A bit of science on Friday

Australia is moving

Sadly, it’s towards civilisation (North) rather than away from us all. 7cm a year, to be exact, because of tectonic plate movement. Australia is on the Indian-Australian Plate (can you guess which other country is also on there?) and that plate is moving North, where it collides with the Pacific Plate and the Sunda Plate.

Now, 7cm might not seem like a lot (because it’s not a lot), but there’s been no update of GPS systems and the like since 1994, and now Australia is 1.5m further north than it was back then.

Now, 1.5m might not seem like a lot (because it’s not a lot) (although it’s clearly more than 7cm), but if you are navigating by super-accurate GPS, and the data you’re getting is fundamentally incorrect, then that might have rather serious consequences, as Dan Jaksa from Geoscience Australia told ABC News.

In the not-too-distant future, we are going to have possibly driverless cars or at least autonomous vehicles where, 1.5 metres, well, you’re in the middle of the road or you’re in another lane.

Indeed, so what are they going to do about it?

On 1 January 2017, Australia’s local co-ordinates will be shifted further north – by 1.8m. The over-correction means Australia’s local co-ordinates and the Earth’s global co-ordinates will align in 2020.At that point a new system, which can take changes over time into account, will be implemented.

Can’t we just rather give it a big push back the other way?

Brain Disease

I learned about a disease called kuru when I was at university, but suddenly, it became much more relevant when people worked out that Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE, Mad Cow Disease – and its human equivalent CJD – Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease) had the same causal “agent”.
I use those quotes, because these diseases aren’t caused by bacteria or viruses, but rather prions – tiny strands of protein that gradually destroy the brain. It’s a slow, drawn out, lingering death. And we have no way of stopping it. Any antibacterial or antiviral drug relies on attacking some part of the life cycle of the bug to kill it. Protein strands don’t have life cycles. They’re just protein strands. Prion diseases are (currently) incurable.

What’s interesting about kuru is that it existed solely in remote tribes in Papua New Guinea – specifically the Fore people – who engaged in cannibalism. In many villages:

…when a person died, they would be cooked and consumed. It was an act of love and grief.

“If the body was buried it was eaten by worms; if it was placed on a platform it was eaten by maggots; the Fore believed it was much better that the body was eaten by people who loved the deceased than by worms and insects.”

What’s even more interesting is that these prions attack the nervous system. And the vast majority of the victims were women and children, because traditionally, they were the ones who ate the brains. The elders and men in the tribe were spared the offal, and thus, mostly spared from kuru as well.

There’s more reading on that link above, but the last known kuru victim died in 2009. Sadly, because of the long incubation period of prion diseases (I’m still on 40-year high risk list because I processed patient specimens from suspected CJD cases when I worked in the labs in the UK) we can’t be certain that it’s completely gone, but there have been no cases in the intervening 7 years.

Which probably explains why Australia now thinks it’s safe to drift closer to Papua New Guinea.


It’s been a busy day. A difficult week. 

But there is some light at the end of the tunnel, albeit a very long tunnel. 

An Orange River Adventure sometime deep into next year. It’s not quite Iceland (in fact, it’s probably quite the opposite), but I’m already looking forward to it.  

Briefly Back

I was wandering through Instagram yesterday evening, waiting for the rest of my family to return from a rest of my family outing. It didn’t take long before I found this breathtaking image on the VisitBergen timeline:


What a view.
I was transported back to May and those halcyon few days that we spent exploring that little bit of the west coast of Norway.

Sadly, this was merely bittersweet, pseudo-escapism though, as I was brought firmly back to the dark reality of the Cape Town evening by the beagle farting as it wandered past me and into the kitchen in search of food.

The trouble is, as I remarked beneath this vaguely similar (i.e. of some fjords near Bergen) photo:

I desperately want to go back, but equally, I desperately don’t: there’s simply no way that a return visit could ever be so perfect.

But the need to see more of Scandinavia is real.
I’m even beginning to consider adding an Iceland2017 category to the blog…

I’m already sorry…

Well, sorry, not sorry.

This was emailed to me and I was tickled (not literally, but, you know…).

To be fair, it does begin with a somewhat unlikely scenario:

The world expert on European wasps was strolling past a record shop.

Before the limits of plausibility are stretched yet further:

A sign caught his eye: “New Album Out Today! Wasps of the World!

But ok. Let’s go with it.

The wasp expert went into the shop and asked to hear the album and was given headphones.

Three minutes later, he announced, “I am the world expert on European wasps and the sounds that they make and yet I recognize none of those.”

The shop assistant offered to play another track. And another. And another.

Still, the expert did not hear sounds he recognized.

It’s not going well, and you can only begin to imagine the tension growing in the record shop.

Suddenly, the shop assistant realized his mistake. “I’m really sorry,” he said…

Brace yourselves…





“I was playing you the bee side.”

Like I said, sorry, not sorry.

Artist stuck

Oh dear. An artist “in residency” on board the German-registered, 278.82m long container vessel Hanjin Geneva is stuck “several hundred kilometres off the shores of Japan” (it’s actually about 50, according to Marine Traffic, but that doesn’t sound anywhere near as dramatic…) after the ship’s owners went bust.


Now, the 150-strong fleet of the Hanjin Shipping Company find themselves barred from entering ports worldwide after the company filed for bankruptcy. There’s the double edged sword of the company not being able to pay for berthing fees, together with the worry that the vessels may be seized by creditors.

And poor artist Rebecca Moss is caught in the middle of it all.

As her Canadian sponsors Access Gallery point out:

The immensity of this news, as devastating as it is for the hundreds of workers affected, emphasizes many of the residency’s core concerns, indicating both the precarity of globalized capitalism and our dependence upon systems that we neither see nor understand. It also underscores the considerable role that contemporary artists may play in bringing such situations to our attention in provocative and transformative ways.

Sure. We’d probably never have known about the bankruptcy (Hanjin owe $5, 400, 000,000) if it wasn’t for Rebecca. And all the articles on news sites around the world. Apparently, a press release saying that an artist is stuck on a boat is what passes for a “provocative and transformative way” of bringing the financial woes of a shipping behemoth to our attention.

Mind you, they did title the press release

The Precarity of Artmaking in a Globalized World

Ok then.

Those familiar with Rebecca’s performative and video-based practice will know that it draws on Henri Bergson’s theories of the comedic, wherein comedy is understood to arise in moments of friction between a mechanical system and the nature into which it is inserted.

Like her work High Tide (Sausage) – a 32 second video in which a balloon attached to a stick becomes detached from the stick and blows out of view.
Or Jelly – a 97 second video in which the artist walks down a road, pushing a jelly in a shopping trolley, with predictably catastrophic results (for the jelly).
And who could forget Power Ballad – a 101 second video featuring lumps of concrete rotating on a record turntable which is placed on various beaches in Essex while Elton Johns I’m Still Standing plays in the background.

Indeed, I can think of no-one better to inform us of the financial collapse of a shipping company with the loss of over 5,000 jobs worldwide (and the financial implications for their families) than a woman who once rolled up some clay on a Southend Pier.

If only there was some worthwhile function that these sort of people could perform.