Royal Society of NSW News & Events

Royal Society of NSW News & Events

Compendium of 2012 news

The Liversidge Lecture 2012 - Professor Thomas Maschmeyer

Low carbon technologies: from brown coal and biomass to solar hydrogen

Monday, 19 November 2012

Donald Hector and Thomas Maschmeyer

The 2012 Liversidge Lecture was presented by Professor Thomas Maschmeyer FAA FTSE of the University of Sydney. About 180 people heard Thomas describe his work on catalysis, particularly its application in the transformation of brown coal into a crude oil substitute and black coal. Thomas also described his work using supercritical water to convert biomass into a liquid fuel product. Thomas intends to write a paper for the Journal and Proceedings summarising his work. This is expected to be published during 2013. 

The Liversidge Lecture is presented in conjunction with the University of Sydney.

The Dirac Lecture 2012 - Professor Brian Schmidt

The accelerating universe

Thursday, 19 July 2012

In conjunction with the University of New South Wales and with the Australian Institute of Physics, the Society proudly presented the 2012 Dirac Lecture on Thursday, 19 July 2012. This year's lecture was delivered by Professor Brian Schmidt, 2011 Nobel Laureate for Physics. 

Professor Schmidt took us on a fascinating journey of astronomy and cosmology, describing the work that he and his colleagues have done over the last two decades and where it fits in our understanding of the nature of the universe. 

To establish a reference framework, we were taken on a quick tour of the universe using the speed of light as a ruler (the Moon is less than two light seconds from us. The Sun is 8 light minutes away. The nearest star, Alpha Centauri, is 4.3 light years away. We are 30,000 light years from the centre of our galaxy, the Milky Way. The nearest galaxy, Andromeda, is 2 million light years from us. The cosmic ray background establishes that the age of the universe is about 13.7 billion years, with the Hubble telescope being able to detect objects 12 billion light years away). 

Although astronomy is one of the oldest sciences, modern cosmology had its beginnings in the 19th and 20th centuries when techniques such as spectral analysis began to be applied to light from the skies. Of particular importance was phenomenon known as the Doppler effect – objects that are moving towards us have their light shifted towards the blue end of the spectrum, while objects moving away have their light shifted to towards red. By analysing the spectra of galaxies, in 1916, Vesto Slipher found that all galaxies he observed were shifted towards red and therefore were moving away from us. The conclusion from this was that the universe is expanding. 

Einstein's special theory of relativity published in 1907 proposed that acceleration due to gravity and acceleration due to motion are equivalent. This led to his general theory of relativity and the notion that space is curved. The solution to Einstein's equations are dynamic, implying that the universe should be in motion. To avoid the conclusion that the universe was expanding, Einstein introduced a "fudge factor" called the cosmological constant (Einstein later referred to this as his greatest blunder!). 

One conclusion from the concept of an expanding universe is that at one point must have been a big bang. Observations suggest that the age of the universe could be as young as 9 billion years if its expansion was slowing due to gravity but this is contrary to observations that the oldest stars appear to be at least 12 billion years old. 

Not only was Brian Schmidt interested in solving this problem and determining the age of the universe but he wanted to understand what its eventual fate might be. In the 1990s, by observing faintness/brightness plotted against high/low red shift it had been found that supernovae appeared to have very constant brightness and therefore could be used as a standard "candle". (It was later found that this was not quite so but further work to better understand Type 1A supernovae allowed for corrections that gave a very good correlation.) 

Improved digital detection technology and data processing capability in the 1990s set the stage for major advances in astronomy. Many more supernovae could be observed and this gave the team led by Brian (whose area of specialisation was data processing) to study many high-resolution images and by tracking these images and filtering out background noise, to find supernovae candidates for much more detailed analysis. Brian's team found that distant supernovae were outside the range expected for a universe whose expansion was slowing. Detailed analysis of their data suggested that the expansion of the universe was in fact accelerating. This was contrary to the mainstream view of physicists at the time and, indeed was contrary to the findings of another team using a different approach to analysing the data. Professor Schmidt's team published their work and in 2011 were awarded the Nobel Prize. 

