Follow your feet…


I like the idea of communicating science and ideas. It will forever be my fate to wander the wilderness of science, forever interested in something new.

And I don’t mind one little bit.

 I’ve finally finished my latest youtube video It features creepy crawlies in the backyard. For a few months now I’ve been missing in action. Why?, you may ask. It’s because I’ve been on the hunt, forever on the lookout for insects, worms, spiders and all manner of tiny nasties.

They’re really bloody interesting I have to say. Only a few days ago my wife and I decided to jump in the car and go for a long drive to anywhere. We ended up in Port Pirie; a lead smelting town several hours drive north of Adelaide, where I live. The drive was nice. The town is not so promising. 

BUT, we found this little scrap of mangrove encrusted beach in the centre of town..There I got some of the best footage I’ve ever taken. Native bees were out in force, and they were putting on a stellar performance…

I’m actually kind of proud of the above piece of video in particular. 

What this random trip taught me is that no matter what dump you end up in, there is always something that is worth seeing. I never even would have considered filming native bees, and yet there they were. They were beautiful to behold, they put on a fantastic show, and they weren’t afraid of being filmed. Most insects and arthropods are quite eager not to be seen. 

These natives are superficially similar to honeybees: an introduced species here in Australia. Their mode of flight is (to me) reminiscent of a hummingbird’s. They hover and dart back and forth with practiced agility. They possess a gleaming exoskeleton, replete with the typical black and gold. I’m not an entemologist, just an interested observer I might add. Creepy crawlies though have always been something I’ve enjoyed watching and learning about. Lectures and courses involving insects and other lower life forms always got my attention at university.

Mellitosphex burmensis, an ancestral bee, hailing from Cretaceous Burma

Melittosphex first appears in Cretaceous fossil records dating approximately 100 million years. As I mention in my video Melittosphex is somewhat a hybrid, an early fork in the road that led to bees, wasps and ants. 

M. burmensis probably pollinated plants as modern bees do, but it hadn’t evolved all of the requisite structures. The long and important co-evolution between bees and angiosperms was most likely a long way off..

What I love the most about finding new things like these bees is that if you take a good look your mind can take you back. All the way back to this hazy distant past. Learning for it’s own sake is special because it allows your mind to wander. 

Some of the best things in life are unplanned.

**Erratum** 10/10/2016

It turns out that the insect in the above video which I describe as a native bee is in fact NOT a bee at all, but a hoverfly! Known scientifically as Melangyna viridiceps, this little guy is common all over Australasia. It is actually known as the common hoverfly.

The adult common hoverfly feeds on pollen and nectar, as witnessed in the video. The distinctive colouration is reminiscent of a bee or wasp, and is a ploy to deceive would be predators.

What to do, what to do?


I am a science graduate, who for a multitude of genuine reasons never found meaningful work in the science sector. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean I can’t engage with and be part of the science community. I think communicating science is a lofty destiny, and I take my little forays into scicomm seriously. 

It turns out though that scicomm is more than just relaying data to the person on the street. Oh no, there’s a whole lot more to it than that. 

Mapping and our picture of the world has come a long way, and a dissemination of knowledge led to this.

Public misconceptions about science and the way scientists work are a major hurdle. Now, I will be completely upfront here. I do not work in the science sector. I studied and worked like a dog for an eon or two getting a nice big piece of paper that says I can do science. I am proud of this and can at least say that I climbed that mountain. 

One thing university did for me was to highlight the prevalence of a weird kind of prejudice (assumption?) about science and scientists. 

The process of discovering this assumption ran as thus. Studying science whilst a whole lot of fun, still required a little thing called PAYING BILLS. To this end I was working in a pizza shop owned by my brother in law. 

It was whilst working here that I discovered that the person on the street seems to think scientists know everything. Many times over the course of a night something requiring actual thinking would come up, and I would be met with the phrase; “you’re a scientist Ben. You work it out.” I kind of tired of this after awhile, and learnt that people fundamentally don’t understand how science works. They see it as something akin to a car: they don’t have to know what’s under the bonnet,  or how the damn thing works. It just has to serve them.

Does anyone know what I’m talking about here?

Removing this weird little blindspot people have is the first step in bringing science to the masses. We’re all surrounded every day by the achievements of science, but for the world to make meaningful progress it needs to understand those achievements, not take them for granted. 

Perhaps in this day and age we need to rediscover our respect for knowledge and wisdom more than ever.

Diving into an ocean


I first came upon the above quotation in the foreword to a textbook on oceanography one of my university teachers had written. Matthias Tomczek  was his name, and he looked just like Gandalf. In my humble opinion he was an example of a great teacher. Other teachers fell into this category with equal applomb. Dr Leigh Burgoyne : none other than the very same man to discover the structure of chromatin, was such a teacher.

These two men represented high points for me in my time at university. They didn’t cram my head full of numbers and facts. What they did was just talk. And I listened. I remember one lecture in particular,  where Dr Burgoyne spoke of the mindboggling string of cosmic and statistical coincidences that led to all of us sitting in that lecture theatre.

All I remember from that lecture was that afterwards when he’d stopped speaking… you could hear a pin drop. Imagined or not, I felt a hush had fallen over everyone as they were digesting some cosmic truth. I’ve read “Wonderful Life”. I understand the concept of contingency. But it was an amazing experience to hear similar ponderings from my own teacher.

Like stars in the universe, the coincidences that led to YOU are beyond count.

That hush is what great teachers bring. Whatever technique they use, they make you stop and think, even if just for a moment. Truth lies in the spaces between points in space and knowledge. Great teachers show this to us. There are loud teachers, quiet ones, rude ones. They can all be great.

