Royal Society events

The Royal Society of NSW organizes a number of events in Sydney throughout the year.  These include Ordinary General Meetings (OGMs) held on the first Wednesday of the month (there is no meeting in January).  Society business is conducted, new Fellows and Members are inducted, and reports from Council are given to the membership.  This is followed by a talk and optional dinner.  Drinks are served before the meeting.  There is a small charge to attend the meeting and talk, and to cover refreshments.  The dinner is a separate charge, and must be booked in advance.  All OGMs are open to members of the public.

The first OGM in February has speakers drawn from the Royal Society Scholarship winners, and the December OGM hears from the winner of the Jak Kelly award, before an informal Christmas party.  The April event is our black-tie Annual Dinner and Distinguished Fellow lecture.

Other events are held in collaboration with other groups, including:

  • The Four Societies lecture (with the Australian Institute of Energy, the Nuclear Panel of Engineers Australia [Sydney Division] and the Australian Nuclear Association)
  • The Forum (with the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, the Australian Academy of Science, the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia)
  • The Dirac lecture (with UNSW Australia and the Australian Institute of Physics)
  • The Liversidge Medal lecture (with the Royal Australian Chemical Institute)

Royal Society of NSW News & Events

Royal Society of NSW News & Events

1249th OGM and Christmas Party

Imaging with a deft touch: The scanning helium microscope – a modern pinhole camera!

Dr Matthew Barr, School of Mathematical and Physical Science, University of Newcastle
Jak Kelly Award Winner for 2016 (award presented by Irene Kelly)

Wednesday 7th December 2016, Union, University and Schools Club, 25 Bent Street Sydney.

Inspired by the ancient pinhole camera, researchers have developed a technology to give new insights into the nature of matter. The scanning helium microscope makes it possible to generate images with fine details without the kind of damage to the delicate structures caused by traditional microscopes. For example, one can see the distinct flakes of chitin on a butterfly's wing that resemble plated armour, or the curve of a spider's fang. Matthew's talk will describe how the new technology works and show some of the new types of images that are now possible.

Matthew recently completed his PhD at the University of Newcastle in the Centre for Organic Electronics. He specialises in microscope design and has a particular interest in free jet atomic and molecular beam sources. He also has experience in experimental vacuum science techniques, from vacuum system design through to x-ray techniques, and systems operation and analysis. In 2011 he received an Australian Nanotechnology Network travel fellowship that allowed him to travel to University of Cambridge. While there he was involved in the successful construction of a first-generation helium microscope. 

1248th OGM and public lecture

Presentation of Distinguished Fellowship to Dame Marie Bashir AD, CVO, DistFRSN

The President presented the certificate of Distinguished Fellowship to Dame Marie Bashir at the start of the OGM. Past President Hector read the citation.

Jim Kehoe 2016 small “Finding the Right Course for the Right Horse:
 Recent Evidence-Based Advances in Instructional Design”

  Jim Kehoe
  Professor of Psychology
  UNSW Australia

Date: Wednesday 2nd November 2016

Venue: Union, University and Schools Club, 25 Bent Street Sydney

Students of all ages and stages can become disengaged in a new subject area, often right out of the starting gate. While a few top students forge ahead, many others progressively accept mediocrity or failure. Different types of one-size-fits-all solutions have been attempted, usually with little reduction in the wide variation among students' progress.

Fortunately, over the past 25 years, experimental research on instructional design – much of it originating in New South Wales – has revealed a set of principles for improving the speed and consistency of individual learning. These principles are themselves founded in earlier research that defined the “cognitive architecture” of human memory.

Jim's talk focused on human cognitive architecture and the key principles for instructional design, which include (a) recognise and optimise demands on short-term memory; (b) help students to organise their long-term memories rather than rote memorise the material; (c) help students to actively interact with the learning material; and (d) provide instructive feedback as well as knowledge of results. These principles have proved to applicable in an adaptive way as students gain proficiency.

Jim Kehoe came to the School of Psychology at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in 1977 after completing his PhD in experimental psychology at the University of Iowa. Apart from sabbatical appointments, he has remained at UNSW, rising from Lecturer to Professor in 1994. Although now part-time, he continues as a member of the academic staff.

