Monthly Archives: April 2015

The hot dirt on compost

By Su Wild-River

It’s well known that compost generates heat. Clever people even heat their houses, run cookstoves and cars off compost. Here’s a little look at a humble backyard compost system through the lense of a thermal imaging camera.

A thermal imaging camera is really a heat sensor, not a camera which shows what you see with your eyes. In these photos, the hottest areas are shown in white, and a rainbow spectrum going through red, to yellow, green and finally blue, show colder areas.

The photographs were taken on a cool autumn morning, with an ambient temperature around 14 degrees Celsius (about 57 Fahrenheit). The yellow glowing thing is a ‘compost dalek’, or plastic drum with air vents at the top, and compost inside.

Its interesting to see in the first pair of photos, that the water-filled pot at the front, and the two ceramic pieces behind are the coolest spots around. These are the high thermal mass areas of the photographs, and I was surprised at first to see that they were so cold, as I usually think of thermal mass as warm. Of course the main feature of thermal mass is not that it stays warm, but that it moderates temperature changes. Large thermal mass elements, like water tanks insulated slabs change temperature so slowly that they stay around the long-term average ambient temperature.

Compost by Kath McCann. Photos by Su Wild-River

Compost by Kath McCann. Photos by Su Wild-River

The outside of the compost dalek registers a temperature of around 16.5 degrees Celsius. It is much warmer than everything around it, and only the vents are colder.

Looking inside without turning the compost gives us a look at even higher temperatures. The hottest parts here are about 20 degrees Celsius. They are the deeper parts of the compost, so we dug a bit further.

Compost by Kath McCann, Photos by Su Wild-River

Compost by Kath McCann, Photos by Su Wild-River

Only an inch or so down, the hottest temperature was 26.4 degrees Celsius. This is more than 10 degrees above the background temperature.

Compost by Kath McCann, Photos by Su Wild-River

Compost by Kath McCann, Photos by Su Wild-River

Now this compost is owned by Kath McCann, a keen gardener, and a good composter, but not someone who is using the stuff to heat her house. It seems as if even humble compost could make enough heat to warm us up, if only we plan and use it wisely.

So there you go. Compost really is warm. How could you be using yours?

How to (Not) undermine yourself in one easy lesson

By Su Wild-River.

Today I started a new project with three first-time collaborators. It’s an exciting topic and I’m thrilled to be a part of it. Two team members are published experts in the field. The other directs a government program on it. I know quite a bit about other things that are broadly relevant.

I bring other areas of expertise.

When our first draft proposal didn’t make the grade, it was me who found the pathway between what the client wanted, and what we could deliver. When team members balked at a less interesting scope, I gave an upbeat reminder that it’s the client’s prerogative to choose what they pay for. I edited our proposal to ensure a focus on what they wanted. These interventions were key to us being hired to do the work.

Many times I was so out of my depth that I felt like I was reading a different language. At first I couldn’t discern if my partners proposed to measure, model or review parameters. I thought they had misunderstood key terms, but knew it was more likely my own error. I was flummoxed by the difference between spatial and categorical, historical and predicted factors. I knew none of the acronyms. But I kept on reading and redrafting until every paragraph told me a coherent story, repeatedly deleting my initial edits and replacing them with something sensible. With about eight hours work I became familiar with a whole new field of work.

The expertise I applied here is to be comfortable in the dark. I was instructed in this skill by my first year statistics lecturer and it is one of the most important things I have ever learned. It means moving beyond a fear of failure to embrace the unknown. It is learning to love the cramping terror in the pit of my stomach, which is the feeling of creativity. It demands a paced journey through discomfort while knowledge replaces ignorance.

I am grateful that in this project, I had time to move through this process alone at my own computer. By the time I actually met my team members I had some very good questions to ask. So good in fact, that when we met together with the client, I asked the first three questions. I brought some good new ideas which spurred animated discussion. And all this while still largely in the dark about at least half of what was being said.

I made only one major mistake. That was to start a sentence “So you must have noticed by now that I’m not the expert here, but I wonder…..”

This phrase was self-defeating and undermining. It positioned me as a pretender in others’ minds. In hindsight, I think I don’t think anyone had noticed that I was out of my depth until that moment, but in saying this I sowed a seed of doubt about my every contribution.

