The power of prayer runs dry

Abstract: It seems God wanted the Pope to die... If I were little Johnny du Plessis of Fourways, gently cradling the frail hand of my dying Grandmother, I'd be very disillusioned with God. Because God doesn't seem to like old people all that much. If Johnny had been keeping an eye on current affairs over the past couple of weeks he would've come to the conclusion that there is a very popular man called The Pope who is right at the top of a very large and powerful organisation called The Catholic Church and that he is therefore very, very close to God. Johnny would've learned that The Pope, like Johnny's granny, was old and very ill and that hundreds and thousands, possibly millions, of people were praying for his recovery. Amongst those praying for the Pope would have been bishops, priests and nuns

Beware the dead camels, and please pass the salt

Abstract: There's a new threat we need to talk about: dead camels... Dinner conversation is drying up. And the culprit? So few new topics. When we chat animatedly over our lamb cutlets we prefer a subject that can be expressed as a word or phrase so it can be neatly packaged and passed on to the person sitting next to us - "what do you think of this Zuma thing?" or "isn't crime getting out of control now?"
The reality is that 'the Zuma thing' is getting boring and 'crime' is offering few new twists to spark any discourse over dinner (unless of course you've just been robbed at a restaurant). While we're at it 'the war on terror' has dragged on too long and 'HIV/AIDS' seems to be under control (as much as any rampant, ineptly addressed epidemic can be). So

The digestive tract of love

Abstract: "Love you with all my heart"? A scientific impossibility, I'm afraid... One of the downfalls of being brought up in a home that embraced the pursuit of knowledge through robust and empirical scientific process is that I find this time of the year really gets up my nose. And I'm not talking about hay fever. My father was, during the 1960s, one of Europe's leading scientists. He was, by all accounts, something of a genius. Computers were his area of expertise, but his real love was scientific enquiry and the quest for logical thought. And he shared it with me in his own special way. He explained why Spock was the coolest character on Star Trek because he was purely logical in his thinking and didn't let piffly little things like emotions get in the way of his duties as First Officer on

So you’re a systems engineer? So what’s that?

Abstract: SKA Africa employs systems engineers. So what do they do?... Carl Sagan was probably the world's greatest systems thinker. Over the course of 13 episodes of his seminal 1980s TV series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage he managed to weave a thread through the billions of galaxies, the billions of neurons in the human brain, and everything in between, and in the process make us wonder about our purpose in the universe. If he were alive today he'd see those connections taking shape at SKA Africa in the minds and work of the systems engineers. According to SKA Research Professor at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and Chairman of the SKA Cosmology Working Group, Roy Maartens, researchers at SKA Africa have "devised a means of using the world's largest telescope in new ways that will help shape the future of cosmology". That

The unwelcome eye of journalism

Abstract: There's been a nasty shift in South African journalism... Swimming upstream is a challenging endeavour - ask any salmon - but when the end task is a noble one, even if death - as in the case of the Pacific salmon - follows shortly thereafter, it can be argued that it's worth it. However, fighting against a tide of tabloid journalism has left science journalists wondering if it isn't easier to completely change species. Anyone entrusted with trying to get more science and critical thinking into the media, will be familiar with the edict of most editors that their readers, viewers or listeners 'don't have an appetite for science'. This is of course utterly ridiculous because we are all consumers of science; there isn't a single element to our lives, and how we live it, that isn't examined or improved on by science. But

The state of science journalism in South Africa

Abstract: In a country racked by violent crime, political infighting and scientific ignorance, the quest of the science journalist mirrors that of a famous Greek mythical hero... According to Greek mythology, Prometheus, a titan, forged mankind from clay, and knowing that mankind needed fire to survive, he lit a torch from the sun and brought it to Earth. Zeus considered the fire stolen, and was so incensed he punished Prometheus - an immortal - by having him chained to a rock, and a giant eagle tear at his liver every day. It's a myth imbued with themes of discovery, bravery and loyalty; but the bringing of knowledge, represented by fire, to mankind, is why the analogy of Prometheus is used by the University of Stellenbosch's Professor George Claassen to describe the state of science journalism in his country. Prof Claassen is the popular archetype of

Remember your equations?

Abstract: A measure of worth for a leader lies in simple equations... There's a simple test to see if a person in a position of leadership has got what it takes to make effective decisions - ask them to explain the following equation: F=ma. If it's got you stumped, it's no use skimming through the myriad business management books collecting dust in your office; you won't find it there. You'll have to think back to when you were a lot younger. During the late 1990s I was part of a company that designed and presented science shows at schools and science centres. I've lost count of the number of schools I visited, but suffice to say I became something of an odd fixture in science education, pacing the school halls in my red lab coat crawling with plastic spiders, carrying my black box plastered

Light at night sets off alarm bells

Abstract: A branch of science believes bedtime reading increases the risk of breast cancer... For a parent, there are few things more rewarding than the excitement shown by a child when reading them a bedtime story; but there's a branch of science that fears that such a critical parenting role may increase a child's risk of developing the most common cancer found in South African women. Such a summation may not seem out of place in the unfortunately imbalanced rhetoric of poor health reporting typically found in tabloids. You can imagine the headline: "Mother Goose causes cancer!" But the reality is that those conducting research in the discipline of chronobiology - a relatively new branch of science concerned with the internal biological clocks of various living organisms - are concerned that using artificial light at night poses a risk of developing breast cancer. A

The stars and you and the uncomfortable truth

Abstract: The truth about astrology may be a little uncomfortable...but there is a twist... Those who know me are well aware of the special place in my toolbox for those who believe in astrology. It's a compartment that holds a set of jumper cables, which I use to jolt believers of astrology into the real world. However, and to this I must admit, there's a sliver of truth in what they believe; and what's more, there's a twist. Because there's always a twist. Astrology is one of those things that we've inherited from the dark pages of history, when ignorance of science was painted over with the murky hues of occultism. In a way it's like a nasty rash that people love to pick at to see what's underneath. Back in its formative years, supposed 'wise men', known as soothsayers, would conjure up all

A lesson in leadership from Douglas Adams

Abstract: The true power of a leader's voice lies in a lesson from science and space... There's a pivotal saying in the world of journalism: content is king, context in King Kong. In brief it means that whereas what is said in a burst of text is important, its accuracy and correct interpretation - and therefore its impact - is ensured only if it is placed within the correct frame of reference. This same saying should be the preface of every handbook on sound leadership. Like every other science journalist I whooped with joy and punched the air when the Mars Curiosity rover completed its treacherous voyage to the red planet and settled, on cue, into its predetermined landing area. It was the accumulation of years of commitment, insight and wisdom from hundreds of dedicated scientists and thinkers from all over the world. The