The Science of Rap…?

Today I chatted to Tom McFadden, who’s come all the way from the most-likely-to-be-warmer-than-here California as a guest speaker for the SciFest.  He was roped in though the Science Communication network, that has its tentacles everywhere, after applying for the Master of Science Communication programme for 2011. (Go Science Communication!)

Tom’s been making rap songs and videos about science for the past couple of years, in collaboration with his mates back in the USA, not all of whom are scientists, just like-minded people who are passionate about creative education.  The idea came from finding a way of making biology accessible to undergraduate students that he was teaching, and has taken off from there.  From creating videos to supplement homework for his students, he has made around 20 videos (YouTube them!) that have really taken off with both university and high school students.

Now Tom doesn’t see himself as a rapper per se, since there are many other musical paths to choose from but rap is very prevalent in the States. Pretty much everyone he knew at school has recorded at least one rap song.  Of course, rap is something that is a bit of a novelty here (so I have noticed) with many media outlets almost overemphasising the ‘rap’ word in the stories about Tom, so I reckon he should tap into the hip hop market for success in New Zealand. 🙂

Rather than telling people that “science is cool”, Tom is forging a path communicating science (mostly biology) in a way that is applicable to many people.  To him, science is not ‘a dude putting two chemicals together and making an explosion’ (as he was informed once) but being curious about the natural world.  Learning and expanding scientific knowledge helps to make our planet a better place.

Tom is running workshops for kids this week, where they choose a subject and create a rap about it.  This is gearing towards a ‘Science Idol’, which will be held during the Fun & Food Fiesta at the Edgar Centre on Sunday.  You can also check him out at Wall Street on Friday!

Photo is courtesy of Strategy First


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I’m a big kid now…

I went along and checked out the Freaky Science show at the Otago Museum today, and while it wasn’t the Cafe Vulgar one as advertised, it was an informative and exciting show.  Although, I suppose anything with loud bangs and expanding marshmallows is awesome.

Balloon Antics #1

Check it out!  It’s Amadeo, the Safety Scientist!  He’s demonstrating what happens if you put liquid nitrogen in a plastic bottle, and then put a balloon over the top. 

First it inflates, and then inflates some more!  Hmm, I wonder what will happen…

… the ‘sonic boom’ echoed throughout the museum shortly after this photo.  Awesome.  I fully admit to letting out a high-pitched shriek at this.  Apparently the rubber exploded at the speed of sound.  Or something.

Operation Air Removal: Marshmallows!

Next came the removal of air from marshmallows and pineapple lumps!  Amadeo rigged up a air-sucker-outer to a container full of confectionary and then commenced Operation: Air Removal.

This is what it started out like.  Both the marshmallows and the pineapple lumps expanded, with the chocolate cracking on the lumps.

This was the end result!  But wait!, there’s more: this is what happened when the air was let back into the container (apologies for the poor quality video):

And the marshmallows ended up smaller than when they began!  And they got eaten by an appreciative audience.

Water was also used for this demonstration, where the water began to bubble and boil as the air was removed, as the water became a lot colder (like at the top of a mountain) and therefore it boiled at a lower temperature.

Balloon Antics #2

The poor old balloons came in for more abuse when Amadeo poured the dry ice into the red container and placed an inflated balloon (and a rotten banana from the Tropical Forest!) into the container.

Basically, the balloon shrunk as the air inside froze, turning to liquid!  When Amadeo cut open the now small balloon, you could see liquid air pour out!  And the banana got smashed.

Anyways, this post is getting long, so I’ll leave it there but head along to the other Freaky Science shows at the museum:

What Goes In Must Come Out on Thursday and,

The Menu of Cafe Vulgar on Sunday

Lastly, a huge shout-out to Amadeo for a great show.  Stay classy 🙂

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It’s Official!

Last night was the official opening of the 2010 New Zealand International Science Festival at the TECHnique Restaurant and it was good to see so many prominent people involved in the Festival!  Highlight definately had to be ‘That Blind Woman’  Julie Woods who got us all to blindfold ourselves and use our other senses to figure out what we were eating.  I figured that chocolate + licorice + coconut + crumbled cookies = truffle awesomeness!  So even if you can’t make the Dining in the Dark Experience, go see Julie’s demonstration at Wall Street tomorrow (Wednesday 07 July) from 12.30pm – 1.15pm.

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Eye of the Beholder?

Science as art?  Art as Science?  Are these things relevant to each other?