I started the sentence with an apology because I wasn’t sure if my question had been covered before. What should I have done instead? Not ask the question? Ask a simpler one instead? Ask it without the opening phrase? Any of these would have been better.

So what was my motivation for underselling myself? I think it was fear of having my cluelessness discovered, and a sense that it was safer to acknowledge it up front. But this is wrong on so many levels. My low-level specialist expertise has value so long as I am willing to fit in, learn, and help. Asking an obvious question can show the experts that part of their story is simply not clear. Naming the opacity gives my team the edge in communicating findings effectively. And all of that other related knowledge can help us to fit our project into other the bigger picture.

And for my next trick, I’ll try to remember these lessons the next time it counts.

How do you feel in the dark, and what do you do for a torch?

Photo by Tim McCann

Photo and artwork by Tim McCann

Why I love my wetsuit, or living in the second law of thermodynamics

By Su Wild-River

Snorkeling in an Australian South Coast Autumn can be a chilly business. But last weekend wasn’t so bad. Our best estimate for the water temperature was 18ºC, and so Tim, who has better underwater staying power than the rest of us, decided not to wear his wetsuit. Armed with my thermal imaging camera, I decided to see what difference a wetsuit makes.

A thermal imaging camera is really a heat sensor, not a camera which shows what you see with your eyes. In these photos, the hottest areas are shown in white, and a rainbow spectrum going through red, to yellow, green and finally blue, show colder areas. The photos are calibrated so that the same colour has the same temperature in each of the pictures.

First, I photographed Kath and Tim before they went into the water. Tim is on the left, without a wetsuit, and Kath on the right in her full body suit, or ‘steamer’. Bare skin is showing up hottest in these photos, and you can see it on both faces, hands and feet, but only on Tim’s arms and torso. The highest temperatures here are reading 31ºC. (You can’t see to the top of the scale in this picture because I have calibrated it lower, for consistency with the cold pictures below).

Wetsuits warm 2

Next, we all went snorkeling, and saw the most wonderful fish, sting-rays, crays and an octopus. After shivering for a while, we got out. The next photo shows Tim and Kath after they got out. Now they both look the same colour as one another all over, and are now thermally camouflaged with the ambient temperature of 16-18ºC.

Photo by Su Wild-River

But hang on, did the wetsuit keep Kath warm or not? In fact, Kath is showing up as cool as Tim because all of her heat is trapped underneath the wetsuit. But she was too cold to take it off and pose again. I had to do it myself.

I had been wearing a ‘spring suit’, which ends above the knees. Here’s the photo of my legs with the wetsuit on. Like Kath, the colours are similar to background, and the same both above and below my knees, ie, with and without the wetsuit.

Photo by Su Wild-River

But now the wetsuit comes off and suddenly you see some warm skin. Underneath my wetsuit, my skin maintained about 22ºC, which is closer to my healthy body temperature of about 36.5-37.5ºC.

 

Photo by Su Wild-River

What’s going on here?

Our bodies our demonstrating the second law of thermodynamics, which covers the conservation of energy. This states that heat (and other energy) moves from hot areas to cold areas. Our bare skin was uselessly transferring the heat within our bodies into the ocean, and in the process it was making us all cold. But the parts of us under the wetsuits weren’t transferring nearly as much heat, and so they stayed warmer. The outside of our wetsuits, and all of our skin that touched the water, ended up as cold as the ocean but the rest of us stayed a bit warmer. Our subcutaneous fat and skin were also insulating us against the elements, slowing the transfer of heat to the world and making our skin cooler than our blood, even before we went in the water.

Photo by Su Wild-River

How cold were we? Not cold enough for a brain freeze. But all of our toes and fingers were pretty chilly.

hot feet 10-32

It took over an hour for my feet to warm back up.

Adventures are great. But one of the pleasures is getting comfortable afterwards.

Photo by Su Wild-River

When we got back in the car, my fingers absolutely loved the heater vent.

How do you experience the second law?

