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


Observations on observers

With hundreds of climate scientists meeting in Melbourne this week for the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society conference, it is worth reflecting that climate research owes a great debt to voluntary weather observers who, through their careful documentation of weather, have provided data to describe and understand our climate over the past 150 years. And they have faced some unique difficulties, including dingoes, eagles, and a pet lamb.


(Adapted from Holper, P.N. and Torok, S.J (2008), Climate Change: What you can do about it, 185 pp., CSIRO Publishing and Pan Macmillan Australia.)


The Australian Bureau of Meteorology has relied on a range of observers, including post office staff, prison wardens, lighthouse keepers, army personnel, farmers, missionaries, pastoral station managers, school teachers and mining company employees, as well as Bureau staff from across the country, including the surrounding islands and Antarctica.


The overwhelming majority of observations are reliable and accurate. However, observations are not always worthy of being accepted into the Australian climate record. The Bureau of Meteorology’s archived correspondence between its Head Office in Melbourne and observational outposts around the country reveals some insights into the need for quality control.


Thermometers should be protected in a louvered box called a Stevenson Screen, named after its inventor (and author Robert Louis Stevenson’s father), Thomas Stevenson. However, there have been inconsistencies in this exposure. Bureau records include reports of thermometers hanging under a gum tree, under a galvanised iron verandah, against a stone wall, and on a balcony seven metres above the ground. Instruments were on one occasion even inside an observer’s house – presumably to make it more convenient for reading.


Stevenson Screens must be painted white and correctly exposed over suitable ground, but Bureau investigators have found them painted cream, brown, green, silver, or not at all. The screens must also be clear of obstructions, and not, as the records reveal, with pumpkins growing beneath them, with cows, goats and other stock grazing around them, or laundry hanging above them to dry.


Australian weather observers faced some unique difficulties. For example, a dingo stole a thermometer that an observer had read after slaughtering farm animals (the Bureau advised the observer to wash his hands before making the observations in future) and cockatoos and crows also liked to steal these shiny objects. Horses have knocked down Stevenson Screens and, more recently, cars and trucks have done the same. One screen contained a football. Termites have wreaked havoc, birds have entered screens and, in one case, an eagle destroyed a Stevenson Screen when it flew into the side of it.


But the problems have not always been with the instruments. One letter from the Bureau asks an observer (presumably someone lacking in height) to make the observations while standing on a box, to ensure he avoided introducing parallax error. An observer, not able to make observations at the correct time due to work commitments, “helpfully” estimated the temperatures later in the day, while the Bureau caught another observer sending an entire month of entries in advance, so he could have a holiday.


Once recorded, measurements have been destroyed by fire, or in one case eaten by a pet lamb. One observer cut the telegraph lines to prevent his neighbour reporting observations during an outback feud regarding who was to have the privilege of taking the weather measurements.


Despite these difficulties, the clear signal from more than a century of overwhelmingly well-recorded climatic observations is that our climate is changing.


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

The Climate-ready Victoria brochures and data sheets are available at, under the ‘Being Climate Ready’ tab.

Cli-Fi: cautionary tales to prompt action

Cli-fi, or climate fiction, also known as Eco-fiction, is a relatively new genre of literature that sets narratives in an often dystopian world affected by climate change. I love it because fiction can be used to convey complicated climate change messages, by enabling exaggeration, contraction of time, or the creation of hypothetical situations that can better illustrate impacts than dry, scientific facts. It can also reach audiences who do not normally obtain climate change information.

I gave it a shot in the mid 1990s by developing a web-based science soap opera, called CO2Lab, which used a superficial story about the social lives of a fictional team of climate scientists as a ‘Trojan horse’ to introduce complicated concepts about climate change and other science (you can still find it online if you search hard enough).

There are hundreds of cli-fi novels (for example, GoodReads), and universities even offer courses that examine climate in film and books (see the New York Times).

Hopefully they are cautionary tales to prompt action in the present rather than handbooks for the future. For my top ten cli-fi novels, see my ’10 Great Books on Climate Change Fiction’ blog post on Science Book a Day.