His research has concerned pure and applied research in learning and memory. His early career was devoted the laboratory study of associative learning in animals and its neural mechanisms. He has also been a leader in the mathematical modeling of associative learning. Over the last two decades, he has increasingly turned his attention to applied research on learning and memory in humans in contexts ranging from frontline management to military populations to older adults. He is a project officer in the Australian Army, currently holding the rank of lieutenant colonel.

2016 Dirac Lecture

Dirac image 2016  "Dark Matter in the Universe"

  The Dirac Lecture with the Award of the Dirac Medal

  Duffield Professor Kenneth Freeman FRS, Australian National University

Venue: Tyree Room of the John Niland Scientia Building of the University of New South Wales

Date: 13 October 2016

The Dirac Medal is based on rules established in 1990 by the then Vice Chancellor of the University of NSW Sir Rupert Meyers. It is awarded in the name of Professor Paul Dirac who donated the royalties of his published lectures in Australasia in 1975. In its early years the award was organised by UNSW in conjunction with the Australian Institute of Physics. The first convenor of the awards was Professor Heinrich Hora FRSN, Head of the Department of Theoretical Physics. Of the first eleven Dirac Lectures nine awardees were Nobel Laureates. In 2010 the Governor of NSW presented the award to Lord Robert May of Oxford and the Royal Society became involved. Of the last five awards, two recipients are Nobel-Laureates.

Professor Freeman’s research is about the formation and dynamics of galaxies with a particular interest in the problem of dark matter in galaxies. He was one of the first to point out that spiral galaxies contain a large fraction of dark matter. He is active in international astronomy, as a division past-president of the International Astronomical Union, and serves on visiting committees for several major astronomical institutions around the world.

1247th OGM and public lecture

 Itai Oct 2016 "From sand and rice bubbles to earthquakes and volcanoes"

  Professor Itai Einav, School of Engineering, University of Sydney

  Director of the Sydney Centre in Geomechanics and Mining Materials

Date: Wednesday 5th October 2016

Venue: Union, University and Schools Club, 25 Bent Street Sydney

The Universe is granulated. Stars, planets and asteroids are all relatively small particles when compared to galaxies (themselves, particles when seen from afar). They are relatively huge when compared to sand particles. The number of atoms in a single particle of sand is roughly the same as the number of sand particles in Australia¹s beaches, somewhere in the vicinity of 10,000,000,000,000,000,000. Together with dry rice, M&M¹s and pharmaceutical powders, sand particles belong to the class of granular materials, the second-most manipulated material in industry (after water). But the motion of sand particles is far less understood than the motion of atoms in water or the motion of celestial bodies and galaxies. What is it about sand particles and rice bubbles that makes them so hard to describe? What governs their motion, and how can they inform us about important phenomena such as earthquakes and volcanoes? This talk will tackle those questions.

Working at the University of Sydney, Professor Itai Einav is the Director of SciGEM (Sydney Centre in Geomechanics and Mining Materials). He is an Honorary Professor of University College London, a Fellow of the Royal Society of NSW, and has held visiting research appointments at Universities in USA, France, Spain and Japan. He is an Editor of granular matter and sits on the editorial board of Géotechnique. He received several international research awards, including medals from UK’s Institute of Civil Engineers and Europe’s ALERT Geomaterials. His work crosses many disciplines at the interfaces of Civil Engineering, Physics, Resources Engineering, Geophysics, and Applied Mathematics. Einav’s work in the disciplinary area of granular physics has yielded discoveries in heat transfer, mixing, segregation and melting. More recently he has developed strong affinity to rice bubbles


1246th OGM and public lecture

Richard Neville “A source of inspiration and delight: The Mitchell Library”

  Richard Neville

  Mitchell Librarian and Director, Education & Scholarship

Date: Wednesday 7th September 2016: 6:00 for 6:30 pm

Venue: Union, University and Schools Club, 25 Bent Street Sydney

The State Library of New South Wales can trace its history back to 1826. In many ways it history and development runs in parallel to that of the Royal Society of New South Wales. Its first iteration was as a private gentleman’s library, with a male only membership. Gradually its remit expanded, supported by a sense that libraries were institutions necessary for the public good, but it struggled to survive as a private organisation. Eventually the NSW Government stepped in and purchased it in 1869, when it became the Free Public Library. In this transition it threw away its editions of Jane Austen, and focused on useful, economic, knowledge.

