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Paul Holper

Book review: ‘Surviving the 21st Century: Humanity’s Ten Great Challenges and How We Can Overcome Them’

Surviving the 21st Century Australia has no better science writer than Julian Cribb. He is knowledgeable, extraordinarily well informed and superbly adept at presenting accurate, fascinating information in a way that just begs to be read.

His latest book is Surviving the 21st Century: Humanity’s Ten Great Challenges and How We Can Overcome Them. The fact that we have survived for 16 years of the century shouldn’t lull us into thinking that the remaining 84 years will be straightforward. I write this review on the day WWF report that ‘worldwide populations of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles have plunged by almost 60 per cent since 1970 as human activities overwhelm the environment’.

Each chapter in Surviving the 21st Century considers a great challenge, including mass extinction, resource depletion, weapons of mass destruction, climate change, universal toxicity, food crises, population and urban expansion, pandemic disease, dangerous new technologies, and self-delusion.

It’s easy to describe problems, more difficult to proffer solutions. Cribb does this at each chapter’s conclusion in a section called ‘What we must do’.

Surviving the 21st Century does something that few other publications do: it comprehensively addresses all the main threats to us and to our planet. The holistic approach offers more hope than efforts to tackle problems individually, which can sometimes make matters worse.

Cribb knows intuitively how to convey information vividly and accurately. Writing about frogs, he states, ‘Two in every five of their known species face extinction’. That expression grabs you more than the ’40 per cent’ that most scientists would write.

Years ago, US journalists coined the term ‘Hey Martha’ for stories and news items so amazing that when you hear them, you just have to shout across the room, Hey Martha, listen to this!’. Surviving the 21st Century is full of such examples. They grab your attention and make you think, which is the whole point. Hopefully, sufficient numbers of people thinking will lead to action.

Here’s a ‘Hey Martha’ from the book: What consumes 10 kg of topsoil, 800 litres of fresh water, 1.3 litres of diesel, a third of a gram of pesticide and causes 3.5 kg of carbon dioxide to enter the air? Answer: the last meal you ate. Now multiply that by all the meals you’ve consumed and all the people on Earth. No wonder we have a problem. As Cribb puts it, ‘the human jawbone is among the most destructive of implements on the planet’.

Here’s another sobering anecdote for Martha: ‘Tonight around two hundred thousand more people will sit down to dinner than dined last night.’

You’ll be hard pressed to find a page without a fascinating factoid. Cribb certainly does his research, and knows how to craft that research into unforgettable messages.

What’s his recipe for curbing the impact on planet Earth of our insatiable hunger? Sustainable urban food production using recycled water and organic waste; teaching the next generation to value and respect food; apply a food levy to pay farmers and indigenous peoples to restore and maintain the environment; introduce a ‘Year of Food’, teaching respect, awareness and appreciation of food, in every junior school on the planet. There are many more suggestions on the menu. Each is thought provoking and a number are completely original. It doesn’t matter if you disagree with some of the ideas or think that they may be unfeasible, Cribb has set out a range of options well worth considering. Doing nothing is not one of them.

If you’d like to pursue any of the idea and possible solutions, Surviving the 21st Century includes a detailed list of references.

The ‘sapiens’ in homo sapiens means ‘wise’ in Latin. We can demonstrate wisdom by getting hold of a copy of Surviving the 21st Century and applying some of the recommendations to our own lives. We can recommend the book to others. We can alert our leaders to the book and its contents. We owe this to ourselves and to our planet.

 

 

Learning from failure

As part of a major national project on innovation, Scientell has examined the contribution that learning from error and failure can make to innovation and progress. This is part of our work with the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) to synthesise a wealth of information into a book on securing Australia’s future. The following is a sad example of failure.

On 29 March 2005, 37-year-old Elaine Bromiley entered a British hospital to undergo routine surgery to clear her sinuses. The mother of two was otherwise healthy.

