Scaling the Varsity Heights

Varsity Heights

This road sign, part of my daily jogging route, catches my eye every time I run past.

You have to wonder about the subliminal message it conveys – is tertiary education a dead-end street, or is a life in academia so fascinating and satisfying that you would never want to leave? In the case of New Zealand, tertiary education is clearly not considered a dead-end street – according to the publication ‘Profile and Trends 2011: New Zealand’s Tertiary Education Sector’, more than 450 000 students were enrolled in formal study programmes in 2011. The number of young people taking on higher-level tertiary qualifications is also increasing, as is the number of international students enrolling in tertiary education in New Zealand.

Given that the current population of New Zealand is just under 4.5 million, the above numbers suggest that about 10% of the population is currently enrolled in tertiary studies. That’s a pretty impressive statistic. Not surprisingly, then, that most ranking systems place the country in the top ten in the world in terms of educational performance, along with other high-performing countries like Finland, Denmark, Australia, Cuba, Korea, Japan, China, Singapore and Canada.

Varsity Heights, indeed. And surely no dead-end street!

Celebrating the out-of-this-world photography from the Hubble Space Telescope

Today, 20 May back in 1990, people on earth got their first glimpse at a photograph from arguably the most expensive camera in the world – or at least using the most expensive lens in the world. Today celebrates the day that the first photographic image (an image of a double star 1,260 light years away) was sent to earth from the Hubble Space Telescope (HST).

NASA image release date April 17, 2012 This region resembles a coral reef, but the gas has been eroded by the hefty stars in R136, situated above it. Cloaked in gas at the top of this rugged, gaseous terrain are nascent stars that cannot be seen. Dense columns of gas, several light-years long, protrude from the undulating landscape. These gaseous columns are incubators for developing stars. By NASA Goddard Photo and Video (Space Flickr photograph. Some Rights Reserved.) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
NASA image release date April 17, 2012
This region resembles a coral reef, but the gas has been eroded by the hefty stars in R136, situated above it. Cloaked in gas at the top of this rugged, gaseous terrain are nascent stars that cannot be seen. Dense columns of gas, several light-years long, protrude from the undulating landscape. These gaseous columns are incubators for developing stars.
By NASA Goddard Photo and Video (Space Flickr photograph. Some Rights Reserved.) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
The HST was carried into orbit by a Space Shuttle in 1990, and remains in operation until today. In it’s 20+ years of operation, it has dazzled us with some truly mind-blowing images. The fact that it’s orbit lies outside the distortion of the earth’s atmosphere means that it can capture amazingly sharp images, with practically no background light, providing scientists with a detailed view into deep space and time. The instruments on the telescope observes light in the near-ultraviolet, visible and near-infrared ranges.

To see more of the amazing imagery produced by the HST, have a look at the Hubble Space Telescope: the first 20 years in pictures collection in The Telegraph.

Remembering a pioneer of space photography

A few days ago, on 17 May 2013, Frederick Doyle died at age 93.

For those who don’t know, Frederick Doyle was a space photographer and photographic mapping specialist at NASA. He was appointed chairman of NASA’s Apollo Orbital Science Photographic Team in 1969, where his responsibilities included the planning of the camera systems and direction of orbital science photography for the Apollo lunar missions 13 to 17. Many famous images of the moon, including mappings of the mountains of the moon, came to us courtesy of Mr Doyle.

View of the moon, from "Apollo Over the Moon: A View from Orbit" (1978 © F Doyle)
View of the moon, from “Apollo Over the Moon: A View from Orbit” (1978 © F Doyle)

Beyond his moon imagery, Doyle directed photography projects on space missions to Mercury, Venus and Mars. He was also a principle investigator on the Landsat satellite photography projects, as well as on Skylab. The images of earth created under his supervision have given scientists greater insights into topics like climate change and deforestation.

Frederick Doyle may not have been a household name, but as a science photographer he certainly made a huge contribution to the field of space photography and the mapping of the earth’s surface.

To see more of his wonderful images, have a look at Apollo Over the Moon: A View from Orbit.

Celebrating a year of daily blog-posts!

It was today exactly one year ago, or perhaps I should say 365 days ago, in blog terms, that I made a blog post about the inaugural Fascination of Plants Day.