 

Regeneration and Conservation Connections

This article was first published at: http://www.uppershoalhavenlandcare.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Autumn-2015-LP-for-web-publication.pdf

By Lesley Peden and Su Wild-River

At the recent Regen Festival, I delivered a workshop for the Upper Shoalhaven Landcare Council with Kristy Moyle from South East Local Land Services and Lesley Peden from Kosciuszko2Coast.

The workshop focus was connectivity conservation. This recognises the particular needs of different species for moving around within landscapes.  Animals like eagles, owls and kangaroos can readily move between disconnected, or thin patches of habitat, but most native species can’t.  Local threatened species like the Flame Robin, Golden-tipped bat, Green and Golden Bell Frog, Squirrel Glider, Long-nosed Potoroo, Smoky Mouse and Rosenberg’s Goanna, all need relatively in-tact vegetation to move about in the landscape. Disconnections within the Great Eastern Ranges can trap these species when fire, flood, drought or even a successful breeding season mean that individuals must move to survive.

During the workshop we discussed the ecological importance, and urgency of regeneration in the broad context of connectivity conservation. A key point is that the best conservation outcomes are achieved by being aware of the context and the different needs of the species using the landscape.

Food security and the vegetable decathlon

By Su Wild-River

This post was first published at http://nofunnybusiness.net/2014/03/food-security-and-the-vegetable-decathlon/

Scientists are tackling global food insecurity in a range of ways. They are researching crop narrowing, analysing hunger and health, connecting food risks to climate change, debating genetic engineering solutions and making a Doomsday Vault. As a scientist, I’m doing the heirloom vegetable decathlon.

Khoury et al’s recent paper on the “increasing homogeneity in global food supplies and the implications for food security” quantifies the global shift away from highly diverse food sources 50 years ago to a much smaller set of globally important, energy-dense foods now. The winners in the food supply race include wheat, rice, soybeans, palm and sunflower oil, potatoes and sugar and we rely ever more heavily on them. Wheat for example is now a key food in more than 97 % of countries. These narrow crop types have displaced coconut, cassava, sorghum, millet, rye and sweet potato and many more from traditional and national diets, being cheaper, easier to grow and quicker to prepare.

On the positive side, easy-to-grow, energy-dense foods have helped feed the world’s hungry people. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that total number of people who are not hungry increased from 4,370 million people in 1990-2 to 6,225 million in 2012.

Medical scientists are examining the risks. One risk is to our health. People who eat mainly energy-dense foods are at risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

Crop diseases and their solutions have attracted scientific research. The southern corn leaf corn blight of 1972 and the Irish potato famine of 1846 show that crops with limited genetic variability can be highly susceptible to new disease outbreaks. Agricultural scientists are warning that with billions of people now relying on fewer food crops, new disease outbreaks could make us hungry. Crop heterogeneity is a possible solution and works by maintaining a rich gene pool through strategic interbreeding of common crops with wild cultivars. Genetic engineers are also quick to offer solutions, and transgenic plants are being developed with resistance to viruses, fungi, bacteria and nematodes. But few commercial GM cultivars are available in the short-term, and ecologists caution that over time they may bring new threats such as superweeds and toxic pesticides. GM crops they say, are at best a contentious solution to food insecurity.

But in addition to problems identified by food and health scientists, broader issues are at stake. Climate change is widely understood as an emerging, serious threat to food security. The European heatwave in 2003 and American heatwave in 2012 both reduced crop production by up to 30 % and sent prices soaring. Scientists have considered whether extra carbon dioxide and warmth could have positive food production consequences, but in 2013-4 the International Panel on Climate Change reported that negative impacts have been more common.

A Doomsday Vault in the Arctic Circle is an engineering solution to avert the risks of narrowing crop diversity. The vault now holds more than 800,000 seed samples as an “ultimate insurance policy for the world’s food supply”.

I’m doing my bit for crop diversity too. Gardening after all, is cheaper than the psychological interventions needed to cope with hunger, and you get tomatoes. And as well as tomatoes, potatoes, corn and the other common crops I grow rarer treats like medlars, mizuna, okra, kale, rhubarb and Jerusalem artichokes. I save seeds too, and this has led me to favourheirloom plants to enjoy and maintain old cultivars that breed true.

And why is this the vegetable decathlon? Because I’m after the elusive first prize in the coveted “Group of Ten Vegetables” category at my local Braidwood Show. Second again this year.

