Because of black holes, we have wifi

Mathematicians and physicists predicted the existence of black holes before we ever found them; perhaps unsurprising since they don’t give off any light. But eventually we figured out that they really could exist, and then we predicted that they should in fact emit radiation, and then we found that radiation and all sorts of other hints that tell us they’re actually there.

Black hole (don't be scared, it's just an artist's rendering)

That makes it sound easy, but it was extremely hard. Filtering out all the radiation we get from space to identify just some bits of it as coming from matter as it falls into a black hole is very tricky. Scientists used a mathematical technique called Fourier analysis which can identify differentfrequencies of signal from one incoming mashed-up signal. And their analysis worked in identifying stuff that was radiating as a result of black holes.

Fourier analysis can tell you that one signal contains three discrete ones

Later on some clever scientists at CSIRO in Australia were trying to solve the problem of how lots of people in the same space, or that were moving around, could have their computers all networked. Running a wire to everyone is impractical. Using a radio signal would be possible but at the relatively low powers, short ranges, and confined spaces needed they got lots of signal reflections that made the incoming signal a bit mashed-up.

But these clever folks remembered what the black hole scientists had done and used Fourier techniques to disentangle the signals they needed from that mashed-up mess. And wifi communication was born.

Stonefield – Put Your Curse On Me

I’ve blogged before about a band from Australia called Stonefield, four young sisters who channel Zeppelin-era rock.


After some singles and EPs their first full album is coming out in October. Below is the lead track and video, “Put Your Curse On Me”.

The video is not ashamed of their psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll roots; why should it, this is part of their USP. It is in fact quite cheesy. But they still have a great, unashamedly over-the-top sound that will appeal to people who like hard rock from the early ’70s.

University of NSW develop a quantum bit using the nucleus of an atom

From the University of New South Wales (UNSW): engineers have been able to use the nucleus of an atom as the basis for a quantum bit (or qubit) the fundamental unit of quantum computing.

Artist’s impression of a single phosphorus atom, placed in the vicinity of a silicon transistor.

Why is this important?

  • Quantum computing means a potentially massive (like, exponentiallymassive) increase in computing speed and capacity.
  • This UNSW experiment was done in fairly normal conditions, with solid-state devices and normal silicon circuitry. Qubits with similar accuracy in the past have required very specialised conditions: atoms in a vacuum suspended in a magnetic field, for instance.

So the real breakthrough here is the practicality by which they were able to achieve their quantum computing result. It’s one step closer to being able to deliver quantum computing on a practical scale. Remember, the regular computers we’re familiar with used to weigh many tons and fill entire rooms. Quantum computing will likely go through a similar process.

You can read the media release or get even more background info about quantum computing from the UNSW.

New Australian music: triple j’s nominees for the Australian album of 2012

The J Awards celebrate the outstanding music of homegrown Australian artists.


+ Tame Impala – Lonerism

+ Alpine – A Is For Alpine

+ Hermitude – HyperParadise

+ Ball Park Music – Museum

+ The Rubens – The Rubens

+ Bertie Blackman – Pope Innocent X

+ Regular John – Regular John

+ Oh Mercy – Deep Heat

+ Urthboy – Smokey’s Haunt

+ The Presets – Pacifica

+ Sarah Blasko – I Awake

+ Parkway Drive – Atlas

I’ve heard something from just about all of these as a result of my heavy reliance on triple j and fbi radio. Tame Impala, The Rubens, and Oh Mercy are my faves at this stage, but I should give some of the others a better listen. Except Parkway Drive, they’re terrible.

New songs from Claude Hay: listen here

I’ve seen Australian one-man blues band Claude Hay a few times now. I think he’s fabulous: the right mix of genuinely rootsy, funky, funny, nice, and a string and slide virtuoso to boot. He deserves your time; give him a listen below.

Claude has a new album coming out next month. Below are a couple of songs from it. I think these sound great. They amp up the funky groove, which can never be a bad thing. You can learn more about Claude, and download “I Love Hate You” (which is about his touring van, not a love interest) at his website.

People in the UK: Claude is coming your way. There are dates announced for Folkestone, Halstead, and Gillingham, but more will surely follow.

Science and Rational Thought in Australian Politics

I started reading The Geek Manifesto this morning. The book, by UK writer and journalist Mark Henderson, is a call to those who love science and its proven method for finding the truth to make your will felt in the public sphere. Too long have uninformed, reactionary, crowd-pleasing, lowest-common-denominator politics filled the public discourse, he says. Geeks are finally getting some cred and some clout, and it’s time we used it.

