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The amount of sun exposure and associated vitamin D production is believed to underlie the geographical gradient in multiple sclerosis prevalance. Thomas Abbs/Flickr

Explainer: multiple sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis is a neurological disease affecting almost 25,000 Australians and more than 2.4 million people worldwide. It’s one of the leading causes of disability in young adults. Typically, the…
In the early 20th century, cubism seemed difficult and wild, and it was a favourite target of conservatives. Juan Gris, Fantômas, 1915, National Gallery of Art. Wikimedia Commons

Explainer: cubism

There’s a problem with the history of western art: we face it from the wrong side of decades of discursive dismantling. The conventional “story” of early 20th-century modernism, in which an advanced guard…
Eclipse at sunrise over Richmond, Virginia, USA in November 2013. Sky Noir (Bill Dickinson)/Flickr

Explainer: what is a solar eclipse?

A couple of weeks ago, we were treated to a total lunar eclipse – and on Thursday afternoon, North America will see a partial solar eclipse. Each month, at the time of new moon, the sun and moon are together…
For around three million Australians, spring is rendered utterly miserable by allergic rhinitis or hay fever. Adam Moralee/Flickr

Hay fever misery prediction: some to get off lightly, others to suffer

For many, spring is the most agreeable time of year. But for one in six people (around three million Australians), this balmiest of seasons is rendered utterly miserable by allergic rhinitis or hay fever…
Just before totality on a total lunar eclipse. Flickr/John Johnson

Explainer: what is a lunar eclipse?

At least twice a year, Earth comes between the sun and the moon. The result is a lunar eclipse, where we see the splendid sight of Earth’s shadow falling across the moon. Lunar eclipses are wonderful to…
Scoliosis is a sideways curve that can’t be fixed by simply sitting up straighter. nils gore/Flickr

Explainer: everything you need to know about scoliosis

Scoliosis can affect children of all ages and can have particularly severe effects when it develops early or in association with another medical condition. If the condition progresses and becomes severe…
The innate immune response causes the common signs of inflammation including swelling, pain, heat, redness and loss of function. Brandon Daniel/Flickr

Explainer: how does the immune system work?

The immune system is critical for protecting against illness-causing organisms, such as viruses, bacteria and fungi, which are collectively known as pathogens. Without it, we would quickly become infected…
Gentle parenting means no punishments and no rewards: just a partnership with your kids where they want to do the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing. Shutterstock

‘Gentle parenting’ explainer: no rewards, no punishments, no misbehaving kids

In a piece in The Conversation, Bernadette Saunders described positive discipline. Parents who practise positive discipline or gentle parenting use neither rewards nor punishments to encourage their children…
An example of unidirectional cause and effect: bad weather means umbrella sales rise, but buying umbrellas won’t make it rain. Mariusz Olszewski/Flickr

Clearing up confusion between correlation and causation

UNDERSTANDING RESEARCH: What do we actually mean by research and how does it help inform our understanding of things? Today we look at the dangers of making a link between unrelated results. Here’s an…
Bundilla elder Aunty Barbara Raymond with schoolchildren in Darwin last year, supporting the cause of Indigenous constitutional recognition. AAP Image/Supplied by Richard Oppusunggu

Explainer: what Indigenous constitutional recognition means

Constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australia has been on the national agenda for a long time, but is back in the headlines with the news that the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader hope to release…
Palmer United Party Senator Jacqui Lambie is willing to take a DNA test to prove her Indigenous heritage – but would that do any good? AAP Image/Lukas Coch

Explainer: Can a DNA test reveal if you’re an Indigenous Australian?

Palmer United Party Senator Jacqui Lambie recently created controversy by claiming in her first speech to Parliament that going back six generations, she is related to the renowned Tasmanian Aboriginal…
Most adults need seven to nine hours sleep to function at their best. Jiuck/Flickr

Explainer: how much sleep do we need?

The amount of sleep adults need has once again come under the spotlight, with a recent Wall Street Journal article suggesting seven hours sleep is better than eight hours and the American Academy of Sleep…
Polio is still not adequately controlled in Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan. Wen-Yan King/Flickr

Explainer: ridding the world of polio

Polio (poliomyelitis) is a viral disease that can lead to incurable paralysis. The World Health Organisation is coordinating a programme to eradicate this disease from the face of the earth, and we are…
Andrew Wilkie argues that parliamentary debate and authorisation should be necessary for Australia to go to war. AAP/Gary Schafer

Explainer: Australia’s war powers and the role of parliament

With the announcement of Australia’s involvement in dropping aid to Kurdish fighters engaged against Islamic State extremists in northern Iraq, questions have again arisen about who should control Australia’s…
A lack of intent may be at the heart of everyday racism. shutterstock

Explainer: what is casual racism?

There is nothing casual about racism. But the term “casual racism” has emerged over the last couple of years in media coverage reporting on more extreme forms of interpersonal racism, such as racist slang…
Yes…but is it war? Inspecting weapons seized in east Ukraine. EPA/Tatyana Zenkovich

Explainer: when does a conflict become a war?

Is the conflict in Ukraine a war? This question has been raised in recent reports about a Russian invasion in Ukraine on the Caspian Sea. The USA and other NATO powers call it an “incursion”; the Baltic…
Extreme duration can transform otherwise simple activity into something strange and powerful. Marina Abramović, The Artist Is Present, 2010, MOMA, New York. Andrew Russeth

Explainer: extreme duration in the performing arts

Last September, I sat down in the Capital Theatre in Bendigo to listen to American composer Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No.2 played by the Flux Quartet from New York. Sounds a nice way to spend an…
Our moon orbits the Earth in the same way satellites do. Flickr/Alexey Kljatov

Explainer: how do satellites orbit the Earth?

Take a look at the moon and it isn’t hard to imagine it as a planet. A 3,476 kilometres-in-diameter ball of rock, with basalt plains and mountain ranges, whose gravitational pull produces tides here on…
Chilli might make it seem as though your face is on fire – so why is milk so soothing? Andrés Nieto Porras

Explainer: why chilli burns, and milk helps soothe the pain

Whether it’s a few flakes on a pizza or the spiciest vindaloo known to humankind, most people can tolerate or even enjoy the tingling, burning sensation chilli can bring. So how does chilli deliver its…
Not ideal to make music videos. NASA

Explainer: how hostile is space?

Space may seem calm, but it is a more hostile environment than that on Earth. Invisible radiation is a big problem for space enthusiasts and scientific instruments. Substituting electronic devices to do…
Speaks with a forked tongue. pcoin

Explainer: why do snakes flick their tongues?

Many people think a snake’s forked tongue is creepy. Every so often, the snake waves it around rapidly, then retracts it. Theories explaining the forked tongues of snakes have been around for thousands…
When cells are deprived of energy and nutrients from their external environment, they package up and consume their own components to survive. Kevin McShane/Flickr

How cancer eats itself to survive our therapies

Can you imagine being so desperate for food that you would eat yourself to survive? Most people can’t but our cells do exactly this. When cells are deprived of energy and nutrients from their external…
An Israeli Iron Dome missile is fired to intercept a rocket from Gaza. EPA/Abir Sultan

Explainer: Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system

The breakdown of an initial ceasefire between Israeli forces and Hamas last weekend played out to a familiar soundtrack: the wail of air-raid sirens and the menacing hiss of incoming rocket fire, followed…
A model of the bubonic plague bacterium, which is known as Yersina pestis. Tim Evanson/Flcikr

Explainer: what is the plague?

Cases of plague have been reported in the Chinese city of Yumen, where a man has died of the disease. Control measures taken by the authorities include travel restrictions in and out of the city, and 151…
Win Butler of Arcade Fire performs some indie, 2014 style. Will Oliver/EPA

Explainer: indie music

Today, indie-rock, indie-folk, indie-dance, indie-hip-hop and even indie-classical are common terms used to describe the sonically discernible offshoots of an evolving genre once referred to as “indie…
How is gender inequality explained in the ‘postfeminist’ age? AAP/ Bernard Menigault

Explainer: feminism

Women have struggled for greater participation in spheres reserved for men in every nation, dating back at least to 620BCE. Yet there is no society on the planet in which women are equally represented…
What does the term “classical music” mean to us in the 21st century? Scottish classical violinist Nicola Benedetti. AAP/ Dean Lewins

Explainer: classical music

Classical music means more than one thing and explanation is in order. Sometimes I make the distinction between big “C” and little “c”, but even that doesn’t fully solve it. The starting point is this…
Newborn hearing screening usually takes place in maternity wards while the baby is settled or asleep. Kimberly/Flickr

Newborn hearing screening vital for giving babies the best start

Between one and three of every 1,000 newborns will have a significant, permanent hearing loss. These babies have a six-month window of opportunity for treatment that will allow them to retain their developmental…
The hero’s journey in three stages - separation, initiation, return - offers a narrative framework for understanding character progression. Pineapples101

Are you monomythic? Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey

When you tell someone a story, do you plan it out beforehand so that it’ll sound good? Do you carefully plot what you’ll say, in a specific order? Or does the story find a way of telling itself, the plot…
Used as a weight-loss or body-sculpting supplement, DNP can cause side effects when used in doses recommended by body-building websites. Ian Carroll/Flickr

‘Fat blaster’ drug can give you weight loss to die for

Losing weight is very hard, so it’s not surprising many people succumb to the allure of miracle weight-loss pills and potions available online. But they do so at their own peril, as today’s Emergency Medicine…
What exactly is peer review? Flickr/AJ Cann

Explainer: what is peer review?

