Have we beaten ourselves to other planets?

Sometimes, science and a love for science begins with a story or two. I’ve always loved stories, be they in the form of books and movies. My favourite books of all time were C.S.Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles and Micheal Ende’s “The Neverending Story”.

What drew me into these particular stories so deeply was their references to cosmologies; to other realms and universes. For me the most alluring stories create not just intrigues and conflicts. I don’t really care about The Hero’s Journey, complete with it’s checklist of stages in a story. I don’t really care who’s the protagonist or antagonist. I care about the world these tales take place in. When I’m immersed in a story, I want to be  immersed in the story. A universe, with all it’s history,  is a key element of imagined worlds. To borrow a line from “The Dark Tower” by Stephen King:

Beyond the reach of human range,

a drop of hell, a touch of strange. “

Again this tale was heavy with cosmology; alien yet familiar.

These stories were life changing for me in ways. They each provided pieces of a picture, of a universe I’d come to explore. The Narnia books were about other dimensions. “The Magician’s Nephew” featured travel between alternate realities. “The Neverending Story” showed us a universe created by imagination and perception. “The Dark Tower” was about a post apocalyptic world where the laws of space and time were unravelling, where the natural order of things was succumbing to a slow heat death.

But what about our own personal stories?

When I was a kid I spent a lot of time inside my head, visiting other worlds and other times. It was easy to imagine a beach as a coastline on some alien planet, or national park as some dinosaur infested part of Earth’s distant past.

Good times.

The point I’m getting to here is that imagination and stories are important for science because they show us other worlds we’d like to explore.

But what about our own worlds and stories? As I’ve mentioned I spent a lot of my childhood immersed in imagination. If I couldn’t find someone else’s world….I’d provide my own.

I harp on about these other worlds, because the ability to imagine leads to the ability to ask questions. It enables you to speculate. It enables you to perform thought experiments..

Imagined scenario:

An international mission to the outer solar system; the culmination of countless thousands of hours of diplomacy, frustration and determination finally reaches it’s goal.

A lone robotic probe has inserted itself into orbit over Europa. This moon has had the hearts of astrobiologists beating faster for a long time now. They’ve been curious about a global ocean ten times deeper than our own, lying beneath a cracked ghostly shell of ice. Oh yes, Europa could be the culmination of so many dreams..

The probe has been asleep on it’s long journey, stirring occasionally in the deep night to whisper to it’s masters. Digital murmours head home across a solar system filled with shrieks and moans: electromagnetic noise emitted by the planets themselves.

Who knows what the planets are saying?

The probe doesn’t care. It’s staring down at it’s new home. It fusses and frets, seperating and sending a lander down.

Vast sheets of rusty ice buckle and shift. The slumbering moon rolls in its sleep and a geyser of salty water erupts, pelting the lander with ocean spray as it prepares to land. Sensors coating  the probe’s metallic hide taste the spray, sampling the alien cocktail for signs of life….

The moon is permanently encrusted in a shell of ice several kilometres thick. Below lies a deep salty ocean, warmed by constant tidal squeezing from Jupiter. This causes friction and tectonic stresses that render this moon a place of interest.

The probe takes a look around. The sky is eternally dark, and Europa is beholden to mighty Jupiter, which rolls and boils slowly across the night. Excited chatter from home has the probe going straight to work. Sophisticated AI takes over. Arms and legs extend and the probe stands. The days of ugly little rovers belong to antiquity now. Now a tall humanoid drone stumbles across endless Europan permafrost. Shattered ridges of glacial ice reach into the frozen sky like broken continental plates.

The drone walks. The drone sees. It picks up handfuls of snow. Sensors and chemical testing labs are woven throughout it’s frame; the very best nanotech taxpayer and corporate money can buy. The drone tastes the snow with it’s hands, looking for life. It’s masters believe it to be here.

Powder gently falls from the sky, leaving pock marks in the dark snow. There are organic molecules and precursors to life here. The drone tastes them. It looks for openings in the moons icy shell. If it can find a fissure it will climb down, until it reaches the watery underworld. Then, it  will swim, exploring a place that up until now has only been a dream.

