Unsexy science

Several years ago Archimedes travelled to China to write about an Australian pilot program which introduced the idea of peer education about AIDS to Chinese university students.

It was remarkable that such a program was given the go-ahead. Knowledge in China traditionally flows from elders and betters, not peers. The program was imported from a Western country. And the Chinese Government is sensitive about sex education. Despite all this, to the Chinese academics working in the program, one of its most significant aspects was the insight into the Western way of doing science—specifically, how such programs were assessed.

The most mundane, unglamorous aspects of science can often be the most useful. All our safety and efficiency testing, programs for improving our industrial processes, and the reliability and durability of our products rely on behind-the-scenes science that is almost never reported.

Recently Archimedes wrote an article about mining automation. The CSIRO and other research organisations are developing technologies to take people away from the dangerous work at the ore face. The research at CSIRO Mining and Exploration in Brisbane is a fascinating mix of robotics, communications, mechanical engineering, electronics and navigation, but it lacks the media appeal of a cure for breast cancer or the extinction of a rainforest butterfly.

Australia supplies software to more than 60 per cent of mining operations worldwide. The export of mining services and expertise puts more than $3 billion a year into the Australian economy, a figure that is growing by about 13 per cent annually. Hands up those who know anything much about Australian mining research?

In another example, the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Clean Power from Lignite, based in Melbourne and Adelaide, is charged with finding out how to burn our brown coal more efficiently while emitting less pollutants. Not glamorous stuff, and positively frowned upon by the greener segments of society. But the CRC has come up with processes that have the potential for reducing greenhouse emissions from brown coal by more than 30 per cent. At the same time, they will increase the efficiency of energy output of brown coal from about 29 per cent to about 44 per cent.

Substantial deposits of such low-rank coal exist in many of the most populous countries of the developing world such as China, India, Indonesia, Thailand and Turkey (as well as in the United States and Germany). For developing nations, these coal reserves represent a way of powering their expanding economies and raising living standards. The work of the CRC may end up doing more for the environment than more environmentally acceptable studies.

Archimedes would argue that such science forms the backbone of our society, in the way that adequate sewerage, clean water and good dietary information do more for human health than heart transplants and Viagra. Yet it’s not the kind of work that catches the eye, that people remember in their wills, or that newspapers tend to report. Like electricity transmission lines, unglamorous science tends to go unnoticed until it’s not there. Maybe that’s why the Chinese were so interested in what went on behind the scenes. 

Tim Thwaites is a freelance science writer.



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