The Macleay Museum, Sydney


The Macleay Museum (interior)

The Macleay Museum is a small (but free!) museum tucked away in the top floor of the Macleay building at the University of Sydney.

The museum, begun two centuries ago by Alexander Macleay, specialises in animal specimens and old scientific instruments, as well as having an ethnographic collection. However, only a handful of specimens are on display to the casual visitor. Still, like the other University of Sydney museums, the Macleay Museum is well worth a brief visit.


A microscope from the Macleay Museum’s collection

Update: the Macleay Museum will be closed for renovations from 25 November 2016 until 2018.


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The Lion of Microscopy

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek has been called the “father of microbiology.” This Dutch scientist manufactured several powerful microscopes with small, near-spherical, lenses, and made numerous microbiological and other observations. He discovered, among other things, red blood cells, spermatozoa, and micro-organisms.



Top: Replica of a van Leeuwenhoek microscope (photo: Jeroen Rouwkema). Bottom left: van Leeuwenhoek’s drawings of sand grains (in red chalk, from a letter to the Royal Society, 4th December 1703). Bottom right: section through one-year-old ash wood (click images to zoom).

It is interesting to compare van Leeuwenhoek’s drawings with the modern electron-microscope image of sand grains below. The technology has gotten better, but scientists are still treading down the path blazed by van Leeuwenhoek and his contemporary Robert Hooke.

And where would medicine be without microscopy? The microbiologists who followed this great pioneer have saved countless lives, and the world is in van Leeuwenhoek’s debt as a result.

Information is Beautiful 2013 Longlist

The “longlist” for the 2013 Information is Beautiful Awards has been released. Among the fascinating entries is this excellent tide prediction infographic by Kelvin Tow:

There are many other wonderful entries on the longlist, in five categories (Data Visualization, Infographic, Interactive, Motion Infographic, and Tool). Take a look!

The Dish: a movie review


Movie poster

The Dish is a classic Australian comedy from 2000, telling the story of how the CSIRO Parkes Observatory assisted with the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Movie trailer

The film contains some technical errors and oversimplifications, notably inventing some episodes for dramatic effect, cutting the telescope’s staff headcount, and downplaying the role of the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station (which was closed in 1981). However, those simplifications were probably necessary for dramatic reasons (see also CSIRO’s “fact vs fiction” list and history pages). The movie does get across the sense of excitement of the Apollo programme, as well as reminding us what the 60’s were like, and giving a light-hearted view of the cultural differences between Australia and the USA. And, of course, it’s very funny.


PDP-9 at the Monash University Computer Museum

Veteran actor Sam Neill does a great job in the film, as does the rest of the cast. The Dish also has superb props, including authentic vintage technology, such as the DEC PDP-9 shown above. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a 96% rating. It’s certainly worth watching!


The dish is still operating at Parkes (photo: John Sarkissian, CSIRO Parkes Observatory)

Parkes is still very active scientifically; recent papers include “The Parkes Pulsar Timing Array Project” and “Parkes full polarization spectra of OH masers – I. Galactic longitudes 350° through the Galactic Centre to 41°.”

* * * *
The Dish: 4 stars

WSC 2013 Revisited: What makes a winning team?

Thinking back to Nuon’s win in the World Solar Challenge Challenger Class, I’ve been asking myself about the factors that led this 16-person team to victory. That’s not a surprising question, given my long-standing interest in teamwork.

First, if we consider the relevant regions of this map of science (part of which is shown below), the 16 people cover the entire territory needed to build a solar car. There are 4 mechanical engineers, 8 aerospace engineers, an electrical engineer, an applied physicist, and an applied mathematician. The team includes specialist expertise in Computational Fluid Dynamics and solar cells, as well as the analytical skills needed to produce a winning race strategy (some of the other teams in the World Solar Challenge miscalculated at times; Nuon did not).

Along with the various technical skills, the team includes three glider pilots, a semi-professional cyclist, and an experienced PR person. Diversity within a team reduces the chance of groupthink, and increases the chance that the full space of engineering design options will be thoroughly explored.

The Nuon team is also well-structured. In fact, it has two quite different structures – one based on design & production expertise (reflected in the colour-coding below), and the other optimised for the race itself (indicated by the tree structure below – which I must admit to drawing largely by guesswork). For example, Industrial Design Engineering student Leslie Nooteboom is the team’s Public Relations person, as well as being a driver of the “Nuna 7” vehicle. Annemiek Koers, the other driver, is a graduate in Aerospace Engineering who worked on both aerodynamic design and production of “Nuna 7.”

