Sci-five: finalists in the BHP Science Prize (1984)
Sci-Five is a film about five very different young Australians who share an absorbing curiosity about the world. Each of the five has been a finalist in the BHP Science Prize and their projects provide a focus around which we explore their lives in more detail.
Geraldine, for example, has discovered a new species of goanna, and keeps a two-metre pregnant python in her room; Tim lives on a farm and has made an intimate study of wild duck behaviour; Lindy is interested in physiology and has experimented with the effects of common drugs on mice; Darren is a theoretical physicist with an original explanation for the ”red-shift” of distant galaxies and Robert has designed and built a highly effective computer-based system for tracking boomerangs.
The film aims to disprove the common assumption that science is ”too hard and too boring” an option for young people. It has no objective commentary, using instead the insights of the teenage scientists themselves. A mosaic structure juxtaposes and intercuts their stories to create a fascinating documentation of ideas and motives.
[Music plays and title appears: CSIRO Australia]
[Image changes to show a train travelling on a track and to Darren Kelly and two men talking inside the drivers’ cabin]
Male: Between Lithgow and Bathurst you’d probably get up to about 130, travelling at about 65 to about 80 kilometres along this section of track.
Darren Kelly: What if you had really good, really good tracks, I mean perfect tracks?
Male: Good track? You’d be able to sit on 160 kilometres all the time.
Darren Kelly: The whole time. Right.
[Image of the travelling train continues to play and you hear the train sounding its horn]
[Image changes to show Tim Allen wading through water]
[Image changes to show Geraldine Milroy holding a snake]
Geraldine Milroy: Ah, there she goes again. She’s got a security problem, this snake.
[Image changes to show a man throwing a boomerang whilst its motion is being tracked by Robert Sinclair]
Robert Sinclair: Ninety-one.
[Image changes to show a mouse on a treadle wheel]
Lindy Coulson: Come on. Five, six.
[Title appears: SCI-FIVE]
[Image changes back to show Darren travelling in a train]
Darren Kelly: It is really very necessary to travel, to give up your time and travel down to Sydney on a six hour trip, because you don’t know how you compare. It wasn’t until I went to a science school that I knew there were other people as silly as I am, and we’re interested in the same subject.
[Image changes to show Darren with a teacher and another student discussing information they are watching on a monitor]
Yes, they’re earth days.
Male: They’re actually solar days. Absolutely.
Darren Kelly: And we have ten per segment, and if you count the segments you can tell it sweeps out equal area in equal time.
Male: That’s right. Yeah. And that’s how we… because the rotation of the star, it rotates around just…
Darren Kelly: The other great advantage in travelling to Sydney is that you come in contact with some of the world’s great scientists. You can share their logic and their intellectual level. You know what to expect when you’re there in a few years’ time.
[Image continues to show the men discussing information they are watching on a monitor]
[Image changes to show Tim walking and stopping near a pond]
Tim Allen: I suppose one of the reasons I got interested in ducks to start with was through this place, Serendip Wildlife Research Station.
[Images changes to show different birdlife on the banks of the water]
As they carry out a lot of fieldwork here on endangered species, and it was through mainly reading their reports and coming here and just looking around for myself that I got quite a few ideas, and just it all really just flowed from there.
Because of the drought of 1982 we were feeding sheep by hand with cereal grain such as barley and wheat, and it was through a spillage of this grain along the edge of a waterway that the whole project got started actually.
[Image changes to show Tim filling a bag with grain, and then pouring out the grain along the edge of the dam]
We found that there were a number of ducks that were congregating on the food and they kept returning as days passed. And at that stage I was heavily involved in biology at school, and with field research projects being started I naturally thought, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea just to see how many ducks would actually come to converge on this sort of feeding in drought conditions.” And with the feeding commencing, on the first night we had about, oh, nine ducks arrive, and that grew to about 113 within ten days.
