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Black rats - brilliant adaptors

Black rats were responsible for the death of 75 million people in the 13th century during the Black
Plague. Today they cost the US grain industry $19 billion a year. But black rats also happen to be
brilliant at adaptation and survival. Feeling squirmish? Well the south Vietnamese aren't, with
their rat meat industry producing 10,000 tonnes of rat meat every year. They can be traced to
Southeast Asia they have spread throughout every continent and if you think they're not in your
house.... think again!

Robyn Williams: Rats changed the world, changed human history. They devour huge amounts of the food
we grow. The plagues they've brought killed millions and, in a way, helped create the modern world.
Dr Ken Aplin at CSIRO Wildlife in Canberra has been tracing their lifelines. He's just returned
from India.

Ken Aplin: Everywhere in the world is infested with black rats, and India in particular is
absolutely infested.

Robyn Williams: I remember from somebody who used to work here, Tony Barnett, professor of zoology
at the Australian National University in Canberra, he was consulted on the basis that the rats eat
vast amounts of the crops in India. Any idea how much? Way back, he said about 10% of the grain.

Ken Aplin: Yes, that's still pretty much the case in India, they still estimate around 10% to 15%
lost to rodents, not only black rats but a range of others as well. But in other parts of Southeast
Asia it's even higher. People growing crops in the uplands of Laos or Thailand, they lose 30% every
year, and in bad years they'll lose 70% or 80% of their crop.

Robyn Williams: That is a fantastic amount. What can be done about it?

Ken Aplin: At the CSIRO we've been working on trying to solve these problems for the last ten years
or so and with some success, particularly in lowland monoculture rice crops. The uplands are a much
more difficult problem and I don't know that there's a simple solution to it.

Robyn Williams: With that amount, to save even a small proportion would be a success, wouldn't it?

Ken Aplin: That's right and that's the way I think we have to approach this, just to try to reduce
the damage in areas where we think we can have success, and not try to beat these animals. They're
the greatest survivors, the greatest adaptors to disturbance, and of course humans are the greatest
disturbers of all, and we just have to live with rodents as our companions.

Robyn Williams: What about the rats in the United States or Australia? Any idea of the kind of loss
they sustain there?

Ken Aplin: I saw an estimate recently for the US, $19billion a year from the grain industry. If we
add loss to other sorts of food production then it would be much higher than that. And if you add
the health related cost of rodents then of course it goes even higher, and if we do that worldwide
I think we're looking at trillions of dollars of impact from just those household rats alone, let
alone other rodents that cause damage.

Robyn Williams: It's beyond belief. You've been tracing some of the archaeological history. I think
there are 56 species of this particular sort of rat. Did they all originate in one kind of ancient
mummy and daddy rat or were there several lines?

Ken Aplin: The rats we're most familiar with in Australia are the Norway rat, which is the one
that's been domesticated as the lab rat, and the black rat. As you say, there are about 60 species
of this Rattus group and they evolved in Southeast Asia. Some of them are relatively benign, some
of them are just harmless little forest rats that live on mountaintops and some are even
endangered, but a small number of them have teamed up with people over the last 4,000 or 5,000
years since we started to grow crops and clear forests. They moved in with us and they've travelled
throughout the world and now they occur absolutely everywhere.

Robyn Williams: How did you track their origins?

Ken Aplin: We've done it through using mitochondrial DNA sequencing that allows us to follow the
lineages, the evolutionary lineages of rats, and the key to that was collecting lots of specimens.
Since 2000 I've been working for about six months of each year in Southeast Asia through from India
to Papua New Guinea and north to Japan, and collected lots and lots of rats. So we've just started
to do the DNA work and extract the story.

Robyn Williams: Where do the five or six lines come from?

Ken Aplin: We think that within the black rat group that there are five or six distinct lineages.
They seem to come from distinct parts of that Southeast Asian region. One was probably found
originally on the Indian subcontinent, all the others in the Southeast Asian, southern China
region, but in slightly different areas. And as people have disturbed their habitats and started to
move around with sacks of grain and other goods they've carried these animals with them. And then
eventually, getting through to Europe, they've then hopped on ships and moved around the world
during the age of exploration. So by 1500, 1600 they were found on all continents.

Robyn Williams: But in our region in Melanesia, only about 3,500 years ago?