Problems occurred immediately the anaesthetic was supplied. With no warning, Elaine’s oxygen levels plunged. Her airway was blocked – a most unusual event that happens in fewer than one in 50,000 routine cases of people being given an anaesthetic. The anaesthetist and the surgeon immediately tried to insert a tube into her airway. Additional medical staff quickly arrived to assist, including two recovery nurses, an ear, nose and throat surgeon and another consultant anaesthetist. For 20 minutes, the team desperately attempted to clear her airway.

Sadly, the emergency procedure failed. Elaine was transferred unconscious to the adjacent intensive care unit and died 13 days later.

Elaine’s husband Martin Bromiley was a commercial airline pilot. He knew how his industry would have responded to a similarly catastrophic event. One of the medical team told Martin that ‘maybe when this is investigated something can be learned. But we won’t investigate, not unless you sue or complain.’

‘For me as an airline pilot, that is where everything changed, because to me it is perfectly normal to investigate when something does not happen so you can learn from it, and here we had a situation where somebody was healthy, was going to be made more healthy, and was actually dead. I could not understand why you would not want to learn from it.’

It took some doing, but Martin managed to initiate an independent review of the case.

‘Arguably, it technically was a dream team to deal with this sort of emergency, but what we know happened, if you will excuse the phraseology, was that the situational awareness, the shared mental model of the three consultants, was different. They lost awareness of time; they lost awareness, perhaps more importantly, of the seriousness of the situation; they became fixated – which is not unusual under stress – on intubation to the exclusion of any other options, such as some form of surgical access.

From my background in aviation, I could see very quickly that these were in fact failings in what you refer to as “non-technical skills”: situation awareness, leadership, teamwork, prioritisation, communication, and assertiveness. These same human factors of failings in non-technical skills are the direct cause of 75% of aviation accidents.’

An incision into Elaine’s throat – a tracheotomy – may have saved her life. That it didn’t happen, was not the failings of any individual, but rather the failings of a flawed system.

Today, the findings from the inquest form the basis of training in Australia and elsewhere of healthcare clinicians, particularly those involved in advanced airway management.

The death of Elaine Bromiley was a tragic failure, but it was a failure that people learned from, and one that has improved the way in which emergency operating theatre procedures are conducted.

 

Is there a doctor on this flight?

Scientell is working with the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) to synthesise a wealth of information into a book on securing Australia’s future. As part of this, we have examined the contribution that learning from error and failure can make to innovation and progress. This example demonstrates the way in which the medical profession is learning from the aviation industry’s approach to safety.

Safety is paramount for the aviation industry. Aircraft accidents are infrequent, but when they occur they involve massive losses of life. The exhaustive investigations that follow crashes have produced extensive literature into their causes, and new policies and regulations to improve safety. Research by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) into aviation accidents has found that 70 per cent involve human error.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, Robert L Helmreich, professor of psychology at the University of Texas, states, ‘Error results from physiological and psychological limitations of humans. Causes of error include fatigue, workload, and fear as well as cognitive overload, poor interpersonal communications, imperfect information processing, and flawed decision making.’

‘In both aviation and medicine, teamwork is required, and team error can be defined as action or inaction leading to deviation from team or organisational intentions. Aviation increasingly uses error management strategies to improve safety. Error management is based on understanding the nature and extent of error, changing the conditions that induce error, determining behaviours that prevent or mitigate error, and training personnel in their use.’

Diagnosis should include data from confidential incident reporting systems and surveys, systematic observations of team performance, and details of adverse events and near misses.

It is now commonplace for medical doctors to learn from the approach to error and failure that has been refined and systematically adopted in aviation.

The error management approach that Helmreich advocates includes:

  • Dealing with latent factors that have been detected, changing the organisational and professional cultures, providing clear performance standards, and adopting a non-punitive approach to error (but not to violations of safety procedures);
  • Providing formal training in teamwork, the nature of error, and in limitations of human performance;
  • Providing feedback and reinforcement on both interpersonal and technical performance; and
  • Making error management an ongoing organisational commitment through recurrent training and data collection.