The book is already speaking to me deeply. His first example of geeks exerting their influence was in the UK libel case against Simon Singh a couple of years ago, which I blogged about. Henderson is right, I thought. We have a powerful means to back up our opinions. Why should we let lawyers and business students run the show all the time?

I’m obviously going to read the rest of the Manifesto with excitement. But I’ve already started looking into forums or other sources of information here in Australia that are trying to include more science into politics. Maybe this is the time for us to shift national policy and debate into something more rational.

  • Science in Public is a science communication company, kind of a geek PR
  • Professor Ian Chubb is the “Chief Scientist for Australia [which provides] high-level independent advice to the Prime Minister and other Ministers on matters relating to science, technology and innovation. They also hold the position of Executive Officer of the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council to identify challenges and opportunities for Australia that can be addressed, in part, through science. An equally important part of the role of Chief Scientist for Australia is to be a champion of science, research and the role of evidence in the community and in government. Finally, the Chief Scientist is a communicator of science to the general public, with the aim to promote understanding of, contribution to and enjoyment of science and evidence-based thinking.”
  • Many universities have centres for public policy; I’d be interested to find out if science awareness features in them.

Geeks unite.

Harvest Festival lineup is awesome

I’m not much for music festivals anymore. Gettin’ too old. Can’t be bothered for the couple of bands in the lineup I’d care to see.

But when I saw that Harvest Festival is intentionally billing itself as something other than a sun-baked piss-up for teenagers – that is, a proper festival about good music – I paid attention.

When I saw the lineup, I bought tickets ASAP. You should too, if you’re old like me, or tired of the same party bands on the same tours.

Acts include:

  • Portishead
  • The National
  • The Flaming Lips
  • Bright Eyes
  • TV on the Radio
  • Mogwai
  • Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
  • Hypnotic Brass Ensemble
  • Holy Fuck
  • Mercury Rev
  • Death In Vegas
  • The Walkmen
  • and many more

Surprise folk festival in St Albans

Last Saturday was a sunny, glorious day. We decided to take a drive, and headed up to the Hawkesbury. We’d spent some time here last year and found it very peaceful and quite remote, despite being not all that far from the city.

Our destination was The Settler Arms in St Albans, an old pub that had a nice, quiet courtyard, their own hand-pumped ale, and good food.

I was therefore quite surprised when we rolled up and saw huge crowds of people, cars, and tents all around the pub. It turns out the St Albans Folk Festival was on that weekend.

This actually worked out very well. We had our beer and our lunch, but were also vastly entertained by the spontaneous concerts that broke out around the pub courtyard. There was a tented, ticketed area where performers put on official shows but it seems the performers were quite happy to practice just about anywhere between sets. You couldn’t turn around without hearing some beardy bloke with a fiddle playing a tune, or tripping over a banjo and guitar session that went on and on. There was even Morris dancing.

It was a great vibe, so we stayed a couple of hours, listening to everything we could. It was an unexpected musical benefit to wat was already a nice driving day.

Protecting the identity of super prawns

Real life has been demanding all my attention recently. Here’s a short one on the scence of seafood genetics.

Australian scientists have created a tiger prawn that grows 20% faster than other similar prawns. But just as breeding other valuable types of animals is lucrative business only if you can protect that genetic legacy, those scientists are looking at ways of ensuring others can’t just duplicate their work.

Survey of Australians’ basic scientific literacy

The Australian Scientific and Technological Societies have done a survey of basic scientific literacy of the population.

The media is, expectedly, ringing alarm bells as though it’s the end of intelligent thought in this country. My first response was that the results weren’t actually too bad: two-thirds of people knew that humans and dinosaurs did not co-exist. The ABC frets that only about 4% of those surveyed got everything right, but that was largely due to one question on how much of the world’s water is fresh.

But maybe my expectations are too low. The survey does say that a third of people do think we were the Flintstones, living side-by-side with brontosaurs. Twenty-eight percent of people think it takes the Earth a day to go around the sun. These were pretty basic concepts. And even the freshwater question, which I reckon would be the hardest one to estimate for most people (although easiest for people familiar with multiple-choice tests), means that the general public doesn’t recognise the scale of water availability issues around the world.

You can see the survey here [PDF] and read the Societies’ report on the results here [PDF].