The psychology of communication: Here and how; not gloom and doom

By Paul Holper

Science organisations want to explain their work to increase impact and use of results. Scientists know that science is important and would like others to feel the same. They also realise that science that no one knows about may find itself short of support and money.

Decades ago, laboratories began employing information officers, science communicators, public relations people and the like to pump out the facts. They wrote newspaper features, brochures, pamphlets and books, some consuming forests to describe the importance of healthy ecosystems.

This approach is known as the ‘empty bucket’ or ‘deficit’ model. It assumes that people have gaps in their heads ready to be filled with facts, and that if a little fact pushing doesn’t work, then increasing the flow of brochures, newspaper articles, and radio talks will help.

The problem is that communication theory has pointed out that the deficit model has limited effectiveness. Often it fails completely, having the opposite effect of what was intended.

Climate change is an example of the failure of the deficit model. Despite massive communication efforts, a considerable proportion of people do not accept that climate change is caused by human activities. Brulle et al. (2012) suggest that climate science has little direct influence on public opinion on climate change in the United States.

Propagation of more and more information is not the way to engage people with complex issues like climate change. Social scientists have long realised that inclusion and dialogue are essential.

Improving public engagement with climate change: five ‘best practice’ insights from psychological science by van der Linden et al. (2015) provides recommendations on this topic. The five insights apply more widely than climate change.

Paraphrased, they are:

  1. Our brains value experience over analysis
  2. We are social and mimic peer behaviour
  3. The here and now is more important than something that may (or may not) affect us profoundly in future
  4. We like to win
  5. Human motivation is powerful.

Applying these insights to communication means that we:

  1. Highlight personal experiences and local examples
  2. Describe effective local action
  3. Emphasise local changes
  4. Accentuate the positive (for example, reducing emissions equals cleaner air)
  5. Seek to build a better tomorrow.

So rather than ineffective messages of gloom and doom, the more effective communication approach relies on familiarity, hope and optimism.


Brulle, R., Carmichael, J. and Craig Jenkins, J. (2012) Shifting public opinion on climate change: an empirical assessment of factors influencing concern over climate change in the U.S., 2002–2010. Journal of Climatic Change.

van der Linden, S., Maibach, E., & Leiserowitz, A. (2015) Improving public engagement with climate change: Five “best practice” insights from psychological science. Perspectives on Psychological Science.


Communicating to a young audience – Part 3 (What not to do)

Just as important as understanding what to do when writing for young people is to understand what not to do.


Talking down to young people would possibly be the number one crime in writing for this audience. They’ll pick up on any condescension. While being conscious of vocabulary, you can still use rich and evocative words and phrases to excite young audiences about science.


Unless you actually are 13 years old, don’t try to talk like one. It’s unlikely that you’ll have the most up-to-date terms, and will come across as a fraud and a try-hard. It is very uncool to try to be cool. And even if you were to succeed, by the time your book is published, the language will have moved on.


Educating rather than entertaining is a trap for non-fiction writers. Magazines and books that young people read in their spare time should be enjoyable and entertaining. It is then a bonus if they learn anything as a result (if they find the reading fun, this is more likely). An exception to this rule is to consider a teachers’ guide or to highlight curriculum links to provide ideas on how an enjoyable, spare-time activity can be related to classroom learning.


Humour should be used with caution, as trying too hard to be funny will often result in jokes falling flat. However, I’m a fan of relevant puns.


Using talking animals may seem like a good idea, and remind you of your own childhood. However, the scenarios can be unrealistic and the characters under-developed or cliché. Leave these characters to the cartoons and puppet shows.


As in any writing, aim to show; don’t tell.


Finally, never try to publish work that has not been tested. I am too old to remember what I found enjoyable as a child. If you don’t have an appropriately-aged reader in your family to use as a reference point, ensure you have available at least one proof-reader who is the age of your intended reader. If you don’t have children in the intended audience range, run your ideas and writing past relatives or friends who are the correct age. They will not only be helpful in testing your drafted text, but also a source of inspiration for future writing. And they will feel proud to have helped your production (and will be rapt with an acknowledgement inside the book).


See Part 1 and Part 2 of this blog for other tips.


In closing, while writing tips are useful, it is important to develop your own style. Ensure you have a strong voice in your head that is relaxed and unique to you as you write.