We’ve all heard the phrase “peer review” as giving credence to research and scholarly papers, but what does it actually mean? How does it work? Peer review is one of the gold standards of science. It’s…
More than 90% of kids are vaccinated compared with 74% of adults aged over 65 years. Shutterstock

Vaccination isn’t just for kids – a guide for over-65s

We live in an ageing society, with the global median age rising steadily. Australia’s economic viability will increasingly rely on retaining older people in the workforce for longer. This, of course, relies…
The toxic effects of cigarette smoke reach far into the lungs. Flickr/SOCIALisBETTER

Explainer: what is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease?

Almost everyone will know someone with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): an incurable disease of the lungs that makes breathing difficult. Never heard of it? Well, chances are you’ve heard…
Chile’s Alexis Sanchez fell victim to a goal disallowed by an offside call in the 2010 World Cup. So what are the nuts and bolts of the rule? EPA/Sergey Dolzhenko

Explainer: the offside rule

The offside rule is perhaps one of the most controversial rules ever applied to football. We only need to look to Mexico vs Cameroon on day two of the 2014 World Cup. Thank god for the 61st minute goal…
Neuroeconomics is a burgeoning field aimed at helping us understand decision-making. Image sourced from www.shutterstock.com

Explainer: neuroeconomics, where science and economics meet

Whether choosing a dinner, a car, a spouse or an investment, experts now know what part of the brain our likes and dislikes are encoded, how we represent alternatives, and even how we choose. This has…
It’s probably easier to say what contemporary dance is not. John Hogg/EPA

Explainer: what is contemporary dance?

Contemporary dance is a catch-all phrase used fairly indiscriminately, meaning many things to different dance communities across a wide range of cultures. In fact, it’s probably easier to say what contemporary…
The yellow fever mosquito Aedes aegypti, taking a bloodmeal. James Gathany/Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Travelling to Brazil? Here’s what you should know about yellow fever

Of the dangers facing travellers to Brazil for the World Cup, yellow fever is one of the least likely to pose a real threat. But there are two important things to know about the illness. First, it’s a…
Most infections by this family of viruses are acquired in childhood and are usually mild. gabi menashe/Flickr

Explainer: what is parechovirus?

An outbreak of parechoviruses in Queensland is causing concern because of the severity of the illness among infants younger than three months old. Dozens of cases have been detected in Australia since…
By mimicking each other, humans try to physically understand each others' emotions. Flickr: modenadude

Explainer: how we understand people and why it’s important

Social cognition is our ability to understand other people, and it enables us to predict their behaviour and share experiences. It’s also critical to understanding the many nuances underpinning everyday…
Mad Men actor Jon Hamm claims to be diagnosed with the skin condition vitiligo – but what is it, exactly? EPA/Gus Ruelas

Explainer: what is vitiligo?

Vitiligo, a human skin condition that turns patches of skin and hair white, it is not a disease we hear much about, although it affects approximately 1% of the population. Most famously, Michael Jackson…
Unless Victorian opposition leader Daniel Andrews accepts Geoff Shaw’s vote, there will be no progress on anything in the state’s political crisis. AAP/Julian Smith

Explainer: the constitutional implications of Victoria’s ‘crisis’

After a night of political uncertainty, the Victorian Labor opposition has indicated it will move to have ex-Liberal MP Geoff Shaw expelled from parliament instead of accepting his offer of support for…
‘Bang’ composed of 886-three legged wooden by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei at the German during the 55th International Art Exhibition in Venice, Italy, 2013. EPA/ Andrea Merola

Explainer: what is a biennale?

Chances are you’ve heard of an art biennale, even if you haven’t visited one. This year’s Biennale of Sydney hit the headlines with a controversy over sponsor Transfield’s links to off-shore refugee detention…
You can trust some but not others. williamhartz

Explainer: is your Wi-Fi secure?

James Lyne from IT security firm Sophos recently carried out a two-day public awareness exercise as part of the InfoSec 2014 conference. In a low-emission variation of war driving, Lyne cycled around the…
Of the over 70 bloodsucking arthropods known as ticks that live in Australia, the paralysis tick, Ixodes holocyclus dominates. Doggett

Tackling the tricky task of tick removal

Tick bite poses a potentially serious health risk in itself but sometimes the way people try to remove ticks just makes things worse. This is because urban myths and conflicted advice from local and overseas…
Following the announcement of the budget, a mass of legislation to implement the new policies and allow the government to spend money is introduced into parliament. AAP/Lukas Coch

Explainer: can the Senate block the budget?

In the days since the Abbott government released its first budget, the Labor Party, the Greens and the Palmer United Party have all said they will block parts of it in the Senate. Threats to block the…
Rare genetics. Embraceablemovie.com/Kent Creative

Explainer: what is Williams syndrome?

The vast majority of people can probably tell you that autism is associated with problems relating to others and interacting socially. Far fewer people will be able to tell you about another developmental…
Modernism is typified by a commitment to exploratory experimentation. Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe by Edouard Manet (1862-63), Wikimedia Commons

Explainer: what is modernism?

I first came across modernism through the lens of postmodernism in the early 1980s. At that time postmodernism – explained here – was washing through the academy, promising to transform everything by placing…
Same genes, different outfits. Spinal Research

Explainer: what is twin research?

Hugo and Ross Turner are a pair of intrepid twins currently on an expedition to Greenland. One of them, Ross, is using the same style of equipment and facilities used by Ernest Shackleton 100 years ago…
Intervention by a conservator on an object has to be reversible. IAEA Imagebank

Explainer: what does an art conservationist do?

Cultural conservation is concerned with how cultural material is preserved as it moves from the past, through the present and into the future. This material may be books in libraries, documents in archives…
Coming for me next? Pierre J

Explainer: why are we afraid of spiders?

I have personal interest in arachnophobia – the fear of spiders – because I am a spider expert, but also because my daughter has it. She is not alone. According to the American Psychiatric Association…
Neurogenetic disease is an umbrella term to describe inherited diseases that affect the nervous system. Shutterstock/Dmitry Naumov

Explainer: what are neurogenetic diseases?

Each year, thousands of Australians are diagnosed with an inherited condition that affects their nervous system. Neurogenetic disease is an umbrella term to describe these conditions, which are primarily…
Subject to change. Bak16/Deviant Art

Explainer: what is genetic risk?

Genetic risk is the contribution our genes play in the chance we have of developing certain illnesses or diseases. Genes are not the only deciding factor for whether or not we will develop certain diseases…
Probably an unnecessary precaution. Redcorn Studios [Matt]

Explainer: which phone is most vulnerable to malware?

As each new computer virus attack or vulnerability comes to light, millions instinctively check their computer to see if their anti-malware application is up to date. This is a good idea and they are wise…
Not stopping for directions. Alan D. Wilson

Explainer: how do homing pigeons navigate?

Pigeons have extraordinary navigational abilities. Take a pigeon from its loft and let it go somewhere it has never been before and it will, after circling in the sky for while, head home. This remarkable…
Don’t break your heart over this issue but stay secure. Optx

Explainer: should you change your password after Heartbleed?

If you’re struggling to understand the deluge of information about the Heartbleed vulnerability, you’re not alone. Some reports tell us to change all our online passwords immediately, others warn us that…
Surviving or thriving? britta heise

Explainer: how big tobacco turns profits

In 2013 Imperial Tobacco, one of four major transnational tobacco companies, posted its first fall in profits in 17 years. One could be forgiven for thinking from the proposed introduction of new restrictions…
The producer’s work does not finish with the film’s theatrical release. garryknight

Explainer: what does a film producer do?

If you step back from the perceived glamour of the feature-film industry for a moment and look at it through dispassionate eyes it becomes obvious it’s really about creating a new product and taking it…
Don’t mess with me. Crystal Ernst

Explainer: what is a pseudoscorpion?

Pseudoscorpions are commonly known as “false scorpions” or “book scorpions”. They belong to the Arachanida class, and, as the name suggests, they are like scorpions but without a stinger on their back…
Be unsullied no more – winter is coming … again. HBO

Explainer: Game of Thrones, the story so far

The heir to an ancient exiled dynasty marries his sister to the leader of a savage warrior society, in return for their support in his effort to regain his father’s throne. The heir is soon killed, while…
The risk of Alzheimer’s increases with age. Shutterstock

Explainer: what is Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease causes progressive damage to the brain, resulting in problems with memory, cognition, social engagement, and, ultimately, a person’s ability to care for themselves. Alzheimer’s is the…
An Ebola virus as seen through an electron microscope, with added colour. EPA/CYNTHIA GOLDSMITH/CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL AND PREVENTION

Explainer: what is Ebola virus?

An outbreak of the Ebola virus, which started in a rural region of Guinea in West Africa, has now spread to the nation’s capital Conakry. It now reportedly involves 122 people, of which 78 have died. Additional…
When cells attack - autoimmune disease develop when immune cells mistakenly attack a part of the body. Ari Moore/Flickr

Explainer: what are autoimmune diseases?