As physician Dr Lucian Leape, a physician and professor at Harvard School of Public Health, states:

‘The most fundamental change that will be needed if hospitals are to make meaningful progress in error reduction is a cultural one. Physicians and nurses need to accept the notion that error is an inevitable condition, even among the conscientious professionals with high standards. Errors must be accepted as evidence of system flaws not character flaws.’ [1]

 

[1] Lucian L Leape, Error in medicine. JAMA, 272:23, 1851-1857, (1994)

The greatest discovery since fire

Adapted from Torok, S.J., and Holper, P.N. (2006) Inventing millions: 25 Inventions that changed the world. 224 pp., ABC Books.

 

‘The greatest thing since sliced bread,’ is an accolade often bestowed on an invention. However, it never seems to surpass the actual invention of sliced bread. But an invention now found in almost every home in the Western world was introduced as ‘the greatest discovery since fire’. Now that’s an accolade.

Percy Spencer, a self-taught scientist, was working in Massachusetts for Raytheon, a company that made radar equipment for military use. In the 1940s, Raytheon was the largest electronics manufacturer in the USA.

One day, Percy noticed that a chocolate bar in his pocket melted when he stood close to a magnetron, which generates the radio signals at the heart of a radar set.

Rather than ignore the chance observation of his chocolate-bar mishap, as others had done when engineers had warmed themselves by stacks of magnetrons, Percy sprang into action. He wanted to know whether other foods could be cooked by the magnetron’s emitted high-frequency radio waves – known as microwaves. He succeeded with popcorn and even an egg.

Percy applied in 1945 for the first patent for a microwave oven, which he envisaged would cook food as it moved on a conveyor belt through magnetron waves. But cooking wasn’t the only use he saw for microwave ovens. He imagined it would one day be used for a wide range of applications, from ink drying to tobacco curing.

His notebooks record his culinary exploits. Potatoes cooked in a minute – ‘the flavour was good but the potato was not crisp.’ Brussels sprouts cooked for 1 minute 15 seconds – ‘the flavour was dry and not good.’ He lamented that ‘steak doesn’t brown.’

In 1947 Raytheon produced the first commercial microwave oven. A staff competition came up with a name: the Radarange. This was a monster device. It was almost two metres high, one-metre-deep and wide and weighed 340 kilograms. The Radarange blasted out three times the microwave energy produced by today’s ovens. It needed water pipes to keep it cool. At $40,000 in today’s money, the Radarange was not something that was going to catch on quickly in a domestic kitchen.

The first home microwave oven was on sale in 1955, but at half the cost of a Radarange it was still not cheap enough to make an impact.

However, the technology developed rapidly. In 1967, Raytheon launched a sleek, elegant microwave oven onto the market. The time was right – many households now had two working parents, and ready-made meals or reheating had become the way to make dinner.

By the late 1970s, prices had fallen sufficiently to bring the ovens within reach of everyday kitchens. By the 1980s, they had morphed from expensive curiosity to cheap kitchen necessity in a hectic world. Microwave ovens are now in most American and Australian kitchens. There are more than 200 million microwave ovens in use around the world today.

How it works: Turn up the radio

People have used radiation to heat and cook for millennia – sunlight emits radiation at visible (and other) wavelengths; our ancestors used the visible and infrared radiation from fires to cook and stay warm; and electric ovens cook using radiation from a metal element rather than a gas flame. Radiative heat cooks food from the outside, penetrating food through the process of conduction.

Microwaves, radio waves with much longer wavelengths, penetrate food and set water, sugar and other molecules in motion. Molecular motion is what creates heat, so this considerably reduces the cooking time.

Invention of the microwave epitomises a common story in the development and application of technology. A visionary researcher asks a question that no one else has asked. In Percy Spencer’s case, it was ‘will this thing cook an egg?’. He investigated. The answer was ‘yes’. The engineers got cracking. Innovation and mass production drove down the price.

It took decades, but Percy’s perseverance changed our kitchens for ever.

 

What’s your favourite invention?

How to create a blog that everyone will truly love

This blog is competing for your attention with more than 152 million others. Nearly 173,000 blogs are added to the Internet ever day. There are now four more than when you started reading this. That’s according to the Journal of Applied Communications.