How are you applying science in your kitchen and garden?

From the Sun to my Screens

By Su Wild-River

This post was first published at: http://nofunnybusiness.net/2013/12/from-the-sun-to-my-screens/

I recently completed a Massive On-Line Open Course (MOOC) called “Dynamic Earth” through the University of Toronto. And in case you are wondering whether science can be taught through MOOCs, consistent with the pedagogical analysis presented by MOOC providers, I’m giving you a glimpse into MOOC world here.

The course’s ‘peer reviewed assignment’ was a 300 word essay anonymously assessed by three other randomly selected students who have also received a marking rubric and examples of papers of varying quality that have already been graded by professors.

The topic for this assessment was to trace the likely path from the device on which we view MOOC study material, back to the original astronomical source of energy – ie some form of solar energy. Is this science? Is it science communication?

Here is my response to the assignment topic – from the Sun to my Screens

“Fossil fuels are an input to all of the devices that feed MOOC materials into my brain. Those devices include a computer at The Australian National University (ANU), a home computer, and iPad.

My computer at The Australian National University (ANU) and my home electricity system are connected to the Eastern Australian electricity grid (EAEG), which sources mostly coal-fired electricity. The coal is burned to release heat which boils water to turn turbines and generate electricity, which is then transported through the grid to my computer. The coal issourced from plants that grew 200-300 million years ago and used solar energy for photosynthesis, converting carbon dioxide to cellulose. They then compressed into coal due to overlying sedimentation in a process fuelled by solar driven wind and water systems. Burning coal for electricity is inefficient and releases terrestrial carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere, unbalancing the earth’s dynamic atmospheric system and causing dangerous global warming.

My devices are also powered by a small amount of hydroelectricity and wind energy with fewer damaging impacts. The wind occurs because the sun warms the Earth’s surface, particularly at the equator. The Earth’s rotation and Coriolis Effect drive a pattern of wind across the world. Rain captured in the Snowy Mountains hydroelectric scheme falls there because low pressure systems are blown across Australia by Southern Hemisphere Westerlies. Water evaporates from the Southern and Pacific oceans and is uplifted in the low pressure systems, cooling and causing precipitation as the lows spiral clockwise across the Snowy Mountain Range. The rain is stored in dams high in the landscape, and then released under gravitational pressure to turn turbines that generate hydroelectricity. The Westerly winds also power turbines within the EAEG, generating electricity from wind.

At home I use a desktop computer, and charge my iPad to access this MOOC. Most of that energy comes from a solar array on my roof. Solar electricity is a more sustainable alternative to coal-fired power because it uses solar radiation directly from the sun, and there is no additional atmospheric pollution once the systems are installed.

I also use by brain to access this MOOC. The final energy pathway is the food I eat to power my brain and body. I grow about a quarter of my own food, mostly using the glycogen and glucose produced in my body by my digestion of that same food as the power source. The other half of my food is shop-bought, and I try to keep the food miles and other fossil fuel energy inputs down by buying fresh and local, with minimal packaging. The plants that I eat use photosynthesis to transform sunlight, nutrients and water into delicious cellulose. My brain is digesting the course material, and instructing me to work at home, using my solar energy systems.”

I received 26 out of 27 from my peer reviewers – so I was pretty happy with that. I also received the comment “You’re not a student, are you? That is the best and most extraordinary answer I have read so far. Thank you and God bless!” which I found rather enchanting.

I was however, somewhat disturbed when it came to my training in how to mark others’ assignments. I was given three assignments to mark as a test run – to calibrate my marks with those of the professors. The first one received 8/9 from me, but only 3/9 from the professors. The MOOC program instructed me to review the rubric. The second was better. I gave it 3, and they gave it 2 but I was still asked to review the rubric. I thought the third example was logically flawed and gave it 2, while the professors gave it 9. The next screen congratulated me on completing my training and started directing me to mark others’ work.

I enjoyed the marking process although I was nervous about the quality of my marking. I marked one from a remote area of Russia, and was fascinated to read about the landscape, isolation and its impacts on energy opportunities, with nuclear and coal seeming the only realistic options. It reinforced the message that those of us with green-energy leanings in Australia parrot out all the time – there’s so much energy here that we have no real excuse to burn all of this coal.

