Studying Hard at Hogwarts: The Effectiveness of using Harry Potter to Educate about Science

Introduction

Since its inception in the late 1980’s, the field of science communication has focused  on understanding the complex relationship between the public and scientific researchers, and developing methods of communicating scientific concepts to the wider public with the goal of encouraging open and informed public discussions about science and its role in society (Bauer, Allum & Miller 2007). Science communication can be defined as “the processes by which the culture and knowledge of science are absorbed into the culture of the wider community” (Bryant in Burns, O’Connor & Stocklmayer 2003, p. 191). The main issue with encouraging public understanding and interest in science is the difficulty (that every science communicator faces) in explaining complicated and jargon-filled concepts to a public that has little or no scientific experience and understanding. The goal of science communicators is therefore to promote the “understanding of scientific matters by non-experts [including an] understanding of the nature of scientific methods . . . [and an] awareness of current scientific advances and their implications” (Burns, O’Connor & Stocklmayer 2003, p. 181; Bauer, Allum & Miller 2007).

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The transfer and retention of information by the public through medical dramas and crime shows on television.

Ever since television has been around, it has become increasingly popular in the public’s everyday life. We look to it as an entertainment source through fictional stories and an information source through documentaries and game shows. However, researchers are becoming increasingly interested in the idea that fictional stories can also be an avenue through which the public retains information, particularly medical dramas and crime shows. With the increase of popularity in these types of programs, the idea is becoming a more important one that may need to be addressed. Medical dramas were a hit from the very first episodes (Davin, 2003). Grey’s Anatomy is about 5 medical interns and their personal and professional journeys at a fictional hospital, Seattle Grace. House M.D. is based on a male doctor who has undergone some medical issues himself and follows his lack of moral and ethical values when it comes to diagnosing patients. He has a general mistrust in human beings and will do whatever he has to treat his patient. From 2006 -2007, these two shows ranked 7th and 9th respectively in the top primetime television shows (Czarney et al., 2008). Looking at these results and more, it can be seen how popular medical dramas are becoming. With both types of shows, medical and criminal, the increasing popularity has led to the increase in similar shows being aired. CSI, one of the most well known and most watched criminal dramas on television first aired on CBS in 2000 (Brewer & Ley, 2010). The show is about a team of forensic scientists that use DNA evidence to solve crimes. During its 9th season, it was the 2nd highest rated show on television. The enormous initial popularity led to two spin-off shows, CSI: Miami, which premiered in 2002 and CSI: New York, first shown in 2004. CBS has also released a number of other crime shows including, Without a Trace (2002), NCIS (2003) and Cold Case (2003). Other networks have jumped on this bandwagon, such as FOX debuting Bones in 2005 (Brewer & Ley, 2010). With an increase in the number of medical and criminal dramas currently on television and the enormous popularity of these shows, it has been wondered whether the public gather information from this particular source, if they retain it and the effect it may have on everyday life.

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Battlestar Galactica versus Star Trek Voyager: a curious case of public demand

Crew of Battlestar Galactica (left) versus crew of Star Trek Voyager (left).

Crew of Battlestar Galactica (left) versus crew of Star Trek Voyager (right).

Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek Voyager are painted on two galactic canvases of seemingly parallel universes. This makes for a compelling comparison between storylines because, inevitably, the two shows get juxtaposed against each other. Both series are popular by science fiction standards, together they unite in their endeavour to find Earth. The polarizing characters and sordid settings of Galactica are vastly different to the scrubbed world and refined logicians of Voyager. Nevertheless, the verdict is in; most fan rating sites appraise Galactica to best Voyager – in fact Galactica usually ranks number one for overall sci-fi series. Why is this so? This essay aims to distinguish the uniqueness of the two shows, to point out the differences and similarities in the representations of science and scientists, and finally to fathom and comprehend the unanimous ranking.