Autoimmune diseases, which include a range of around 80 different illnesses from rheumatoid arthritis to type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis, occur when the immune system attacks the body. These diseases…
Immunotherapy boosts the body’s ability to fight disease. Rob Schultz/Flickr

Explainer: what is cancer immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is treatment that boosts the body’s immune system by producing more infection-fighting agents, such as white blood cells and antibodies, to help fight disease. While it may seem a modern…
The saltmarsh mosquito, Aedes vigilax, transmits Ross River virus in many coastal regions of Australia. Mr Stephen Doggett (Medical Entomology, Pathology West - ICPMR Westmead)

Explainer: what is Ross River virus?

Ross River virus infection is the most commonly reported mosquito-borne disease in Australia, with more than 4,000 cases of illness are reported every year. Activity has been recorded from every state…
A cancer cluster generally features an unusually high number of the same type of cancer occurring in a group of people with a common exposure. Shutterstock

Explainer: what are cancer clusters?

Most of us are living longer and we are all expected to be working longer. Because the likelihood of cancer increases as we age, we’re more likely to be diagnosed with cancer while still a member of the…
Ice core samples storing mysteries from bygone eras. Genericprofilename

Explainer: what are ice cores?

Ice cores are cylinders of ice drilled from glaciers and ice sheets. When snow falls it takes with it a record of many aspects of the atmosphere. As long as no melting takes place, this information is…
Emerging economies: still basket cases? Wander/Flickr

Explainer: why do emerging markets have so many crises?

In past decades, emerging markets were traditionally thought of as “basket case” economies, with the associated stigma. Perceptions have improved in recent years, but there are still concerns these economies…
Australia’s most prolific Oscar winner, Catherine Martin, was awarded her fourth Oscar for production design on The Great Gatsby. What is it that production designers actually do? AAP

Explainer: what is production design?

When we watch a movie, how do we know where and when it is taking place? This is just one of the questions a production designer working on a film or TV show helps audiences answer. They do so through…
Maybe pink planets have life too. gsfc

Explainer: how do you find exoplanets?

Astronomers didn’t know, 20 years ago, whether planets existed around any stars other than the Sun. All that changed in 1995 with the discovery of an exoplanet orbiting the star 51 Pegasi. And by the beginning…
Give me five of these any day. Nancy D. Regan

Explainer: what is nutrigenomics?

“Eat your five-a-day” is a health slogan that has been kicking around since the 1980s. The UK government made it an official campaign in 2003. But understanding the exact benefits (and harms) that our…
Malignant tumours known as medulloblastoma account for more deaths in children than leukaemia. The Advocacy Project/Flickr

Explainer: brain tumours that affect children

Malignant brain tumours are the most common cause of cancer death in children. And the most common of these are called medulloblastoma. Although these tumours can occur in both children and adults (they…
Amid the constant debate about Religious Instruction in schools, what does the law say? www.shutterstock.com.au

Explainer: what the law says about Religious Instruction in schools

In recent weeks the issue of the religious content of Australian education has been hotly debated. Last week The Age reported the latest development. Principals in several Victorian state schools had ceased…
Proteins hold keys to making more effective medicine. Jeff Fillmore, Flickr

Looking at proteins to make new medicines and better wine

The Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, mapping out all of the genes of the human genome. When the first draft of results were published many were surprised that we had only 24,000 genes. This…
The content of zines can be as idiosyncratic as individual publishers choose. scott_bl8ke

Explainer: zines

Zines are small-circulation, self-published magazines. Their emergence can be traced back to fanzine, a term used by science-fiction fans from the 1940s to set their amateur publications about popular…
The fragile five economies have become surrogates for the developing world in meetings like the G20. Shutterstock

Explainer: the G20 and the fragile five

Financial markets love to come up with snappy acronyms – you have all heard of BRICS, but there are many others, with the “fragile five” being the latest. The BIITS - Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Africa…
Taste the current. arselectronica

Explainer: what is a Tesla coil?

Picture a reclusive man, dripping with sweat all night in a dark lab, illuminated only by crackling sparks that periodically leap from enormous machines and cast a purple glow across his face. This was…
Bariatric surgery is the last-line option for weight loss. Chris J/FLickr

Explainer: the risks and benefits of bariatric surgery

You don’t need an expert to tell you obesity has become a major health problem worldwide. The World Health Organization estimates 35% of the world’s adults are overweight and 11% obese, double the rate…
When it comes to sharks, it’s important we know size and species. Scubaben/Flickr

Explainer: sharks — why size and species matter

Dozens of sharks have reportedly been caught since Western Australia’s “catch-and-kill” drum line program began two weeks ago. Firm numbers are not available given the WA government’s unwillingness to…
What do the royal commission into union corruption’s terms of reference, as released by the Abbott government, suggest about the scope of its inquiry? AAP/Dan Peled

Royal commission gets broad brief to crack union corruption

The terms of reference for a royal commission into allegations of corruption and misconduct in the unions were lodged earlier this week by the federal government. The remit of the royal commission is both…
Most biologists argue viruses aren’t alive because they can’t replicate by themselves. Tom Thai/Flikr

Explainer: what is a virus?

It may seem like a fairly fundamental question, but there is still debate over whether viruses should be considered a form of life. The diversity of viral infections is immense. Viruses cause everything…
Should companies with large cash reserves buy back shares from investors? It’s not that simple. EPA/Gino Domenico

Explainer: are share buybacks good for investors?

Only a few hours after announcing he had purchased nearly US$2.5 billion of Apple shares, investor Carl Icahn was demanding the company buy back US$150 billion of its own shares. Now the company has done…
2013 Oscar Winners (L-R) Daniel Day-Lewis, Jennifer Lawrence, Anne Hathaway and Christoph Waltz EPA

Explainer: the Oscars

The first thing to understand about the Oscars is that, as a measure of the aesthetic value of films, they are completely unreliable. To understand why this is the case, we need to know what exactly “The…
It’s not an allergic reaction to the fish itself, so there is no need to avoid scombridae fish species such as mahi-mahi. Chewy Chua Flickr

Explainer: what is scombroid fish poisoning?

Preliminary autopsy results have revealed the tragic deaths of Queensland woman Noelene Bishcoff and her daughter Yvana in Bali last month were likely caused by scombroid fish poisoning. Though not common…
Around 20,000 chickens were culled in Hong Kong last week after the virus was detected in birds imported from mainland China. Alex Hofford/AAP Image

Explainer: what is H7N9 bird flu?

Australia’s federal Department of Health has advised general practitioners to be on the lookout for potential cases of the H7N9 strain of influenza A, or bird flu, following a spate of deaths in China…
Under the current tax regime, investors and cashed up owner occupiers are bidding up the cost of housing. Dean Lewins/AAP

Explainer: why negative gearing is bad policy

In an ideal (and economically efficient) world, tax policy would not influence the investment or consumption choices taxpayers make. In reality, this neutrality is rarely achieved. External factors influence…
Crystallography: from a handheld experiment in 1912 to the size of many football fields today. Diamond Light Source

Explainer: what is X-ray crystallography?

Around 100 years ago a father and his son in north England conducted an experiment that would revolutionise the way scientists study molecules. A refined version of their method still remains one of the…
There’s been plenty pumped: how much more is there? Arne Hückelheim

Explainer: whatever happened to the threat of peak oil?

Despite the arguments that once raged and the considerable volumes written to advocate certain viewpoints and disparage others, interest in peak oil is at an all time low. Indeed some commentators have…
George Liwukan Bukulaptji, 1990, Yolngu, Galiwin'ku, (Elcho Island), Octopus Dreaming, Garumara, acrylic with natural pigments on canvas, 76x152cm. © the artist's estate, licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency Ltd; Burkhardt-Felder Collection, Switzerland

‘Dreamtime’ and ‘The Dreaming’: who dreamed up these terms?

We’re all, it seems, familiar with the terms “Dreamtime” and “The Dreaming” in relation to Aboriginal Australian culture, but – as I noted in the first part of this series – such terms are grossly inadequate…
So many people, so much data. Flickr/Fran Simó

Explainer: what is big data?

Big Data, as the name implies, relates to very large sets of data collected through free or commercial services on the internet. This massive amount of data arises from sensors, posts to social networking…
It all comes down to egg supply. Image from shutterstock.com

Explainer: what causes women’s fertility to decline with age?

We’ve known for over 50 years that reproductive ageing results in a gradual loss of fertility until about age 37, when the rate of decline accelerates dramatically. The loss of fertility is accompanied…
Rosie Tasman Napurrurla, Warlpiri 2002, Ngurlu Jukurrpa (‘Grass Seed; Bush Grain Dreaming’), line etching on Hahnemuhle paper. Warnayaka Art Centre, Lajamanu, and Aboriginal Art Prints Network, Sydney

‘Dreamtime’ and ‘The Dreaming’ – an introduction

In 2002, Jeannie Herbert Nungarrayi, formerly a Warlpiri teacher at the Lajamanu School in the Tanami Desert of the Northern Territory, where I worked for many years first as a linguist and then as school…
The navy is permitted to intercept vessels in Australian waters, but the high seas or Indonesian waters are a different matter, as are tow-backs to another country. AAP/Scott Fisher

Explainer: the legal implications of ‘tow-backs

Australia has been engaging in “tow-backs” of asylum-seeker boats. This has involved intercepting boats carrying asylum seekers at sea, before they reach Australia, and forcing them to return to Indonesia…
How keen are Australians to see locally made films such as The Sapphires? AAP Image/April Fonti

Explainer: where’s the audience for Australian films?