But as we kept going competition, predators, all sorts of common factors just began to inhibit the actual population that were beginning to swarm on the dam and we found that they began to move away again. From that 113 on the ten days, by about the 90th day of the study we were down to about 13 or 14 ducks, and it never really came up again from there.
[Image changes to show Geraldine looking at lizards inside their glass enclosures]
Geraldine Milroy: I did most of my goanna work in the Australian Museum. I came to work in here because I was doing scientific illustration for my high school certificate artwork. There were all sorts of containers full of lizards labelled Varanus gouldii. When I sorted these out there were two very different types of lizards that were both under the name Varanus gouldii gouldii. So after having a closer look at not only their colour differences but structural differences I found that there was enough to call it a separate species.
[Image changes to show Geraldine viewing lizard specimens through a microscope]
[Image changes to show people setting up tracking equipment and then to a man throwing a boomerang]
Robert Sinclair: I’ve never seen this actual method of doing things before because the great difference between this boomerang tracking and any other sort of tracking or whatever is that firstly this had to be cheap, which has made quite an effect, although we’ve still managed to keep it far beyond the accuracy of the old methods, and this one has a moving target which is really the most important thing, because normally with theodolites and so on you can have surveyors there, say with a ski jump you can see where it landed and you can set up. But when it comes to a boomerang you’re ac5tually following it, and the maximum distance can be anywhere in that path, so you can’t just say, “Right, we’re going to take the distance so many seconds from now.” It has to really be tracked the whole way. And there is no way, apart from with a computer, that you can actually calculate all the distances as the boomerang goes round.
[Image changes to show Lindy walking and you can hear a sheep bleating]
Lindy Coulson: Hello, Lilly.
Here, I’ll come and let you out. Hi ya. Go.
[Image changes to show Lindy letting the sheep out of a pen and the sheep follows Lindy as she’s walking]
[Image changes to show Lindy feeding chickens]
Mum and dad got our first bantams about six years ago, and they started laying eggs like anything. And because I’ve always been interested in embryology type things, and we had all the eggs with four chooks sitting on them, I did a project in which I took away an egg every day and opened it up and had a look at what stage of development the chick was in.
[Image changes to show Lindy seated at a table flicking through a book]
And then I’d open them up and have a look inside them and dissect them. It took three hours an egg, but I really enjoyed that, and I’d keep things in bottles, and then I’d put that in Science Talent Search. And the same year my teacher put another one in for me on Blue Wrens, which also got a prize, I was pretty surprised about, and that I spent the weekend watching them and drawing pictures and writing down what they did, and tried to take photos of them. And that was good. I didn’t think it was very scientific at the time, but it seemed to be taken all right.
And then the next year I really knew what… I started to k now what I was on about, and I’d planned out beforehand, and I wrote… I did about mice and drugs. And that I had eight mice and I tested them in the treadle wheel, and the stress jar, and the exploration box. And then I put coffee in a cage just for an hour, I took the water away and I put the coffee in the cage and I tested them again, and then I did it with valium and alcohol.
[Image changes to show Lindy handling white mice in a box]
I mixed up the coffee vaguely how a human would have it. To start with it was just one rounded teaspoon to a cup, and then I doubled it because it wasn’t getting very good results, and I’d just make it up a cup at a time and leave it. And it was in this side of the cage and they just had it as their water. That was their liquid that they could… that’s the only liquid they got. And the other side just had water in their bottle. And I was surprised to find that both drank the same amount of liquid during the… overnight they would both drink the same amount; they didn’t tend to mind the coffee at all.
[Image changes to Robert setting up oscillators]
Robert Sinclair: In each one of these boxes is what’s called an oscillator, which can make electricity go on and off very quickly, and the speed that it goes on and off is proportional to how far this is turned, and then the computer is able to count how many times it goes on and off and work out what speed it was at, therefore work out where this(?) turned(?), and using trigonometry it’s able to work out from the two angles, and the distances that I’ve given it, of how far apart these are, where the boomerang should be. And it actually has to calculate that for each point on the path as it goes round, and then gets the maximum.
