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GNS's week of quake communication

GNS's week of quake communication

The birth of newest Royal, Prince George, may have swept earthquake coverage off the front page on Wednesday, but scientists have been busy throughout the week explaining via the media what they've learned about the quakes.

Well-earned credit goes to GNS Science seismologists and earthquake experts including John Ristau, Stephen Bannister, Ken Gledhill and Kelvin Berryman, who not only had to interpret the data produced on the quakes, but communicate it to the media and the public at short notice.

Part of this communication effort found the scientists mentioned above participating in three live online chat sessions - with the Herald Online, Stuff and the National Business Review, producing some of the clearest answers to the questions people had about Sunday's 6.5M quake, the aftershocks and seismic activity in central New Zealand in general.

Dr Ken Gledhill's scientific summary of the quakes at a press conference held by Wellington Mayor Celia Wade Brown on Monday afternoon attracted the most interest from journalists.

Other scientists also contributed commentary on the quakes, including Victoria University's, Professor Euan Smith, whose comments giving historical context to the quakes were carried as far away as the UK and China.

Ultimately, GNS and scientists at NIWA and other agencies still have a lot of work to do to confirm which fault line the 6.5M quake occurred on and the impact this may have had on surrounding fault lines.

But the clear communication this week of the data gathered, the uncertainty remaining and the regular re-evaluation of further earthquake probability kept the public informed on what the scientists did know. Scientists working in this area have learned a lot through adversity, which is paying off for the public in the form of good science communication on the natural hazards with which we all live.

You can read more about the quakes and subsequent news coverage on the Science Media Centre website.

Sir Peter on science, media & society
The Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor, Prof Sir Peter Gluckman, has reflected on the intersection between science and the media in a new posting on his blog : Scientists, the media and society: where are we now?.

Whilst highlighting efforts towards bringing the two camps closer together (such as the Science Media Centres and Australian website The Conversation), Sir Peter called for a greater focus on science communication.

Drawing on examples such as 1080 poison, water fluoridation and genetic modification, Sir Peter noted the great challenges in dealing with 'hot topic' science issues:

"These conflated issues have some common elements and, when we stop to parse them, we find that better science communication could go some way to resolving such confused debates. Public perceptions of risk, trust in authorities, and the general discomfort with uncertainty need to be addressed with openness, integrity and professionalism."

Expanding on the issue of uncertainty in science he wrote:

"Whether it is about seismic activity, projected climate change scenarios or the impact of a social policy, science can never be absolute. Rather, what it offers is a process of ascertaining knowledge about the world by which uncertainty, subjectivity and bias are reduced."

He also drew attention to the revised Code of Conduct for Scientists, released by the Science Council of Japan in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, which gives a mandate for scientists to engage with society, stating:

"Scientists shall participate actively in dialogue and exchange with citizens, for better mutual understanding between society and the scientific community."

The Japanese code is, as Sir Peter puts it, "a step in the right direction". Perhaps it is time for a similar declaration in New Zealand?

Sir Peter's comments carry extra relevance following the announcement of the National Science Challenges earlier this year, which included a special 'Science & Society' challenge aiming for better use of scientific knowledge in policy formation, the private sector and society as a whole.

You can read Sir Peter Gluckman's full post on the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor website.

On the science radar this week...
Psychopathic empathy, sabre-toothed possums, a climate shift in international news, silky brain implants stop seizures and Big Brother inside your mouth?
Discoverer of 'Hobbit' species dies
New Zealander Prof Mike Morwood, know for his discovery of the Homo floresiensis skeleton, died this week, aged 62.

Prof Mike Morwood
Prof Morwood was born in Auckland and studied archaeology at Auckland University before moving to Australia to pursue a career in research.

His research lead him around the world, but it was on the small island of Flores, Indonesia, that he made the discovery for which he will be remembered.

In 2003, Prof Morwood and colleagues uncovered the skeleton of a small humanoid while excavating a cave on Flores. After careful analysis of the skeleton and other nearby remains, he determined that characteristics of the skeleton separated it from any other known Homo species and declared the humanoid to be a new species: Homo floresiensis.

The small, pre-human humanoids, believed to be about a metre tall in adulthood, were nicknamed 'Hobbits', after the short-statured protagonists of JRR Tolkein's The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

Homo floresiensis
Prof Moorwood's work was highlighted last year when he toured New Zealand giving public lectures on his discovery.

Prof Moowood died of cancer in hospital in Darwin on Monday.

Friend and colleague, Dr Brent Alloway of Victoria University Wellington, highlighted the importance of Prof Morwood's contributions to science:

"Mike through his research has widened our appreciation of the peculiarities associated with human evolution and dispersion," he said.
"Mike will be sadly missed but his legacy will continue long into the future."

The impact of Prof Morwood's research continues, with a new study examining the facial structure of the H. Floresiensis published just last week in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

You can read more about Prof Morwood's life and read reflections from colleagues on the SMC website.

Quoted: Otago Daily Times

"Bringing science into the real world is just really important and bringing that through with something like haiku, that is so simple and so small, is really important as well.''

