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2011, the year that was: Science & Technology

Time goes marching on, and we all get more jaded and cynical. I mean: hooray! CyberCraft Robots

And so in March we pushed the button and away we went. Back then the big stories were:

Artificial intelligence, what with Watson, IBM’s supercomputer, taking on challengers in the US TV show Jeapordy. This led Toby Walsh of NICTA to ask: Have computers finally eclipsed their creators?


Meanwhile nobel laureate Peter C. Doherty pondered A better formula for science communication; and George Dracoulis, post-Fukushima, suggested: Nuclear will survive, because it has to.

Themes emerged throughout the year, as did great new voices.

Among these were Rod Lamberts and Will Grant – a formiddable, ANU-based tag-team, bringing righteous and riotous indignation to articles such as Gentlemen’s rules are out, scientists: it’s time to unleash the beast and Don’t preach to the converted on carbon tax: it’s the money vote that matters.

Ion Chibzii

On a cosmic plane, we had University of Sydney’s Geraint Lewis drawing us in, and making us feel wonderfully insignificant, with articles including They might be giants: a mind-blowing sense of stellar scale.

Myself and deputy Sci-tech editor Matt de Neef realised pretty quickly that science and technology could be brought to bear on many issues, providing we had a suitable angle – and headline.

This revelation led to pieces such as David Rouffet’s excellent Cadel Evans and other machines: the science of the Tour de France time trial and Kevin “I have the coolest job in the world” Ball’s Centimetre-perfect: a quest for flawless goalkicking in the AFL.

AFP/Pascal Pavani

Sex sells, of course. Evolution is full of it, and the following performed particularly well:


This flurry of hot-collared copy climaxed in me being renamed by Andrew Jaspan, our commando in chief, as Sex and Technology editor. I took this as a warning sign, training my attention instead on ornithology articles, such as Great Tits give insight into personality by Macquarie University’s Simon Griffith – a beautiful piece of writing that showed stories can do very well without resorting to crude innuendo in the headline.


We had our fair share of drugs in 2011, notably Olivia Carter’s fabulous Drugs to enhance us will enchant us … especially if there are no side effects and a terrific Hunter-S-Thompson-esque article by Iain S. McGregor and Craig Motbey: Meow hear this: mephedrone is a curious khat.

In the first (and only) piece in what was to be a series called Things to do in Australia when you’re dead, Chris Briggs gave us some answers to a fairly pertinent question: You donate your body to science, you die … what happens next?

Stacie Bee

Continuing this post-mortem trip, we had a stomach-churningly entertaining piece by UWA’s Ian Dadour: Forensic entomology: the time of death is everything.

Matthew Bailes’s article Diamond planets, climate change and the scientific method went gangbusters in September. The theme – how astronomers get an easier ride in the press than climate scientists, particularly when the discovery in question is a “diamond planet” – struck a big chord.

Matthew pointed out, with great eloquence, how the media had fallen over themselves to cover – often unquestioningly – the findings his team had reported in Science a month earlier, with ever-more extravagant, diamond-encrusted headlines.

Robyn Beck/ADP

As an editor, it was good to know our own coverage of the diamond planet story, by Duncan Galloway of Monash, had been restrained, with a photograph of Beyoncé doing the grind, and the headline: Diamond planet found (if you like it then you should have put a ring on it).

As well as some ace “explainer” articles, such as Jonathan Carroll’s hugely successful Explainer: Einstein’s theory of general relativity, we ran popular In Conversation articles with Chief Scientist of Australia Ian Chubb and NASA astronaut Greg Chamitoff – the latter of which featured our first in-house podcast.

Big hitters came out swinging for our The State of Science series – curated with much graft, tears and aplomb by temporary (lest we forget) sci-tech deputy Megan Clement.

Beni Ishaque Luthor

On the tech front, RMIT’s Mark Gregory told us how to stop spam and reduce cyber crime, and asked: Are Australian international roaming charges the greatest rip-off in history?. (We’re pretty sure the answer is: yes).

UWA’s David Glance built a dedicated following with considered articles covering everything from 10 reasons why Google+ will never be Facebook to Anonymous versus Los Zetas drug cartel to #QantasLuxury: a Qantas social media disaster in pyjamas.

He was also the fist Conversation author to be Slashdotted (don’t worry, that’s a good thing!).


Not surprisingly, the passing of Apple CEO Steve Jobs in October elicited many moving tributes from our authors in Steve Jobs: the CEO we felt we knew.

Performing some much needed triage in the bloody Tablet/Patent Wars, we had Srikumar VenugopalGoogle buys Motorola Mobility to bruise Apple? Must be the patent wars – and Bruce Arnold: Samsung Galaxy Tab – an early Christmas present for consumers.


Michael Fry told us everything we needed to know about Zombie computers, cyber security and phishing, while Melbourne University’s Daniel Golding explored the changing face of videogames and videogaming with ‘Gamers’ tag is a poor fit, whichever way you Foldit and Caught in the Red Cross-hairs: gamers and the Geneva Convention.

The ever-changing tea leaves of social media were interpreted deftly by UQ’s Sean Rintel, who also shone light on the anarchic world of crisis memes with Obama? Norway killings? London riots? You can has a meme for that ….

Paul Dalgarno & Matt de Neef

I’m glad to say it’s rarely felt anarchic at Conversation HQ, and the crises have been – for the most part – manageable. Here’s to more new voices, and more great ideas, in the new year.

On the horizon

I’m hoping 2012 sees the discovery of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider. The news released by CERN operatives of late – that the elusive particle, predicted to exist by the Standard Model of Particle Physics, has “almost” been found – was both tantalising and, erm, a bit confusing. I hope someone finds it – it would really tie the universe together.

At some point early in the year, I hope to hear that Australia has won its bid to build and host the Square Kilometre Array telescope in Boolardy, Western Australia. The project’s aim – to provide answers to fundamental questions about the origin and evolution of the universe – is worthy; its scope – thousands of small antennas collecting truly mind-boggling torrents of data – is, for want of a better phrase, out of this world.

I’ve got a feeling The Conversation will be looking at the future more than once in the new year, what with the series that’s been commissioned on futurism. We won’t just be guessing about what’s going to happen, but employing all sorts of cutting-edge tools to give realistic predictions for worst- and best-case scenarios.

I’ve also got a feeling the London Olympics will insinuate themselves in the Science and Technology section. Wherever there are elite athletes, ripped to within an inch of their lives, and technology that makes the recreational sports enthusiast cry in self-hating despair, we’ll be there, boldly doing what we do, going for gold.

Incidentally, I remember reading earlier this year about a chap in New Zealand who was about to launch the world’s first ever commercial jetpack, firstly to the military, who would deploy (flaming) flying doctors to the frontline in battles, no doubt lulling the open-mouthed enemy into a stupor of childhood wonder.

I have a personal interest in those jetpacks. I want one. I hope to see them in Bunnings some time soon.

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