The first point to note is that few scholars have reflected on these two specific TV series although many have analysed them individually. Buzan (2010), one of the exceptions, compared the two series as allegories for different US approaches to foreign relations. Voyager is assessed as depicting an optimistic or utopian vision of the United Nations at the interplanetary scale, whereas Galactica is pessimistic reflecting post-911 attitudes of the US government.  The second point is that previous analyses of Voyager comment on the portrayals of future science and technology noting its positivist and optimistic ideology (Geraghty 2003; Epsicokhan 1997), whereas previous commentaries on Galactica have focused on religion (Neumann 2012), politics (Milford 2012) or, most commonly, issues of race and gender (Tranter 2007; Hellstrand 2011; Koistinen 2011; Kustritz 2012).

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Don’t let illness keep you down↓ It’s time to get those steps up↑

caminando_-_walking_-_en_suiza_-_13082006006

[Stand Up to illness↑]

          If you don’t already know, part of our motto here at Stand Up to illness↑ is to figure out the best way of taking a more active approach in fighting illness. This isn’t about letting cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure or even depression win. Instead, Stand Up to illness↑ is about taking the reigns on your own life in order to get to where you want to be. If you’re not already on board, it’s time to be. We don’t have time to wait around, especially considering what I’m about to tell you.

For all those wanting to make a change in their life, join us as we ahead off to Hong Kong to make note of an observation that I think will interest all of you. Why Hong Kong you may ask? Research suggests the majority of people in Hong Kong fail to meet universal recommendations for the amount of exercise we should be doing each week. If you’re not convinced with where I’m going with this, hold on, I’ll make it worth your while. Here’s the interesting bit.

Exercise improves Health

          To make this connection a group of scientists got together to figure out what type of walking (yes walking! no running involved!) would best help us combat health problems and keep us the healthiest. This was observed by giving members of families in Hong Kong (non-exercisers) either with or without existing health problems a walking measurement device and telling them to go about their daily lives.

What the scientists looked to compare:

  • The number of steps taken while walking at a steady pace
  • The number of steps taken while walking at a fast pace
  • The total time spent walking

What did they observe?

  • Steady Pace = Family members who took lots of steps tended to be healthier then family members who took fewer steps
  • Fast pace = more steps, yet not practical for people with health issues
  • The total time spent walking was insignificant
    - Healthy or less so, the family members were able to walk for
    the same total amount of time

 What does this mean?

          One of the best ways of taking a more active approach in fighting illness is to exercise. The best way for those who don’t typically exercise to get active is to build on the number of steps taken when walking.

So lets do it together!

          Our top priorities here at Stand Up to illness↑ are to promote health and community. We are here for you. We are serious about this and we urge you to join us if you are too. We don’t make excuses. Rather the Hong Kong study was an example of how we can implement change in our lifestyles to benefit our health.

 So join us in time for our Stand Up to illness↑ awareness walk in September!

 What are you waiting for?!

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Is it possible to have a healthy tan?

It is almost impossible to miss the public health warnings about sun exposure and tanning. The recent ‘darker side of tanning’ campaign has been hard to avoid. However there are other voices and some people still talk about having a healthy tan (to avoid burning). Even popular health figures like ‘Dr Oz’ give out mixed messages.

On the one hand, according to SunSmart Victoria “at least two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the age of 70″ , on the other the tanned look is still popular. It is easy to see the motivation behind public health messages that try to reduce skin cancer but is all tanning really bad?

Perhaps it should not be surprising that new research suggests that, yes, it really is. This research is, perhaps, a little more interesting than it seems at first glance as it goes a bit further than just saying ‘tanning is bad’ (which we’ve heard before) but describes how tanning causes skin cancers. In particular it shows that there are two pathways by which ultraviolet light causes skin cancers.

Ultraviolet B, responsible for sunburn, is well known to cause skin cancer later in life.  Ultraviolet A, however, while known to cause ageing in skin has been a bit more mysterious. This research shows that ultraviolet A is, indeed, damaging but only in tanned skin. So untanned skin is safe from ultraviolet A (though not ultraviolet B) but tanned skin is vulnerable to both.