Ken Aplin: We think the earliest movements probably were out with the early Polynesian Austronesian
dispersals, through Taiwan probably and out into the Pacific down in Indonesia, but it's a very
complex pattern. We even have Indonesian rats turning up in the highlands of Sri Lanka, for
example, and in Madagascar, so there's a very, very complex pattern, we've only just started to
unravel it.

Robyn Williams: Ken, you talk with almost a glee or admiration of these creatures as if they're
unstoppable. Is there a way that we could take them on at all?

Ken Aplin: I don't believe there is. I think the only real hope is through some kind of
immuno-contraceptive approach, but even then I think evolution works against us because it's never
100% successful and the variants that survive then are going to expand and increase in numbers
again, so you're then back to square one, you start developing a new tool to try to combat them. I
really do think they're unstoppable. Recently having worked with these animals in a semi-captive
context, able to observe their behaviour really for the first time, I've realised how incredibly
intelligent they are, and also how incredibly shy and sensitive and how difficult to observe. We
just about all of us have these animals living in our house but very few would acknowledge that
fact.

Robyn Williams: I must say that having had my poor cat die a few weeks ago there are now telltale
signs in the food that you leave out. You can see those gnaw marks, but no other signs. Would that
be a black rat, do you think?

Ken Aplin: Almost certainly a black rat, yes. Black rats are the champion, and I think they're
actually much more intelligent than the lab rat. It's a species that we know very little about. For
example, Pest Animal CRC that's been operating in Australia for a number of years doesn't even have
the black rat on its list of target animals, even though it's probably one of our most widespread
and damaging pests at the household level.

Robyn Williams: And you say nearly every household in the whole country?

Ken Aplin: I would think so. I think I could find a black rat in just about every house, given a
small incentive.

Robyn Williams: What about turning a disadvantage into an advantage, my life's motto in fact. With
all those bodies, couldn't you turn it into some sort of industry? Has it been done?

Ken Aplin: It has been done on a huge scale but in limited areas. It depends on people's
willingness to handle the animals, and particularly to consume them. In the southern part of
Vietnam there's a rat meat industry where rats are harvested out of rice fields on a huge scale;
10,000 tonnes a year of rat meat is collected, taken through to the big cities where it's processed
in various ways and then sold in various products, some of which tourists are probably familiar
with...I shouldn't be saying this, should I, I'll probably end up...

Robyn Williams: What do you mean? Street food that I might pick up somewhere could contain Rattus
rattus?

Ken Aplin: There is one well known street in Ho Chi Minh City that specialises in rats on their
menu, so you can go there and buy things that are clearly labelled as rat products. I've eaten rats
in many different places. I prefer rat meat to most other meats. It's a fine meat, and they're very
clean animals, despite their reputation for being filthy. Having now observed them much more
closely than I could ever do before, I appreciate how hygienic and clean they actually are.

Robyn Williams: What do you like about the flavour?

Ken Aplin: It's a distinctive flavour, it's a mild meat, but particularly barbequed and served up
with a good Vietnamese beer, it can't be beaten.

Robyn Williams: Very low in cholesterol, I'd imagine.

Ken Aplin: Very low in cholesterol, they don't have time to accumulate fat, they're constantly
moving.

Robyn Williams: Of course they've changed history, and one of the things that you highlight is
these streams going out with human beings to Europe, for example, where during the Black Death, the
1340s and various other times during European history, they wiped out something like 80% of the
population. Is there a way to assess their effect on human health these days?

Ken Aplin: There is, and there's a big research effort worldwide now to look into rodent-borne
diseases, and as that research develops we're probably on a daily basis adding to the diseases that
can be shared between rats and humans. Some of those diseases probably didn't originate in rats but
it came either from people originally or livestock. But the trilogy of rats, people and livestock
is a really deadly one. We can share a large number of different kinds of diseases and we do. Many
of those are still relatively restricted in their geographic distributions, but as rats move
increasingly and the volume of global transport and trade increases, the numbers of rats moving is
on the increase constantly, then the movement of disease must follow.

Robyn Williams: What about these days? What about the rats in my house? Do they carry much?

Ken Aplin: The rats in your house may well carry 100 or so different diseases that could
potentially be transmitted through to people in your household. Some of them are transmitted
through fleas or ticks or mites or other parasites, but many of them are also transmitted through
saliva, urine and faeces, and it's that contamination when a rat comes out and piddles on the bench
or on food which you then come along and consume yourself, or even just touch with a cut on your
finger, that's probably the main threat for disease transmission from rats.