Then, it finds something unexpected.

A metallic gleam in loose shards of icy ejecta catch the drone’s eye…

The drone bends down and tastes tarnished copper. What is this?

The drone is not prepared for this.

It is programmed for the chaos of the real world: a state of the art descendant of  the old survey/search and rescue bots. Protocol kicks in, and the drone dutifully sends images to it’s masters…

The machine is patient-as is it’s wont. It continues to explore the ice canyons and expanses of rusted ice. Life is here. The drone’s masters believe this fervently. Onboard mettalurgical analysis by the drone is now being carefully studied back home.

Back home the drone is all but forgotten. All attention is on the artifact it has found. Dutifully the drone sends back reams of data. Most of it is of incredible scientific value, but outside Mission Control no one is really noticing.

Instead, the world’s eyes are on a piece of the ancient world. Rome, to be exact. A speartip, broken away from it’s wooden haft, and buried in alien ice, 628 million kilometres from the Eternal City.

How did it get there?


Beam me up, Squiddy

Science is important. It doesn’t fall to someone like me to explain why this is the case, but it’s as plain as the nose on my face. Virtually every aspect of human life these days is the result of science,  mathematics or engineering. Just think about it and you’ll see what I mean. 

Science got us past the edge of the map.

Now, I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that science and, well, reason have taken a bit of a smackdown in recent decades. Notions like Intelligent Design, flat earth and all manner of pseudoscience stubbornly refuse to let go. Don’t ask me why. I believe it was Plato who once declared that everything becomes it’s opposite. 


The flipside of this groundswell of anti-reason threatening to sink us like a stone is that the average person (of a non science bent I mean) is not willing or able to bother making sense of science when they’re presented with it.

I personally encountered some alarmingly bad science communication along these lines last week.

Are you sitting down? Good.

I was at a marine sanctuary, enjoying the jellyfish and other beasties and trying to blow my camera up from overuse. At the same time I was overhearing one of the tour guides telling a group of visitors that cephalopods are aliens. 

Take me to your leader.


No, not the illegal kind crossing the Rio Grande looking for minimum wage jobs in the US of A.

The tour guide continued, stating that ancient comets brought alien bacteria, which infected the earth. He didn’t really connect the dots too well to explain how alien bacterial DNA translates into extraterrestrial cuttlefish.

First off, a cephalopod is an octopus, squid, cuttlefish or nautilus. Creatures of that ilk. 

Ok, that’s my scientific contribution to this blog post. Now I will outline my thoughts on this miscarriage of scientific communication. 

The tour guide made a very common mistake. He took an outrageously twisted headline and ran with it, proclaiming it as gospel truth. This is happening an awful lot these days. In this new age of social media, shameless manipulation of research findings into public friendly pap and clickbait, thinking rationally about media is a dying art form. 

A quick run through Google turned up a bunch of headlines on this very topic:

Let the fun begin!

None of these headlines suffice to say came from publications remotely interested in objective science media and reporting, but from the other end of town. 

Reading through some of these headlines made me even more cross! I take this stuff seriously. When journalists and media outlets abandon integrity at all costs and essentially make stuff up I get pissed off. It’s like going to a restaurant and ordering kangaroo with a cranberry jous to to find the jous is packet gravy and the kangaroo was peeled from the underside of a semi trailer last week. In other words it’s crap. In this situation I’d ask for my money back (or my wife would).

If only we could get compensated for shoddy journalism like this!

What’s dangerous about this regurgitation of flawed information is that Joe Public doesn’t know the truth and doesn’t really think to question it. So as a result several dozen people are now out in the world believing that octopuses come from outer space.

The tour guide should be fired. With a baseball bat.

According to some of these articles researchers have concluded that the octopus genome is utterly unrelated to all other life on earth and their DNA originated in outer space.

Both points are utter crap. First, octopuses are related to every living thing on earth- including you and me. We all share a common ancestor. Not much seperates humans; who have obtained such lofty heights from bacteria. About 10 percent of my DNA differs from that in bacteria. I guess the octopus falls somewhere in between. Second, in no way shape or form has anything as complex as DNA been found in space. The only DNA in space as I write this post is astronaut DNA (and hitchhiking bacteria-from earth!!)

