RoughBot Lesson 1 (of 5)

Components used in this lesson: electronic breadboard; USB cable (standard to mini); Arduino Nano.

Last week a began a series of RoughBot lessons with Mazenod College.

Completed RoughBot

The purpose of RoughBot is to build a programmable robot with off-the-shelf components, and to keep the price as cheap as possible. At this stage, a single RoughBot can be built for between AU$80 to $100.

The purpose of the lessons are to introduce students to the programmable interface of the Arduino chip (the brain of the RoughBot), and to examine how to then connect this chip to other components (such as wheels.)

Arduino Nano, the brain of RoughBot

Lesson The First gave the students an introduction to the robot they will be building. We then examined our Arduinos for defects and bent pins, before inserting them into a breadboard. Most students had not encountered electronic breadboards before, and we spent a little time discussing how they worked.

Interfacing with the RoughBot’s brain

As the RoughBot will be constructed around the Arduino brain, we spent time making sure they connected without problem to the students’ computers. This way we could be sure that we had a complete set of working components before moving onto the next lesson.

Making sure the Arduino pins are straight

As the lesson occurred at lunchtime, we lost time at the start and the end. As such, the actual lesson and construction needed to be compressed to around thirty minutes. The next four lessons have been structured to take this time limitation into account.

Next lesson: My First Arduino Program.

(If you would like more information about the RoughBot lesson, drop me a line from my contact page.)

Rough Science: LIFE. The wrap-up.

It was several months ago now that I put in the application to be part of the 2014 Melbourne Fringe. The final night for the show was on Saturday, and had an amazing sold-out performance, and a really great review!

It’s left me today reflecting on a few things over the past few months that made Rough Science: LIFE the success that it was. (Images by Fenstar Images.)

Rough Science on Stage

To get it on stage, I ran a crowdfunding campaign through Pozible. This is the second time I’ve run a Pozible campaign, with the first one being an unmitigated disaster — a disaster I learned quite a lot from. This time I had a closely planned budget, carefully thought-out rewards, and all of my social media posts lined up for the next few weeks. The campaign finished past the funded mark, with two people going for the extra-special $200 reward of a Rough Science birthday.

Rough Science: LIFE Pozible

It’s not a One-Man-Show
The next time I do something like this, I will be pulling together some kind of production team. In the meantime, I had a small and brilliant group of volunteers helping out at various stages of the project. (Though I couldn’t pay people, where I could I arranged Fringe Artist Passes, which get you into other performances for free and discounts at the Fringe Club.) They were: Astrophysicist Katie Mack, Astrophysicist Ruth Pearson, Paul Elliott, and Fenstar Images.

And my parents stepped up to the plate every night.

The Performances
Ira Glass has this quote where he talks about the disappointment we may feel when our work does not live up to the image in our heads. When I performed Rough Science: LIFE at the Adelaide Fringe for the very first time, the gap between what I had presented and what I wanted to present was enormous. In the twenty-four hours between the first and second performance, I had some coaching from Cobi Smith, plus I added something new to each section. That second performance was closer to my vision.

Several months later, and the Rough Science: LIFE experience was still closer to what I wanted to present. It had moved away from being a lecture, to being a more dynamic and engaging science show.



104 copy

106 copy

107 copy

116 copy

121 copy





146 copy


155 copy

159 copy

177 copy

182 copy




207 copy





273 copy

291 copy

308 copy



For next time
It is possibly time to put Rough Science: LIFE to bed and move onto another project. What happens next? Well, if (and when!) I write another show, I am definitely going to put together a team to help with all the aspects of the production. As much a I want to have my hands on all parts of the show, the last few weeks have been intensely stressful!


Breaking even, and possibly making a profit, is intrinsic to making the process sustainable. Another Pozible is definitely in the future.

In the meantime, there is a mass of goodwill and good feelings from the audience who came and the people who supported the show. I love you all!

Supernova month!

Supernovae are like buses: there’s nothing for ages, then two of them turn up at once.

Earlier this month a supernova was discovered in M82, also known as the Cigar Galaxy.

Over the past couple of days, another supernova has been confirmed in M99. (M99 has already had three supernovae since its discovery in 1781. This new supernova makes the count four.)

Two stars explode in the same month? Signs and portents!

On the other hand, a great cosmic coincidence?

The galaxy M82 is 12 million lights years away, and M99 is 60 million. At some point, 60 million years ago, a massive star at the end of its life lost its delicate balance between the gravity from its mass and the force from its nuclear furnace, and exploded.

48 million years later, and 55 million light years away, two stars in orbit around each other were completing an eons-old dance. A large star was being stripped of gas by its white dwarf companion. The white dwarf’s mass reaches a critical limit, and explodes.

