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Prove all things

On November 1, 2019, I made my annual long distance trek from Oberon to the University of Wollongong to attend the 2019 Young Scientist Awards, an event organised by the Science Teachers' Association of NSW.

I speak at a lot of events and this one gives me the highest dose of stage fright. Maybe it's because I only have a very short time (3-4 minutes) to get my points across. Maybe it's because the audience is full of people a lot younger and a lot smarter than I am. Things weren't helped this year because I was recovering from a bad cold. Maybe one of the students will one day find a cure.


But enough talk - here's the talk.

Good evening.

On behalf of Australian Skeptics I'd like to start as usual by congratulating everyone here - the students for their creativity and enthusiasm, their parents for encouraging them, the teachers for making it possible for them to be here tonight and the sponsors for paying for all of it. One of my annual jobs on the committee of Australian Skeptics is to move a motion to continue sponsorship of these awards. It is seconded and passed in possibly the shortest time of anything we discuss throughout the year, so I hope our association will continue for a long time.

It hasn't been a great year for science and rational thought in Australia. The country's only bookshop devoted to science, philosophy and critical thinking, Embiggen Books in Melbourne, closed its doors when the proprietors could no longer make a living. After 80 years, Australasian Science magazine ceased publication, something which was doubly disappointing to me because I've had a regular column there since 2003. The ABC closed a Facebook group that pointed out bad science. I'm probably not even being political when I say that the results of this year's NSW and Federal elections mean that there will not be much government action on climate change in the near future, and this is the biggest threat facing humanity probably since the plague in 14th century Europe.

Looking around this room however I am encouraged about the future, because it is young people with an interest in science who are going to solve our problems - the production and distribution of food, the treatment and hopefully curing (and maybe even eliminating) some diseases (please find a cure for the common cold so I don't have to suffer like I have over the last couple of weeks), ways to more efficiently produce and store the energy we need for our society, the risk to cities and food supplies from changing climate, ...

It's people like the students in this room who are going to solve these problems, and never let anyone tell you that being young can stop you. A year ago a single 15-year-old Swedish schoolgirl, Greta Thunberg, sat outside her school to raise awareness of the need for action on climate change. This year millions joined her across the world to say "This is our future. Fix it".

I'll give just one example of an immediate problem that will only be fixed by science, not wishful thinking. If I lived in a city and didn't go very far I'd love an electric car. Yes, I know about the electricity coming from coal-fired power stations but that is a relatively easy fix. I live out in the country, and the electric car sold in Australia with the longest range, the Hyundai Kona, could get me here but it couldn't get me home without spending 24 hours connected to a power point or a couple of hours attached to a fast charger. Speaking of wishful thinking, I've been told that a Tesla can be charged from flat battery to fully charged in ten minutes. With today's battery technology, the heat generated would melt the car, so you don't need to take much notice of what Elon Musk's fans say. Solving range and charging time are scientific problems and the answers will come from science. According to the fuel gauge my petrol powered car can get me home, but it takes about five minutes to fill up and there are many places I can buy petrol between here and Oberon.


Image from NASA of the largest Antarctic
ozone hole ever recorded over the
South Pole - September 2006
Climate change deniers love to tell us that humans can't affect the atmosphere (despite the fact that in the last 150 or so years we have released into the atmosphere carbon which took 300 to 400 million years to store in coal and oil), but if they do you should mention the holes in the ozone layer.  This is a layer of the chemical ozone which sits between 15 and 30 kilometres above the surface of the earth. (Ozone is oxygen with three atoms in the molecule instead of two.) At sea level it's a nuisance, but up there it blocks harmful ultraviolet radiation coming from the sun. In the 1970s it was discovered that the ozone layer was being damaged by certain chemicals and holes were appearing. The fix was remarkably simple - stop using the damaging chemicals. We've done that - changed the propellants in aerosol cans and the refrigerants in air conditioners, for example, and predictions are that all the holes will have closed by 2065. The fix might have been simple but it wasn't quick (the damaging chemicals acted as catalysts so the molecules remained behind after doing their damage), but the answer came from science.

In the last couple of these talks I've mentioned some good advice about science which comes from literature. I'm going to finish tonight with some advice from an old book that some of you might be familiar with. This book came out in English at about the time that Hamlet and Macbeth were first performed. One of the people in the book was called Paul and he wrote some letters to the residents of Thessaloniki in Greece. In the first of those letters he stated in nine words what science is all about: "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good".

Prove here means test, as in the clichés "The proof of the pudding is in the eating" and "The exception proves the rule".

My first column in Australasian Science carried the title "Truth and Fiction", and the job of science is detecting the difference. There is no better advice to a budding scientist than what Paul wrote - test everything and only keep the good and true things. Do that and you won't go too far wrong in a career in science.

Thank you.




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