EVERYTHING on earth is related.

Bad reporting of science can only serve to harm society in the long run. I think just as important as reporting science is reporting shonky dissemination of it. Those of us who are passionate about science (it’s a search for truth after all, right?) need to pay attention to this. It damages science. 

We can’t have damaged science. 

Harder than it looks.

Ok. So, as a handful of people on this planet know, I make Youtube videos. They’re not widely subscribed to yet, (or ever?) but I keep on making them because they’re fun and interesting. Plus I need to remain involved with science somehow, instead of watching my degree moulder away on a wall. 

No, future in science, come back!!

I am learning a lot about the process of video production. There’s a lot to it; more than simply whipping out a handycam and filming something. 

I will attempt in this post to go through the basics of making short youtube videos, and various aspects of the whole business that make themselves apparent along the way. Here goes…

How a Ben’s Lab video happens

When I began my channel about six months ago I had no equipment,  save for my smartphone. That was it. No microphones, no ridgey didge software (except an app on said phone), no tripods, no nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. I did have the desire to do it however,  and that is far more important.

So true. Will propels us. A car is only as good as the foot on the accelerator pedal.

So, armed with said phone,  and with no idea what I was doing I jumped into my first video;  a little introduction to strange marine creatures called phronima. 

I remember the making of that video being a series of engineering issues: for example I had no tripod, so I made one from milk crates and a chunk of styrofoam. Hell, it did the job. You have to be MacGuyver sometimes.

That video taught me a few things from the get go. 

What’s my line?

Writing at least an outline of what you’re going to talk about is kind of essential. I am not one of these people who can get up in front of a crowd and roll out some beautifully crafted speech. I mumble and I speak too fast. I know this about myself. Getting flustered and tripping over my words is very easy for me to do. So, if you can’t stare lovingly into the camera like you’re making love to it while you rattle off fun facts…..read from a script. By this I don’t mean read robotically like a ten year old at a school assembly.  I mean have a written script handy (in your hand if need be) and refer to it periodically.

Referring to notes won’t detract from your presentation, despite what you might think.

Having notes will nudge your confidence just that tiny little bit, and that is all important. Just don’t spend the whole video checking them. This leads to another discovery.

It’s ok to ask for help. 

With one or two of my early videos (hell even now I think my delivery is lacking) I found that I absolutely suck at talking to a camera. It’s surprisingly tricky to do. That bloody thing just stares at you, and I always have the feeling that it’s an unimpressed stare. I think that if a camera was an animal it would be a cat.

I’ll let you know when I need you.

Yes, it’s a hell of a thing the little enemies we face every day. Ok, so I’m no public speaker,  but I’m not going to let some gadget shoot me down. I’ve got videos to make. What I discovered helped an awful lot was having someone else present. In this case my beautiful supportive wife:


I tend to mess around when I’m with people. Taking life seriously is something I try to avoid. It’s already serious enough. It doesn’t need my help. So, I found that when she’s behind the camera I relax a little. Or a lot. I could feel the difference in my demeanor when she was around. I’m not a baby. She doesn’t cut the crusts off my bread or anything, but she helps. A friend or even a pet can help you relax. 

These nebulous aspects of video making are big issues to address. In upcoming posts I’ll talk about other things I’m learning as I go…

Non-human microbiomes

This post drew on elements of my own Honours project, which I undertook in 2008. Yes, it’s been awhile, but I still love science. I hope this is interesting to someone. Please feel free to comment.

Microbiomes seem to be the talk of the town at the moment. This microbial underworld is intrinsically linked to many aspects of life we take for granted. It’s actually a lot more inextricably linked than most of us know or suspect. Studies of mammalian subjects have shown that microbiota are crucial. In fact, axenic mammals fare very poorly in comparison to their microbe infested kin.

I have posted a series of links to articles via my social media about not only the physiological importance of having a microbiota,  but also about how intimately entwined these hitchhikers have become with complex life-including us.