From 1869 to today the Library, now known as the State Library of NSW, has embedded itself into the cultural life of NSW. The bequest of David Scott Mitchell in 1907, which lead to the inauguration of the Mitchell Library in 1910, and the various bequests of Sir William Dixson, were seminal gifts which established the Library as the premier documentary collection in the country. The library also holds some of the early archives of the Royal Society of NSW.

People are often surprised to learn of the extent of the the Library’s collections of photographs, manuscripts (more than 12 linear kms of them), These record the early discovery of the Pacific through to the colonization of Australia through to the archives of contemporary organisations and individuals, paintings, maps, architectural plans as well as books. Increasingly the Library is grappling with the impact of digital culture on the library collections and future collection strategies.

The future of libraries is much debated, but the future for the State Library and its Mitchell Library is very strong. The Library’s archives and publications are critical in telling the story of Australia’s history, and this talk explored its history and development, the motivations and drive for which are no doubt very similar to those to drove the Royal Society.

Richard Neville is the Mitchell Librarian and Director Education and Scholarship at the State Library of NSW. With a research background in nineteenth century Australian art and culture, he has published widely on colonial art and society. He has also been extensively involved in the acquisition, arrangement, description and promotion of the Library’s renowned Australian research collections.

1245th OGM and public lecture

Briggs    “Celebrating the 200th Birthday of Royal Botanic Gardens:
    A Personal History of 57 years of Science”

    Dr Barbara Briggs

    Honorary Research Associate, Royal Botanic Gardens

Date: 3 August 2016: 6:00 for 6:30 pm

Venue: Union, University and Schools Club, 25 Bent Street Sydney


The Royal Society of New South Wales and the Royal Botanic Gardens are two of the oldest institutions of science in Australia and each is celebrating a significant anniversary this year. The Society celebrates 150 years since it received Royal Assent from Queen Victoriai, though its origins go back to 1821.  The Royal Botanic Gardens turns 200. In this talk we look at the founding of the Gardens and the early challenges it faced. We also celebrate the many achievements and contributions the Gardens have made to science and the life of Sydney. We do so through the eyes of Dr Barbara Briggs, the Garden’s longest serving female scientist.

Botany featured early in the young settlement, notably with Joseph Banks and Botany Bay. Plants were cultivated at Farm Cove from the first settlement of Sydney but the foundation of the Garden is marked as the ‘particular and auspicious day’ when Mrs Macquarie’s Road was completed on 13 June 1816.

While much has changed over the decades, science at the Garden still has important roles in maintaining the National Herbarium of NSW, our archive of botanical specimens, and in providing botanical information in enquiry services, publications and on-line. The role of the Garden has expanded with two satellite gardens and education programs, and it is valued for its beauty, its attractive site, its horticulture and heritage, and as green space for the city.

Barbara took us through the history of the Gardens. One area she focused on was the way the development of DNA data that has given a far more complete and robust knowledge of evolutionary relationships than she ever expected to see. She also told us about how the Gardens survived in part because its soil was so poor for growing plants, the 80 new plant species she has identified and others she has reclassified, the discovery of the Wollemi Pine and how her skills in identifying a tiny leaf fragment helped solve a murder case. Laslty she described the challenges and opportunities are facing the Gardens over the next 200 years.

Dr Briggs is one of the foremost Australian botanists and comes from a distinguished family of scientists. She is the daughter of Edna Sayce, who, in 1917, became the first woman Physics graduate from The University of Sydney, and her father was also a distinguished physicist. Dr Briggs joined the Gardens as a botanist in 1969 and rose to become its senior assistant director and head of the science program at the National Herbarium of New South Wales at the Garden until her retirement. Her special interests include plant evolution and southern hemisphere biogeography. She has published over 100 research papers and named 80 new species, as well as reclassifying others.

1244th OGM and public lecture

Bob Young OGM 1243   "Royal" not "Philosophical" - W.B. Clarke's Inaugural Address
  to the Royal Society of NSW

  Dr Bob Young

  Associate Professor of Geoscience (ret’d), University of Wollongong

Wednesday 6 July 2016: 6:00 for 6:30 pm

Union, University and Schools Club, 25 Bent Street Sydney

The Royal Society of New South Wales is 150 years old this year. The Inaugural Address in 1867 by Rev. William Branwhite Clarke is the key not only to understanding the origin of the Royal Society of New South Wales, but also, to a very considerable extent, its continuing role in supporting scholarly research. Clarke (1798-1878) not only announced a change in name from the Royal's forerunner, the "Philosophical Society", but launched into an attack on contemporary philosophy which he described as "a Desert, whose only semblance of vegetation is a mirage". What was needed, he argued, was factual science, not metaphysical speculation. He was Vice-President of the Royal Society of New South Wales from 1861 to 1878, gave important annual addresses to the Society, and published many papers in its Proceedings. The Clarke Medal, awarded by the Society each year for contributions to Geology, Zoology or Botany, was established in his honour.

Bob Young Book OGM 1244 Although known as "the Father of Australian Geology", for more than a decade after his arrival in Sydney in 1839, Clarke wrote numerous articles that laid the foundations of the study of meteorology and climatic change in Australia; and he played an important practical role in the development of hydrology, especially with regard to the water supply of Sydney. By mid-century he had become regarded as the foremost authority on various aspects of Australian Geography, notably in his journalistic support of the expeditions of Leichhardt and Kennedy. After 1860 he was a major player in the controversy over evolution, but his role in it was hardly that of "Darwin’s bulldog” as some authors have considered him. In this talk Bob Young delved into the personal life of and described the development of Clarke's ideas about science, as well as some of his contemporaries, and the impact they had based on his recent biography This wonderfully strange country: Rev W.B. Clarke, Colonial Scientist.

Bob Young was, before his retirement, an Associate Professor of Geoscience at the University of Wollongong. He has been a member of the Geological Society of Australia and the Geographical Society of New South Wales and was Associate Editor of Australian Geographer from 1981 to 1992. He has published 5 books and over 100 research papers on topics ranging over weathering and erosional sequences, sandstone landforms, sea level change, tsunami, and the history of landform studies.

Annual black-tie dinner 2016

Annual Black-Tie Dinner, Distinguished Fellow's Lecture and presentation of the Society's 2015 awards

Guest of honour: The Society's Vice-Regal Patron, His Excellency General The Honourable David Hurley AC DSC (Ret'd), Governor of New South Wales

The Distinguished Fellow's Lecture delivered by Em. Professor Eugenie Lumbers AM DistFRSN

Wednesday 4 May 2016

Union, Universities, & Schools Club, 25 Bent St, Sydney



Judith Wheeldon AM (Vice President), Stephen Ho, Warwick Anderson, His Excellency General Hurley, Christopher Dickman, Brynn Hibbert (President) and Peter Baume


Eugenie Lumbers AM DistFRSN, Michael Burton and Brynn Hibbert

The Clarke Medal for 2015 in the field of Zoology was presented to Professor Christopher Dickman, School of Biological Sciences, University of Sydney.

The Royal Society of NSW History and Philosophy of Science Medal 2015 was presented to Professor Warwick Anderson, ARC Laureate Fellow and Professor in the Department of History and the Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine, University of Sydney.

The Edgeworth David Medal for 2015 was presented to Associate Professor Simon Ho, ARC Queen Elizabeth II Fellow, School of Biological Sciences, University of Sydney.

The Hon Emeritus Professor Peter Baume AC DistFRSN was presented with his distinguished fellowship certificate by the Patron.

1242nd OGM, AGM and public lecture

 don hector

  "Royal Society of NSW – relevance in the 21st century"

   Dr Donald Hector FRSN
   President of the Royal Society of New South Wales

Date: Wednesday 6th April

Venue: Union University and Schools Club, 25 Bent St, Sydney

Donald Hector was President of the Royal Society of NSW for four years from 2012 to 2016. This is an excerpt from his Presidential Address delivered immediately following the AGM. The full address will be published in the Journal and Proceedings.

