Sexy science (or not)

Slightly drifting away from physics this one, but it’s still science, so I shan’t apologise.

At this week’s Cafe Scientifique in Hamilton we had a great presentation from Louis Schipper, one of the soil scientists at the university here, on denitrification.   What’s that? Well, it’s quite important, so pay attention.

Louis gave us an interesting perspective on this problem. What do we (humans) need to do to live sustainably on this planet? – whatever thing it involves, we need to be consuming only one-earth’s supply of it. For some things, we need several earths to support us with our current practices. In this regard, what are our biggest problems? One, if I remember rightly, was biodiversity. Two was our use of nitrogen. And third was greenhouse gas emission / other climatic influencing effects.

Numbers one and three we are probably familiar with. I suspect most people recognise that species are becoming extinct at an alarming rate, even if we do only fret most about the LCMs (Large cute mammals – like the tiger and polar bear, not that I’d like to meet either in the wild.) And global warming is much discussed as well – I doubt there are many people in New Zealand who haven’t heard of it, even if they don’t appreciate the science of it.  (Can anyone supply any statistics here?)  But nitrogen?

Nitrogen is needed for plants to grow, and plants are needed for us to eat. About 40% of the people on this planet are supported by nitrogen that hasn’t been fixed from the air naturally (e.g. by clover). I think I got that right – if not I’m sure someone will correct me. (See – blogs do get ‘peer-reviewed’). This is unsustainable, and it leads to the problem of too much nitrate in the soil, which gets into our waterways and encourages algae to grow etc.

Anyway, my point is that global warming is a sexy science topic, and nitrogen use isn’t, though, on the number-of-earths scale, it is the bigger problem.  What exactly is it about one that has caused it to take off in the public imagination, that is lacking with the other?  Not sure. Is it scientist-and-public communication again?

Which leads me to the last point of my ramble, that The University of Waikato is hosting a mini-conference on  science-and-public communication events along the cafe scientifique lines. Should be a very interesting day – I’m really looking forward to it (Thursday 8 July). See



Leave a Reply