This rather inconspicuous event in the blogging universe, on the arbitrary date of 18 May 2012, was the kick-off of an idea I had to do a daily blog featuring some interesting fact (preferably with a science angle) related to the specific day, and illustrating it with one of my own photos. And here we are – 365 posts later, back to the 18th of May. 🙂

Jumping for joy at having achieved my goal of a year of daily science and photography blog-posts  (© All Rights Reserved)
Jumping for joy at having achieved my goal of a year of daily science and photography blog-posts
(© All Rights Reserved)

I don’t think I quite realised what I let myself in for – trying to find something interesting for each day proved quite a challenge, especially given the extra requirement of illustrating it with an original photograph of my own. This immediately took things like space travel, innovations at the atomic level, heart transplants etc out of the equation, sometimes leaving me blogging about some rather absurd esoteric topics like Yellow Pig Day and World Coconut Day. I discovered many interesting facts and stories I never knew – the story of Farkas Bolyai and his mathematical obsessions, Stanley Miller’s primordial soup experiments, how bubble wrap was invented, and the fact that there’s even such a thing as World Toilet Day, to name but a few.

I even learned how to make a needle float on water.

My original aim was to keep up the daily blog for a year. With that done, the question is whereto now. While I’m reluctant to commit to another year of the same level of blogging dedication, I have to admit I’ve been enjoying where the blog took me, so I don’t quite feel like calling it a day.

What I’ve decided for the moment (I may change my mind, who knows) is to commit to at least a weekly post on a subject related to the day (or week – there appears to be more than enough ‘International Week of…’ initiatives out there worth sharing a blog post about).

In between I may mix things up a bit with more blog posts related to what I do in real life, that is, being a science photographer. Posts about interesting events and developments in the fields of photography, visual science communication, science art collaborations, and more. Even some personal ramblings, who knows.

My sincere thanks to everyone following this blog, to all the likes, comments and support over the past year. I hope you will continue to share my journey.

Cheers to the next year.
Gerry

ICTs and improving road safety

It’s 17 May 2013, and today we celebrate World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (WTISD). The purpose of the day, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) website, is “to help raise awareness of the possibilities that the use of the Internet and other information and communication technologies (ICT) can bring to societies and economies, as well as of ways to bridge the digital divide.”

The date of 17 May was chosen because it marks the date of the signing of the first International Telegraph Convention in 1865, and the creation of the ITU. Initially the day was only known as World Telecommunications Day (it was celebrated annually since 1969). In November 2005, the World Summit on the Information Society called on the UN General Assembly to declare 17 May as World Information Society Day, “to focus on the importance of ICT and the wide range of issues related to the Information Society raised by WSIS.” In November 2006, at the ITU Conference in Turkey, it was decided to combine the above two events into a single World Telecommunication and Information Society Day.

Every year, WTISD promotes a specific theme, an area where telecommunications and ICT has a significant impact, or potential for significant impact, on society. For 2013, the theme is “ICTs and improving road safety.”

According to a report by the UN’s Road Safety Collaboration, 1.3 million people die annually in traffic-related accidents, with another 20-50 million injured. Considering the medical costs involved, as well as costs of work-loss etc, traffic accidents clearly have a huge impact on economies globally.

The impact of telecommunications and ICT on road safety is immense. Sadly, it is not all positive. (© All Rights Reserved)
The impact of telecommunications and ICT on road safety is immense. Sadly, it is not all positive.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The impact of ICT and telecommunications on road safety can be viewed from two sides. On the positive side, improved connectivity has a positive impact in terms of placing road users in contact with emergency services and road side assistance. Ever-increasing accessibility of maps and navigation services through smartphones etc can also improve safety on the road. Increasingly sophisticated traffic management systems have the potential to positively impact on traffic safety, and at the high end of technology, intelligent driver assist systems is another domain where ICT in particular has a huge potential role to play.

On the downside, however, driver distraction and road-user behaviour, including texting and interfacing with navigation and other communications systems while driving, count among the leading contributors to traffic-related accidents. And it is not only distracted drivers that cause problems – texting pedestrians represent an equally big risk, putting themselves and other road users in danger. The challenge in addressing these dangers is, of course, more educational than technical – it is all about educating all road users about the dangers of being distracted by personal communication systems while using the road.

So while today is a day to celebrate the amazing technological contribution ICT has made to improved road safety, it is also a day to remind ourselves of the terrible tragedies that have followed from the injudicious and inconsiderate use of mobile phones, GPS systems, etc while engaged in road usage.

Be safe, everyone.