With all that competition, what can you do to make your blog stand out?

My measure of a good blog is whether it provokes me into action: to change my behaviour, to do something new at work, to read a book or an article. I’m also a sucker for a new computing tip or shortcut.

Roberts & Evans (2015) recommend a ‘What; So what; Now what’ approach for blogs. This entails starting with a discussion about the topic. It’s pretty clear that this one you’re reading is a blog on blogs. Your investment in reading it will be rewarded (I’m hoping ) with tips for writing better blogs.

We need a compelling first sentence to capture readily distracted readers. Is my first line good enough? Well, it got you this far.

We’re now well into the ‘so what’ part. This is the new development, or in my case, the inside info on steps to blogging fame.

The Internet serves up almost as much advice on blogging as there are blogs themselves. While not based on rigorous science, most make good sense:

  • Blog regularly
  • Write about things you’re good at
  • Include a catchy headline
  • Use hyperlinks and lists
  • Use lots of keywords
  • Be concise
  • Be accurate, informative and timely
  • Engage people, such as by asking questions

Noah Kagan has applied some science to the subject. He has analysed almost 1 million blogs and their headlines. He concludes that posts with lists are huge (tick for this blog), use ‘you’ and ‘your’ frequently (tick), use promising words like ‘how to’ (tick), and use emotional words in your (tick) headline (tick).

In fact, crafting that headline took me almost as long as writing the blog itself. I did it using a formula. The theory is that to attract interest, a headline needs to connect emotionally. So it should include powerful words that invoke feelings. According to the headline analyser, my headline rates highly for intellectual impact words.

Has my headline worked? I’ll tell you in a future blog, where I will explore further the science and art of headline writing.

Oh, yes. I almost forgot to address that last bullet point above. So, what words in a headline attract your interest?

 

Reference

Roberts, O. & J. Evans (2015) Tackling structure and format–the ‘great unknown’ in professional blogging. Journal of Applied Communications,  99(2). Available at http://journalofappliedcommunications.org/images/stories/issues/2015/jac_v99_n2_final.pdf. Accessed on 11 January 2016.

 

 

 

9 things that I learnt in my first year of business

This article was first published on the Flying Solo web site, a site for small business.

In 2014, after 25 years at CSIRO, I established my own science communication business. Now, some 12 months later, here are some of the things that I have learnt about business operations as I transitioned from the corporate world to sole trader to company director.

  1. Establish a work space. Ideally, you will have a dedicated office. If you don’t, try to set aside part of a room where you can leave your work stuff. It helps focus on work in a home environment, and you don’t want to waste time having to gather your resources each time you start work.
  1. Develop a routine. This is important. Commuting to a workplace imposes structure on your work life. On day 1 working for myself I was in my office at 8.30 and have tried to do the same each working day since.
  1. Maintain networks/socialise. Not having people around was the thing I missed about leaving CSIRO. I make up for this with regular (at least weekly) catch-ups with colleagues and former workmates. These meetings are part social and part business – I’m never sure of the precise ratio.
  1. A contact per day. On the top right of my office whiteboard I have written ‘1’. This is my reminder to reach out and contact at least one person each day. Good for business, good for networking, good for the soul. It might be a phone call. It might simply be an email forwarding interesting information.
  1. Attend events. Be known and keep up with advances in your field. Look out for workshops and conferences. I picked up two major jobs at a national conference I attended a couple of months into my new professional life.
  1. Collaborate. It’s often more productive to work with others. Including others in project pitches increases your chances of success. You’ll quickly find this reciprocated.
  1. Join and participate in professional groups. The Australian Science Communicators is very relevant to me. Flying Solo is a great community resource for small businesses.
  1. Get a good accountant and lawyer. You probably want to scrimp and save money here, as I did at first. However, setting yourself up properly maximises your chances of success. Find people you trust. As my accountant advises, ‘Regard me as the person up the corridor at work. If you have a question just ring or email.’
  1. Invest in accounting software. Far neater, more flexible and quicker than doing accounts in a spreadsheet is to use software. Most packages will do much more than a spreadsheet; even issuing and tracking invoices.