[Image changes to show Robert seated in front of a monitor he then types in a command on the computer and information flashes up on the screen] One of the advantages of using a computer in this particular situation was that it was able to make the calculations quite fast while the boomerang was going along. But one thing that I discovered was that even though the computer is very fast, it’s still not fast enough to be able to work out the distance of a boomerang as the boomerang was flying.
[Image changes to show the boomerang being thrown and Robert tracking it]
So one of the tricks I had to use was that instead of actually calculating all the trig as the boomerang was going, I made the computer build up a table of trigonometry. Ninety-one.
[Image changes to show a wall with different animal pelts]
Lindy Coulson: When I was in form one I was dressing up a doll and I wanted to put a mouse skin coat on it, and so I skinned a mouse, partly just to see that I could do it. And then I skinned another one later. And one day I discovered they had kidneys and I got really excited about that. And from then I went on and I skinned anything I could get hold of and dissected it, and put things in little bottles of Metho.
[The camera is panning over the collected samples of jars on a book shelf]
And that I suppose that was when I became really interested in science and I knew I was interested in science and wanted to be a surgeon.
[Image changes to show Lindy marking a mouse’s tail]
That’s C3 is in that position, on the tip was C1, and at the top was C4. Yeah. In you go. Up to date. I just trace in where they go. It’s fairly typical; they tend to stay by the sides. And it’s really hard to follow them if they start moving fast.
[Image changes to show the mouse moving around inside the box]
And then I’d leave them for a minute, and then they’d get points for every line they’ve crossed, so that would get, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, nine, ten, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 points.
[Image changes to show a mouse on a treadle wheel]
Time. I was really happy with the results I got for the short term test, that I had two base tests were exactly the same, and then after coffee they were a lot more active, for valium they were a lot less active, and after alcohol they were just a little bit less active.
[Image changes to show Lindy’s results indicated on graphs]
[Image changes to show Darren and other students seated in front of a computer monitor]
Darren Kelly: One thing I learnt when I first attended a science school at university was that I’m not alone, I’m not a freak, there are other people with the same interests.
[Darren and other students start a discussion]
And sort of you can use ideas like…
Male: No, we can’t conceive what it is.
Male: Yeah, you can use ideas, like examples.
Male: You can’t conceive that it’s there.
Male: Just analogous sort of things like curving pieces of paper.
Male: You can’t. No. The sphere is for the two dimensional, we’re three dimensional, it’s impossible for us to conceive what ideally does happen.
Male: I mean a sphere is… a sphere, for example, it’s like a two dimensional world, right.
[Image changes back to show Darren travelling on a train]
Darren Kelly: Theoretical physics appeals to me because each problem is an individual challenge, and there is so much that we don’t know, and for me theoretical physics and my attempt to improve our knowledge, it’s a field which I’m interested in which I feel I can extend our knowledge most. I enjoy the intellectual challenge. There’s nothing to compare with it.
[Image changes to show the train travelling on a track and sounding its horn]
[Image changes to show a campfire]
I have two friends in Dubbo who go camping with me, an astronomy campout, we take telescope out of Dubbo, away from the lights, and do astronomy for all night. It’s a great experience to get away, to camp out, and just be in the dark, in the quiet, and absorb by the complete surroundings, the entire dome of the sky completely surrounding me. It is a wonderful experience.
[Image changes to show Darren and his colleague viewing the sky through a big telescope, images of what they’re viewing flash onto the screen]
My project is a theoretical project in astrophysics. Scientists believe that galaxies are moving away very rapidly because they observed what’s called a red shift. My project discusses alternative explanations for this red shift.
[Image has changed back to Tim Allen bird watching]
Tim Allen: Living here all my life I’ve become very attached to the overall district, all its wildlife and its water fowl. You drive anywhere now, or just even when I’m walking, and you just look and you think, you know, just how privileged I am just to be in this sort of area, around all this sort of birdlife and wildlife, which you know has just been to me fantastic.