What energy are you using to access this blog, and what are the alternative pathways from the sun to your screen?energy-transformations1-300x174

Writing plain English science into legislation; or Compost Eats Methane

By Su Wild-River

This post was first published at: http://nofunnybusiness.net/2013/12/writing-plain-english-science-into-legislation-or-compost-eats-methane/

Both legislators and scientists can struggle to communicate our work effectively in plain English. How much harder is it when we try to encapsulate science in a law? I’m facing this challenge at the moment, drafting a Carbon Farming Initiative methodology which if accepted, will form a regulation under the Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) Act 2011.

The Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI) was introduced by Australia’s previous Labor Government, and is one element of Australia’s climate change mitigation framework that issupported by the current Coalition government. The program allows farmers and land managers to earn carbon credits for reducing or avoiding greenhouse gas emissions. CFI methodologies establish the rules for calculating credits confirming that they are genuine, permanent and additional to business as usual. To achieve this, the methodologies must beclear, unambiguous, complete and precise.

The methodology I’m working on is called Passive Landfill Gas Drainage and Biofiltration. In plain English, this means putting compost on landfills, because compost eats methane.

This methodology is in part a eulogy to much-loved environmental professional Mark Ricketts who died suddenly in 2011. Shortly before his death, Mark was advising me and my students on a project to estimate the carbon emissions and reductions from landfills when he told me to consider compost, and then earned giggles with stories of the insatiable hunger of compost greeblies and the yumminess of smelly gas.

I had previously worked alongside Mark while he was drafting the Queensland Environmental Protection Act 1994. I watched his optimistic daily trips to the parliamentary draftsman and his exasperated return to our office as he tirelessly negotiated for each sentence to be as simple and readable as possible. The result of his work is a plain English law that encapsulates the precautionary principle, ecologically sustainable development and other complex concepts based in science.

Drawing inspiration from Mark, my team’s CFI proposal was to design a simple, practical method which used robust science, while being easily understood by the hundreds of operators of small local landfills across Australia. Many of these good folk lack the time and capacity to read complicated laws, engineering equations or to establish scientific procedures for their monitoring and evaluation. But they can pick a winner and follow procedures.

Our methodology needs to be consistent with all related national and international methods, so I have read and reviewed hundreds of scientific papers on compost and landfills and the calculation of carbon emission reductions. Most emission reduction methodologies explain themselves through symbols and equations with the most relevant one having five solid pages of such equations, interspersed by just a few sentences for those of us without maths as a first language (pp2-6). Here’s an example:

Excerpt from CDMIIIAX

In contrast, our equations look like this:

 Net greenhouse gas abatement = quantity of methane that is oxidised by the biofilter – baseline emissions – project emissions.

Other strategies for keeping it simple include minimising the number of measurements and using simple, cheap and readily available equipment.

So far progress is good, and our focus on practicality and clarity is well received by the government and stakeholders alike. It was hugely satisfying when the non-technical member of our Technical Working Group smiled saying he found our draft methodology very readable.

Assuming the methodology gets approved, the next step will be to find project proponents. Unfortunately, this step is less likely to succeed. Australia’s initial carbon credit value of $23 per tonne meant that projects could have pay-backs in under seven years, and reap annual profits thereafter. A direct action approach delivering a carbon price of – say $8 would take over 50 years to pay back. The most likely outlook is an elegant methodology that will fail to feed any compost.

Am I the only one disappointed?

Science and the MOOC

By Su Wild-River

This post was first published at http://nofunnybusiness.net/2013/12/science-and-the-mooc/

Have you heard of the new Massive On-line Open Courses that are both exciting and terrifying universities around the world? Heralded as a fundamental challenge to the university education system, these courses are being offered free by some of the world’s best teachers from leading universities.

Yes that’s right – you can get a certificate from Harvard, Yale, MIT, Stanford and hundreds of other universities without paying a cent or leaving your desk.

MOOCs are available to anyone with an email address and password. Some courses offer a verification option with a small fee and an identity check each time you submit work. I took a verified ‘Signature Track’ course with Coursera, registering by using my computer’s camera to photograph my driver’s licence, my face, and by typing a short phrase. Then each time I submitted work, I again photographed my face and typed the same phrase to verify it was still me. The programming was excellent, so this was all very simple and quick.