Robyn Williams: What do you do to keep your own Aplin house free of them?

Ken Aplin: I don't think I do. Actually some people would probably accuse me of encouraging
rodents.

Robyn Williams: That means you're relaxed about it, that's reassuring. But what are you going to do
with the next phase of the research? You say it's an ongoing thing, how are you going to follow it
up?

Ken Aplin: Look at the current distributions and taxonomy in much greater detail using many more
different genetic markers, but also to look at the history of black rat movement and their impacts
using ancient DNA technologies to really get into this fascinating 4,000 or 5,000-year relationship
that's existed between people and these lovely creatures.

Robyn Williams: Lovely creatures! Finally, if these lovely creatures do confront one in one's
garden, in the compost, say, or running through the house, what should the average Australian do?

Ken Aplin: Applaud yourself that you've actually seen one because sightings are relatively rare.
They're so shy that most people wouldn't see the animals that have lived with them for ten years or
more.

Robyn Williams: Dr Ken Aplin of CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems in Canberra.

Saving Denmark's Houting fish

Cheryl Northey: Houting needs slow-moving water, gravel and evergreen plants to spawn in, but since
the 1900s Denmark's wetlands and marshes have been drained for farming land and its rivers have
been straightened into fast-moving canals. These river modifications, together with fish farms, are
a major threat to the survival of the houting fish because their natural habitat has been
destroyed.

Hans Ole Hansen: This is Bachmann's Mill and we're standing at the end of the millpond to try to
allow salmon and trout to get past the obstacle by building this fish ladder.

Cheryl Northey: Hans Ole Hansen, a biologist with the Danish Forest and Nature Agency, saying
houting cannot jump over obstacles like salmon and trout and therefore can't get to spawning
grounds in the upper streams of Danish rivers. Bachmann's Mill in the south-western Danish town of
Tonder and the millpond is an example of obstacles preventing houting migration to spawning areas.
Tonder was a marsh area that was drained for farming. In areas like these where the river was for
straightened for drainage, most houting young (or 'fry') are flushed out to sea in the fast-moving
river and die. The houting project will create 90 hectares of wetland in this area because they act
as nurseries for houting fry. They mature in stagnant water for three to four months until their
physiology changes so they can tolerate the salt water of the Wadden Sea.

Hans Ole Hansen: This is the actual production area...

Cheryl Northey: Fish farms are another major threat to the houting's survival in Danish rivers.
Conventional fish farms divert river streams to production ponds and houting fry are carried along
with the current into fish farms where they are eaten. But Jan Steinbring Jensen from the Danish
Forest and Nature Agency says new rules and regulations for fish farmers will prevent this from
occurring.

Jan Steinbring Jensen: Their water intake is going to be reduced, so this situation will make it a
lot more difficult to manage the fish farms in the traditional way.

Cheryl Northey: Fish farmers will have to switch to high-tech methods of fish farming that use
concrete dams and ground water, so they won't be taking water from the rivers at all. The new
method of fish farming is more efficient and these can produce up to four times more fish, says
Hansen.

Hans Ole Hansen: It only uses a very small amount from the river, if at all. With the recycling, he
cleans the water thoroughly, so he does not pollute anymore. He can control the water because
groundwater is much more...the temperature, the chemistry, everything is much more constant than if
you have to take water in from the river.

Cheryl Northey: Those fish farmers who have switched to this method have seen production increase
from 1,000 tonnes of fish per year to more than 2,000. Hansen says not only does the new method of
fish farming create a free passage for the houting in Danish rivers but it also reduces pollution.

Hans Ole Hansen: The fish farms we are buying are producing as much phosphorus and nitrogen as a
sewage plant in Esbjerg, which is the fourth largest town in Denmark, and by closing the fish farms
we'll get rid of the pollution problem for ever.

Cheryl Northey: By the end of 2009 the houting project will have restored or re-meandered sections
of the rivers Varde, Sneum, Ribe and Vida and removed obstacles like fish farms. It will also
recreate wetland areas for nurseries and restore meanders to create good spawning grounds so
houting will have a better chance of survival. Jan Steinbring Jensen says it's not just the houting
who will benefit once the rivers are restored to their original condition.