Aphids harbour a bacteria called Buchneria wolbachia…
Shown here residing within bacteriocytes; modified fat cells in the host aphid’s hindgut

At this point in time a great deal of research has been carried out on human microbiota: gastrointestinal,  mouth etc. Of invertebrates, sponges have been the object of most study. 

Sponges have been around for nearly 800 million years, and stand testament to an old adage: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Big Pharma has taken to the seas in recent years, upon realising it is a treasure trove of bio-active compounds which may be of use in combating disease,  including cancer.
Molluscs have been an increasing avenue of research as the neverending war between modern humanity and disease rages on. A predatory marine whelk; Dicathais orbita has been one such focus of research. This snail produces bio-active compounds believed to have anti-cancer properties.

One interesting aspect of this emphasis on invertebrates as a source of new medicines is that it highlights a possible role for bacteria in production of these compounds. For example, molluscs such as D. orbita are the only molluscs to employ a class of compounds called bromoperoxidases in the production of bio-active compounds. However, gene sequencing of D. orbita has turned up no genes or proteins that synthesise these compounds. Subsequent searches of databases such as NCBI has turned up nearly a hundred bacterial genes for bromoperoxidases. 

Microbiomes (in the case of D. orbita) do exist. Whereas they have been exhaustively catalogued in humans only recently have studies into invertebrates and their structures begun to bear fruit. 

In D. orbita, bacteria show selective colonisation of differing regions within the snail. Certain organs and glands are known to be bio-active; for example rectal and hypobranchial glands. These regions show low diversity of bacterial passengers. In contrast non biosynthetic centres; gut, mantle and foot showed a seemingly random and diverse spread of bacteria. This is easily explained by environmental uptake.

A female specimen of D.orbita. Highlighted (white arrow) are two biosynthetic centres: the hypobranchial gland and rectal gland, both of which show a structured bacterial complement.

This seemingly selective dispersal of differing bacterial spp. suggests mechanisms by which certain bacterial groups favour particular locations within organisms. Once they have taken a hold there they then proceed to earn their keep; in the case of D. orbita providing chemical defences against other bacteria and pathogens. 
Bacteria are supreme opportunists, having been found almost in literally every environment on and under earth. Whereas they have a natural tendency to form semi-structured, semi-organised communities known as biofilms they also just as readily colonise other organisms, co-opting them for shelter and other benefits whilst paying their way. Their role in the rise and continued existence of. multicellular life can not be overstated.

Follow your feet…

I like the idea of communicating science and ideas. It will forever be my fate to wander the wilderness of science, forever interested in something new.

And I don’t mind one little bit.

 I’ve finally finished my latest youtube video It features creepy crawlies in the backyard. For a few months now I’ve been missing in action. Why?, you may ask. It’s because I’ve been on the hunt, forever on the lookout for insects, worms, spiders and all manner of tiny nasties.

They’re really bloody interesting I have to say. Only a few days ago my wife and I decided to jump in the car and go for a long drive to anywhere. We ended up in Port Pirie; a lead smelting town several hours drive north of Adelaide, where I live. The drive was nice. The town is not so promising. 

BUT, we found this little scrap of mangrove encrusted beach in the centre of town..There I got some of the best footage I’ve ever taken. Native bees were out in force, and they were putting on a stellar performance…

I’m actually kind of proud of the above piece of video in particular. 

What this random trip taught me is that no matter what dump you end up in, there is always something that is worth seeing. I never even would have considered filming native bees, and yet there they were. They were beautiful to behold, they put on a fantastic show, and they weren’t afraid of being filmed. Most insects and arthropods are quite eager not to be seen. 

These natives are superficially similar to honeybees: an introduced species here in Australia. Their mode of flight is (to me) reminiscent of a hummingbird’s. They hover and dart back and forth with practiced agility. They possess a gleaming exoskeleton, replete with the typical black and gold. I’m not an entemologist, just an interested observer I might add. Creepy crawlies though have always been something I’ve enjoyed watching and learning about. Lectures and courses involving insects and other lower life forms always got my attention at university.