Careful examination of the team photograph above will show that each team member has a labelled shirt that helps reinforce their specific team role and expertise. The team videos reveal how well team members worked together. Team leader Marlies Hak no doubt deserves much of the credit for this, but much of it presumably also lies in the selection of team members whose skills lie beyond the purely technical, and in successful team bonding activities. These 16 people have certainly done a fantastic job together!

WSC 2013: Final Reflections

Now that the World Solar Challenge is over for another two years, it’s time to reflect on the results, before I get back to my regular blogging.

The Bridgestone World Solar Challenge team has once again organised an excellent race, which covered an entire continent (although there were some unfortunate hiccups with the timing board and with the Silverlight-based live streaming of the awards).
The Nuon Solar Team deserves to be congratulated, for having the fastest car in the Challenger Class (followed by Tokai University and Solar Team Twente). Effective strategy (including planning for the weather) was also critical to reaching the finish line first. My race chart shows how close the battle for first place was.
Solar Team Eindhoven, winner of the Cruiser Class (see my updated post about the results), has shown that practical solar cars (carrying multiple people) are not all that far away from commercialisation. All kind of interesting applications can be imagined for vehicles like “Stella” – or indeed vehicles like the equally interesting Sunswift eVe or PowerCore SunCruiser.
The Netherlands has demonstrated strong expertise in solar car technology, with centres of excellence at Delft University of Technology, Eindhoven University of Technology, and the University of Twente. The Netherlands took out the Challenger #1, Challenger #3, and Cruiser #1 positions in the race. Other European teams took out Challenger #5, Challenger #6, and Cruiser #2 – it was a European-dominated event.
Jeroen Haringman at solarracing.org has done a superb job of analysing the race as it was happening, integrating information from both the official race site and from individual team blogs. When an event spans an entire continent, it’s difficult to get an overall perspective on what’s happening, unless someone does this kind of analysis. The organisers provided some of the raw data (GPS position and timing), but various photos, videos, and comments by participants were scattered around cyberspace, and required collating. One commenter called Jeroen Haringman’s site “the only comprehensible record.”
The individual media teams did a great job in communicating the excitement around the world via YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, and blogs. The media teams of Twente (Dutch video) and Nuon (Dutch video with captions) did particularly well. With enough technology, it becomes almost like being there.
GPS feeds into Google maps were an effective way of covering the race, although varying forms of analysis that were being built on-the-fly during the race need to be developed further. A short-lived experiment with Google Docs was particularly interesting, though limited in several ways.
A “brave attempt” award goes to the two high-school entries, from Goko High School in Japan (their nice-looking Cruiser Class entry lost its rear wheels just outside of Alice Springs), and Choctaw Central High School in Mississippi (their sleek Adventure Class entry developed electrical problems between Katherine and Dunmarra). For a high school to even compete at this level is indeed a major achievement!
The sun has really been the star of the race. It provided the energy that powered the vehicles. But the pictures of the Tokai vehicle stalled in the rain on the morning of the fifth day are a reminder that the sun is not always available. The first three days of the race took place in a part of the world with an average insolation of around 250 W/m2. In cloudier regions and at higher latitudes, average insolation drops to less than half of that, as well as being less consistent. That means that energy storage will always remain a critical part of any solar technology. It also means that solar technology is perhaps better suited to some parts of the world than others.

Finally, let me finish my WSC race coverage with this parting photo (by Jorrit Lousberg) of Team Nuon in the outback. It’s been an exciting week!

WSC 2013: Results (2)

Further to my post on the World Solar Challenge Cruiser Class results, these results were calculated using a four-part formula defined officially as follows:

This means that the final result is the sum of four components, and I have illustrated these in the bar chart below (which has been updated from the chart posted earlier, based on the official results). The final scores (on the left) are, for each colour, the sum of the other four bars:

Solar Team Eindhoven and “Stella” have won the Cruiser Class, ahead of Bochum’s PowerCore SunCruiser – by getting to Adelaide first and carrying more people. The Australian car Sunswift eVe came third, and the University of Minnesota fourth. Congratulations again!

Here is Eindhoven’s (very happy) update for today: