Category Archives: So-Called Journalism

Film Crew Visits a Science Lab

The traditional lab graveyard for outdated software manuals.

The traditional lab graveyard for outdated software manuals.

Safety glasses on. Our blood-red lab coats mark us as visitors, and also as dangerous. Warning! Journalist! Film crew! Venomous! Do not touch! • I can tell the director is not happy with the equipment, which looks too old and battered. We turn a few whizzing and shaking devices on, but they’re so noisy they interfere with recording. The lab tech doesn’t seem keen to turn the noisy incubator off for some reason. • Sadly there are no bubbling beakers of copper sulphate solution, but I’m told we can add those in lab coat • Everybody looks very uncomfortable trying to pipette in crisp white lab coats and ties. The reason scientists normally don’t wear ties is the danger of getting too close to a centrifuge and having your head yanked off. • We’re now posing a bearded middle-aged scientist with a Bunsen burner, because if we collect the full set of science clichés we can send away for a prize. • Real scientist action shots would involve Track Changes, tweaking PowerPoint, and emailing. • The scientist had to switch to light blue latex gloves, because they look prettier in the shot. If we’re setting up a shot with two scientists no power in the ’verse will stop me trying to get them both wearing blue gloves.

The Toothbrush Fence of Te Pahu

It all started, so they say, when Graeme Cairns (of the Big Muffin Serious Band) acquired, in the course of having numerous flatmates, a bucket of toothbrushes.

Te Pahu is half an hour from Hamilton, in the heart of Waikato cow country. The landscape is rolling green, dotted with trees and streams and small farms. It’s beautiful but rather samey, without much in the way of landmarks, until you turn a corner and see toothbrushes strung the length of a paddock.

At first the fence grew slowly, as friends and visitors added their own brushes. But its fame spread. Backpackers began making a pilgrimage just so they too could contribute to the Toothbrush Fence. Its GPS coordinates became well known amongst rally-car orienteers, who would use it as an eye-catching waypoint. People overseas even sent brushes to be added (c/ “The bucket on the toothbrush fence, 294 Limeworks Loop Rd, RD5, Te Pahu, NZ”). Celebrities added brushes, including Prime Minister Helen Clark, who hails from Te Pahu.

But surely the fence’s finest hour was its mention in Season 1 of Flight of the Conchords (Bret Gives Up the Dream) when Murray, responding to the taunts of the Australian consul, points out that while Australia might have Ayer’s Rock, we have “a fence made of toothbrushes.” New Zealand hearts swelled with pride upon hearing those words, for we know the Toothbush Fence epitomises all that is great about this fair land of ours.

Graeme Cairns is a member of the McGillicuddy Serious Party from way back, and the fence began as an absurdist art project, a satire on more earnest and legitimate tourist attractions. Its becoming a tourist attraction in its own right, despite being of no historical or political significance whatsoever, proves that people appreciate a little absurdism in their lives.

The fence is a success because it’s a participatory artwork. Nina Simon, in her book The Participatory Museum, describes a new generation of exhibits to which visitors can actively contribute; to work, the visitor interaction needs to be structured in some way, not forbiddingly freeform, and have a low bar for entry. Adding a toothbrush to a fence fits the bill, whereas painting part of a mural or carving a comment into stone is too demanding. (Perhaps vandalism at historic sites is just a frustrated way of taking part in the experience. There’s no vandalism at the Toothbrush Fence, though perhaps some locals view the whole thing as vandalism).

The other secret of the fence’s success is that it’s a work in progress. Visitors or donors feel like they’re adding to a project rather than observing a finished work, and they can point to their one small contribution. It started with just 50 toothbrushes; if Cairns had solicited a thousand toothbrushes in advance and created a finished artwork, it would have less appeal and fewer visitors.

In a country where tourist attractions are becoming increasingly marketed and packaged, it’s refreshing to come across one without its own brochure, or even a little plaque explaining what it is. The Toothbrush Fence exists happily without an AA signpost; it does not have its own domain name; it has no plans to tweet.

Want to visit the Toothbrush Fence?

View the Toothbrush fence in a larger map.

Evolution 2007 Highlights

The meeting started in the Christchurch Town Hall (the same 1970 decor I remember from my childhood) with the usual awkward biculturalism; a hokey Māori welcome, thrilling the Americans but making the locals cringe, was followed by various middle-aged white men prefixing their speeches with a few words of mangled taiko.jpgMāori. Hayley Lawrence showed how it was done, using English, Māori, and Mōriori in her presentation on tāiko (Pterodroma magentae), in which she confirmed that the type specimen of Magenta Petrel was indeed a tāiko, and suggested there may be some tāiko burrows yet to be found on main Chatham • Katie Hartnup also used ancient DNA, to analyse Māori feather cloaks. She debunked the suggestion that one cloak was made with moa feathers, proving instead it was emu, probably from Governor George Grey’s private menagerie • Lisa Matisoo-Smith and Andrew Clarke pieced together the story of Polynesians carrying chickens to Chile before Europeans had even heard of the place, bringing sweet potatoes and bottle gourds back–this was breaking news, as Matisoo-Smith’s paper was published that very day, but did you see a mention of it in the newspapers? Clarke, when pressed, revealed that the traditional Maori kūmara varieties “repatriated” some years ago from Japan, with much fanfare, were actually not that old • eudyptula.jpgPhylogeography seemed especially big this year; is it a powerful tool, or the current fad, encompassing problems of just the right size and complexity to fill a PhD? Time will tell. Anyway, numerous interesting stories came to light; for example, Otago and Australian blue penguins (Eudyptula minor) form a single clade, claimed Amanda Peucker (Deakin), sister to all other New Zealand E. minor, and the “white-flippered penguin” I remember from my old Fiat field guide is not a species at all • There’s very little cuckolding going on with kiwis, says Karen Nutt. And given the amount of effort males put into parenting–incubating for nearly 80 days–you’d expect them to be worried about extra-pair copulations. Or perhaps they just don’t have the energy • One controversy I missed whilst in America is over the supposed drowning of the New Zealand archipelago in the Oligocene, 22 million years ago. Tied into the “goodbye Gondwana” backlash, proponents claim the whole land mass was either submerged or reduced to just a few small islands (a critically important distinction, one would think, if you happened to be living there at the time). Adrian Paterson and Steve Trewick both advocated drowning or near-drowning in just this way, making a scientist sitting next to me’s blood boil. DNA evidence nevertheless seems to show rapid and recent radiation in some groups, like galaxiids, rata, and parakeets. How moa were supposed to have persisted on tiny islands nobody could say. What seems well-established, though, is the recent submergence of the Chathams, implying everything nowweka.jpg there dispersed across water within the last few million years • Jeremy Kirchman reordered the flightless Pacific rails, collapsing a bevy of monotypic genera into Gallirallus, Porzana, and Porphyrio. The banded rail G. philippensis, incidentally, is not the ancestor of most Gallirallus, and isn’t even monophyletic • Alison Campbell chilled my blood with the hidden history of New Zealanders stoutly resisting the teaching of evolution; until very recently official Ministry policy was against teachers claiming evolution was the only explanation for life (no doubt a symptom of the scrupulous fair-mindedness of kiwis). The new curriculum which for the first time builds evolution right into the foundations of science teaching is not yet approved, so let’s hope it survives • The idea that sexually-selected characteristics displayed positive allometry was methodically demolished by Russell Bonduriansky ; the usual examples of positive allometry, like fiddler-crab claws, only get into the textbooks because they’re atypically weird, sepsids.jpgwhile model organisms don’t show noticible allometry of sex characteristics at all • Nalini Puniamoorthy’s dancing dungflies provided some comic relief, and showed the importance of judiciously-chosen video in your PowerPoint show. It helps if you can keep up a deadpan commentary and drop in the occasional dry witticism, whilst behind you the dungflies are wriggling and cavorting • Walter Jetz, using a huge dataset of birds and mammals, demonstrated that Bergmann’s rule seems to apply to birds but not mammals. I must admit to a bias towards graphs with thousands of data points on them • Alan Cooper, in his talk on ancient DNA, mentioned in passing the meteor that struck North America 12,900 years ago, decimating the megafauna, and allowing humans to wipe them out. Amazing stuff, and Alan claimed to have seen plenty of physical evidence, though I’m going to remain agnostic until I see it in a peer-reviewed publication • And to prove the doubters of catastrophism wrong, the snow arrived just in time to ruin the travel plans of all the Americans I’d been advising to visit the West Coast. Oh well.