes as it slides across the page is made from many thousands of layers of graphene. When this much graphene is in one place, we call it graphite.

Stand back, old-fashioned batteries

You can see a sheet of paper, but you can’t see a sheet of MXene. It’s tens of thousands of times thinner than a full stop.

But if you cram thousands of MXene sheets into a tub of clear liquid, you might see a dark green shimmer. And if you force these thousands of sheets through a space as small as the eye of a needle, you’ll see something truly incredible come out the other side: a flexible fibre.

Why would you bother? Because MXene is terrific at conducting electricity and storing energy. Stand back, old-fashioned batteries. Make way for wearable, chargeable electronics.

Taking charge

The outfit you’re wearing right now is probably woven using thousands of ordinary fibres. But who wants ordinary? “I thought that if we made fibres out of MXene, we could make fibres with energy-storing properties,” says Dr Seyedin.

However, MXene is tricky to spin into fibres. The individual sheets just slide apart, like piled-up sheets of paper.

After three years of trying, Dr Seyedin solved this problem. He discovered that by forcing thousands of MXene sheets through a small space, you can join the sheets together. Like crumpling sheets of paper into a ball, you end up with a solid, three-dimensional material.

If you keep pushing MXene through the space, it crumples into long, thin MXene fibres, a bit like making spaghetti.

171165-shayan-seyedin-031smMXing out

Dr Seyedin found that MXene fibres can trap lots of charge in the many tiny spaces created by crumpling the thousands of layers. When you use the fibre to power something, these trapped charges flow out of the fibre and into your device. Recharging the fibre is the same as recharging any other battery.

Wearable future

Using just three fibres, each around a few centimetres long, Dr Shayan Seyedin can power an LED light for fifteen minutes. “These fibres are tiny, we’re talking about one single fibre on a shirt, not the whole shirt,” he says. He’s already imagining what can be done with an entire shirt.

“The next stage will be transforming the small fibres into actual wearable articles of clothing…pants pockets, wristbands or shirt patches that are capable of storing energy and charging devices.”

And maybe, just maybe, we can do away with our phone chargers…forever!!!!




Leave a comment

Sour stuff leads to riskier behaviour

A news story for all of you who have ever dared to suck on a warhead super-sour candy… (And for those who cringe when you see your kids flock to a burst pinata full of sour lolly treats.)

Sour gummies, sour worms, sour patch thingies, sour squirms, sour rainbows, sour bears…

You name it, there’s a super-sour hyper-acidic version of your least favourite (or your kid’s favourite) lolly.

We’ve known for years that these acidic ‘treats’ are a menace for teeth enamel (acid + carbonate, anyone?), and now researchers have confirmed what dare-devil kids have known for years:

sour risktaking.jpgSour stuff increases risk-taking behaviour.

Researchers gave participants a drink of something sour, sweet, umami, salty or bitter. Straight after, they asked people to play a gambling game that involved pumping up a balloon. And there was a catch.

Money or the BANG!

The bigger the balloon, the higher the returns for the participant.

But should the balloon pop, you earned zilch.

When it came to gambling further and risking more, sour was king-kong of flavours.

Those with a sour taste in their mouth pumped the balloon up to 40 times, compared to just 20 or 30 times for other flavours.

So what does this mean in the playground?

It’s hard to say. The participants in the study were in their 20s, on average, so the results may not mean anything when it comes to kids.

But anyone who’s ever dared to suck on a super-sour warhead knows the thrill that comes with facing the pain and exploding your brain.

I’d guess that kind of adrenalin could well lead to other kinds of adrenalin-inducing behaviours…

Sweet advice for risk-takers…

If you’re about to head out lead climbing or race car driving or to a P&C meeting where they’re calling for a new president, maybe skip the margaritas. Stick to something sweet instead 🙂



Leave a comment

Robotic drones help protect koalas

If you could design your own robot, what would it be? Would you create something to tidy the house? Drive the car? Or hand you flat whites while you luxuriate on the couch with a great book? (Clearly, I vote for option 3.)

But there is another option: use modern technology for something really worthwhile. Like koala conservation…

drones help find koalas.jpg

Image: Queensland University of Technology

Flying robots with heat-sensing eyes can find koalas, even in thick bush.