Well how do they know that? The research, done in the United States and funded by the National Institutes of Health, used mice that had been genetically modified to be vulnerable to melanoma and to have skin cells more similar to human skin than normal mice. They exposed young mice to different kinds of ultraviolet light (just ultraviolet A, ultraviolet B, both or none). When the mice were older they compared the rates at which they developed melanoma. They found that while ultraviolet B was far more carcinogenic than ultraviolet A that ultraviolet A was still dangerous when the skin had been tanned.

The doses of ultraviolet used were modelled on the ratios of ultraviolet light in sunlight and are also similar to the amounts of ultraviolet A that you might get in 6-12 minutes in a tanning bed.

So is tanning safe? No. To some extent we already knew that but this researches provides a new perspective on how dangerous it can be.

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“Sleeping Beauty” Awakens New Possibilities in Genetic Modification

Development of a technique used on pig zygotes (unborn pigs) has led to making the crazy possibilities of genetic modification an actual possibility. ‘Sleeping Beauty’ has now opened the door of modelling human genes and diseases, as well as preventing and curing them, and even the possibility of transplanting parts of animals into humans!

The Experiment

Scientists in Germany have developed a technique called the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ transposon, which uses modified pig chromosomes to change the DNA of pig zygotes (very small unborn pigs, only a couple of cells big). The experiment only changed the pigs so they glowed in the dark (kind of- they produced a dye that glows when UV light is shone on them), but the implications are HUGE!

The Implications

If this technique were to be perfected and used on humans, there are some advantages to using this for gene therapy. It is an infection-free way to treat or prevent various diseases through this technique, and for life.

Why Pigs?

Pigs are used to model human bodies as they are actually quite similar when it comes to their gene makeup. Pigs are usually used experimentally to techniques that could one day be used on humans, especially when testing on humans is too unethical and/or dangerous at this level of initial testing. We can’t have genetically modified superheros walking around, can we?

What Does This Mean for Genetic Modification?

Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean that we will all be soon genetically changed to be different. Firstly, this technique will need to be further developed to even be considered to be used on humans. However, this could be used in the future to better model human genetic diseases, with the possibility of prevention. Also, if developed in a certain way, “Sleeping Beauty” could be used to produce animals with organs that could be transplanted into humans, relieving the pressures of organ donation.images

Secondly, there is still a lot of opposition against genetically modifying both animals and humans, as well as xenotransplantation (transplanting animal organs into humans). Despite this, scientists and experts state that when further developed, genetic engineering will be safer than current methods of treatment, as well as increasing people’s chances of survival when needing a transplant, because geneticists will be able to produce organs specifically designed for each patient, dramatically reducing the chance of organ rejection (where the body actively rejects the transplanted organ).

Finally, the cost of genetic modification experimentation is still very high, making it almost impossible for humans to get this therapy for at least a decade.

Regardless, this is still a great advancement for the development of the possibility of genetic engineering.

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Not Using Your Rainwater? That’s A ‘Pour’ Choice!

A way to save money and the environment, sounds difficult doesn’t it?  The two concepts are rarely connected. However a recent study has proved that it is possible to achieve both financial savings and environmental sustainability.

Photography: RadialHQ

Photography: RadialHQ

Water is arguably the most important resource in the world. Surely, this highlights need to secure our water supplies. With a growing population, such as that seen in Sydney, the relatively simple theory of preserving our societies water supplies and limiting individual usage is made much more difficult to implement and control.

Personally, I believe fresh potable water should only be used for drinking. Why do we waste such a precious limited resource on our gardens and for washing our cars? Surely recycled rainwater could be used for these activities?

A recent study in 2011 from the science journal ‘Resources, Conservation & Recycling’ analysed the ‘Water savings, Reliability and Economic Benefits‘ of rainwater capturing and re-use.

Rainwater Harvesting System Diagram  (Source: HouseBuildingAustralia)

Rainwater Harvesting System Diagram
(Source: HouseBuildingAustralia)

Rainwater can be captured and stored in rainwater tanks, with this process known as a rainwater harvesting system (RWHS). Rainwater can be captured from the roof of your house and stored in a rainwater tank. The tank’s outlet pipe can then divert rainwater to many household devices such as toilets, washing machines and can even be used throughout your garden.