Jan Steinbring Jensen: The water quality is generally improved and the pollution load on the Wadden
Sea is reduced, so this will be a tremendous raise of nature quality in the south-western part of
Denmark.

Cheryl Northey: There is also a financial incentive to restore and maintain the houting habitat. In
Denmark around 300,000 people are involved in recreational fishing. Healthy rivers mean more fish
stocks, and that means more opportunities for farmers or the state to earn money from recreational
fishing licences. Cheryl Northey, Tonder, Denmark.

Energy from excrements

Happy 20th Birthday Questacon

Robyn Williams: Let's go back to 1988 when the new Questacon was launched.

Robyn Williams: Have you just been in, may I ask you? I'm Robyn Williams from the ABC.

Joanne: Yes, we have.

Robyn Williams: Do you come here regularly?

Joanne: We come here often. We've been here for the last three weeks actually.

Robyn Williams: Three weeks!

Joanne: Well, once a week for the last three weeks.

Robyn Williams: Could you introduce me to your two children?

Joanne: This is Sophie.

Robyn Williams: Sophie, hello. Yes, you're just looking at the microphone. You can say 'hello' if
you like.

Sophie: Hello.

Robyn Williams: Have you just been to Questacon? What did you enjoy most?

Sophie: The playing part.

Robyn Williams: How old are you, Sophie?

Sophie: Three!

Robyn Williams: One, two three! Well done. And your name?

Oliver: Oliver.

Robyn Williams: What did you like most?

Oliver: The shows.

Robyn Williams: Really? The shows. What did you like about them?

Oliver: The instruments.

Robyn Williams: Did you have a dinosaur pattern I heard you talk about?

Joanne: Oh yes, I have a dinosaur pattern to make as well, because he likes dinosaurs.

Robyn Williams: I can see you've got a dinosaur Monstersaurus on your chest. Is that your friend?

Oliver: It's on my shirt.

Robyn Williams: Tell me, mother...what is your name?

Joanne: Joanne.

Robyn Williams: Joanne, what do you like most about Questacon and what would you like to see
improved?

Joanne: I like most things about Questacon. You can come and go, there are lots of things that the
kids can do and there's still stuff that we're interested in. All the shows are really good, the
kids are interested and we're still learning stuff. Improve? I don't know. The members' lounge is
pretty good. It's a bit hot.

Robyn Williams: The price?

Joanne: I actually think the price is quite reasonable. When you average it out, especially the
two-year pass is great.

Mick: I enjoy coming as an adult. We used to come before we had kids and now that we've got kids
it's a good place to come for everybody. Everybody can have some sort of interest. There's the
Mini-Q which is the little toddlers area, and then we go to shows or something, Joanne and I get a
lot of satisfaction out of seeing the science stuff for adults as well.

Robyn Williams: It's not hard to persuade the kids to turn on to science?

Mick: No. As Jo was saying, the last three weeks we've come every week, and everybody looks forward
to it, even if it's just a week, we don't get sick of it.

Robyn Williams: Thanks very much.

Mick: That's okay.

Robyn Williams: A happy family at Questacon in Canberra 2008. Now let's go back to 1982 when
Questacon was in an empty school in Canberra.

Questacon presenter: All that you've got mounted here is a large square steel plate and it's got a
brace in the middle so that we can mount it and it can vibrate freely around the edges. It's just a
normal piece of fishing line strung here like a violin bow. If I move that across the plate, what
do you think will happen?

Children: It will vibrate. As it vibrates the sand will jump.

Questacon presenter: The top of the plate is covered with sand, so any spot on the plate that's
vibrating, the sand will show up because the sand will bounce, so you'll be able to see the
vibrations.

Robyn Williams: A few days ago the federal cabinet gave the nod to a national science centre, an
exciting plan which will put science in the high street, and here's one man who helped inspire it
all, the head of Questacon, Michael Gore.

Michael Gore: In 1980 the Questacon science centre was established in Canberra by the Australian
National University. It was an experiment aimed at demonstrating for the first time in this country
just how powerful an interactive science centre can be in raising public interest and awareness in
science and technology.

Robyn Williams: Mike Gore back then, and me back then as well, over 20 years ago. A final frolic
from the past. Here we are in 1982.