Around 25 new Australian feature films are released into the market each year – so who’s watching them, when and how are they watching, and what makes them choose home-grown films over imported blockbusters…
Campaigns tell us to eat red meat to keep our iron levels up – but what if we have too much? tarale

Explainer: can the body have too much iron?

Many people are aware that low levels of iron in their body can lead anaemia, with symptoms such as fatigue. But few realise that too much iron can result in a potentially fatal condition. Normally, if…
‘Success Kid’ – with its various slogans – has been an enduring meme of recent years. Know Your Meme

Explainer: what are memes?

Nothing defines our use of the internet as clearly as the concept of the meme (pronounced “meem”). Every day, millions of people laugh at LOLcats, dog shaming, and music videos without music, while others…
The immune system is often the reason we feel unwell when we have an infection. Flickr/uneduex

Explainer: what is the immune system?

The immune system is an integral part of our body, keeping us safe from diseases – from the common cold to more severe illnesses such as cancer. The immune system is often the reason we feel unwell when…
It seems that South Sudan is falling apart amidst political conflict, but what is actually behind the violence? EPA/Phillip Dill

Explainer: what is going on in South Sudan?

Over the past few weeks, crisis has gripped the world’s newest nation, South Sudan, after an internal political conflict spilled into violence which has left thousands dead. So far, there have been reports…
The kitsch consumerist art of Jeff Koons at Versailles: Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988, ceramic sculpture. dalbera

Explainer: what is postmodernism?

I once asked a group of my students if they knew what the term postmodernism meant: one replied that it’s when you put everything in quotation marks. It wasn’t such a bad answer, because concepts such…
Cosplayers come in all shapes and sizes. zigazou

Explainer: what is cosplay?

I’m standing in a line at Brisbane Supanova 2013, a pop culture convention, when I’m approached by a young family with a tiny girl in a sparkly Snow White gown, complete with bright red hair bow. “We were…
What does the colour of carrots have to do with the history of The Netherlands? niznoz

Explainer: why are carrots orange?

Why are carrots orange? They were bred orange in The Netherlands during the 17th century from the older white and purple stock (that are now back in fashion as “heritage” varieties) to show support for…
Heritability: how much do your genes impact your traits? Jenn Durfey

Explainer: what is heritability?

Schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder and autism have all had recent attention for being “genetically caused”. In scientific research being genetically caused usually corresponds to having a high…
Under the baton of Valery Gergiev. Rotterdams Philharmonisch Orkest

Explainer: what is conducting?

Conducting is essentially a phenomenon associated with Western classical music. As a rule, rock and jazz bands do not employ a conductor unless they are teaming up with a symphony orchestra. Conductors…
In only a little more than a decade, Creative Commons has been implemented by more than 60 countries. opensourceway/Flickr

Explainer: Creative Commons

The digital age has presented many and diverse challenges for copyright law. The rapid uptake of digital, networked technologies led to widespread online distribution of content, as well as the emergence…
Anyone who wishes to innovate can design. Gn!pGnop

Explainer: what is experience design?

“It’s not just a _____, it’s an experience.” Substitute the blank space above with just about anything these days (car, meal, city, website, course, concert, charity, therapy), and you get the unofficial…
Sign language can be used and misused, as with any form of communication. STR/EPA

Explainer: what is sign language?

What is sign language? Before we answer that question, it might be useful to first consider what a “language” is. Spoken languages are naturally developed complex systems that use a set of conventionalised…
Music therapists work with people of any age and ability, culture or background. flyzipper

Explainer: what is music therapy?

Defining music therapy is challenging because the practice is so diverse; but the Australian Music Therapy Association (AMTA) uses the following definition: Music therapy is a research-based practice and…
Don’t be confused: here’s the difference between radiation and radioactivity. Mob Mob

Explainer: the difference between radiation and radioactivity

On the weekend, a tank of radioactive material leaked from the closed Ranger uranium mine in the Northern Territory. While this has prompted concerns about the health of the surrounding Kakadu National…
Timor Leste claims that a treaty with Australia on regulating the exploitation of petroleum and similar resources in the Timor Sea is now invalid. EPA/Antonio Dasiparu

Explainer: Australia and Timor Leste in The Hague

Several issues of international law arise from Timor Leste’s dispute with Australia over the negotiations of a 2006 treaty regulating the exploitation of petroleum and similar resources in the Timor Sea…
Can environmental humanities help us understand the fame of Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta? Alejandro Sosa Briceño

Explainer: what are the environmental humanities?

Have you watched the movie Grease recently? From one perspective, it is a schlocky film about coming of age in the 1950s. From another, it’s a striking representation of post-war America’s romance with…
How do you keep your private info under lock and key? IntelFreePress

Explainer: what is perfect forward secrecy?

Twitter has announced it is introducing perfect forward secrecy to help users protect their information from spies and cyber-criminals. Even if we don’t realise it, we all rely on cryptography when we…
PSY is far from the only player in the global rise of K-pop. Michael Nelson/EPA

Explainer: what is K-pop and J-pop?

A little over a year ago, South Korean singer PSY galloped onto the global pop circuit singing about “sexy ladies” in the Seoul suburb of Gangnam. What followed were a flurry of articles (some going as…
It’s hard to replace plain flour with self-raising flour in a cake, but luckily, our chromosomes are more like cars. juni xu

Explainer: what is gene therapy?

Every now and again you might read about gene therapy and efforts to correct serious genetic diseases. But I’m betting that very few readers have had gene therapy, nor have they ever met anyone who has…
The Melbourne Ring Cycle is big, befitting the opera’s stature. Jeff Busby

Explainer: Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen

It should come as no surprise in the nation that gave the world the Big Pineapple, the Big Guitar, the Big Sheep, and, for that matter, a Big Ad, that the size of a cultural artefact in and of itself is…
Gastric reflux is brought on by spicy and acidic food and drink, alcohol and overeating. Image from shutterstock.com

Explainer: what is gastric reflux?

If you’re prone to gastric reflux, you’ll probably be watching closely what you eat and drink during the pre-Christmas party season. You’re certainly not alone; modern, heavy eating habits and a rise in…
Faster, safer, shinier. PA

Explainer: the engineering challenges of HS2

Next year, high-speed rail travel will celebrate its 50th birthday. In 1964, Japan put into service the first Shinkansen line, from Tokyo to Osaka. Its trains initially operated at speeds of up to 210…
If you like good food, clean water, and protection from disease, you’re probably a fan of biosecurity. AAP Julian Smith

Explainer: why Australia needs biosecurity

When the Department of Agriculture called a halt to imports of pop star Katy Perry’s latest album this month, they weren’t making a musical judgement. They were protecting Australia’s biosecurity. Biosecurity…
What is the relationship between carbon dioxide and temperature rise? Werner Wittersheim

Explainer: what is climate sensitivity?

Humans are emitting CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. As these gases build up they trap extra heat and make the climate warmer. But how much warmer? Scientists have long understood that…
The delicate twinkling stars in the night sky are actually fusion-fuelled balls of gas. Adam Foster | Codefor

Explainer: what are stars?

Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are. If we look up at the sky at night, we see millions of tiny diamond-like stars. These are actually balls of plasma (very hot gas) consisting of…
A long way from Wall St. Jairo Londono

Explainer: how does Islamic finance work?

At the World Islamic Economic Forum in London, David Cameron has announced the UK is to become the first non-Muslim country to issue Shariah-compliant bonds and that a special Islamic index will be created…
Solid plastic made from gas. Novomer

Explainer: what is carbon capture and utilisation?

Carbon and carbon dioxide are found all around us. All living things contain carbon - it’s one of the essential building blocks of life and is fundamental to many chemical processes. Carbon dioxide (CO2…
People who intentionally harm themselves aren’t always easy to identify or categorise. Noctem_/Flickr

Explainer: what is self-harm and why do people do it?

Deliberately inflicting pain or injury by cutting oneself or some other form of self-mutilation seems incomprehensible to many people. But it’s a common, typically secretive, experience for about 8% of…
Under the sea or through mountains, it’s all the same. Roger Wollstadt

Explainer: how to build a tunnel

Londoners will be aware that there is a lot of work going on under their feet at the moment. There is the new Crossrail railway with eight subterranean stations, expansion of Tottenham Court Road, Bond…
A primary carrier of the Chikungunya virus, the Asian tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus) could easily hop to mainland Australia from Torres Strait islands. Camponotus Vagus

Explainer: the chikungunya virus and its risk to Australia

Chikungunya is a virus transmitted to people by mosquitoes; it usually causes a non-fatal but debilitating illness. Despite thousands of people being infected each year in Africa, Asia and Melanesia, chikungunya…
Don’t you just want to hug him to death? Antoinette vd Rieth

Explainer: what is cute aggression?