The unmanned robots, called drones, look like giant flying spiders, and they’re part of an effort to help save koalas in the wild.

Researchers on the ground control the drones, which fly high above the bushland to find and count koalas much faster than humans can.

“I’m pretty good at spotting koalas,” grins Associate Professor Felipe Gonzalez, who leads the Queensland University of Technology project. “But I’m nowhere near as good as a drone.”

Where a team of experts might take two hours to search for koalas in an area of forest, a drone can cover the same area in just 20 minutes.

“When we have a better idea of where koalas are, and how many we have, we can use that information to plan conservation efforts and make decisions,” says Associate Professor Gonzalez.

Eyes in the sky

QUT koala researcher.jpg

Image: Associate Professor Felipe Gonzalez, QUT

The helicopter-style drones are programmed to fly over forests “in a lawnmowing pattern”, so they don’t miss a single tree.

They can spot a koala from 20 metres away, so they don’t scare the animals either.

Each drone carries a camera that can sense the heat produced by a koala’s warm body. Remotely controlled, the cameras can twist and turn to offer researchers the best view.

Unmanned flying drones have been around for years, but Associate Professor Gonzalez says the ones being developed at QUT are “unique”.

“They use artificial intelligence,” he explains. “They’ve learned to tell the difference between a koala and other animals by the size and shape of the hot spot.”

Artificial intelligence, or AI, is a form of machine learning. It means the computers on-board the drone can train themselves—by trying and failing and learning from their failures—to correctly identify koalas.

Maths meets environment

An aerospace engineer by training, Associate Professor Gonzalez says making flying robots is a natural combination of his skills in maths and engineering and his life-long love of the environment.

“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always been interested in animals and ecology,” he says.

He wants to use the drones to monitor other animals in the wild.

“We’re hoping to use this technology to track dingoes, on Fraser Island,” he says.

“We can also use it for wild dogs and feral cats.”

Orphaned joey.jpg

Image: Dr Viviana Gonzalez 

Koala conservation

The number of koalas in the wild is decreasing: the Australian Koala Foundation estimates there are only between 43,000 and 100,000 wild koalas left.

Koalas live in woodland and suburban areas in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, and are classified as endangered in Queensland.

The drones are being trialled in South East Queensland, where wild koalas must share their habitat with a growing human population.

This story first appeared in Crinkling News.


Leave a comment

How does carbon dating work?

Next time you discover a mummified corpse, you’ll know who to call…

Ever wonder how carbon dating works? Or how scientists can tell how old something is, just by testing the dirt they found it in?

Well, wonder no more. Below is my article on carbon detective Dr Stewart Fallon, an ANU expert on carbon dating. It first appeared in the magnificent Crinkling News.

Carbon sleuths solve 5,000-year-old crimes

Dr Stewart Fallon is a carbon detective. By measuring how much carbon is in a once-living thing—whether it’s charcoal, shellfish, coral or bone—Dr Fallon can work out when that thing was last alive.

“We can measure back to about 50,000 years,” says Dr Fallon, who works with a team at the Australian National University.

The method is called carbon dating, and Dr Fallon uses it to help solve mysteries, fight crime, and better understand our environment.

Mysterious bones

In 2016, a human jaw bone, leg bone and arm bone were found in a Brisbane park. The police asked Dr Fallon to carbon-date the jaw bone.

Carbon levels in the bone showed it wasn’t a recent murder: the person probably died between 1800 and 1899.

Corals and ivory

Dr Fallon also uses carbon dating on coral reefs. “Corals can live for several hundred years, and have growth rings, just like trees do,” he says. “We’ve dated some deep sea black corals that have been living for 4500 years.”

Horns and tusks can also be dated, helping police work out when the animal died. “We do a lot of work with police on wildlife forensics, trying to help prevent the illegal trade in rhino horn and ivory,” says Dr Fallon.

Ötzi the Iceman

In 1991, after a warm summer melted mountain ice, hikers discovered the mummified remains of a human body, now nicknamed Ötzi the Iceman.

Carbon dating showed Ötzi died more than 5000 years ago. “He was almost perfectly preserved, he’d been covered with ice for a long time,” says Dr Fallon. “They were able to date food in his stomach, and the grass his shoes were made from.”