The notion of a universe whose expansion is accelerating poses some interesting questions for cosmologists, not the least of which is what could be pushing it apart? Einstein's theory allows for the concept of "dark energy". The data from analysis of Type 1A supernovae can be explained if the forces are assumed to be about 30% "pull" from gravity and about 70% "push" from dark energy. For the universe to be flat (and an analysis of the background radiation of the universe shows that indeed it is flat, that is, the universe is not closed and it is not open), 27% of the universe would need to be matter and 73% would need to be dark energy. But the problem is that this is much more matter than appears to exist. The solution to this currently most favoured by cosmologists is the concept of "dark matter" - matter that we cannot see. And it is no small amount - less than 5% of all matter is thought to be observable. 

Professor Schmidt concluded his lecture with some long-range forecasts for the future of the universe. In some places, gravity will win and matter will merge; in others, space will accelerate faster and light from those areas will never reach us. There could even be a "big rip". In this scenario, a few million years before the end, gravity would be too weak to hold the Milky Way and other galaxies together. Our solar system would become gravitationally unbound, the stars and planets would be torn apart and at the very end, individual atoms would be ripped apart.

The Royal Society Forum 2012 - Mark Scott and Jill Trewhella

The influence of the media on scientific research

Wednesday 6 April 2011

Forum 2012

​The Society's second annual Forum was held on Wednesday 4 April at the Powerhouse Museum. The discussion was between Mark Scott AO, Managing Director of the ABC and Professor Jill Trewhella FRSN, Deputy Vice Chancellor, Research and Innovation at Sydney University. The forum was moderated by Robyn Williams AM of the ABC.

Mark Scott

Mark pointed out that the role of national broadcasters (originally established to produce programmes that commercial companies could not or would not) has changed very significantly. The internet has made available thousands of TV and radio stations worldwide. The consumer is flooded with content. Gone are the days when listeners needed a licence – now all that is necessary is an internet connection. Nor are there barriers to entry for broadcasters. There are over 200 million web-sites worldwide and 60,000 blogs are introduced to the internet every day. The role of the ABC is now even more important than it was formerly. It now provides a "town square" for content and opinion. It provides a broad plurality of views. Whereas the challenge for science is the narrowness of focus of much research is, the ABC provides a place where there is breadth not narrowness of interest. The gap between the ABC and content providers is growing every day due to the challenge facing commercial providers in delivering a profit in a rapidly changing media sector. The challenge for scientists is to become effective communicators and, particularly, to cultivate interest among journalists.

Jill Trewhella

Jill said how important it was to have institutions like the ABC that produce quality content and encourage public education and debate. The key roles of the media are to educate, to inspire and to promote public discourse, particularly as the world faces critical issues, not least the state of the natural world. Nonetheless it is regrettable that the media often confuse opinion, fact and belief. Too much of the current debate focuses on belief. But belief is not important in many issues – what is important are matters of fact. This is particularly significant in major issues such as health and climate change where scientific knowledge is important. For example, in health investment in research is generally seen as overwhelmingly good. And it probably is but what about the unavoidable trade-offs in research in other areas? It is also regrettable that advertising is a major influence on public opinion and political processes. Robyn then moderated a discussion that included questions from the audience and covered such issues as the "priesthood status" of peer-review, the polarisation of public opinion, climate change, the state of critical argument in Australia and the necessity for the scientists to produce a compelling story in order to engage the media.

Annual General Meeting – new President elected

At the AGM held on Wednesday 4 April 2012, Dr Donald Hector was elected President of the Society, following John Hardie. John has been President of the Society twice, once in 1994 and from 2007-2011. The meeting moved a vote of thanks to John for his many years of devoted work to furthering the interests of the Society. John will continue as ex officio Vice President.

Click here for John's address to the annual general meeting.

Chief Scientist Invests New Fellows

The Society was very pleased to have two Fellows of the Society, Professor Jill Trewhella FAAAS FRSN and Emeritus Professor Noel Hush AO FAA FRS FRSN invested with their Awards by Professor Mary O'Kane, Chief Scientist and Engineer of NSW, at our Annual Dinner on Friday 18 February 2012.

Professors Jill Trewhella (left) Noel Hush with the Professor O'Kane after receiving their Fellowships at the annual dinner at St Paul's College, Sydney.

Professor O'Kane also presented the the Clarke Medal for 2011 to Emeritus Professor Byron Lamont for his life-long work on Australian flora, and the 2011 Edgeworth David Medal (for a young scientist under the age of 35) to pharmacologist, Dr Trent Woodruff.

Professor Lamont (left) and Dr Woodruff with the Professor O'Kane after receiving their awards at the annual dinner.
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