Humans respond to cute. Show us just about any little critter with a big round head and a pair of large, blinking-in-the-headlights eyes and cooing will ensue. Add to that a set of chubby cheeks, a button…
Scientists approach muscle memory from a variety of perspectives. Helgi Halldórsson/Freddi

Explainer: muscle memory

“Muscle memory” is a frequently used term to describe the learning of motor skills, be they sport, music, or everyday activity. But interestingly, despite the widespread usage of the term, controversy…
Hope they backed it up … purplemattfish

Explainer: how do you destroy a hard drive?

Anyone who looked at The Guardian’s website this week will have seen a picture of one of the newspaper’s own laptops smashed and in pieces. Why did this Mac have to die? The article accompanying the photo…
Sinkholes can have a sinking effect on house prices. BGS

Explainer: what are sinkholes?

Sinkholes seem to be popping up everywhere this year. March saw the tragic death of Jeff Bush in Seffner, Florida, when his bedroom collapsed into a sinkhole below his house. The same month saw the disappearance…
The nearest stars to Earth – apart from the sun – are more than 4x1013 kilometres away. Stinger_Y_Y

Explainer: light-years and units for the stars

Space is Big. Really Big. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy pretty much nailed space with those five words. And space is so really big that our earthly measures of distance struggle. The distance to…
The act of kissing a baby is a key plank of what campaign strategists and commentators consider to be ‘retail politics’. AAP/Alan Porritt

Explainer: what is retail politics?

Shaking hands. Kissing babies. Throwing snags on the barbie, or wandering through a suburban shopping centre. These are the familiar scenes of “retail politics”, a campaign style in which candidates sell…
New technology will allow extracted gas to be processed, liquefied and stored on a floating facility, opening up access to remote offshore resources. Flickr/kenhodge

Explainer: what is floating liquefied natural gas?

Natural gas has been extracted from Australia’s North West Shelf and exported as liquefied natural gas (LNG) for almost 30 years. It is Australia’s fastest growing resource export. But the recent introduction…
Now that governor-general Quentin Bryce has issued the writs for the election and dissolved parliament, the government is in caretaker mode. But what does this mean? AAP/Alan Porritt

Explainer: what are the caretaker government conventions?

The Coalition has raised concerns that the Memorandum of Understanding with Papua New Guinea over the Manus Island asylum seeker processing deal was entered into after the caretaker conventions commenced…
Your fridge needs a more hi-tech way to ask for a refill. sk8geek

Explainer: the Internet of Things

Many, if not most, of us are now connected to the internet, and we have become familiar with it: we shop, we bank, we socialise online. The Internet of Things is not a different internet but refers to…
Kevin Rudd reportedly plans to revisit the UN’s Refugee Convention as the numbers of asylum seekers arriving by boat continue daily. EPA/Tubagus

Explainer: Australia’s obligations under the UN Refugee Convention

Prime minister Kevin Rudd has indicated that he would like to revisit Australia’s obligations under the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. We are yet to learn what this may mean…
A bit too big for your average hospital. Ars Electronica

Explainer: what is proton therapy?

When you stand in the 27km-long Large Hadron Collider tunnel deep under Switzerland and France it looks as if the chain of blue magnets simply stretches off to infinity. So when people talk about putting…
It’s important to understand what went wrong with Asiana 214 to avoid further tragedy. NTSBgov

Explainer: how to land a plane

It is still far too early in the investigation into the accident involving Asiana flight 214 at San Francisco airport to draw any conclusions about the events leading up to the accident. However, some…
While it seems unbelievable, there’s a scientific explanation for foreign accent syndrome - and it may surprise you. Baturix

Explainer: what is foreign accent syndrome?

In the past few days, a great deal of media attention has been paid to Leanne Rowe, a Tasmanian woman who has lived eight years with a French accent she acquired after a car accident. This phenomenon is…
Only a handful of mammals aside from us – primates, some bat species and the elephant shrew – get their period. Image from shutterstock.com

Explainer: why do women menstruate?

For half the population, it comes three to five days each month, 12 months each year, for 40 years of our lives. Menstruation can be debilitating, relieving, disappointing, or simply an inconvenient fact…
If deforestation is cut down, the world’s forests could act as a large net sink for carbon emissions. Flickr/sobriquet.net

Explainer: how much carbon can the world’s forests absorb?

You are walking through the bush when you see an enormous tree trunk, tens of metres long, lying across the forest floor. Imagine you and several dozen friends lifting it by hand. Now you’ve literally…
The new strain (C4a) of enterovirus EV71 has infected hundreds of thousands mostly pre-school-age children in China, Cambodia and Taiwan. Image from shutterstock.com

Explainer: what is the new enterovirus or EV71?

A virus that can cause paralysis in children has been circulating in New South Wales during autumn and has recently spread to Victoria. Around 30 young children, mainly from Sydney’s northern and southeastern…
Genetics can explain a black or white cat in a litter, but what about a stripey cat? Enter epigenetics. Taylor Bennett

Explainer: what is epigenetics?

The word epigenetics means things imposed “on top of genetics”. But what sort of things? Imagine a white mouse breeds with a black mouse – say you get three white babies and three black babies. That’s…
The most recent bridge collapse in Washington was due to an oversize truck collision. EPA/Dan Levine

Explainer: why do bridges collapse?

Bridge collapses are often tragic, but are also fascinating for bridge engineers as they usually provide puzzles to solve and often lead to major changes in design, construction and management. Complete…
Hopefully this will remain a rare sight. Edgaras Zvirblys

Explainer: what are chemical weapons?

There was chaos on the streets of Halajba in March 1988. In this corner of Iraq, at the time Iraqi Kurdistan, people had suddenly started experiencing cold-like symptoms – tight chest and nasal congestion…
Ocean power can be harnessed for electricity generation using both wave energy and the tide. Scottish Government

Explainer: what is ocean energy?

Renewable ocean energy harnesses the power of the oceans to produce electricity. This can be done in several ways, but the resources that have the most immediate potential in terms of energy production…
We have a lot of cells, but where did they arise from? j.reed

Explainer: what are stem cells?

In a paper published in Cell yesterday, scientists from the US and Thailand have, for the first time, successfully produced embryonic stem cells from human skin cells. That sounds interesting, but what…
The novel coronavirus is in the same family as the SARS virus, but has some different biological features and is not as infectious. Image from shutterstock.com

Explainer: what is the new coronavirus?

Ten years ago the world was gripped by the threat of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), which was caused by a coronavirus. The outbreak infected more than 8,000 people and around 800 died. Over…
Australians will vote on constitutional recognition for local government in September - but what are the reasons behind the referendum? AAP/Sophie Marr

Explainer: why are we having a referendum on local government?

The federal government has announced that Australians will be voting in a referendum on September 14 - federal election day - to decide whether local government should be recognised in the Australian Constitution…
Influenza symptoms include high fevers and chills, as well as pains and aches in muscles and joints. Davide Taviani

Explainer: what is the flu?

When people say they have “the flu”, what they’re experiencing most of the time is the common cold, which is not caused by the influenza virus at all. But the term “flu season”, which Australia is in the…
Whether or not intuition is inherently “good” depends on the situation. maclauren70

Explainer: what is intuition?

The word intuition is derived from the Latin intueor – to see; intuition is thus often invoked to explain how the mind can “see” answers to problems or decisions in the absence of explicit reasoning…
With improvements in enhanced geothermal systems technology the earth’s heat could become a major electricity generator. Flickr/xavierbt

Explainer: what is geothermal energy?

Geothermal means, literally, “earth heat”. The temperature of the earth increases as we drill deeper towards its core. We can use that heat for energy by circulating water through hot subterranean reservoirs…
The International Space Station after undocking from the now-retired Endeavour space shuttle. NASA

Explainer: the International Space Station

As the most visible man-made object in the night sky the International Space Station (ISS) is of significance to humankind. It takes humans from being explorers of space to being residents of space. The…
Australia has one of the highest rates of illicit methamphetamine use in the world. Image from shutterstock.com

Explainer: methamphetamine use and addiction in Australia

More commonly known by the street names speed, ice or crystal meth, both amphetamine and methamphetamine belong to a group of stimulant drugs called amphetamines. Australia has one of the highest rates…
Schools funding has been a hot topic this week: here’s all you need to know on this important election issue. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

Explainer: What is a ‘Gonski’ anyway?

This week you might have heard the word “Gonski” even more than usual. That’s because the Gillard government finally announced how it would pay for its school funding reform in the lead up to its meeting…
Location-restricted services are becoming ever easier to access, wherever you live. Daniel Dionne

Explainer: what is geoblocking?

So you sit down in front of your computer to catch the latest episode of Doctor Who directly from BBC’s iPlayer, and you are greeted by an error message informing you that the program will play only in…
Hydropower stations such as the Three Gorges in China are able to produce large amounts of electricity but they can also alter ecosystems and displace communities. EPA

Explainer: what is hydroelectricity?

Hydroelectricity is an established power-generation technology with over 100 years of commercial operation. Hydroelectricity is produced when moving water rotates a turbine shaft; this movement is converted…
Whacking your funny bone really hard will cause a mild nerve injury which may take minutes, hours or even days to come good. Image from shutterstock.com

Explainer: what is the funny bone?