Carbon dating Crinkling News.jpgWhat are carbon atoms?

Everything is built of tiny packages, called atoms. And every living (or once-living) thing—whether it’s your lunch, your goldfish, or your bones—contains atoms of carbon. Even the air we breathe contains carbon atoms, bound up in carbon dioxide gas. But not all carbon atoms are the same:

12C: More than 98% of carbon atoms contain 12 particles in their central nucleus. We call this carbon-12.

13C: Nearly 1.1% of carbon atoms are slightly heavier than carbon-12. They’re called carbon-13, because their nucleus contains 13 particles.

14C: A teensy-tiny percentage of carbon atoms are heavier still, with 14 particles in their nucleus. These carbon-14 atoms are so heavy, they sometimes fall apart. When this happens, they ‘disappear’, decaying into nitrogen atoms instead.

How does carbon dating work?

The number of 14C atoms compared to 12C atoms is called the 14C to 12C ratio.

  • While you’re alive: The 14C to 12C ratio in your body is the same as in the air. You add some 14C when you eat and breathe, and you lose some 14C when it decays, so the overall level stays the same.
  • Once you’re dead: You can’t add more 14C (because you’re dead, so you can’t eat or breathe). But the 14C in your body can still decay. We know it takes 5730 years for half of your 14C to disappear. This means we can use 14C levels as a kind of clock
  • The deadly difference: Because your 14C has been disappearing, the 14C to 12C ratio in your dead body will be different to the ratio in the air. This difference allows Dr Fallon to work out how long you’ve been dead.

History in the air

The ratio of 14C to 12C in the air is always changing. For example, the nuclear weapons tests that happened from 1955–1963 temporarily doubled 14C levels.

On the other hand, burning fossil fuels releases loads of carbon, but hardly any of it is 14C. Fossil fuels are so old that all of their 14C has decayed, Dr Fallon says.

Leave a comment

Saving frogs with your phone

We’re just back from a long weekend of family camping. It was loads of fun, and exciting too, because it was WET. We camped through Perth’s first real rains for the year, and within hours of them falling, our tent site (and the toilet block) was full of tiny frogs. HOW AWESOME!!

Want to know what sort of frogs they were? Well, grab your phone and start recording. Whether it’s a ribbet, croak, chirp or trill, a frog’s call can be used to identify it.

FrogID.pngThat’s the idea behind FrogID, a free app launched by Dr Jodi Rowley, a frog expert at the Australian Museum.

“FrogID is an attempt to get an army of frog biologists out there, young and old, reporting where frogs are,” says Dr Jodi Rowley, frog expert at the Australian Museum.

“We have 240 native frog species in Australia, but we don’t really know how they’re distributed, or how they’re doing.”

Since its launch, more than 20,000 frog calls have been recorded using the app!

Join the FrogID army

Discovering which frogs live in your area is as simple as waiting near a wetland, pond, dam or creek, or even in your backyard.

“The best time is just after dark, and if it has rained recently, it’s even better,” says Dr Rowley.

When you hear a frog, use the app to record its call. You then match the call with the calls of frogs likely to be in your area, and send your best guess to the Australian Museum.

“You’ll get a notification about whether your guess was right or wrong, and you’ll get better at identifying the frogs in your area,” says Dr Rowley.

The app is paired with a website that allows you to join groups and compete with other schools.

What is citizen science?

FrogID is a citizen science project. That means it’s a hands-on research project that scientists and volunteers work on together.

It’s not easy being green

Aust Museum Dr. Jodi Rowley - credit Stuart Humphreys.jpg

Dr Jodi Rowley hopes FrogID will encourage all Australians to get involved with helping to save Australia’s native frogs. Image: Stuart Humphreys

Dr Rowley wasn’t always a lover of frogs. “I was quite a city girl, my parents didn’t take me camping. It wasn’t until I studied environmental science that I even began to realise frogs were out there.”

Now she’s discovered just how fragile frogs are. “Frogs are amazing, gorgeous, precious things that really need our help,” she says. “FrogID is a bit of a rescue mission…we need information to help them.”