[Image changes to show the birdlife in the water and then back to Tim bird watching]
They’re not easily scared, they’re… they often set out their watchdog type bird, probably a male, they’ll sit out and just watch for any particular predator that may come, either a hawk, or say us for example. And if anything is seen of course he’ll give the call and the others will distinctively all put their heads up quite high into the air, group together, and then take off.
[Image changes to show the ducks flying away]
[Image changes to show Geraldine and a blue-tongue lizard]
Geraldine Milroy: (Chuckles). Get it all over them. They go for a bath after lunch. But they need to sit out in the sun for a while before they can eat, because they just… they can’t eat when they’re cold, they need to warm up first. They often just sit in their food and warm up. (Chuckles). They love snails, they love… the sneeze a lot, too, they get it up their noses and sneeze it out. They’re mad little things. They love dog food, they love fresh fruit, baby food – that’s what they’ve got there.
[Image changes to show Geraldine walking through a tropical rainforest]
I went up to Lismore in north New South Wales where there’s a lot of dense tropical rainforest to look for the snake. I was told at first that I might find some in the banana plantations around there, but after looking with no luck I turned to the rainforest expecting to find them up high up in the trees, and I was really… I didn’t know I was going to get them out of the trees. Oh, this is better.
[Male off screen ” Yeah, it looks promising”]
Yeah, there’s logs over here, you try those, and I’ll go for the rocks, OK? But as I was looking I virtually stumbled over one. It was just lying on the ground. I was very lucky.
[Image changes to show the snake coiled up on the ground]
When I first found the snake it seemed so long I thought it must be two snakes, but after finding its head, and it was quite docile, I was able to put it in the bag with no trouble.
[Image changes to show Geraldine picking up the snake and placing it into a bag]
I wanted to find a pregnant python for my egg experiment. Pythons, because they lay very large eggs which are very easy to work with, and I chose carpet pythons because there’s quite an abundance of carpet pythons, whereas other snakes, other types of pythons, like Diamond Pythons, are an endangered species.
[Image changes to show Geraldine seated on a bed and looking at the snake in the bag]
And you can see from those scars that she has most likely been mated with, and it’s not an easy job being a snake. But she’s quite severely wounded, and she’ll need some treatment on those scars of hers. She’s badly scarred, and she’s lost the end of her tail as well. You can see that here.
[The camera zooms in on the snake’s tail]
She’s obviously been in some fight with some animal, and that’s a blunt end of the tail, it should be quite long and slender to grip onto small twigs. Now that I have her I’m going to fix her up in a cage at the Australian Museum and hope that she lays her eggs around Christmas time, or very soon after, because I want to get this project underway by January, have it going in January. What I hope to do is the eggs that she lays, I’ll have them put straight into an incubator, and I want to… the main idea of the project is to photograph the embryos developing inside the eggs, which hasn’t been done before on snake eggs.
[Image changes to show Geraldine releasing the snake from the bag]
That’s about seven feet all coiled up. And she’s a bit upset, but she’s cool, so she’s quite cool so she’s not, I hope, going to strike at me. OK, I’ll just put her back in because she’s getting a bit upset, and I don’t want her to abort the eggs, which is the whole purpose of having her.
[Image changes to show Geraldine placing the snake back in the bag]
She’s got hold of me (chuckles).
[Image changes to show Tim stacking hay bales]
Tim Allen: The overall diversity of activities on the farm really keeps you involved, and well enthralled in everything that I do as a family unit because you’re around the family, and you’re doing the activities, it means quite a bit because you’re always with the family and it brings a very close sort of bond.
Male: Best pieces of masonry on the place. Tim, this is a guard door stable.
Tim Allen: Our family has a long association with the district. My grandfather wasn’t the first; there were two generations before him.
Male: Yes, I did when I was cleaning them out. I knew them all.
[The camera slowly pans up the building Tim and another man are standing in front of and looking at]
Tim Allen: But it is through my grandfather that I’ve gained this link with my historical outlook on life, and it’s through him that I really gained that love.
Male: A lot of fond memories in this place, Tim.
Tim Allen: That’s like a nostalgic view of the whole district itself.
[Image changes to show different buildings and then to Tim’s etchings of those same buildings]
Through that I learnt etching as a medium to express the feelings that I felt for the buildings and architecture.
[Image changes back to Robert who is seated at a table with papers in front of him]
Robert Sinclair: Well I’ve been very fortunate in that my family have always helped me whenever I wanted to go into science in any way at all. What I really appreciate is that quite a lot of times they’ve gone to sacrifices for me, like with my project, dad’s been doing a lot of transport, and where he could have been doing his own schoolwork and marking exams and so on, he’s driven me round to all these places.
[Image changes to show Dad walking in and over to their Mum who is cooking Schnitzel]
[Image changes to show Mum talking to the man and another person seated at the table. Mum off screen
“When are you two kids finished? I’ve got to set the table for dinner]
Robert Sinclair: Quite a while.
Female: Quite a while? Do you want burnt Schnitzel?
Robert Sinclair: And you know we don’t have carpet in the place, we don’t have insulation in the roof, but we do have a computer, and I feel very lucky that they’ve given me things, whereas they could have had something else themselves. That’s a good dinosaur, Steven. Which one’s that?
[Image changes to Darren inside an Observatory walking up steps to view the telescope]
Darren Kelly: One of the advantages of living in Dubbo is that the Anglo-Australian Telescope is only two hours away. I was lucky enough to spend a week at the Observatory for school work experience. The astronomers were very helpful.
[Image changes to show Lindy and a young man pushing a boat into the water]
Lindy Coulson: Girls aren’t expected to do science, and there’s only three girls in my physics class, that I’m one, and it would be… it’s if one of those was to drop out then it’s likely that one of the other girls would too. If a boy is struggling with science they’ll keep going with it because that’s what’s expected of them, but if a girl is struggling with science she’ll just join her friends in a humanities class, and I think that’s part of the reason why the girls don’t do it, because it’s not expected of them, and if… so if they’re having trouble they just don’t do it. One of the things I enjoy about the science I suppose is that the other people who are good at it tend to be boys, and that my boyfriend is into science and he’s going to be a surgeon, too. Science is where we first connected in any way. One of my friends once said that it was a relationship consisting entirely of mathematical equations.
[Image changes back to the Darren in the Observatory]
[Text appears: Darren Kelly, Geraldine Milroy, Robert Sinclair, Lindy Coulson, Tim Allen, have all been finalists in the BHP Science Prize]
Darren Kelly: That’s where I live, out there.
[Image changes to show Darren pointing towards the horizon and the camera pans in that direction] Somewhere.
[Credits: script RUSSELL PORTER. photography ROGER SECCOMBE A.C.S]
[Image changes back to Geraldine with the python coiled around her arm]
Geraldine Milroy: The male sinks his teeth into her, and she’s got signs of that, so I’m pretty sure that she’s pregnant.
[Credits: sound recording ROBERT KERTON, CHRIS NOONE. laboratory VICTORIAN FILM LABORATORIES]
Umm. Someone will have to come and help. (Laughs).
Robert Sinclair: Fifty-two again. I think we’ll leave that for the moment.
[Credits: editor TONY PATERSON. associate producer NICK PITSAS]
[Image changes to show Lindy diving into the water and swimming towards some people]
[Credits: direction RUSSELL PORTER, ROGER SECCOMBE]
[Image changes to show Tim Allen walking through wetlands]
[Credits: producer NICK ALEXANDER]
Tim Allen: This sort of time of evening everything really does come alive. The calls, and mixed with the frogs, it’s just like… it’s just totally mindboggling at times.
[Credits: with thanks to: The Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd. Anglo-Australian Telescope. Boomerang Association of Australia. Serendip Wildlife Research Station. State Rail Authority of NSW. University of New South Wales]
[© CSIRO Australia 1984]