Coursera is the world’s biggest MOOC provider. EdX is another big, high-profile MOOC with many prestigious partner universities. Udacity is also noteworthy, since it first popularised MOOCs. The graphs here show the recent growth for these three. Other MOOC providers are also on the rise, including CourseSites, Open2Study, Stanford Online, and Allversity.

I’m interested in this pedagogical revolution, and so I completed four MOOCs from four universities and three providers during the last three months. These included:

  • Networked Life, University of Pennsylvania, Coursera.
  • What a Plant Knows, Tel Aviv University, Signature Track, Coursera.
  • Our Energetic Earth, University of Toronto, EdEx.
  • Charles Darwin, Evolution and Tropical Australia, Charles Darwin University, CourseSites.

Overall I learned that studying MOOCs is fun. They are berries of education. Exciting, enticing and moreish with quick rewards and no calories.

Most course structures are simple, and forums suggest we like it that way. A generic pattern is three 10-minute lectures, 10-question tests, and readings, each week over the 4-12 week life of the course. Sometimes there are ‘peer reviewed’ assignments, where you mark others’ work and they mark yours. Sometimes there are final exams, and some MOOCs have webinars.

Classes are obviously much bigger, but drop-outs also proportionally higher than in traditional courses. About 10% of the 32,000 enrolled in one I took received a final certificate, and 2% met the 95% distinction level.

Can you learn science this way? The big MOOC providers quote research showing that on-line learning methods are about as good as face-to-face. I’ve been impressed with the quality of science teaching which has covered research methods, failed and successful experiments, flawed and quality hypotheses, and truly significant discoveries. We were asked to do simple, safe experiments and students discussed their results in the forums. I’d say yes – science can be learned through MOOCs.

Many students take MOOCs for the lifelong learning. I also like the certificate even though on the non-verified option the disclaimer is longer than the acknowledgement. They don’t affirm that I was enrolled, confer a grade, credit or degree, and don’t claim to know who I am. The verified version is far more confident that I am who I claim to be.

And finally, what do MOOCs mean for traditional university education? I think MOOCs can be powerful advertisements for universities, showcasing great teachers and courses. I think they can have a role in filtering students into the degrees that best match their interests. And MOOCs simply don’t offer small-class interactions that for many alumni seem to lead to life-long friendships and close professional networks. But MOOCs do seem like a threat to boring lectures and restrictive pedagogical options. And as MOOC providers continue expanding, and begin offering degrees, universities will need to move quickly and creatively or they may well lose their dominance in higher education.

Curious? Check out the offerings and have a go. It turns out I love MOOCs and I continue to enrol. Tell me what you are taking and I’ll look for you in the forums.

Comparing Providers

Between the detail and the deep blue sea: Optimising formal and informal science education

By Su Wild-River

This post was first published at http://nofunnybusiness.net/2013/09/between-the-detail-and-the-deep-blue-sea-optimising-formal-and-informal-science-education-2/

Five percent of our lives are spent in classrooms. Most of our science is learned in the real world. What are the implications for best practice science education?

Australia’s formal science education system is the subject of much current debate. Gonski famously reported recent declines in Australia’s educational outcomes, and after much capitulation, the incoming Coalition Government has committed to continuing the Gonski reforms. The new government also seeks world’s best practice teaching, and particularimprovements to the science taught in primary schools. But they also controversially lack a science ministry, and won’t be extending NAPLAN to science.

My daughter recently started high school and I wonder how much of the detail under the science education microscope will make it through to her beakers and Bunsen burners. I suspect not much. So I’m glad to know that informal science education (ISE) will have at least as much influence as her class time.

ISE is the learning you get from everyday settings and family activities as well as museums, zoos, aquariums, parks and structured activities outside of schools. There is a growing and vibrant body of evidence showing that ISE cultivates interest and understanding in science, and other disciplines that are losing ground in universities.

Perhaps the real question is not how to improve classroom teaching, but how to optimise its relationship with ISE.