Your FrogID reports will be used to track where frogs are found, how populations are changing, and to discover new populations of threatened species. “This is a cool way to monitor frogs just by listening to their calls,” Dr Rowley says. “We may even discover new species.”

Top 5 frogs to spot

The frogs you hear depend a lot on where you are, Dr Rowley says. They’re also more active during summer and spring, so now’s a great time to get out there. Her top 5 frogs to spot are:

Striped marsh frog (Limnodynastes peronii): Around 6 cm long and common along the East coast. They make a ‘bok, bok, bok’ noise, like a tennis ball being hit.

Common Eastern froglet (Crinia signifera): Around 2–3 cm long and common along the East coast. They make a ‘crick, crick, crick’ call, a bit like a cricket.

Green tree frog (Litoria caerulea):  A large frog (12 cm) found in all states except Tasmania and Victoria. Also known as the dunny frog as you can often find them in outback toilets.

Peron’s tree frog (Litoria peroni): A colour-changing frog (5 cm) found in northern Victoria, New South Wales and southern Queensland. Has a cackling, drill-like call.

Motorbike frog (Litoria moorei): A large frog (up to 14 cm) found in pools and backyards in south-west Australia. Named for the male frog’s call, which sounds like a motorbike changing gears.

Cane toad alert

Our native frogs are often confused with the cane toad—a poisonous pest. “It’s the only toad we have in Australia, and that’s our fault, we introduced them,” says Dr Rowley. “FrogID will also help us track the cane toad invasion, and how they’re moving across Australia.”

Cane toad (Rhinella marina): A warty 10–15 cm toad, found across north and south America—and spreading out in Australia. “The cane toad has a constant trill that goes on and on… None of our native frogs sound like that.”


This article first appeared in Crinkling News. The frogs-in-the-toilet-block happened yesterday 🙂


Leave a comment

The power of try and fail: Inventing Artoo

Jon Carroll - Favourite

Jon with the BB-8 droid his team invented

Sometimes in life (and in writing) I can get hung up on trying to be perfect. On wanting something to be fabulous. On needing to be the best I can be, every time.

But what if I approached the whole process of creation differently?

In my new book, Zeroes and Ones: The geeks, heroes and hackers who changed history, I look at the people behind the tech innovations we take for granted today. And I discover that…surprise, surprise…success doesn’t always come easy. Inventions, solutions and stories don’t always arrive fully formed and perfect.

Many successful, creative people give themselves permission to fail. Why not give it a try?

Building Star Wars droids

For a Crinkling News story, I interviewed toy designer Jon Carroll, the creator of Star Wars droid toys such as BB-9E and R2D2, about how he approaches the job of creation.

Jon works as Director of Prototyping at Sphero, the company that created the new toy Star Wars droids, BB-9E and R2D2. His team also helped invent the toy BB-8, and Sphero, the roly-poly robot being used to teach coding in 2500 Australian schools.

“Prototyping is trying to build something that someone can play with and use and touch and feel as quickly as possible,” says Jon, who studied computer science.

“Our job is to fail or succeed as quickly as possible.”

Sometimes, when his team members discover that a toy or feature they’ve invented isn’t fun to play with, they can feel discouraged. But Jon says failure is part of the inventing journey.

“If we take a long time to fail, that’s a failure for us as a team. If we’ve failed fast, we’ve done our job.”

How does this translate to writing (and to life)?


Jon with some mad cats

Don’t be afraid of failure. Don’t be afraid to give something a go, but do it as quickly as you can. There’s no point spending ten years on a project only to discover it’s a dud.

Far better to work swiftly, get some feedback, take that feedback on board (a crucial, yet oft-forgotten step), then rework your project. Swiftly.

Try and fail. Write and rewrite. Take what makes your project sing and discard what’s holding it back.

Failure is part of the journey.

But it’s only one part.


PS: Want to be a toy inventor?

Jon regularly goes toy shopping, so he can understand what makes a toy fun to play with. “We play with a lot of toys at the office,” he says. “Right now, we have a huge Hot Wheels track set up.”

Although he spends his days inventing high-tech toys, Jon still enjoys playing games with his friends.

“There’ll always be a place for board games. Half of the fun of a board game or dominoes or cards is that face-to-face interaction that you get with someone.”

Parts of this post first appeared in my article in Crinkling News.