 

 

The 60-second guide to world water

The ocean covers 71 per cent of the Earth’s surface and contains almost 97 per cent of the planet’s water. But only 2.5 per cent of Earth’s water is freshwater, and just a fraction (1.2 per cent) of that freshwater is surface water available for our needs.

For a recent project, Scientell assessed the state of current and future global water resources and described some existing and potential technologies for creating potable water on small and large scales.

Here we distil some of the interesting information to quench your thirst for water knowledge.

Water blog graphic

 

There are 780 million people who don’t have access to uncontaminated drinking water.

Climate change is affecting water supplies. In many places, changing precipitation or melting snow and ice are altering hydrological systems, affecting the quantity and quality of water resources. Glaciers continue to shrink almost worldwide, affecting runoff and water resources downstream. Climate change is poised to intensify floods and drought.

Some countries, including Australia, have installed desalination plants to ensure continuity of water supply in the face of rainfall declines partly due to climate change. Ironically, the energy the plants consume produces carbon dioxide that adds to climate change, unless their energy source is renewable.

There are more than 17,000 desalination plants worldwide. Reverse osmosis is a common desalination process. The technique entails pumping salty water through a membrane that lets water through but blocks salt.

Extracting pure water from wastewater uses just a fraction of the energy needed to convert seawater. However, communities may object to drinking water converted from sewage. In 2006, for example, more than 61 per cent of the residents of drought-stricken Toowoomba in Queensland voted against such a scheme.

The race is on to create cheap, low energy water purification methods.

CSIRO is developing small, portable water purification devices ‘the size of a teapot’ that would be rechargeable, inexpensive and more effective than many existing purifiers. The active component is a membrane, treated with plasma to boost the water absorption rate through carbon nanotubes. These tubes, just 10,000th the width of a human hair, remove contaminants and salt from dirty water.

In 2013, the Indian Institute of Technology Madras announced a nanoparticle water filtration system. The filter relies on silver nanoparticles embedded in a cage made of aluminium and chitosan, a carbohydrate derived from the chitin in crustacean shells. Other nanoparticles can target contaminants such as mercury.

Researchers from the National University of Singapore have engineered a biomimetic membrane that can purify water at low pressure, thus reducing energy costs. Biomimetic methods mimic natural biochemical processes – in this case the layers of cells on the roots of mangrove trees, which purify water.

Improving global access to clean water would be an incredibly powerful and valuable scientific breakthrough.

 

Resources

9 Great Water Filter Technology Advancements (You Need To Know About Today)
Available at http://all-about-water-filters.com/great-water-filter-technology-advancements-you-need-to-know-about-today/

The new water technologies that could save the planet.
Available at http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/new-water-technologies-save-planet

Six water purifying designs for the developing world
Available at http://inhabitat.com/6-water-purifying-devices-for-clean-drinking-water-in-the-developing-world/

How Stuff Works: 10 Innovations in Water Purification
Available at http://science.howstuffworks.com/
environmental/green-tech/sustainable/10-innovations-water-purification.htm#page=0

Recycled drinking water: what Australians need to know
Available at https://theconversation.com/recycled-drinking-water-what-australians-need-to-know-7216

 

Public comment in response to massive cuts to CSIRO’s climate change science activities

If the cuts to a significant swathe of CSIRO’s climate research activities proceed, Australia faces the prospects of losing forever its world-leading research and application work on climate. This research has been painstakingly built up over decades and places Australia at the forefront of work to better understand climate, climate change and its impacts.

At stake are internationally acclaimed monitoring and modelling programs. We knew next to nothing about oceanic behaviour and global changes 25 years ago. Thanks to CSIRO’s research, we are actively using this and other knowledge for forecasts, seasonal outlooks and long-term projections that lie at the heart of our ability to take advantage, and reduce the negative impacts of, weather and climate. Are we really prepared to lose all this?