Extract from The Science Show, 1982:

Robyn Williams: And now a final word from Dr Michael Gore who keeps the whole enterprise going with
unbounded enthusiasm.

Michael Gore: We started off by getting just about every scientific organisation in the Australian
Capital Territory to build one. We've raked in just about everyone; CSIRO has helped, the Bureau of
Mineral Resources, the Royal Military Collage at Duntroon, the Australian National University of
course, my own university, has been very heavily involved, National Mapping have helped. And what's
happened is workshops have taken on board one exhibit and they've built the thing in their own
time, but in this way in the first year we got up to about 30 exhibits. Then we started to spread
our wings and I went out into the rest of Australia and started to talk to some of the big firms
and said, 'Would you like to consider putting an exhibit into the Questacon?' And quite a few of
them have.

One of the very exciting ones we're about to get in the near future which really explains the
philosophy of the Questacon is one we're getting from National Cash Registers. It's a laser barcode
scanning device. Probably listeners have noted these quaint and curious designs on the side of food
packaging these days. Well, this is the bar code and the device which is used to read it is a laser
which scans backwards and forwards over a particular raster, very much like the raster on the
television screen, and this tells the cash register what the item is and what size it is.

In the Questacon we have lasers, we talk about how a laser operates, but then we can turn around
and say, 'Now this is how you use it.' And that's what we're trying to do a lot; not only show the
basic concepts, the basic physical principles of things, but to show people how they're actually
applied in everyday situations. That's a glorious example and a very exciting interface between
industry and the public.

Robyn Williams: Mike Gore, then a physics lecturer at the Australian National University,
introducing us to the new concept of the barcode and of the science centre.

Then in 1988 the new Questacon building was opened by prime minister Bob Hawke, running the
gauntlet of protesting scientists at the time. Karina Kelly and I hosted a live edition of Quantum
on ABC Television. And from Questacon and her magnificent example, nearly every Australian city got
itself a science centre. Questacon's 20th birthday comes up in November.

Before we look to its present and future, Mike Gore again.

Michael Gore: The Questacon Science Circus is made up of two components. Firstly a number of
Questacon's interactive exhibits will be shipped by road to Wagga together with a team of 12 of
Questacon's young explainers. This group comprises specially selected students from the Australian
National University and the Canberra College of Advanced Education who not only mingle informally
with the visitors to the Circus and talk to them about the hands-on exhibits, they also stage a
host of science shows.

Robyn Williams: Mike Gore, wandering around the school in Ainslie, the origins of Questacon. With
me is the present director. Graham, does Mike Gore keep in touch with Questacon?

Graham Durant: Very much so, yes, Mike's still here and in fact I was with him this morning. Mike
still has a role and he does a lot of work now with the Australian National University training
others to deliver shows or helping teachers with communication. But he comes through the door often
and we enjoy seeing him.

Robyn Williams: Of course people talk about Questacon the building, you're actually the National
Science and Technology Centre. What's the national role? What do you do right round Australia?

Graham Durant: A lot of our impact is based on our various outreach programs. We get around just
about everywhere in the country, and the Science Circus that's founded by Mike, in fact predates
this building, that is really the flagship program and that's just going from strength to strength
with the ANU and Shell's involvement. And that is taking a mobile science centre and science shows
into communities so people can get that experience, so there are no geographical barriers.

Robyn Williams: What happens when they turn up in town? Do people come out to greet them and say,
'Ah, Questacon's back!' or is it something that's arranged with schools formally or whatever?

Graham Durant: A bit of both. It's very visible because there's a huge brightly-coloured truck and
it's very exciting when that rocks up in a small community, but we do work with the schools and
it's all set up in advance. So the students who are on the course then go into the schools doing
shows and set up an exhibition in the community hall, so the kids, their parents come back and have
fun getting their hands on the exhibits.

Robyn Williams: Of course you're famous for the explainers, and I remember going to the
Exploratorium in San Francisco where a lot of this was pioneered way back, and the explainers were
often street kids who were rough as hell and decided not to be little crims but turn to science,
and it was quite amazing how they became adept at doing this sort of thing. How are your explainers
recruited here these days?

Graham Durant: We have a mix of staff and volunteers. Each year we have about 30 of the volunteers
who are school students, so they get training in how to present, and the older cohort of volunteers
are often retired engineers and scientists who just have a passion for communication. And then of
course we have our gallery assistants who run the galleries, they're really the front-of-house.