12 million years later, the light from both of these events reach us.

2014-01-31 11.00.51

I like to think of it as ever expanding bubbles, as the light from both explosions moves through the universe, and intersects where (and when) we are.

Appendix: Getting Numbers

Wolfram-Alpha constantly surprises me in its power, particularly interpreting my prattlings.

“distance to m99”

“distance to m82”

“distance between m99 and m82”

And my favourite surprise: “angle between m99 and m82”

Easy Easel

In previous Rough Science stage shows, I’ve used an easel to display diagrams, old-school.

Rough Science 2012

For Rough Science: LIFE in Adelaide, I need not only one easel, but five. Five. At around eighty bucks a pop, I need something much, much cheaper. On top of that, they need to be light, collapsable, and transportable so I can fly them in February.

I am a very big fan of PVC pipes and connectors, having used them for previous science interactives and activities. After spending a quarter hour in the PVC plumbing aisle at the hardware store, I came up the the Quick and Dirty Easel.

You will need:

o Three (3) 100cm lengths of PVC pipe;
o Three (3) 60cm lengths of PVC pipe;
o Two (2) 3cm lengths of PVC pipe;
o Two (2) T connectors;
o Two (2) L connectors;
o One (1) coupling;
o Three (3) caps;
o One (1) bolt and wing-nut.

All the parts

In the ends of the 60cm pipe, I drilled holes for the bolt. In two of them I made an elongated hole so that the legs could spread.

Holes in pipes

Connect the 3cm lengths to the L connectors. These will hold up the card/diagrams/Sunflowers by Van Gogh.

Picture holder

The bolt goes through the drilled holes. The elongated holes face inwards.

Bolted ends

Connect the pipes to the T connectors and coupling. From here, it’s like Lego. Or Mechano. Or K’Nex.

Finished easel

It is lightweight and strong enough to hold a stack of card.


Now to spray paint it!

(Don’t forget the correct PPE.)

Spray painting PPE

UPDATE: Replace the caps with rubber stoppers to make the easel non-slip.

2014-01-25 22.05.22


KFCholesterolLook at those chunks of chicken warming so innocently in the bain-marie.

All the while inside them sleep groups of atoms arranged into long chains of trans fats, missing hydrogen in various spots making them kinked and unwieldy molecules.

Gathered like armies in that delicious, crunchy skin, they are set to tumble through your arteries, the sticky ends of their molecule chain groping blindly in the dark of your bloodstream, latching onto water, other fats, or the blood vessel wall.

There they’ll wait, accumulating more of their kinky comrades to form megamolecules, until one day they dislodge and tumble along your wine-dark river, fording the tributaries of arteries, rafting into the arteriole runs, only to lodge at the branching mouth of a stream of capillaries deep inside your brain.

Dammed, the red river piles up. The blood vessel quivers like a over-filled water balloon, and bursts its banks.

This is a picture of death. Delicious, crunchy death.

Rough Science: LIFE!

This year’s An Evening of Rough Science is all about the origin of life.

But before then, I am raising money on Pozible to make the stage show possible.

We have a bunch of props to make, posters and other paraphernalia to print, and would also like to hire an Auslan interpreter for the final night.

If you’d like to pledge to Rough Science: LIFE!, you will also get fabulous rewards!

Check out the Rough Science: LIFE! Pozible campaign page for more details.

It would be awesome if you helped out!

Game of Tendons (and other viscera)

I like to think I have a pretty good sense of how I learn new things these days. Still, I love it when I find something new that rings my bell.

If you’ve seen me in the wider world, you may notice that I have a stooped posture, and have done since primary school. What may have started by large school bags then got exacerbated by hours hunched in front of a computer.

Over the years I’ve had exercises, and tried yoga and Pilates. One issue is that to me my back is a mass of muscles, and I have no idea what needs to be relaxed and what needs to be built up.

My beautiful and insightful girlfriend Cobi Smith came up with an alternative. She visualised my back as countries in some imaginary land, Seanstorso, and wrote me a story. I used the Human Anatomy Atlas (which, by-the-bye, is an awesome app for the iPad) to illustrate some maps of these fantastical lands.

The following becomes my homework.

North and South Trapezius

Once upon a time there was a faraway land called Seanstorso. Generations ago all the people of the land of Seantorso lived happily together, working together to keep their land in balance. However the people of North Trapezius grew arrogant and greedy, even turning on their own kind in the South to get more power. The land of Seanstorso became unbalanced.

The Rhomboids

As the people of North Trapezius waged war, other people lost strength, cowering under North Trapezius’s tyranny. The Rhomboids, who had worked so well with the people of South Trapezius, were almost paralysed with fear as they witnessed their southern neighbours being destroyed by their northern kindred.