(Paul Holper was manager of the Australian Climate Change Science Program at CSIRO from 2003-2014)

New climate change brochures for Victoria

Recently we worked with the Victorian Government to prepare a series of regional brochures explaining the likely impacts of climate change and describing how best to adapt. This project was a collaboration with Karen Pearce of Bloom Communication and Rohan Hamden & Associates.

The 8-page brochures state how climate has already changed, highlight climate-related risks for key sectors and present ‘climate-ready’ actions. These actions include considering different crop varieties, insuring assets and undertaking emergency planning. We give numerous examples of communities successfully preparing for, and adapting to, climate change.

The brochures conclude with detailed, regional descriptions of the projected changes to temperature, rainfall and, where relevant, sea-level rise under various greenhouse emission scenarios out to the year 2100. CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology prepared regional projections and climate information specially for the project.

Supporting the brochures are regional data sheets for a range of climate variables, presented annually and by season.Victorian climate change brochures

In preparing the products, we applied our extensive climate communication experience, as well as the advice from social scientists. I recently wrote about some important findings from social science, which concluded:

  1. Highlight personal experiences and local examples
  2. Describe effective local action
  3. Emphasise local changes
  4. Accentuate the positive
  5. Seek to build a better tomorrow.

By presenting information regionally and showcasing practical examples, the brochures fulfilled points 1 to 3. The numerous examples of successful recent action fulfilled points 4 and 5.

Thanks to the Victorian Government, there were many rounds of user testing. We incorporated well over 500 comments and suggestions made on various draft products.

We know that people interpret information in different ways. To cater for this, the brochures include body text, breakouts, infographics, attractive photographs, and different graph styles. CSIRO’s experience is that an effective way of visualising how climate change will affect a place is to state a ‘climate analogue’. Here is an example from the brochures: ‘In 2050, under high emissions, the climate of Bendigo will be more like the climate of Shepparton now.’

The climate change projections for Victorian are based on material from the Climate Change in Australia website, produced by CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology, at www.climatechangeinaustralia.gov.au.

The Climate-ready Victoria brochures and data sheets are available at www.climatechange.vic.gov.au/understand, under the ‘Being Climate Ready’ tab.

Beginners guide to editing

For starters, there’s editing and editing. And editing. Three forms really: substantive, copy and proofing.

For most clients, ‘editing’ means copy editing. That is, reading through a document and checking that it makes sense and reflects what the writer probably meant. Copy editing involves checking spelling, grammar, punctuation, facts and meaning.

Substantive editing is when you take a metaphorical step back and examine the structure of the piece. Would the reader be better served by having the section on John Dalton and his development of atomic theory come before the work of Democritus?

Proof reading entails checking a document after layout to ensure that nothing outlandish has occurred.

One of the rules of editing – and that’s all editing is, rules – is to be consistent. If the text says ‘colour’ in the first par, it will look sloppy to subsequently see a reference to ‘coloring’. Even better than being consistent, is being consistently correct. The Australian Style Manual (published by Wiley in 2002) is the authoritative reference. Using a style manual and compiling a list of spelling and capitalisation as you work will help obtain that consistency.

Ideally you will have a fresh pair of eyes read over and edit anything that you write for publication. It’s difficult to check your own work as you will tend to see what you meant be there rather than what is actually printed. And, yes, I deliberately missed ‘to’ in the previous sentence just to keep you on your toes.

If you are going to check your own writing  – and you should before your editor/friend/colleague does  – print it, as reading on screen seems to do something odd to your ability to spot errors. I’m sure there is research somewhere to support my theory. Then go off and do something else – ideally for at least 24 hours before you take up red pen and paper.

Your software will give you some assistance. Those red squiggly lines are appearing on your screen for a reason. But don’t be lead solely by a word processor. Microsoft Word, for example, didn’t spot my incorrect spelling of ‘led’ in the previous sentence.

Finally, consider hired help or training. There are few better than Biotext’s Malini Devadas and Karen Pearce, who kindly cast her astute editorial eyes over this article.

I recommend Grammar Girl for entertaining erudition.