Celebrating our giant green friends on Love a Tree Day

According to various sources, today, 16 May, is Love a Tree Day. Not an officially sanctioned day like Arbor Day, for example, but any day drawing attention to trees has to be a good thing, right? Also, the problem with Arbor Day is that it’s a localised event, celebrated on different dates around the world, so there’s no single date for us all to get together and sing the praises of the mighty tree.

Until Love a Tree Day, that is.

So, this is a good time to again remind ourselves why we should all really go out every day and hug the trees around us; why we should feed & nurture them; and why we should not let an opportunity go by to plant a tree.

While today is a reminder to love all trees, let's also use it to celebrate the diversity of trees out there. And to remind ourselves of those trees that need particular protection from potential extinction. Pictured here is the beautiful Aloe dichotoma, or quiver tree (kokerboom), indigenous to Southern Africa. Different subspecies of the tree have been rated as 'vulnerable' (A. dichotoma), 'endangered' (A. ramossisima) and 'critically endangered' (A. pillansii) respectively on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. (© All Rights Reserved)
While today is a reminder to love all trees, let’s also use it to celebrate the diversity of trees out there. And to remind ourselves of those trees that need particular protection from potential extinction. Pictured here is the beautiful Aloe dichotoma, or quiver tree (kokerboom), indigenous to Southern Africa. Different subspecies of the tree have been rated as ‘vulnerable’ (A. dichotoma), ‘endangered’ (A. ramossisima) and ‘critically endangered’ (A. pillansii) respectively on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
(© All Rights Reserved)

I’m sure you don’t need convincing of the value of trees. They support life by producing oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide. They release groundwater into the air to help maintain a healthy ecosystem. They help reduce soil erosion and create a soil climate conducive to microorganism growth. Shade trees around buildings can greatly reduce air conditioning costs. Trees are a key provider of food products (fruit, nuts etc) supporting humans and animals. Thousands of products used in daily life are made from wood.

Trees also happen to include some of the oldest, and largest, living organisms on the planet. The giant sequoia tree (Sequoiadendron giganteum), for example, can weigh over 2000 tonnes and live to be older than 3000 years. That is pretty damn impressive, so say the least.

To go into detail about the value and importance of trees would go way beyond the scope of a humble little daily blog post. Suffice to say, they deserve your care, love and respect.

Support local tree planting initiatives. Support your local Arbor Day. Heck, make every day Love a Tree Day.

Decisive moments. This is it.

I photograph science and technology… but not all the time.

Introducing Decisive Moments – encapsulating those other fields I pursue as a photographer; subjects and styles that may not quite fit into the Sciencelens framework.

Ode to the humble chocolate chip

It’s chocolate time again, folks! I’ve blogged about chocolate before, specifically about the very depressing fact that world chocolate consumption is exceeding production, putting us at risk of having this most sublime of treats go extinct on us.

That thought, however, was simply too depressing, so I will rather dedicate today to a celebration of the chocolate chip (invented in the 1930’s by Ruth Graves Wakefield). In case you’re wondering, today, 15 May, is Chocolate Chip Day.

Chocolate chips about to liven up some otherwise plain banana muffins.  Hmmm, can't wait for the final product! (© All Rights Reserved)
Chocolate chips about to liven up some otherwise plain banana muffins. Hmmm, can’t wait for the final product!
(© All Rights Reserved)

Now a chocolate chip is an interesting thing. Unlike a slab of chocolate, or a fancy box of chocolates, chocolate chips don’t share that level of sheer indulgent decadence. No, they’re much more subtle – usually hiding away inconspicuously in the fridge or grocery cabinet. When they do appear, however, they can stand their ground against all kinds of exotic ingredients to play a part in the most extravagant culinary creations. Forget about chocolate chip cookies (good as they can be!) – I’m talking about chocolate chip mousse pyramids, blondie-brownie pies, chocolate chip waffles, chocolate chip and mascarpone cupcakes or, wait for it… the chocolate chip martini!

But aside from these moments of mouth-bursting glory, the chocolate chip remains quiet and unassuming in its corner of the cupboard.

It is exactly this indistinct nature of the chocolate chip that makes it so great. Even when all the other chocolate in the house has been greedily consumed during late night chocolate cravings, there’s likely to still be some chocolate chips in the cupboard, ready to be whipped out and made into something special.

In a way, life is much like chocolate (where have I heard that before!?). You get your slab-of-chocolate people – striking, impressive and in your face, but often too conspicuous for their own good. Then there’s the pick-a-mix chocolate types – all dressed up and fancy, but often more sight than substance. And then there’s the chocolate chip people, the salt of the earth, the unassuming ones who come to save the day when all the other chocolates are gone.