Put a finger on the point of your elbow. Feel inwards from there about half and inch or slightly more until you find another bony outcrop. Got it? Good. Tap with your finger in the valley between those…
Anorexia affects about 2% of women in their lifetime, although one in every ten sufferers is male. Darwin Bell

Epigenetics offers a glimmer of hope for future anorexia treatment

Most people know that anorexia nervosa is a psychiatric illness associated with the maintenance of low weight and fear of weight gain. But we know very little about what causes this destructive disease…
Algae synthesisers – a new crop for biofuels, without the need for land. Kirsten Heimann

Explainer: what are algal biofuels?

The problem we face with fossil fuels being ultimately a finite resource has exposed our need for renewable fuels. But research is underway on new and more environmentally-savvy ways to fuel our growing…
The blanket term “hack” can encompass a whole range of attacks – but what are they? Anant N S

Explainer: what is hacking?

Last week, we woke to news that the largest cyber attack ever was underway in Europe, with reports of global internet speeds falling as a result of an assault on the anti-spamming company Spamhaus. In…
Canola is harvested on a property near Wallendbeen NSW. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

Explainer: what are biofuels?

Since the beginning of civilisation, humans have depended on organic materials - or “biomass” - for cooking and heat. Many developing countries in Asia and Africa still do. Biofuel or bioenergy is the…
How do rooftop solar panels work? Abi Skipp

Explainer: what is photovoltaic solar energy?

There are two main types of solar energy technology: photovoltaics (PV) and solar thermal. Solar PV is the rooftop solar you see on homes and businesses - it produces electricity from solar energy directly…
The definition of the word gene has evolved as our knowledge has advanced. Katy.Tresedder

Explainer: what is a gene?

There’s a very confusing exchange in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass: “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more…
Up to 80% of people who contract herpes remain completely asymptomatic. Image from shutterstock.com

Explainer: what is herpes?

When it comes to sexual health, the virus that causes those tingling blisters and angry sores of genital herpes is often the most reviled and feared. Most cases of genital herpes in humans are caused by…
The ways in which we use VPNs have changed. Stephan Geyer

Explainer: what is a virtual private network (VPN)?

Have you ever wanted to exist in more than one place at the same time? The laws of physics suggest wormholes through space and time are hypothetical; but wormholes do exist in cyberspace and wonders can…
Cancer is a disease in which abnormal cells divide without control and are able to invade other tissues. Tips Times

Explainer: what is cancer?

Few things strike fear into people more than the word cancer, and with good reason. While improvements in cancer therapy and advances in palliative care mean that the illness does not always lead to inevitable…
Migraines often cause nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light and noise. Shutterstock/Emilia Ungur

Explainer: what are migraines?

If you, or someone close to you suffers from migraine, you’ll know it is much more than your average headache – migraine is a debilitating disorder that can even affect your sight and speech. Migraine…
It’s now one of the world’s most commonly used tools, but what exactly is GPS? CIAT International Center for Tropical Agriculture

Explainer: what is GPS?

It’s a device used widely in cars, on smartphones and in fitness devices. But what exactly is GPS, and how is it able to pinpoint our exact location anywhere on Earth? How does it work? The Global Positioning…
The aim of CER is to assess the effectiveness and worth of medical interventions in real-life scenarios. Image from shutterstock.com

Explainer: what is comparative effectiveness research?

The evidence gleaned from medical research directly affects the decisions made about health care in Australia, driving everything from clinical practice guidelines, to which health interventions will and…
Vaccination has a lot more uses than you may know. Stephen Mitchell

Explainer: how are vaccines used in Australian agriculture?

Approximately 140 vaccines are registered for use in livestock and companion animals in Australia. Many more animals are vaccinated each year than humans. Vaccines are used in farm animals: to protect…
The Large Hadron Collider has been used to find out what matter is fundamentally made of, and how the universe was created. EPA/Martial Triezzini

Explainer: quarks

One of humanity’s eternal questions surrounds what we are fundamentally made of. Many ancient philosophies believed in a set of classical elements: from water, air, fire and earth of ancient Greeks; to…
The best way to prevent type 2 diabetes is to lose your excess fat. Image from shutterstock.com

Explainer: what is diabetes?

To keep your body functioning, glucose must always be present in your blood. It’s as important as oxygen in the air you breathe. The brain can only function for a few minutes without either before it stops…
Good news for those who like a weekend sleep-in: lost sleep can be recovered. Image from shutterstock.com

Explainer: can you pay off your ‘sleep debt’?

Ever have those moments on weekends or public holidays when you wake at your usual time, then realise there’s no pressing need to get up? If you go back for another couple of hours of shut-eye and use…
We’re all familiar with the double helix structure so vital to life, but DNA can take other forms. ctbroek/Flickr

Explainer: quadruple-helix DNA

DNA has been called many things: the king of molecules, the blueprint of life, and less excitingly but perhaps more accurately, the genetic code. DNA’s double helix, discovered in 1953 by James Watson…
Without treatment, half of PTSD sufferers experience chronic problems that can last for decades. marcusjroberts

Explainer: what is post-traumatic stress disorder?

People have probably always known about the psychological effects of experiencing life-threatening events such as military combat, natural disasters, or violent assault. Literature through the ages – some…
Depression is more than the experience of sadness or stress. Sander van der Wel

Explainer: what is depression?

Many people know what it’s like to feel sad or down from time to time. We can experience negative emotions due to many things – a bad day at work, a relationship break-up, a sad film, or just getting out…
Epigenetic factors can change due to environmental factors, such as diet, toxins and stress. leeroy09481/Flickr

Explainer: how epigenetics is providing insight into cancer

DNA provides the instructions to make us how we look and contributes to our life expectancy. Identical twins have exactly the same DNA, so why are slightly different in many ways? The answer is epigenetics…
Some of the isotopes we find here on Earth were created in supernova explosions like this one. NASA

Explainer: what is an isotope?

If you’ve ever studied a periodic table of the elements (see below), you’re probably already aware that this table reveals a great deal about the chemical properties of the atoms that make up our world…
“Wait a minute. I’ve been here before …” PhotoJonny/Flickr

Explainer: what is déjà vu and why does it happen?

Have you ever experienced a sudden feeling of familiarity while in a completely new place? Or the feeling you’ve had the exact same conversation with someone before? This feeling of familiarity is, of…
Venous thromboembolism is the fifth leading cause of death in Australia. Image from shutterstock.com

Explainer: what is deep vein thrombosis?

Living in Australia, we’re used to flying long distances. So you’ve probably wondered about the risk of developing a deep vein thrombosis. Perhaps you’ve even considered buying some pressure stockings…
There are a lot of components to biology – bioinformatics helps us makes sense of them all. Image from Shutterstock.com

Explainer: what is bioinformatics?

Bioinformatics underpins and enables research across the life sciences. This ranges from high-volume reductionist science (genomics, proteomics and the other “omics”, regulation of gene activity, epigenetics…
When it comes to the crunch, the null hypothesis is the only one being tested. Pimthida

Explainer: what is a null hypothesis?

At the heart of the scientific method is the process of hypothesis testing. Given an observable phenomenon in the world, a scientist will construct a hypothesis which seeks to explain that phenomenon…
Different parts of the brain do different things, but there’s more overlap than you might think. Brain image from www.shutterstock.com

Explainer: the brain

If I had been asked 15 years ago to write a short piece about what the different parts of the brain did, it would have been a fairly straightforward task. Not any more. Over the last 15 years, the methods…
The cobalt hues of the sky above are thanks to all manner of molecules in the air. djking

Explainer: why is the sky blue?

A young child looked up in the sky, And said, “It’s so blue, Mum, but why?” You see, blue scatters more, (There’s this power of 4), So it rarely comes straight to your eye. – Author unknown Most of what…
The emperor tamarin is one of several species of New World monkey … but how did they get there? Apex Design

Explainer: what is biogeography?

How did you get to work today? I walked to the station, caught a train, then walked to a bus stop and hopped on the 891 express. All this time, while I was travelling, I moved in space – in fact a lot…
The majority of people who have obstructive sleep apnoea are unaware they have the disorder. Image from shutterstock.com

Explainer: what is obstructive sleep apnoea?

Obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) is a common sleep-related breathing disorder, where the upper airway repeatedly collapses during sleep. During an obstructive breathing event, someone with OSA continues…
Make no bones about it, radiocarbon dating has transformed our understanding of the past. Wessex Archaeology

Explainer: what is radiocarbon dating and how does it work?

Radiocarbon dating has transformed our understanding of the past 50,000 years. Professor Willard Libby produced the first radiocarbon dates in 1949 and was later awarded the Nobel Prize for his efforts…
Taxonomists are in the business of classifying the life we see around us – plant, animal and otherwise. Gnilenkov Aleksey

Explainer: what is biological classification?

For taxonomists, days often start – and sometimes end – with the question: what’s that? Whether you’re an entomologist, staring at a new species of riffle bug from a rainforest stream, or a paleontologist…
What starts as a flap of wings can end – metaphorically – in a hurricane. horizontal.integration

Explainer: what is Chaos Theory?

Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones … Nature exhibits not simply a higher degree but an altogether different level of complexity. - Benoît Mandelbröt, The Fractal Geometry of Nature Chaos (n…
Something’s going on behind your eyes … but what is it, and why does it happen? Rubén Chase

Explainer: what is dreaming?