So it's a matter of taking students and others, trainee teachers, for example, and giving them some
additional skills in interacting with the public, because day after day explaining things hundreds
of times requires a certain mindset. You've got to keep your sense of humour. And giving them
additional skills that help them in that role of interfacing with the exhibits and the public. The
exhibits themselves are important, but the interface between exhibits and people I think is just a
very, very powerful dynamic.

Robyn Williams: Well, it's changed of course way back when I was wandering around the old Ainslie
school, we looked at apparatus and it depended tremendously on the excitement of the object plus
the flair of people like Mike Gore. How have things changed in the last couple of decades in terms
of all this interactive stuff? Has it reached a level where it's sufficiently sophisticated without
demeaning the science?

Graham Durant: It's an interesting time in the development of science centres because you're
absolutely right, the current generation of hands-on science centres started off in the physics,
demonstrations in hands-on phenomena. They've really developed through changing range of media, so
exhibits became exhibitions, demonstrations became science shows, the web opened up new
possibilities and now web two and social networking is opening up enormous possibilities in science
centres around the world. We're connected around the world now in ways that we couldn't have been
20 years ago when this place was first started.

Robyn Williams: Of course you've got many machines that go 'ping', how do you know that they impact
the mind as well of your young visitors and tell them about science rather than just giving them a
good one-hour entertainment?

Graham Durant: It's a great question and you can go on the floor and look and observe what's
happening and you see a lot of the 'aha' moments when you realise people are getting it. We get a
lot of anecdotal feedback and we're constantly hearing about how people came here or went to the
original Questacon and have had those life-changing experiences. Although we wouldn't have claimed
to have created all the current generation of scientists, we know that there are a few out there
that can track back directly to that experience in the early Questacon which changed direction,
changed their attitude and led them down a path of science and discovery.

But getting the longitudinal evidence of impact is very, very difficult because there are so many
other influences on any one individual. What we see every day are families learning together, so
there's a lot of social cohesion happening in the galleries. And we find also that there are
economic impacts, firstly because we are creating jobs, but we are training a lot of people. A lot
of people go through Questacon, either as gallery assistants, volunteers, and they go on to other
things. The Shell Questacon Science Circus graduates, for example, about 400 have gone through that
program now, and they've gone on to a great range of fabulous jobs. Some are in business, some are
in communication, they're all around the world, great advocates for Australia, great advocates for
science, great advocates for Australian science.

Robyn Williams: Wendy Yung you're in charge of what's called Measure Island. Obviously a pun on
Treasure Island. But it was developed by you yourselves.

Wendy Yung: Yes, we have a small team at Questacon called New Concepts, and in the beginning it was
all of us talking about Measure Island and then it became my project and I carried it on.

Robyn Williams: You began here working on the Circus way back, did you?

Wendy Yung: Yes, I did.

Robyn Williams: So what was your experience of going around on the Circus?

Wendy Yung: It was fantastic actually. The Circus travels around all of Australia, to the rural,
remote and regional areas, and we put on exhibitions there, and also we go to the schools and do
science shows for them. So what I'm doing now is quite different from what I did in the Circus, but
both are really enjoyable.

Robyn Williams: How did you come into Questacon? Was it as a graduate, a science person or what?

Wendy Yung: The Science Circus is a graduate diploma in science communication and during that year
there's a work experience component and at the end of the year there was a job opening and I
applied for the job and got it.

Robyn Williams: As we enter it says: 'Hi, I'm Archy and this is my dog Cubit. We found this place
called Measure Island. People here really like their measurements. Come with me and let's discover
how to measure a crocodile, measure what makes your heart beat faster and find out just how you can
stress out a bridge.'

Let's go stress out a bridge. Go in here, and conveniently it's just in front of us. 'Did you know
that you can stress out a bridge? Take a walk and look at the colours that form around your feet.'
And I see a young man is walking there and...are you looking at your feet?

Max: Yes.

Robyn Williams: What's your name?

Max: Max.

Robyn Williams: Can you see your feet making colours?

Max: Yes.

Robyn Williams: And what does that mean to you?

Max: I'm heavy.

Robyn Williams: Wendy, what does it mean to you?