Mellitosphex burmensis, an ancestral bee, hailing from Cretaceous Burma

Melittosphex first appears in Cretaceous fossil records dating approximately 100 million years. As I mention in my video Melittosphex is somewhat a hybrid, an early fork in the road that led to bees, wasps and ants. 

M. burmensis probably pollinated plants as modern bees do, but it hadn’t evolved all of the requisite structures. The long and important co-evolution between bees and angiosperms was most likely a long way off..

What I love the most about finding new things like these bees is that if you take a good look your mind can take you back. All the way back to this hazy distant past. Learning for it’s own sake is special because it allows your mind to wander. 

Some of the best things in life are unplanned.

**Erratum** 10/10/2016

It turns out that the insect in the above video which I describe as a native bee is in fact NOT a bee at all, but a hoverfly! Known scientifically as Melangyna viridiceps, this little guy is common all over Australasia. It is actually known as the common hoverfly.

The adult common hoverfly feeds on pollen and nectar, as witnessed in the video. The distinctive colouration is reminiscent of a bee or wasp, and is a ploy to deceive would be predators.

What to do, what to do?

I am a science graduate, who for a multitude of genuine reasons never found meaningful work in the science sector. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean I can’t engage with and be part of the science community. I think communicating science is a lofty destiny, and I take my little forays into scicomm seriously. 

It turns out though that scicomm is more than just relaying data to the person on the street. Oh no, there’s a whole lot more to it than that. 

Mapping and our picture of the world has come a long way, and a dissemination of knowledge led to this.

Public misconceptions about science and the way scientists work are a major hurdle. Now, I will be completely upfront here. I do not work in the science sector. I studied and worked like a dog for an eon or two getting a nice big piece of paper that says I can do science. I am proud of this and can at least say that I climbed that mountain. 

One thing university did for me was to highlight the prevalence of a weird kind of prejudice (assumption?) about science and scientists. 

The process of discovering this assumption ran as thus. Studying science whilst a whole lot of fun, still required a little thing called PAYING BILLS. To this end I was working in a pizza shop owned by my brother in law. 

It was whilst working here that I discovered that the person on the street seems to think scientists know everything. Many times over the course of a night something requiring actual thinking would come up, and I would be met with the phrase; “you’re a scientist Ben. You work it out.” I kind of tired of this after awhile, and learnt that people fundamentally don’t understand how science works. They see it as something akin to a car: they don’t have to know what’s under the bonnet,  or how the damn thing works. It just has to serve them.

Does anyone know what I’m talking about here?

Removing this weird little blindspot people have is the first step in bringing science to the masses. We’re all surrounded every day by the achievements of science, but for the world to make meaningful progress it needs to understand those achievements, not take them for granted. 

Perhaps in this day and age we need to rediscover our respect for knowledge and wisdom more than ever.

Diving into an ocean

I first came upon the above quotation in the foreword to a textbook on oceanography one of my university teachers had written. Matthias Tomczek  was his name, and he looked just like Gandalf. In my humble opinion he was an example of a great teacher. Other teachers fell into this category with equal applomb. Dr Leigh Burgoyne : none other than the very same man to discover the structure of chromatin, was such a teacher.

These two men represented high points for me in my time at university. They didn’t cram my head full of numbers and facts. What they did was just talk. And I listened. I remember one lecture in particular,  where Dr Burgoyne spoke of the mindboggling string of cosmic and statistical coincidences that led to all of us sitting in that lecture theatre.

All I remember from that lecture was that afterwards when he’d stopped speaking… you could hear a pin drop. Imagined or not, I felt a hush had fallen over everyone as they were digesting some cosmic truth. I’ve read “Wonderful Life”. I understand the concept of contingency. But it was an amazing experience to hear similar ponderings from my own teacher.

Like stars in the universe, the coincidences that led to YOU are beyond count.

That hush is what great teachers bring. Whatever technique they use, they make you stop and think, even if just for a moment. Truth lies in the spaces between points in space and knowledge. Great teachers show this to us. There are loud teachers, quiet ones, rude ones. They can all be great.


A blog about where planets come from and where they are going


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