For most of human history, dreaming has been seen as a second “reality” in which altered forms of perception provide insights into ourselves and others, our fears, fantasies and motivations or even the…
This mosquito – Aedes aegypti – can spread the dengue, Chikungunya and yellow fever viruses. Paul Zborowski

Explainer: what is dengue fever?

Dengue is caused by four different serotypes (strains) of the dengue virus that can cause mild to severe illness in people, who are infected via mosquito bites. Dengue has been spreading through most urbanised…
The power we need twice a year is making us pay year-round. Andrew J Cosgriff

Explainer: What is peak power and how does it affect prices?

This is the year of electricity prices. Everyone, from the Prime Minister to your favourite barista, is talking about the recent rapid escalation in electricity prices. These increases are a complex story…
The Good sisters, born in Bristol in 1948, were the first quadruplets in the world to survive a caesarean-section birth. Paul Townsend

Explainer: twins, triplets, quadruplets and more

Are they twins? Are they identical? Are they natural? Which one is older? These are some of the all-too-familiar, somewhat invasive and highly personal questions posed by well-intentioned strangers to…
Not taking the whole course of antibiotics leads to the survival of a small number of bacteria that can tolerate the drug. Dave Rutt

Explainer: what are antibiotics?

You’ve got a high fever, severe cough and find it hard to breathe – all symptoms of severe pneumonia. Before antibiotics, you’d likely be dead within ten days. In fact, before we had these amazing drugs…
Approximately 1% of adults and 4% of children stutter. khrawlings/Flickr.

Explainer: what is stuttering?

For the 1% of adults worldwide who stutter, the everyday task of picking up a phone, asking for directions, or ordering food in a restaurant can be incredibly difficult. Stuttering is even more common…
We all know the past disappears. FotoRita [Allstar maniac]

Explainer: what is forgetting?

If memory can be defined as “a past that becomes a part of me”, can forgetting be defined as “a past that is no longer a part of me”? Smokers who have abstained for years may not consciously be able to…
You’ll be hearing a lot more about 4G networks in the years to come. Leo Reynolds/chrisinplymouth

Explainer: what is 4G?

If you’re looking to buy a new smartphone or computer you’ve probably seen advertisements and offers for 4G-compatible devices. You might even own a 4G-compatible device already. But just what is 4G? How…
Research in cerebral palsy has historically lagged behind other medical areas. EPA/Kerim Okten

Explainer: what is cerebral palsy?

Cerebral palsy (CP) is the most common physical disability, affecting 35,000 Australians, or one in 500 people. It is estimated that one Australian child is born with cerebral palsy every 15 hours. We…
Classification allows athletes to compete against those with a similar level of impairment. EPA/Louisa Gouliamaki

Explainer: what is ‘classification’ at the Paralympics?

If you’re watching the Paralympics on TV, listening on radio or reading about the Games in the papers or online, you’ll notice different sports are sub-divided into separate classes. If you’re listening…
Did you forget to lock the door, or just forget to pay proper attention? jef safi \ 'pictosophizing

Explainer: what is memory?

Memory is difficult to define without being circular. People often define memory as “something you can remember”. But we cannot deny the existence of a memory when there is no recollection. Sigmund Freud…
Excessive anxiety causes serious distress and problems in important areas of life. Thomas/Flickr

Explainer: what is an anxiety disorder?

Most of us are intimately familiar with anxiety. We experience it as we walk towards the room to where our job interview is held, when we stand up to give a speech at our best friend’s wedding, or when…
Transparency in donation processes gives families confidence about giving tissue and organs. Senior couple talking to doctor photo from www.shutterstock.com

Explainer: what is tissue donation?

Every year a number of grieving families will be asked to donate tissue following the death of a relative. The consequences of their decision have implications for patient’s awaiting transplantation, and…
Imagine a magic prism for the entire range of electromagnetic waves. TORLEY

Explainer: what is the electromagnetic spectrum?

Visible light forms part of the electromagnetic spectrum. So do emissions from TV and radio transmitters, mobile phones and the energy inside microwave ovens. The X-rays used in diagnostic imaging and…
The stories behind the Human Genome Project are themselves extraordinarily human. widdowquinn

Explainer: what is the Human Genome Project?

For many decades humans have pursued work to characterise the human genome. Today, publicly available references to genome sequences are available and have been instrumental in effecting recent advances…
Breastfeeding is good for the health of both babies and their mothers. Ozgur POYRAZOGLU

Explainer: why mothers should breastfeed

Breast milk is one of the most important components of infant care. It provides complete nutrition and helps to prevent and fight infections. And it’s also safer – in much of the world, artificial infant…
“Most people just get used to the concept and get on with their lives.” Roger McLassus

Explainer: what is wave-particle duality

Our notion of reality is built on everyday experiences. But wave-particle duality is so strange that we are forced to re-examine our common conceptions. Wave-particle duality refers to the fundamental…
This is how a person without colour blindness would see these coloured test tubes. Bigstockphoto / Craig Colvin

Explainer: what is colour blindness?

Here are six test tubes filled with coloured dyes. How many different colours do you see? Most people say six, but some people would say only two or three. There are even some (very rare) people who see…
Lynette Rowe (right) has tears wiped from her eyes by her mother Wendy. AAP

Explainer: what is thalidomide?

Melbourne woman Lynette Rowe was yesterday awarded a multi-million dollar legal settlement after suffering birth defects as a result of her mother taking anti-morning sickness pills containing the drug…
Between 10% and 45% of children have one or more sleep problems. Jack French

Explainer: childhood sleep disorders

Any parent will tell you the meaning of the saying “slept like a baby” is completely opposite to reality. Thankfully, many parents succeed in establishing a routine to their baby’s initial erratic sleep…
The H3 strain of influenza has made a come back but immunity from past infectious is likely to have waned. Tranchis

Explainer: flu season 2012

Each year, different strains of influenza cause varying rates of illness throughout the community. So what strains are around this year and what kind of protection is offered by seasonal influenza vaccines…
One day we may have a global quantum internet. Robert Couse-Baker"

Explainer: quantum computation and communication technology

What is a quantum technology? Quantum mechanics is the branch of physics that explains the behaviour of matter and energy at the atomic scale. So does “quantum technology’’ just mean technology based on…
Eating disorders are more than fad diets gone wrong. Flickr -S

Explainer: anorexia and bulimia

Eating disorders are an increasing problem in children and adolescents. Recent Australian studies have indicated eating disorder behaviour has increased twofold in Australia in the last five years and…
Ripples in a pond help to illustrate wave motion and the Doppler effect. *˜Dawn˜*

Explainer: the Doppler effect

When an ambulance passes with its siren blaring, you hear the pitch of the siren change: as it approaches, the siren’s pitch sounds higher than when it is moving away from you. This change is a common…
Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder which affects between 1% and 6% of the population. thewoodenshoes/Flickr

Explainer: what is bipolar disorder?

During a manic episode, the main character of popular television series Homeland, CIA agent Carrie Mathison (played by Claire Danes) colour codes the evidence in a terrorism case, making vital links that…
Labelling a person as “obese” may not always be helpful in prompting positive changes in behaviour. HighContrast

Explainer: overweight, obese, BMI – what does it all mean?

OBESE NATION: It’s time to admit it - Australia is becoming an obese nation. Today we launch a series looking at how this has happened and, more importantly, what we can do to stop the obesity epidemic…
We all know obesity increases our risk of chronic disease, but how does excess fat actually affect our body?

Explainer: how does excess weight cause disease?

OBESE NATION: It’s time to admit it - Australia is becoming an obese nation. Today we launch a series looking at how this has happened and, more importantly, what we can do to stop the obesity epidemic…
There’s far more to the night sky than the human eye can see. Joseph Dsilva

Explainer: radio astronomy

Humans have always had a deep affinity with the night sky. Over millennia the stars have guided us in our travels, provided a grand canvas for the great stories of mythology and invoked a sense of wonder…
Hypnosis is a state of conscious awareness which most people experience many times each day. Beyonder

Explainer: how does hypnosis relieve pain?

Hypnosis in one form or another has been around for thousands of years, but until recently, evidence to support its biological and clinically powerful effects have been lacking. Today hypnosis is used…
A simulated Black Hole of ten solar masses as seen from a distance of 600km with the Milky Way in the background. Ute Kraus/Wikimedia

Explainer: black holes

The concept of a “black hole” is one of the most curious in astrophysics. It’s the answer to the question: “What happens if the density of matter in a region becomes so high that not even light can escape…
Life would be pretty boring if we could predict what was coming next. ModernDope

Explainer: Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle

The term “uncertainty principle” suggests some grand philosophical idea, like “you can never be sure of anything”, or “there are some things you can never be sure of” and sometimes people use it as if…
New guidelines based on best practice for treating sepsis are now available for nurses. University of Salford

Explainer: how is septicaemia treated?

Sepsis is extremely common and accounts for as many deaths as heart attack each year. Recently published guidelines summarise the most up-to-date method of caring for these patients, giving hope for improved…
Muhammed Ali, Michael J Fox, former pope John Paul II and Yasser Arafat all suffered from Parkinson’s disease. Ali by Ludie Cochrane/Flickr; all others AAP.

Explainer: what is Parkinson’s disease?