Wendy Yung: The colours that are forming are the result of stress patterns on the bridge, so what
we're actually seeing is a clear bridge with light coming up through it and we're looking at it
through two special filters which are polarising filters and they bend the light and as we walk on
the plastic we're actually stressing out the plastic and that causes the light to change colour as
it bends. The more colours you see in one area the more stressed you are.

Robyn Williams: That's the measurement, right. Over we go, and fortunately the bridge hasn't
collapsed. Max has now moved over to...what is it?

Wendy Yung: It's called Hidden Treasure and it's actually one of my favourite exhibits. You wind
down two large gems into some liquid. As you wind them down, one of the gems actually disappears in
the liquid and it's quite amazing to see. So the gem on the right here has disappeared and that's
because they both have different refractive indexes, and refractive index is how much light will
bend as it enters the material. If the refractive index of the gem matches whatever it's in, and in
this case it's a liquid, then the light doesn't bend and so it actually just passes straight
through, which means that it disappears to our eyes. It's actually still there but it's quite
amazing when you look at it in action.

Robyn Williams: What about your customer? Do you think it's amazing?

Max: Yes.

Robyn Williams: That's the right answer. What's next?

Wendy Yung: This exhibit is called Sense-a-Swap and in a way it was the inspiration for the theme
behind Measure Island, because Measure Island...if you look around it's sort of like a lost
civilization with all these broken-down walls, and the actual exhibits look like big statues and
strange stone idols. This one is one where you're equating your weight with a force because a lot
of people mix up weight and mass and they think it's the same thing.

Here you are kind of re-enacting a scene from Indiana Jones. If you remember the very first movie
where he swaps the statue head with a bag of sand and tries to steal it, here you're swapping a
diamond with a bag of sand and trying to steal it without setting off a sensor. So we're also
talking about how sensors use measurements to detect whether anything has changed in the system.
We've got a few people using it now and the sensor hasn't quite woken up yet...

Robyn Williams: Am I correct in thinking that that chair, that stool in front of me, would have the
same mass whether it's in Canberra or in outer space but it would have different weight?

Wendy Yung: Yes, that's exactly right because mass is the amount of matter inside an object whereas
weight is the amount of force acting on that mass.

Robyn Williams: And it depends on the gravity and if you've got strong gravity, as on Earth, then
that's one weight, whereas on the Moon it's lighter, a different weight.

Wendy Yung: Yes, that's right.

Robyn Williams: One thing that strikes me, you don't have lots of instruction about metres and
kilos and all sorts of things like that; what you've got are relativities, what you've got is one
thing with another so that you can actually compare them in real life.

Wendy Yung: Yes, we like to get hands-on in Questacon, so rather than reading about a concept like
a kilogram which isn't that exciting, we like people to experience it instead.

Robyn Williams: I did wonder. Okay, take me to the next one, which looks like a boxing ring.

Wendy Yung: Yes, it does look like a very small boxing ring. This is a balance platform and
basically it's an enormous spirit level, and we want multiple people to step onto it and walk
around on it and see how their weight affects a spirit level. It's a chance for people just to play
with a measurement here.

Robyn Williams: And leap around. This is a question I asked the director, Graham Durant; how do you
know that this kind of apparatus is really making an impact on the kids' minds and understanding
concepts?

Wendy Yung: We do evaluate our exhibitions afterwards. We do tend to go and interview our visitors
and ask them what they've learned. Also during the development process we do evaluation beforehand.
So we make a prototype of the exhibit and then we ask them what they've learned and what they
thought the exhibit was about, and then we tailor the exhibit to increase that educational message.

Robyn Williams: In your experience, going way back, which exhibits failed, were a disaster, were
hopeless, even though they might have been quite fun?

Wendy Yung: One for Measure Island which I would have loved to get in was one which was measuring
the loudness of your shouting, and that one didn't quite work out because that one would have
really annoyed people all around, because we try to encourage people to have fun within reasonable
boundaries in Questacon, and to encourage people to shout as loud as they can is probably not the
best idea in the first place.

Robyn Williams: No, but I can imagine the contrast with old-fashioned exhibits where they had miles
of writing. Are they old hat?

Wendy Yung: I think there's a place for them as well. Different people learn in different ways, and
probably for adults they would appreciate the miles of writing a bit more because we all like a bit
more detail and to know the story behind everything, but for younger children and families in
particular who don't have much time, they like to get in there and play and learn by experience.
And there's people who are kinaesthetic learners, so they want to touch things and that's how they
learn best, and Questacon serves really well in that role.