So let’s use Chocolate Chip Day to celebrate the chocolate chip, its inventor Ruth Wakefield, and all the chocolate chip people out there!

Celebrating the invention of Vaseline

It is today, 135 years ago on 14 May 1878, that the Vaseline trademark was registered for the petroleum jelly product developed almost a decade earlier by English chemist Robert Augustus Chesebrough.

Chesebrough initially went to Titusville Pa in the USA during the petroleum boom, and became interested in a paste-like residue that clogged the pumps of the oil drillers. Although a rough and unrefined paste, local oil workers had already started using it on burns to promote healing. Chesebrough started experimenting with different ways of extracting and purifying the paste, eventually finding an effective way of manufacturing the petroleum jelly which he called ‘Vaseline’. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “the name is of mixed origin, being derived from Wasser, water, and elaion [Greek in the original], oil (water-oil), and indicates the belief of the discoverer that petroleum, the mother of Vaseline, is produced by the agency of heat and pressure from the carbon of certain rocks, and the hydrogen of water.”

Moisturising, lubricating Vaseline. (© All Rights Reserved)
Moisturising, lubricating Vaseline.
(© All Rights Reserved)

He patented it on 4 June 1872. Realising the potential of the product, he began selling it through his Chesebrough Manufacturing Company. Vaseline continued to be made and sold by Chesebrough’s company for more than a century, until the company was purchased by Unilever in 1987.

It is quite amazing, when you think about the fact that Vaseline started out as an unwanted byproduct of the oil drilling process, what an incredibly useful and versatile product it turned out to be. Not only is it a great moisturiser, working wonders on dry lips, tired eyes and chapped skin (esp hands, heels and elbows), but it also makes a great exfoliating body rub, when mixed with sea salt. From a medicinal point of view, it can sooth and protect burns, grazes, cuts and sensitive shaved skin (or even new tattoos!).

For the DIY types, Vaseline is great to keep screw-in light bulbs or bottle lids from sticking, to sort out a squeaky hinge or to loosen a stiff bike chain. It can also be used to remove watermarks from wood, or lipstick stains from napkins and clothing. It’s even useful as emergency shoe-shine. Oh, and here’s one you may not have heard – when you carve up a Halloween pumpkin, you can rub Vaseline on the exposed cuts on the pumpkin to keep it from rotting or drying out!

And you may know the story of how Vaseline can be used for sex: simply apply it to the bedroom doorknob – it works great to keep the kids out. 🙂

So here’s to Robert Chesebrough and his Vaseline – lubricating the world since 1878.

Cardinal Richelieu and the creation of the table knife

According to Today in Science (a website I use quite often to find some arbitrary scientific topic for my daily blog) today, 13 May, is the day in 1637 that the table knife was created by Cardinal Richelieu of France.

Whether it actually happened on this exact day I was unable to confirm, but various sources seem to agree that it was in fact Cardinal Richelieu (Armand Jean du Plessis) who was responsible for creating the now common table knife with its rounded end. And it happened in the 1630’s, at least.

Spreading made easy, thanks to the wide-bladed, blunt-ended table knife.  (© All Rights Reserved)
Spreading made easy, thanks to the wide-bladed, blunt-ended table knife.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The story goes that Cardinal Richelieu got irritated by the brutish behaviour of men at the dining tables of the time, stabbing their daggers (which doubled as table cutlery) into chunks of meat and other food, or into the table, for that matter, if they needed their hands free. And even worse was their despicable habit of using the sharp daggers to pick their teeth at the end of the meal. To put an end to this behaviour, he ordered his kitchen staff to file off the sharp points of all the house knifes. The idea caught on, and it wasn’t long before this new style of rounded table knife became a trendy dinner accessory in upperclass French households.

In 1669, King Louis XIV of France banned pointed knives – at the table and as weapons – to try put an end to the culture of violence of the time. This further cemented the position of the round-ended table knife as preferred form of cutlery.

Over time, the exact shape and form of the table knife changed, becoming slightly wider to make it easier to scoop food onto a fork, and to make it easier to spread butter or other spreads onto a slice of bread. (Anyone who’s ever tried spreading butter onto bread using a carving knife will know what a frustrating process it can be.)

So next time you butter a slice of fresh bread, or tuck into a soft and juicy stew, remember Cardinal Richelieu, and his clever cutlery innovation from almost 400 years ago.