Pretty, huh?  These are patterns within the brain!  I must confess that I don’t follow the whole Science and Art schtick, unless it is perhaps about the origins of the materials used to paint a picture, or to tell how old it is, or even methods to show what is underneath a certain painting.  Or as a use in Science Communication though photos, exhibits, books and what-have-you.  I’ve been amazed at images produced from different scientific methods, especially in the micro-realm.  You could consider the humble nautilus, a cephalopod (related to octopus and squid).  It looks like this:

These wash up on the shore (more in tropical areas!) and have a distinctive shell: brown and white patterned on the outside and a mother-of-pearl interior (due to the mineral aragonite which is a form of calcite).

Nautiloids show up in all sorts of imagery, like the photo above, as well as applications in mathematics for their whorls! 

Or as a template for a speaker:


These pretty shells show life: growth patterns, environmental adaptions and the beauty within nature.  For me, there is one other application of art in science: giving us an idea of what came before.  nautiloids had a close relation, the ammonites, that died out with the dinosaurs, and so we can infer what they looked like and how they lived by comparing today’s living being with a fossil that last lived about 65 million years ago.  And think of the dinosaurs themselves, the bones themselves aren’t inspiring but the imagery produced by artists has meant they are ensconced in everyday life.  And this is what I think 😀

Want to know more? Check out these discussions:

 So get along to the many arty science things on this week including (click to find times and venues):

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Ever really thought about Dunedin in the early days, well maybe not so far back as when it was known as ‘Mudedin’ but before electricity and whatnot? Back then, gas was the power currency and the Dunedin Gasworks began way back in 1862, first powering about 20 or so ‘gas standards’ or lamps like you see outside the Otago Settler’s Museum. It soon expanded to providing the power for lighting, heating, cooking and industrial needs, peaking in the early 20th Century (when electricity gave it a run for its money) and finally closing in 1987.  Just think that there is over 300 miles (I’ll translate later) of gas pipes still under the ground in Dunedin!

The Dunedin Gasworks Museum has preserved a large part of the machinery that used to run the gasworks and not only is it the only one in New Zealand, it is one of only three gasworks museums in the world, and the only one that has the original machinery running!  As well as just being really cool in having running steam machinery from the past couple of centuries, it also serves to demonstrate the physics of steam machiner and the chemistry of gas, which first came from coal, and then petrolium oil from the 1960’s onwards.  Did you know that aspirin comes from coal?

So come along (and be very warm!) to the Gasworks Museum and immerse yourself in living history.  It’s open today from 12.00-4.00pm, I’ll be making pikelets on an old gas stove (which is pretty hard to light!).  It will also be open during the Science Festival Tuesday 06th – Friday 09th July, from 10.00am – 12.00pm. 


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To Pop or Not to Pop…

Popcorn.  It’s great, healthy even, if one leaves off the buttery goodness…  But other than eating it, I’ve never really thought about how it pops and even why it pops.  There was an article in the recent Dunedin Star about popcorn that wasn’t popping (01 July 2010)!!  Turns out recent weather (and high demand) meant that the pop-your-own popcorn (not the microwave stuff) wasn’t popping  into edible food, just blackening pots and leaving consumers unfulfilled.  Why?  Well, popcorn needs a certain amount of moisture to pop, and has to be stored after harvest to reach its ‘perfect’ moisture level (~13.5% if you will), and because of a huge demand last year, they had to use the new season’s corn earlier than usual.

For how popcorn pops and why some don’t pop at all, check out  this article and podcast.

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Body Parts…

Anyone remember that documentary “Body Farm”? The one in the good old US of A about the decomposing bodies (of people who have donated their bodies to science) that aid in forensic research?  This is what I think of when people mention donating their bodies to science.

WARNING: Don’t watch this if you are squeamish!!

Anyways, I don’t really think that donating one’s body to science is all about rotting outdoors at some remote location to help in solving murders. So what does happen (especially in New Zealand)?  Check out the screening of the documentary ‘Donated to Science’ by Dr. Paul Trotman. This is going to be followed by a discussion with people involved in the film. 


  • Rialto Cinema, Wednesday 07th July 2010, from 6.00pm – 9.00pm – Big Screen!!
  • Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Saturday 10th July, 2010, from 1.30pm – 4.00pm (also followed by a discussion)

Also check out the exhibition ‘Still Life: The Art of Anatomy’ which is on display at the art gallery.

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