 

 

Having studied and advocated such vital global issues for a number of years, this system is one you want to have installed in your home!

I’ve found that many individuals oppose sustainable environmental practices because they misunderstand the scarcity of water, its importance within society and the urgency required to address the problems. This leads to a belief that our water supply is secure and its management is unnecessary.

I strongly disagree. I believe our water supply does need to be managed for a secure water supply in the future. However to those who aren’t convinced, why not install a RWHS for personal economic benefit?

The benefits of a RWHS are not only restricted to the environment. Personal financial savings are a significant incentive for people to install these systems. Current NSW Government rebates for installing a Rainwater Harvesting System range from $100 to $500, depending on the size of the water tank, with an extra $500 if all toilets are connected to the system and a further $500 if your washing machine is connected to the system. Further financial savings will be observed through a smaller water bill, due to your reduced use of mains water.

Water is one of the most valuable resources in life and pressure is slowly being placed on our water catchments. Capturing, storing and re-using rainwater which falls on your property is a cheap, reliable and simple method to minimising your water bill and increasing your families, and your own, sustainability.

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Mutants should share the Genetic Research.

Genetic research is a field that is shrouded with misconceptions and emotion. From cloning and mutants, to designer babies, there is a lot that can be done with genetics and that’s not only scary, but unnerving. On the other hand there is a lot of good to come from it and this has the potential to override the exaggerated downsides.

So what can genetic research bring to the table and what does this hold for us in the future? In short: a lot. But it can be more confusing than not.

Although not as trivial and futuristic, recent research has discovered that it is possible to determine the full genetic sequence of an unborn child at 18 weeks, non-invasively. This new method, which involves knowing the genetic sequence of the mother and father, allows the DNA from the unborn child that is present in small quantities in the mothers’ blood to be determined and then sequenced.

So what does this actually mean?

First of all, we get half of our genes from our mother, and the other half from our father. This means that we can predict the probability of a child having a genetic disorder if we know what recessive and dominant genes the parents carry. But it’s not as simple as that. There are so many possible combinations of genes that it can not be predicted that easily. That’s why genetic testing now exists. So using our knowledge of the DNA of the parents, paired with a genetic blood test, the genetic sequence of the unborn child can be accurately determined as early as 18 weeks. Simple!

What does it offer us as parents, or one day parents to be?

This new method not only provides women with a safer method of testing for heritable genetic disease but also a means to identify and locate mutations if they have occurred. We have testing in the form of amniocentesis but it’s old and outdated with increased risk of miscarriage involved with the process. It is therefore only offered to women who fall into the category of high-risk pregnancies, such as women over the age of thirty. This method when used clinically would be able to be used for all pregnancies and with research still being undertaken on this method, it may be possible to determine the genetic sequence as early as 8 weeks into the pregnancy.

It’s by no means genetic modification and the babies won’t be designed. It’s a simple blood sample that is tested to tell us about the unborn child with a greater degree of accuracy with almost no risk.

What’s not great about that?

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Gold Fever: Its perception by Australians and possible solution to this perception.

When did looking for gold become a potentially illegal act? When did looking for the shiny metal become an unfeasible journey of jumping through bureaucratic hoops..?

Once the backbone of many Australian towns, gold is now considered by most as only a commodity for big mining companies. The amateur prospector is now shrugged off as a hopeless treasure-hunter, potentially even one who does great damage to the environment!

Is this assumption true? Let’s ask the government.

Photo of gold for sale on KJC.

Photo of gold for sale on KJC.

Recently state governments including Victoria and New South Wales began investigating whether to allow prospectors access to national parks. That’s right – the poor, amateur prospector hasn’t been allowed to look for gold wherever he or she chooses since about a hundred years ago!

Furthermore, in Canberra prospecting for gold is just outright illegal. Nobody is allowed to look for the natural element within the ACT.

So, why? Well, as is the case with many hobbies, a few rotten apples spoil the teacake.

The most common methods of amateur prospecting are with a gold pan or a sluice. The material going into the pan and/or sluice is pulled from the ground and scanned intently with care. So, (the theory has long been) if you can dig where nobody else has dug, you might find something nobody else has!

