Comet McNaught

comet+car Each night this week around sunset I’ve left the house, wandered up the street, squinted in disgust at the clouds on the western horizon and gone back inside. Last night, we finally got lucky with the weather.

The visual experience is a good deal more impressive than these pictures suggest. I managed to choose a location with the highest concentration of suspended power lines in Brisbane, balanced the camera on a wheelie bin in the middle of the road and hoped for the best.

The first shot includes a passing car for dramatic effect. The second shows the tail quite nicely, if you can ignore the cables and the glaring street lamps. The third is a cropped version of the first.

All in all, not a great photographic experience which only enhanced my desire to live in the country! Still, I can say that I witnessed the great comet of 2007 and captured it for posterity.

Wikipedia has put together a very nice Comet McNaught entry with plenty of useful links and a great image gallery. Also try Comet McNaught as a Flickr tag.


Falling birds, falling rain

Esperance is a town in Western Australia. It’s currently a natural disaster zone following a freak storm. In a tale worthy of the X-Files, thousands of dead birds recently fell from the skies, until almost no living birds were left. Cause unknown, residents baffled.

In other news from the Australian environment, Brisbane is king of the home rainwater tank:

The council issued 16,581 rebates for tanks in the 12 months to November 30. Yet in the far larger city of Melbourne, only about 13,000 tanks have been installed since 2003, while in Sydney, the nation’s biggest metropolis, 8424 rebates were issued in the 2004-05 financial year.

And at the end of the article:

The maximum rebate available in Sydney is $800, while rebates of up to $1000 can be claimed in Melbourne.

The Brisbane rebate is $1700. Twice the rebate, twice the tanks – coincidence? Or are the Sydney millionaires just not claiming their rebate?

Lights out

Next March, WWF Australia are organising Earth Hour. If all goes to plan, Sydney homes and businesses will switch off the lights for one hour, the city will fade to black and we’ll get an interesting snapshot of energy consumption.

It’s an interesting idea and a good publicity stunt. What I’d really like to see though, are some incentives and/or legislation to make energy conservation in cities the norm, not a one-off event. Do we really need all those office buildings and shop fronts illuminated throughout the night?

No worries mate

In a sure candidate for an IgNobel prize, research indicates that Australians are less prone than Europeans to heart attacks induced by watching sport. This ground-breaking work is reported in the Christmas special section of the Medical Journal of Australia.

One of their datasets is the nail-biting 2005 AFL Grand Final, won at the death by the Sydney Swans. I wonder if they included a “fan factor” – the population at large may have been relaxed, but I know several people who repeatedly came close to cardiac arrest over the finals series that year. And we still can’t speak of the 2006 final.

A day off

Ah, cricket. Loved by those who grow up where it’s played and an utter mystery to everyone else.

I spent yesterday at Brisbane’s Gabba, a modern day amphitheatre, enjoying day 3 of the first Ashes test. It wasn’t the most compelling game – Australia’s dominance reminded me of a cat toying with an injured baby bird and the “fun police” have cracked down on water melon helmets, trumpets, beach balls and Mexican waves. However, if you’re visiting Australia and get the chance to see cricket or AFL at a major venue, I recommend that you do. It’s always good fun, relaxing in the sun with a beer, chatting with your mates, watching the crowd dynamics and the game. And it’s a great way to put work aside and wind down for a few hours.

Statistics 101 (for politicians and journalists)

Australia suffers worst drought in 1,000 years

Mr Howard played down the assessment that the drought was the worst in 1,000 years, saying he doubted if anybody really knew

So: a 1000-year drought (or indeed a 1000-year anything) is a statistical event. What you’re saying is “you’d expect an event of this magnitude on average once in a thousand years”.

“The worst drought for 1000 years” is quite different. That statement implies that you have 1000 years of data on droughts, you have analysed the data and the current drought is the most severe in that timespan.

What the scientists are trying to say is: the current drought is unexpectedly severe, by a long way. I hope that’s now clear.


  • Amazing 550 million year-old fossil embryos have been imaged using X-ray tomography, showing 3D and internal structures including dividing nuclei. Evolutionary developmental biologists must be going nuts. Abstract in Science.
  • And just outside of Sydney in the Wollemi National Park (home to the famous “living fossil” pine tree), discovery of around 50 new archaeological sites containing rock art, engravings and a stone axe. Typically, ABC News devotes all of six lines to this major find, so you’re on your own if you’d like to know more.