The lands of Seanstorso, once beautiful and balanced, began to change. The mountains and valleys the people had worked in harmony with for generations began to shift. People’s work from which they drew strength was taken away, and so they became weak and despondent. The North Trapezius used this as justification for their dominance. The people of North Trapezius eventually wrought full control over the lands, considering the other people as worthless serfs. The time when all the people lived in balance had nearly been forgotten.

Levata Scapula

As the people of the south cowered under the force of the North Trapezius, the downtrodden Levata Scapula decided to take action. The Levata Scapula lived alongside the people of North Trapezius in the time of harmony, but they had been among the first to suffer when the North Trapezius hunger for power was awoken. Unlike those in the south who were deemed weak serfs, the North Trapezius forced the Levata Scapula to labour for them. The Levata Scapula become slaves carrying the loads of the southern lands that were being shifted north. But it became too much. The Levata Scapula were the first to see how the land was shifting, and they were sick of slavery.

The peoples of Levata Scapula need to entreaty the king who sits on his throne in the capital of Cerebellum that Levata Scapula, who must intervene lest the Lord of North Trapezius destroy the land and bring the entire kingdom to its knees (or rounded posture.) And winter is coming.

Not only am I now picturing the muscles involved, but I also know which ones are the problems, and which ones are the solution, all wrapped up in a story worthy of a HBO television series.

Squishy Circuits

Yesterday I retweeted a tweet for a Squishy Circuits project page and mentioned I had done it as a holiday activity.

After the retweet, I had a number of people ask me about the holiday science session where we used Squishy Circuits with children aged 5 and 6.

The idea is that you make two types of playdough: one that conducts electricity; the other insulates.

I started by introducing the idea that electricity needs to flow.  We looked at a large 6 volt battery, and connected it up to a light, making emphasis on the two wires needed: one to take the electricity to the light, and the other back, making a circuit.

Then I introduced the idea that electricity flows along material we call a conductor, and is stopped by material we call an insulator.

We tried connecting into the circuit wood, wire, and a pencil.  (The pencil is interesting, as the outside is insulating, but the graphite lead is conducting.)

“So guys, electricity needs to flow in a circuit.  It flows through conductors.  It is stopped by insulators.  Let’s play with playdough!”

We had green conducting playdough, and white playdough as insulating.  We also used LEDs, which meant we also needed to get across the concept that electricity needs to flow through it in one direction for it to emit light.  Ideally, I would have liked a light that could be put into the circuit either direction.  But LEDs are small, cheap, and light up at a small voltage.

We moved over to tables set up in a horseshoe.  This way the kids could see some large cardboard diagrams I was drawing up.  The first circuit we made got across the idea of the green vs the white:

In this circuit we put in many LEDs, and try them in different orientations to get across the idea that they will only work one way.

Next, I presented a couple of challenges.  One was a caterpillar:

I didn’t give them the colours of the dough they should use.  I left it up to them to figure out.  After giving them some thinking and construction time, I coloured in the answer:

The second challenge was to make a face with LEDs for eyes (an uncoloured outline of the next picture.)

Again, I gave them thinking and construction time, then showed the answer:

The rest of the session was freeplay where everyone could make their own model.  There were many monsters constructed.

My son Gabriel connecting up a squishy circuit.

Considering the age group, I found this was a great introduction to electrical circuits, conduction and insulation.  The playdough made for a kind of freeplay you couldn’t do with just wires and batteries.

Given further sessions, you could reinforce the concepts with more models and challenges.  More advanced session could include other electronic components, such as motors.

Any suggestions?

LaunchPod Launches!

I am collaborating with another science communicator, the talented Vanessa Hill, on a podcast!

It’s called LaunchPod, and will be presenting ideas, careers, and possible futures for Australian students passionate about the space industry.

The podcasts feature interviews with professionals involved with space science research, development, exploration and discovery in Australia. We’ll be finding out what they do, how they got started, and for any advice they can give to aspiring young people.

The first episode of LaunchPod was released last Friday, and can be found on Soundcloud: LaunchPod Episode One.

LaunchPod also has a website at, and you can follow updates on Twitter at @launchp0d (that’s a zero, not an oh.)

Cornflour Slime + Music

I had seen this particular demo going about on YouTube for a while, but it wasn’t until we tried it for a holiday program that I wanted to investigate it further.

The idea is that the cornflour is a non-Newtonian fluid; that is, it does not behave like a classical fluid, ie, water. It instead changes its consistency depending on the forces acting on it. At times it can flow and ooze. Other times it can feel and act like a solid.

Pour the mixture into a sound speaker, and find the right percussive action, and you get all kinds of spectacular behaviour.

Cornflour Slime in a Speaker!