The problems arise when some holes are not filled in afterwards, and in extreme cases, rivers are even being diverted from their original course.

Yes, this may be damaging to the environment, and may warrant a reason to disallow prospector’s access to national parks. However recent research by Australian scientists could hold the key to a prospecting method to find larger amounts of gold that is seemingly environment friendly.

This short video will explain: http://youtu.be/MD35TTjWUfM

Maybe the answer to prospecting in national parks isn’t as black and white as most make it out to be. Instead of an outright “No” or “Nein” from state governments to prospect in national parks, shouldn’t it be about how the prospecting is being performed?

Photo by S. F. Cox. ANU.

Gold-bearing quartz vein! Photo by S. F. Cox, ANU.

If someone chooses to stroll through a national park with a metal detector looking for auriferous quartz veins, is that damaging to the environment? No! If someone stumbles over a mother lode in the ACT, shouldn’t they be entitled to take some home or tell someone without fear of retribution?

With more knowledge about how to prospect, and more environmentally friendly methods to do so, prospecting should be returned to its heritage status as a national pastime. With the mining boom beginning to slide, it would only take one new gold deposit to potentially boost the Australian economy back to the heights of a few years ago!

So, fellow prospectors, please consider looking for the larger quantities of gold that reside in quartz veins, and in doing so, you will help the image of Australian “treasure hunters” and even increase the chances that we will one day be allowed back into national parks. Or possibly even Canberra!

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The Hulk of all Biofuels: How Marine Algae could save the World

hulk25

Image from http://www.allposters.com.au/-sp/Marvel-Comics-Retro-The-Incredible-Hulk-Comic-Panel-aged-posters_i6353641_.htm

What do the Hulk and marine algae have in common? You may think this is a set up for an excruciatingly bad joke but you would be wrong, these two things actually have more in common that you might think. Both are green, have limitless sources of energy and have the potential to save the world. Marine algae could just be the future of alternative fuel.

The world around us is changing. More than ever before global warming is apparent and we need to do something about it. The creation of alternative fuels, meaning fuels not derived from crude oil, including bioethanol is one example of the way science is looking for solutions. To produce bioethanol sugars must be sourced from living things and reacted with a type of bacteria. Seems easy enough? But finding a suitable sugar source that is ethical, efficient and economically viable has proved a serious challenge. In 2011 scientists at Sogang University in Seoul conducted an exciting new study that puts forward marine algae as a promising contender.

Studies such as this must be funded in order to realise the potential superpowers that lie within marine algae as an alternative fuel source for the future.

algae

Photography: UC San Diego

The research paper published in Applied Biochemistry and Biotechnology looked at two key aspects of the production of bioethanol from marine algae: the pre-treatment process in which the needed sugars are extracted from the algae and the reaction process involving converting these sugars into bioethanol. In both cases the scientists were aiming to optimise efficiency and gains. The scientists found that the process under which the most sugar was extracted from the algae was simpler than the processes needed for extraction from other sources. This is due to marine algae having a less complex make up than previous sources such as corn, suggesting that marine algae could be more economically viable.

Using their newly developed bioethanol production method the scientists were able to obtain 0.40 grams of ethanol per gram of algae. This is an encouraging 0.15 grams more than had been experimentally produced before. Combined, the results of this study demonstrate the exciting potential of marine algae in solving problems facing bioethanol including efficiency and economic viability. The paper concludes with the claim that marine algae have great potential and could lead to new possibilities in energy production.

proper fuel

Photography: Ashley Cooper/Ashley Cooper/Corbis

What makes marine algae special?
As mentioned in the research paper 20-30% of marine algae mass is essentially sugar that can be extracted and used for bioethanol production. This means that marine algae could potentially produce 30 times the amount of fuel per acre as any land crop, as discovered by the US Department of Energy. Previous sources used for bioethanol including corn have caused controversy due to their use of land that could otherwise be used for the production of food. Other benefits include its near carbon neutrality and ability to grow without freshwater.

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