Parkinson’s disease was not always known by this name. Almost 200 years ago in 1817, when English doctor James Parkinson first described the disease, he called it Shaking Palsy. But Parkinson’s disease…
There’s more to gravity than apples falling from trees. Cea

Explainer: gravity

I have spent almost 40 years trying to detect gravity waves. When I started there were just a few of us working away in university labs. Today 1,000 physicists working with billion-dollar observatories…
Tony Abbott says the end is near for the government, but can he bring it down? AAP/Alan Porritt

Explainer: motions of no confidence and the constitution

After declaring the Gillard government was entering its “endgame”, opposition leader Tony Abbott is believed to be preparing to table a motion of no confidence. Since Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie…
When it comes to being “fortunate”, context is king. kaibara87

Explainer: does luck exist?

Some people seem born lucky. Everything they touch turns to gold. Others are dogged by misfortune. It’s not just people who might be lucky or unlucky – it can be single acts. When the ball hits a post…
It depends on the drug, how it’s been stored and whether the pack has been opened. saveas new

Explainer: do we need to follow medication use-by dates?

It’s late in the night. And after a long day at work, you have a splitting headache. You rattle around in the bottom drawer of the bathroom vanity to find a packet of paracetamol tablets you know are hiding…
Michael Somare (right) and his deputy Sam Abal claim to be rightful leaders of PNG. AAP/Eoin Blackwell

Explainer: political crisis in Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea has been gripped by political turmoil for almost a week now. Two men – Michale Somare and Peter O'Neill – are currently claiming to be the rightful prime minister of the nation. Both have…
In 2009, more than 190 whales and dolphins stranded themselves on King Island. AAP

Explainer: What do we know about why whales strand themselves?

Whales are a highly specialised group of mammals which left their terrestrial ancestors for the ocean about 50 million years ago. They have become so well adapted to the marine environment that they can…
High pollen counts, warm weather and storms are the perfect conditions for thunderstorm asthma. Brandon LLW

Explainer: What is thunderstorm asthma?

If you suffer from itchy eyes, a runny nose, headaches and excessive sneezing this time of year, you’re certainly not alone. Hay fever or allergic rhinitis is an allergic reaction to pollen and affects…
If you want to optimise scramjets you’re going to need the rule of the jungle. EPA/NSAS

Explainer: evolutionary algorithms

My intention with this article is to give an intuitive and non-technical introduction to the field of evolutionary algorithms, particularly with regards to optimisation. If I get you interested, I think…
Climate models allow us to look at the planet’s future climate. Truthout.org

Explainer: climate modelling

We know the climate is changing because that’s what climate models tell us. But what exactly is a climate model, and are they cutting-edge science or modelling madness? What is a climate model? Climate…
Bird flu transmission to humans is rare and hasn’t occurred with this new strain. AAP

Explainer: should we be worried about the new strain of bird flu?

The circulation of a new strain of the H5N1 avian flu virus from China and Vietnam has prompted calls from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN for health authorities to be ready for a possible…
How long’s a piece of string? You may want to sit down for a minute. Gnu2000

Explainer: String theory

String theory entered the public arena in 1988 when a BBC radio series Desperately Seeking Superstrings was broadcast. Thanks to good marketing and its inherently curious name and features, it’s now part…
Theoretical physics strives towards a (beautiful) description of everything. Jinx!

Explainer: Standard Model of Particle Physics

The “traditional” beauty of theoretical physics is its equations. If we want to describe something, or the way something behaves, we can write down a relation between some properties we think that thing…
Trans fats are more harmful to your health than regular fats and should be avoided. Flickr/Half alive

Explainer: what are trans fats?

Trans fats – they’re in our chips, bakery goods, popcorn and cakes. We know we should avoid them, but what exactly are they, and why are they so bad for us? First, let’s take a step back and look at how…
Standard & Poor’s could still downgrade the US credit rating, despite the debt ceiling deal. AAP

Explainer: the role of credit ratings agencies

Washington lawmakers in the US House of Representatives have passed an agreement hammered out between Republican and Democrat leaders designed to avert a US debt default. The move is a further step towards…
Alan Turing, through pure mathematics, laid the foundations for the modern computer. Leo Reynolds

Explainer: the point of pure mathematics

What is pure mathematics? What do pure mathematicians do? Why is pure mathematics important? These are questions I’m often confronted with when people discover I do pure mathematics. I always manage to…
A growing number of academic institutions are building free online databases of their scholarly output. But publication in a big name academic journal still holds cachet for most academics. Flickr/mandiberg

Explainer: Open access vs traditional academic journal publishers

As the cost of accessing academic journal articles increases, a growing number of academic institutions are building publicly accessible databases of scholarly work. But how much of a threat to the traditional…
Uncertainty about the US economy is driving investors back to the safe-haven metal. AAP

Explainer: Why gold is still precious for investors

The price of gold reached a record high of $US1607.01 an ounce on Tuesday as investors turn to the precious metal amid uncertain global economic conditions. University of Western Australian Professor of…
The Antarctic Treaty protects the continent from competing interests. AAP

Explainer: Keeping conflict on ice with the Antarctic Treaty

This year marks the 50th year of the Antarctic Treaty, a visionary document that for the first time set out a vision for an entire continent based on peace, science and co-operation. So how does it hold…
Sadly, survival of the fittest does not mean anyone will survive. Kaptain Kobold

Explainer: Theory of evolution

The theory of evolution encompasses the well established scientific view that organic life on our planet has changed over long periods of time and continues to change by a process known as natural selection…
Psammomys obesus or the Israeli sand rat provides an insight into how the thrifty gene hypothesis may work. Tino Strauss

Explainer: Diabetes and obesity – the biggest epidemic in human history

In the last few decades, the number of people with diabetes has more than doubled globally, making the combination of type 2 diabetes and obesity (known as diabesity) the largest epidemic the world has…
Workers will see a percentage increase in their pay packet from today. AAP/Greg Wood

Explainer: What the new minimum wage really means for workers

Fair Work Australia’s annual wage determination takes effect today. Importantly, we’re set to see award wages rise not by a single dollar sum, as in the past, but by 3.4%. This goes someway to addressing…
An emissions trading scheme and a carbon tax are not the same thing. AAP

Explainer: The difference between a carbon tax and an ETS

Since July 2012, Australia has had in place its carbon pricing scheme. It is commonly referred to as a “carbon tax”, but also as an “Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) with a fixed price”. And the plan is…
A QANTAS A380 Airbus, one of the last international flights to depart Sydney International Airport shortly before a 3pm suspension of flights in Sydney on Tuesday. AAP

Explainer: Why can’t planes fly through volcanic ash?

A volcanic ash cloud produced by Chile’s Puyehue volcanic eruption has circumnavigated the globe and floated over Australia twice, disrupting flights and leaving over 120,000 passengers stranded. The Conversation…
Without quantum mechanics, we would not have the transistor. IvyMike/Flickr

Explainer: Quantum physics

This might surprise you, but there may be literally thousands, or even tens of thousands, of devices and components surrounding you right now that work because of our understanding of quantum physics…
We’ve got the time, if you’ve got the theory. h.koppdelaney/Flickr

Explainer: the fifth dimension

By now we’re used to the idea that the world has four dimensions: three spatial and one temporal. But what if there were a fifth dimension – what would that dimension look like, and how would it relate…
As yet we can only guess what the Higgs boson might look like. DESY Zeuthen

Explainer: the Higgs boson particle

Theoretical physics is full of mysteries and unknowns. In the case of some particles, we can predict their existence even if we can’t find them. Such is the status of the Higgs boson. And yet detecting…
Manufacturers may be forced to accept profit margins will continue to narrow.

Explainer: What a strong Australian dollar actually means

The Australian dollar has been striking new post-float highs against the US dollar in recent weeks, and according to a number of prominent market economists could reach US$1.10 before the end of this year…
Nanoparticles, as used in sunscreen, are readily absorbed by the body. Tony Bartlett/AAP

Explainer: Nanotechnology and you

For the public, the jury is still out on nanotechnology – the media simultaneously extols its promise and warns of the potential calamity facing humanity. But what is it? How does it work? Is it dangerous…
Viewed from afar, the Milky Way might appear similar to the galaxy known as NGC 7331. R. Jay GaBany/NASA

Explainer: a beginner’s guide to the galaxy

Where are we within our galaxy? How did our galaxy form? How did it evolve over the aeons? Astronomers have been asking these questions for the past century, and have recently begun discerning the answers…
Is the “Z-prime” lurking within a “jungle” of particles at the LHC? Argonne National Laboratory

Explainer: the Z' (hypothetical) particle

There’s nothing like an unexpected result to get physicists excited. So in 2008, when some strange behaviour was detected from a rarely-produced particle known as the “top quark”, there was much interest…
Could neutrinos be responsible for the shape of the universe? The Super-Kamiokande Neutrino Detector, Japan

Explainer: the elusive neutrino

Of all the known particles in our universe, neutrinos are perhaps the most elusive; their origins are mysterious, their purpose unknown and they are notoriously difficult to detect. You’ll already know…
The NBN could give all Australians access to online services. iStockphoto

Explainer: the National Broadband Network (NBN)

The big picture Australia’s plan for a National Broadband Network (NBN) represents one of the largest infrastructure projects in the world at present. The estimated $43 billion price tag has stirred up…

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