Sophia Frentz, University of Otago genetics student and haiku poet

New from the SMC

Experts Respond:
Prof Mike Morwood: New Zealander Prof Morwood, discoverer of the Homo floresiensis 'Hobbit' skeleton, died this week.

Wellington quakes: Read expert commentary and find further resources on the recent seismic activity in the Cook Strait.

Reflections on Science:

Innovation in the city: Writing in the New Zealand Herald, Prof Shaun Hendy examine the links between cities and smarts.


Quake update: Listen to GNS Science seismologist Dr Ken Gledhill speaking about the Wellington 6.5 quake at a civil defence press conference earlier in the week,

Sciblogs highlights

Some of the highlights from this week's posts:

How to spot a badly-drawn DNA helix - If you are going draw a DNA helix, for goodness sake do it right, says Grant Jacobs.
Code for Life

What's in a colour? Marcus Wilson recounts how he learned his childhood dream of discovering a new colour was not possible.
Physics Stop

The origins of humans lie in a - ahem! - far-fetched hybridisation event? Alison Campbell critiques a hypothesis suggesting that Homo sapiens are the result of a wild boar getting lucky with a chimpanzee (not kidding).
Bio Blog

Research highlights

Please note: hyperlinks point, where possible, to the relevant abstract or paper.

Plain pack attack: The New Zealand government is planning to introduce plain pack legislation by the end of the year. Will it work in deterring smokers? Yes, according to new research comparing 'branded' and 'plain pack' smokers during last year's switchover to mandatory plain packaging in Australia. Results suggested that plain pack smokers thought more about quitting and were more likely to think their cigarettes were poorer quality and less satisfying.
BMJ Open

Seafood the answer to quake prone buildings? Scientists have solved the longstanding puzzle as to how marine mussels remain attached to wood, stone, concrete or iron in spite of severe impacting waves. The perfect combination of stiff and flexible fibres, attached in just the right way, secures mussels firmly to a substrate, say the researchers, who suggest their results could be used to create quake-resistant building materials.
Nature Communications

Dolphin 'names': Bottlenose dolphins use signature whistles to "name" individuals, according to a new study of free-ranging dolphins off the east coast of Scotland. Researchers identified individual-specific whistles amongst the group and found that dolphins respond to their own signature whistle by calling back, but did not respond to the other whistles.

Lunar cycle may affect sleep: New research suggests that the moon may have an impact on the quality of our sleep. Participants in the Swiss study slept less, and rated it to be of poorer quality during a full moon. They also showed diminished levels of sleep regulating hormone melatonin. The researchers say their study is the first reliable evidence that a lunar rhythm can modulate sleep structure in humans.
Current Biology
Creating false memories: Researchers have 'implanted' false 'memories' in a mouse. Using fiber optics to stimulate light sensitive, genetically-modified neurons, the scientists were able to trick the mouse brain in to associating a negative experience with a safe environment they had previously visited. The recall of this false memory drove an active fear response in associated parts of the brain, making it indistinguishable from a real memory. "In a sense, to the animal, the false memory seems to have felt like a 'real' memory," the authors said.
The heavy costs of 'weightism': Being discriminated against on the basis of weight may increase risk for obesity rather than motivating individuals to lose weight, according to new research. Researchers found that people who experienced weight discrimination were 2.5 times more likely to become obese within four years, leading them to suggest that such discrimination can create a 'vicious cycle'.

Policy updates

Some of the policy highlights from this week:

Biofuel funding: MPI has approved $6.75 million Primary Growth Partnership funding for the 'Stump to Pump' programme researching biofuel production from forestry waste.

R&D tax consultation: The IRD is seeking public feedback on a tax policy paper outlining proposals to improve cash flow and remove tax distortions on research and development costs for start-up Kiwi businesses.

The big dry: A new NIWA report commissioned by MPI has confirmed that the 2013 drought was the one of the most extreme on record.
Upcoming sci-tech events
Non-invasive pre-natal testing: from dream to reality - Lecture from Prof Dennis Lo (Chinese University of Hong Kong) - 26 July, Auckland; 27 July, Wellington.
Einstein's Universe - Lecture and concert - July 28, Nelson; 29, Christchurch; 30, Dunedin; 31, Invercargill.
Freshwater Infrastructure & Irrigation Conference - 29-30 July, Wellington.
Can alternative medicines help you quit smoking? University of Auckland 2013 Winter Lecture with Dr Natalie Walker - 30 July, Auckland.
Horticulture New Zealand Conference - 30 - 31 July, Wellington.
NETS 2013 - New Zealand Biosecurity Institute National Education and Technology Seminar - 31 July - 2 August, Greymouth.
It's a duck's life - 2013 Hudson Lecture with Dr Murray Williams - 31 July, Wellington.
What if... Farmers & business could help save NZ's unique biodiversity? - 'What if Wednesday' Lecture with Prof David Norton - 31 July, Christchurch.
For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC's Events Calendar.


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