Robyn Williams: Questacon is 20, this building is, what do you think the future holds for science
centres? What would you like to do as well in your wildest dreams and how would you put those
together?

Wendy Yung: For me I would love science centres to be places where adults as well as children come
and talk about science and learn about science, because science centres do tend to be seen as
children's places, although we have some teenagers playing on our exhibits right now. But I'd love
for people of my age, so 20s and 30s, to come in as well without needing to bring their children
because Questacon also wants to cater to these people as well. I'd really love people to be able to
discuss science and just be excited about science.

Robyn Williams: One last exhibit, to say goodbye.

Wendy Yung: I'll show you one which I really like. It's called Go With the Throw and it's one where
people are tossing rings at a target, and what they're trying to do is test whether they're more
accurate at throwing or more precise, because it's another thing where people get mixed up; they
think accuracy is the same as precision but it's not. So here, if you throw the rings and you get
them all on the little red dot at the centre of the target you're being accurate and precise. But
if you throw the rings and they're all clustered around that red dot but not all entirely on that
dot then you're being accurate but not precise. If you throw the rings and they're all on a hook
which is really far from that red dot but they're all together, then you're being precise but not
accurate. So these are really subtle differences but it's a fun way to explain it and it's a fun
way to learn.

Robyn Williams: Wendy Yung helping us to celebrate both the beginning of National Science Week and,
coming up, the 20th anniversary of Questacon's great shiny centre in Canberra. So, what of the
future? Let's rejoin Questacon's present director, once a geologist in Scotland, Graham Durant.

If there's ever going to be a monument to the Rudd government, it would be the review. You've been
reviewed as well. It's not out yet, but what was the point of the review?

Graham Durant: After 20 years it's time for any organisation to take stock and just ask 'are we
doing the right things', and so with the change of government that opportunity came our way. So
we're checking that our mandate is there, that we're still doing the right things, and looking to
the future. So we've done 20 years here and grown very, very well, but what are we going to be like
in the next 20 years? So it's really posing those questions about recognising where we've come from
but really looking to the future now and making sure that we've got the right tools to do the job.

Robyn Williams: Are you nervous about the report?

Graham Durant: No, not at all. It's not a hostile review. In fact a lot of the people we've been
consulting are very, very positive. We're really just waiting to see...it's with the government now
and they will look at it and consider it, along with all the other reviews.

Robyn Williams: What would be the main opportunities that you'd go for if you had the resources?

Graham Durant: Three things. This current building is overcrowded too many days of the year, so we
need a bit more infrastructure. We want to be able to do more outreach with a whole host of
different partner organisations, like the ABC and CSIRO; three great organisations, national
brands, working together, addressing some key challenges would be a great thing to do. I think we
need to move much more rapidly into digital media to support our outreach, accepting that the
face-to-face (contact) on the ground is important but then we want to be able to follow that up
with more remote connectivity.

Robyn Williams: I had some lovely reviews from a family I bumped into in the beginning. On the
other hand, my taxi driver bringing me here from the airport said that you seem to be scratching
for funds and that some of the opportunities for families that used to exist, like coming in to
have a birthday party, are reduced. Do you think that you are in some ways struggling for resources
as well?

Graham Durant: No director of any organisation would ever claim they've got enough resources. We do
pretty well, and we study impacts per dollar and I'm very confident that we're getting good value.
There are limitations to the space in the building and we've moved a lot of people out of this
building to create more and more public space, but the public keep coming...last year we had
406,000 visitors. We've had over seven million people through the centre in the time it's been
open. We just need a bit more space, and sadly in the parliamentary zone you can't simply tack on a
shed at the back. I know many science centres in other countries where you can do that, and you can
do a lot of good stuff in a shed. But here, because of the special nature of the site, we've just
got to build something appropriate. So we're very much hoping we'll get the opportunity in the not
too distant future to expand the facility here, and that will then allow us to bring back many of
those things that we have the potential to do more of.

Robyn Williams: Happy birthday.

Graham Durant: Thank you, Robyn.

Robyn Williams: Graham Durant, director of Questacon, the pioneering science centre in Australia,
the 20th birthday of the centre we know coming up in November.