It seems to me that ISE is ideal for stimulating the desire to learn, for generating questions and creating excitement. So when my daughter asks “why is the sea blue” she likes to hear that “its mostly water, which is blue in large quantities”. Then she’ll ask “why?” So I need to be ready with “water filters out the red light from the sky”. Being curious, she’ll ask why the sky is blue, and I’ll tell her that molecules in the air scatter blue light from the sun more than red light. All of this will lead to questions about the nature of light and molecules and so on.

This is where the benefits of a formal scientific education are clear. My ability to answer children’s questions, and indeed, my experience of the real world are vastly enhanced by the science I learned at school. The periodic table, photosynthesis, genetics and geomorphology all rank with the most exciting concepts I’ve ever learned, and I see them in action in the world all the time. Classroom teaching helped me to grasp the basic building blocks that became interesting through ISE. The combination of informal and formal learning ideally synchronises natural curiosity with substantive knowledge.

The costs of scientific illiteracy are also obvious. Scientists know that our method investigates phenomena empirically and acquires new knowledge by extending, correcting and integrating previous conclusions. So for instance, an IPCC report that anthropogenic climate change is increasingly certain, even while atmospheric warming is slower than was previously thought is the embodiment of good science as well as a reinforcement of the call for emission mitigation. But lacking a basic understanding of the scientific method, denialists mistakenly see such reports as proof that global warming is a lot of hot air, and fuel for their business-as-usual fire.

How do your curiosity and knowledge work together?

Fighting the Waspocalypse

dead wasps

Wasp nest plugged with petrol-soaked rag, displaying dead wasps on the doorstep. Intervention plus 1 night. Photo by Su Wild-River

By Su Wild-River

A version of this story was first published at http://www.braidwoodtimes.com.au/story/3009887/fighting-the-waspocalypse/

My home town is under attack. Yellow-and-black striped European Wasps are zooming around our district, hanging around food and chasing us indoors. Thankfully I haven’t been on their pointy end, although my son has twice. Individual wasps can sting several times, each time worse than a bee. They can also swarm and deliver many stings at once.

The wasps are attracted to sweet food and meat, so cleaning up and sealing rubbish will discourage them. The wasps will fly straight from their food to a nest, making the nests fairly easy to find.

Nests are usually small holes in the ground, about 4-8cm wide. Nests can house up to 100,000 individuals which stream in and out all day.  Stay well back because if a nest is threatened, the wasps release a chemical which triggers the colony to attack the threat.

Maybe it was the moist summer, and perhaps the great apple season which has left fruit rotting around the trees. Whatever the reason, there are more of these wasps now than in the past.  The local pest controller says he previously only had 1-2 call-outs for nest removals in a year, but he’s getting 3-4 a week at the moment. One of our local rural supply shops got 5 cans of wasp spray in last Friday and sold out in a single day.

The pest controller says we need to keep on the lookout for nests. If we find one, the best and safest option is to find the local pest controller in the Community Directory and arrange for him to destroy the nest. Autumn is a critical time since now the queens and laying eggs for the next generation of queens. Every nest we kill now could reduce the problem significantly for next year.

The Museum of Victoria publishes tips for “Do it yourself European wasp extermination”, and like me, takes no responsibility for injuries incurred using the information. But I’ve destroyed some nests, and talked to many others around town who have done it too, so here’s what I’ve learned.

* Don’t risk it if you are allergic to wasp stings,

* Make sure someone knows where you are and what you are doing.

 * Treat the nest at night when activity is low,

* Wear loose clothes and fully cover your body, head, eyes etc,

* Put red cellophane over a torch, because they can’t see red light, and don’t alert them by shining it right at the hole,

Locals are having success with several different treatments. The pest controllers are licensed to use a high strength powder which will knock out a nest in one go. Other premethrin, propoxur or carbaryl dusts are available, although not in Braidwood. Both local rural suppliers carry propellant cans of wasp killer. Petrol is another option, and though the experts advice is that it doesn’t work well, it did the trick on my nests. Either pour 1.5L down a nest on two consecutive nights, or soak a rag in petrol and plug the hole with it. The fumes kill the wasps, so don’t light the petrol. Check treated nests in the following days, and be prepared to retreat to finish the job.

The Department of Primary Industries in my home state of New South Wales also has a fact sheet with useful information.

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