Scientists and researchers are often criticized for not letting people know about their work in an understandable way.

You may be surprised to know that academics are not evaluated by the impact that their work has on public debate, nor by the extent that they influence good public policy. They do not score ‘points’ for giving people a greater understanding of the world, nor for helping people make better decisions about their lives and health. They do not even get judged by their excellence in passing on their knowledge to university students.

In fact, academics are evaluated by the extent that their work and ideas can be commercialised, and by the number of ‘papers’ that they can get published in academic journals. These published papers are not judged on their content, but by the grading of the journal (A,B,C or D) in which they appear.

If that seems somewhat strange to you, it does to me also.

Anyway, the new web based newspaper ‘The Conversation‘ is an ambitious attempt to start the conversation between academia and the rest of us.

“The Conversation is an independent source of information, analysis and commentary from the university and research sector – written by acknowledged experts and delivered directly to the public. As professional journalists, we aim to make this wealth of knowledge and expertise accessible to all.”

Authors for the Conversation are sourced from the so-called  Australian Group of Eight universities (Adelaide, ANU, Melbourne, Monash, NSW, Queensland, Sydney, Western Australia) plus University of Technology Sydney, CSIRO, and the Australian Science Media Centre. The credentials of the authors are impeccable.

Articles range across the faculties : business and the economy. the environment and energy, health and medicine, politics and society, science and technology. 

We use the Conversation as a regular source for Emaildig and I recommend you add it to ‘your daily office’.




Seismograph at Riverview Observatory, Sydney.

The Earthquake this weekend in Japan measured 8.9 on the Richter Scale. Christchurch’s earthquake on Feb 21st scored 6.3. Yet they say Japan’s was 1000 times stronger than New Zealand’s. How does that work?

The magnitude of an earthquake is measured using a scale developed by Charles Richter in 1934.  It is based on the largest earth movement detected during a quake on a seismograph. The range of possible wave amplitudes is vast – from tiny movements that humans won’t notice to the enormous tremors we have seen in Japan and NZ.

This is the seismograph recording taken from the Riverview Observatory in Syndey on March 11th this week. You can see the Honshu earthquake hitting at 5.46 (UTC)


Because of the large range of possible readings, the Richter Scale is logarithmic. This means that a quake that is one unit bigger than another on the scale actually causes 10 times more movement.  A quake measuring 9 causes ten times bigger movement than a quake measuring 8, one hundred times more than a quake measuring 7, and a thousand times more than a quake measuring 6.

This table, reproduced from, shows how earthquakes are graded according to this scale.

Earthquake Magnitude Scale

Magnitude Earthquake Effects Estimated Number
Each Year
2.5 or less Usually not felt, but can be recorded by seismograph. 900,000
2.5 to 5.4 Often felt, but only causes minor damage. 30,000
5.5 to 6.0 Slight damage to buildings and other structures. 500
6.1 to 6.9 May cause a lot of damage in very populated areas. 100
7.0 to 7.9 Major earthquake. Serious damage. 20
8.0 or greater Great earthquake. Can totally destroy communities near the epicenter. One every 5 to 10 years

So the Richter Scale measures the amount of shaking movement an earthquake causes. However, the actual destructive power of an earthquake (it’s seismic power) scales to a higher factor against the amount of movement. So, a difference of one on the Richter Scale means 10 times the amount of shake but 30 times the destructive power. A difference on the Richter Sale of 2 means 100 times more movement but 1000 times more destructive power. Hence the relationship quoted in the initial text above. The Christchurch earthquake had 42 Kilotons of energy – the Japanese earthquake 336 Megatons!

The amount of damage done by a quake to a city also depends on how close the epicenter of the quake is to the city centre, how deep the quake is, and on the nature of the buildings in the city.

The earthquake in Christchurch was only 6km from the city center, at a depth pf 5km. The Japanese earthquake was 130km from Sendai (in the Pacific Ocean) at a depth of 24km. (most of the destruction has been caused by the ensuing tsunamai).

Earth tremors occur every 5 minutes in Japan, and there are 2000 quakes a year that can be felt by people. Because of the risk, traditional houses use paper architecture, and there are earthquake instruction signs in every building. This all seemed funny when we were there – but very sensible now.

On the US Geological Survery site you can compare detailed measurements of the Japanese earthquake on March 11th and of the Christchurch quake on Feb 21st

The recent Japanese earthquake was one of the largest ever recorded. The Indian Ocean earthquake in 2004 (which caused the devastating Tsunamai_ measured 9.3, and the largest earthquake ever recorded was the Valdivia earthquake in Chile in 1960, measuring 9.5.

It is somewhat sobering to view all the earthquakes happenning around the world each day. There have been 507 earthquakes in the last week, as shown on the map below. You can check the live report here.







Each year there are 250 million cases of Malaria in tropical and subtropical parts of the world. Between 1 and 2 million of these cases are fatal. It is in the Top 10 causes of death in low income countries.

Malaria is caused by the parasite Plasmodium, which is carried by the female Anopheles mosquito. This mosquito feeds at night. (Dengue Fever is spread by the Aedes mosquito which feeds in the daytime.

Each year, there are 30000 cases of malaria in people who are travelling to malaria-endemic areas. 5% of these cases are fatal.

The Malaria Atlas Project maps the prevelance of the Anophlese mosquito.

The parasite is transmitted to the Anopheles mosquito when it feeds from the blood of an infected person, It transfers to the salivary glands of the mosquito, from where it is easily transmitted to a new host when the mosquito has another feed. Within minutes of gaining entry to a new host, the parasite invade cells in the liver, where they multiply for 1 – 4 weeks. When the liver cell eventually bursts, the parasites invade the persons red blood cells. There they continue to multiply, every few days causing their host red blood cell to burst, and enabling the now larger brood to invade other red blood cells. When in the red blood cells they are ready to be taken up by a new feeding mosquito.

The classical symptoms of malaria are getting cold, having shakes (or rigors), and then getting a high fever – with this pattern recurring every two or three days. These symptoms are associated with red blood cell invasion, so start about a week after becoming infected.

Malaria can usually be diagnosed by seeing the parasites in the blood of an infected person under a microscope.

There is (as yet) no vaccine for malaria, and this remains a focus of research. There are effective drugs to prevent malaria, and to treat it once it is diagnosed. Travellers to areas where malaria is endemic should take preventative medication, generally starting two days before entering the area and continuing for four weeks after leaving (the medications are effective after the initial liver stage of the infection)

Other preventive measures to reduce the number of mosquitos and to prevent bites (with bed nets and repellants) are effective. Economic adviser Jeffrey Sachs estimates that malaria can be controlled for US$3 billion in aid per year.

Jake Baum at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne used transmission electron microscopy, immuno-fluorescence and 3D super-resolution microscopy to record this video of the Plasmodium parasite invading a red blood cell. It is the first time this criminal has been caught in the act, and may lead to more progress on managing the disease.

Full report on this video in New Scientist…


Why do I always seem to pick the wrong line at the Coles checkouts?

I’m into queueing theory, so was very happy to come across this video about Agner Erlang, the father of queueing theory, by Prof Bill Hammack. Prof Hammack is from the University of Illinois. He also goes by the title ‘The Engineer Guy’,