Imagining the future: a guide to the incredible inventions just over the horizon

Imagining the Future book cover    Paul and Simon ABC tardis interviews June 2016










We are living in a rapidly changing world – when most of today’s primary school students grow up, they’ll have jobs that don’t exist right now, and they’ll be using technologies that haven’t been invented, to solve things we don’t know are problems yet!

Our new children’s book from CSIRO Publishing, Imagining the Future: Invisibility, Immortality and 40 Other Incredible Ideas, shows young Australians the world they may very well find themselves in, all based on current scientific advances. Printed food, talking with animals, designer babies, weather control, and immortality: some concepts are more likely than others, while some are already happening, but all have science behind them.

We need to get more young people hooked on science and mathematics and this book will teach the next generation how to dream big, believe in their ability to make dreams a reality, and turn science fiction into science fact.

If you can dream it, you can invent it. And inventors just keep on inventing. Get prepared for a fantastic future.

More information:

19. Flying

Help! Lending a hand to vulnerable species

Global hotspots, such as the waters southeast of Australia, have warmed dramatically and dozens of marine animals have moved south. Many others need our help.

Dr Alistair Hobday, from CSIRO, says these sea temperature changes are clear – not only in the physical records, but also in the biology. ‘As the oceans have warmed, nutrient levels have changed, which is influencing productivity southeast of Australia,’ he says. ‘More than 100 species of fish and two dozen invertebrate species have moved south.’

With temperature rises having a dramatic impact, Alistair is investigating adaptation options for ecosystems as a whole, as well as individual species. In partnership with the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment, Alistair has investigated adaptation options for the shy albatross, a protected species that is in decline.

You can find out more at

Scientell is working with the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) on their online discussion about coastal adaptation, CoastExchange. You can sign up at

Ouch! Feeling the record heat

Last summer, temperatures around the world showed an unusual upward spike. Globally, February was more than a degree warmer than usual, breaking the record set in 2015 that had itself broken the record set in February 2014. A stable climate means that you’d expect that every record hot temperature will be matched by a cold record. But that’s not what we are seeing. Sydney had a record run of high temperatures above 26°C this summer – 36 days in a row, which smashed the previous record of 19 days set in 2014. Over the past decade, for every new cold record there’s been an amazing 12 new hot records. And it appears to be our fault.

How are you preparing for heatwaves? Join the discussion at

Scientell is working with the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) online discussion about coastal adaptation, CoastExchange. You can sign up at

Torok ACT fires

Innovation and Australian inventions

Australians are great inventors. We have a history of ideas and thinking up new ways of doing things. Perhaps our inventiveness comes from the fact we have unique problems. Or maybe it’s our geographic isolation: in the past, if we didn’t come up with a solution, no-one else would.

Using a great Australian invention from 1940: zinc cream (image: Scope).

Many thousands of years ago, Indigenous Australians invented boomerangs to help them hunt. Australians have been inventing ever since.

So what exactly is an invention? It’s a design or a way of doing something that is new. It’s rare for an inventor to work in isolation; modern science is usually carried out by a team of people. Inventors usually take other people’s ideas and knowledge, and build on or adapt them. Isaac Newton, the famous 17th-century English physicist and mathematician, described this approach by saying, ‘If I have seen further it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants’.

Australians have been pioneers in so many fields. Our inventiveness has helped us live longer, made agriculture more efficient, industry more competitive and enriched our lives. It has also earned Australia billions of dollars in income.

Australians have made incredible and life-changing discoveries in the area of medicine with the development of the Cochlear implant, the Royal Flying Doctor Service, Ultrasound, Penicillin, the Cardiac Pacemaker and IVF. Our love of food has given rise to the Chiko Roll, Vegemite, Anzac Biscuits, the Granny Smith apple, Lamingtons, and the Pavlova. Our quirky nature has produced the Victa mower, the Hills Hoist, Dynamic Lifter fertiliser, the Esky and the wine cask. And in 1933 a farmer wrote to the Ford car company asking it to develop a vehicle that was suitable for ‘taking the family to Church on Sundays’ and for taking ‘my pig to town on Mondays’; a year later, the first ‘utility’ or ‘ute’ rolled off the Ford production line.

While Australians have come first in many areas, we should also take pride in some narrow seconds. Lawrence Hargrave made wonderful advances in powered flight and came close to being the first person to fly in a powered machine. Henry Sutton designed, but never built, a ‘telephane’ to transmit moving images of the Melbourne Cup to people in Ballarat, 100 kilometres away. Forty years later, the first television incorporated many of the ideas behind the telephane.

Have a look at this video I did with the TV show Scope a few years ago when I was with CSIRO or our book, 101 Great Australian Inventions.

Perhaps you’ll be inspired to come up with a new idea, a new solution to a problem or a new device that makes life safer, better or more fun.

The value of local knowledge

When a coastal town faces increased flooding, what comes next must come from the community.

The most important thing for Councils when planning adaptation to climate change is to identify the risk to people, and then work with the community to use local knowledge to plan solutions, explains Carol Muzyk, Strategic Projects Coordinator for the District Council of Mallala in South Australia.

Carol works with the community of Middle Beach, a small coastal settlement that is threatened by coastal flooding.

‘Identifying the risk needs to be done first and in consultation with the community,’ she says. ‘Then any action also needs to be worked through with the community: they may well be the ones who suggest the solutions, as they live in, and know, the area. And they need to be the ones happy with the way forward as it is for them, and impacts them.’

The Council contracted the University of South Australia and URS Australia to undertake a Coastal Settlements Adaptation Study to compare the impact of sea-level rise now with what is likely to happen in 2050 and 2100.

The low lying settlement of Middle Beach is threatened by flooding, and has been for some time. ‘The study concluded that there are no viable protection options for Middle Beach, and problems will be further exacerbated with rising sea levels and more frequent storm surges anticipated in future,’ Carol explains.

For more on this story, see

Scientell is working with the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) online discussion about coastal adaptation, CoastExchange. You can sign up at

CoastExchange: Another brick in the seawall

Scientell is proud to be helping the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) launch their online discussion about coastal adaptation, CoastExchange. You can sign up at

The purpose of this virtual community of adaptors is to provide a forum in which users can interact with their peers to share ideas, approaches, opportunities, and more.

Comment on our features that provide topical snippets of coastal adaptation information. Browse our news section for the latest happenings in Australia and other places. Pose a question for discussion with your peers. Share content that you find helpful. Or win in our competitions and quizzes.

Feature: Another brick in the seawall

For centuries, people in coastal areas have battled to keep the sea at bay – especially during storms and king tides. Sea walls are one option. But they are expensive and can create environmental problems.

Gold Coast City Council has some authority on the subject. They have around 18 kilometres of sea walls and they have learnt a thing or two since 1967, when tropical cyclones caused extensive damage to southern Queensland beaches. Back then, property owners threw everything they could find into hastily erected barriers. They used concrete slabs and rubble, gravel, plastic sheeting, bricks – even old car bodies.

For more on this story, see

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?



Roberts, O. & J. Evans (2015) Tackling structure and format–the ‘great unknown’ in professional blogging. Journal of Applied Communications,  99(2). Available at 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.



9 Great Water Filter Technology Advancements (You Need To Know About Today)
Available at

The new water technologies that could save the planet.
Available at

Six water purifying designs for the developing world
Available at

How Stuff Works: 10 Innovations in Water Purification
Available at

Recycled drinking water: what Australians need to know
Available at