Comet 67P and Rosetta: a tribute


Comet 67P Churyumov–Gerasimenko, or just plain 67P has been a bit of a superstar ever since the European Space Agency’s Rosetta Probe fell into orbit around it in August, 2014. 

On September 30, the probe will end two years of solid science with a programmed death dive into the head of the comet. This isn’t quite as dramatic as it sounds; 67P’s gravity is several hundred thousand times less than that of Earth. Rosetta will gently tumble at breakneck speeds of 90cm a second. In fact, on hitting 67P’s gnarly terrain Rosetta may bounce off, careening back into space for future space travellers to find and ponder over.

67P has seen it’s share of drama. On contact with the comet. Rosetta will join the Philae Lander, which unfortunately was given up for dead two days after landing. This was due to an awkward landing on the comet’s uneven surface which saw the lander wedged in a sunless crevasse. 

But Rosetta has actually been quite sucessful; both in terms of technical achievement and in new discoveries. In situ discovery of complex organic molecules further cements the possibility that comets may seed the universe with the precursors of life.

67P is believed to have originated in the Kuiper Belt, an ancient cloud of dust and matter hailing from the primordial Solar System. The significance of organic compounds on 67P (or any similar body for that matter is this: their presence may indicate that life precursors may have existed in the primordial cloud from which the Solar System formed.

This is exciting for astrobiologists no doubt, and we look forward to more sciencey goodness. In the context of near earth like planets being discovered all the time studying these findings may be important to humanity’s future among the stars. It’s been a fun ride, Rosetta, and every image, every discovery has shone a little more light on our universe.

Looking back


University was at once an excercise in hair tearing frustration and bliss. Was it worth it?

Graduation day, 2009.

In 2005, after a good sixteen or seventeen years in the workforce I decided that I’d had enough of (extremely) low paying jobs in the hospitality industry and I wanted to go to university. 

In a way I have C.S.I. to thank for this. The Las Vegas series of course. Gil Grissom was the man. After becoming hooked on this show I thought that forensics might make for an interesting career. 

I have no doubt in my mind that forensic science would be fascinating.  Not quite as action packed as Gil’s exploits perhaps- but still pretty interesting. Anyway, suffice to say, forensics only got me as far as application. The university I was applying for didn’t have much in the way of forensics courses.

So, I went for science. Since I could remember I’d always wanted to be a palaeontologist. I still own the very first dinosaur books I ever had. One was this big picture book with these really cool pictures in it.

The other was this chunky encyclopedia type thing I unofficially inherited from one of my uncles. I remember many hours lost in the prehistoric vistas depicted in those pages, as well as the diagrams of bones and skeletons. 

Anyway. Science. Dad was obsessed with knowledge and learning. While other kids were outside with their dads kicking footies Dad and I were having lengthy discussions about just about everything from archaeology to natural history to just about anything. Even religion. Dad’s mind never stopped moving for one second.

Dad. My first real teacher.

God I miss you dad. 
University was at once huge and scary and a massive leap into a great unknown. I majored in Biology and Earth sciences. Palaeontology is found at the intersect between these two vast areas and I still had dreams of ending up on a hillside somewhere pulling some new creature into the light.

Over time I gravitated towards microbiology and molecular biology as areas of interest. Biology in general. I could never settle on mathematics or chemistry and I didn’t even give physics a glance. The living world was it for me. 

The challenge of university was it’s own reward. I dove into study, and while I didn’t set the world on fire, I did pretty well. My Honours year was hard work. I was working three part time jobs and dealing with an extra complex family life, while at the same time squeezing in an Honours project. 

Was all this worth it? No long term career in the sciences. No career in education. What did I get out of it?

I’ll have to think about it.

Benjamin Roberts, B.Sc., (Honours), 2016

Schröedinger’s Memory


So. This is the first official foray by Ben’s Lab into “proper” blogdom. 

Welcome to you, Dear Reader. 

I’m sitting on a plane right now, waiting for it to take off. The engines are rumbling gently, somewhere in the innards of this metal beast, and I wait; with a little trepidation, for the damn thing to take off and hit the skies. 

Now we’re moving.  

It’s a slightly unnerving feeling. I’m not going to lie.

Flight mode. The phone I’m typing this blog post on has a little feature whereby the phone’s ability to send and receive radio/microwave signals is cut off.  This is apparently so it doesn’t accidentally interfere with the plane’s navigation systems.  
I know the nuts and bolts of the idea, and so am not going to dwell on it here. 
What does interest me though, is the concept itself. Flight mode.  
The plane just left the ground. I hate that part. 
Flight mode.  A period for around two hours (that’s for this flight) when I am utterly alone in the world. Think about it. We are so connected to everyone else via our little electronic gizmos that it’s akin to modern excommunication when we suddenly aren’t. 
It’s as though in that couple of hours we suddenly don’t exist. Of course we do, I realise that. The same collection of atoms and interacting systems that got up this morning is still here, furiously tapping away at this screen. 
But the signal connecting me to the world is gone.  I’ve been flicked off the grid for a little while. 

I’m flying through the sky, and the world doesn’t know quite where I am. Only others aboard this plane do. It’s a weird feeling. 
Schröedinger’s cat comes to mind. I think it’s on this plane with me somewhere. 

R.I.P. Jack. A cat whose connecting signal didn’t cut off for 19.5 years. He’s part of the seen/unseen now

I’m a person who likes to think about these things: and their place in the great scheme of things.