Dr Hector noted the success introduction of Fellowships of the Society and the appointment since then of well over 100 Fellows. He also referred to the importance of extending the Society's activities across all its disciplines of science, art, literature and philosophy. Of particular significance is the relationship that is developing with Australia's four learned Academies. At the Forum held at Government House in September 2015, all the issues that were identified as the major challenges facing the world today are highly-complex, socio-techno-economic problems. How may the Society contribute to their solution? Dr Hector set the stage with a historical perspective and then explored issues around philosophy and cognitive psychology that are important in framing these problems and identifying solutions to them.

The way in which we define and attempt to solve problems today originates in the philosophy of ancient Greece. It was rediscovered in the 14th century and was a major influence on the development Renaissance. Its importance can be seen in two great paintings of the Renaissance, Raphael's works Knowledge of Causes (or The School of Athens) and Disputation over the Most Holy Sacrament. The first is a representation of natural truth as acquired through reason (arithmetic, astronomy, rhetoric, the arts, music and poetry; the second shows the relationship between God and man. Taken together, the two juxtaposed paintings represent the thinking and belief-system of that era and upon which the Renaissance developed. The point is that art can give great insight into human thought.

The model of the world that evolved in the Renaissance and continued until the early 20th century was a mechanistic one – the great philosophers of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment considered the universe to be like a clock. It behaves linearly, with any disturbance producing an effect in proportion to the disturbance. The Padua method, developed in the Renaissance, of breaking a problem into its component parts and finding a solution by reassembling solutions to the components work well. But by the 20th century biology, ecology in a number of other challenges were not well explained by the mechanistic model and systems theory evolved.

Systems are non-linear – a tiny disturbance in one part can result in a large disturbance in another. They are unstable – they can flip. The outcome for the whole system cannot be found by adding the responses of component subsystems together – every part influences every other. In the last half-century, with the increasing population and complexity of the world, a new type of problem emerged – "wicked problems”. In these, there are masses of data but no clear way to analyse it. Human stakeholders hold apparently irreconcilable differences in beliefs and values and are willing to exploit power imbalances coercively to achieve their own ends.

At the time of the Renaissance, there was a clear relationship between the value-system represented by religion and a thirst for knowledge, as represented in Raphael's painting but today, in the Western world at least, value-systems are far less clear. Science follows a rationalist philosophy – seeking truth through rational analysis, recognising that social influences affect the outcome. Economics and politics are utilitarian – attempting to maximise public good or benefit. The legal system is deontological or duty-based. But there is no overarching value-system as there was during the Renaissance. The conflict between today's value-systems is further complicated by the limitations in human thinking.

No two individuals see a problem in exactly the same way – we all look at things through "lenses” that distort our view of reality according to our perceptions and experience. We form images of problem situations that are heavily influenced by our philosophical framework and belief-system. Our immediate response to problems is intuitive but this is subject to bias. A more measured analytical approach – rational thought – is able to be learnt but we must remain aware that we can make mistakes. These two thought processes have been described as two different systems but that misunderstands the fundamental nature of cognition – they are a single system responding to different stimuli and this system exhibits all of the non-linear and unexpected characteristics that one would expect. In order to make sense of the enormous complexity we encounter, we use narrative to confabulate to make sense of things that we do not understand to make them conform to our notions of reality.

Recognising the limitations imposed by our value-systems and our cognition, we can use our capacity for rational analysis to gain much greater insight into problems that were previously unassailable. We can imagine what futures might look like. Because we can recognise that various stakeholders in situations will approach the problem from different perspectives, we can accept this as fundamental to the human condition and that should facilitate understanding. The big challenge is to embrace the complexity of the problem – particularly the sociological dimensions – to overcome the inherent bias that we all hold to find common ground, rather than focus on the differences. Most importantly, we can write narratives. Drawing upon our diverse experience, these narratives can engage people with a wide range of worldviews and draw them along with us.

The Royal Society of NSW is uniquely placed to provide leadership in this type of complex analysis. The wisdom of the founders in defining such a broad remit of human knowledge – science, art, literature and philosophy – was truly prescient and recognised the ever-increasing complexity of modern life. But we need to change if we are to maximise our impact. Historically, the Society has focused largely on the sciences. Only recently, have we extended into the other areas of human knowledge encompassed by our charter. We need to attract Fellows and Members from all fields of human knowledge, if we are to engage in the representation and solution of the highly complex problems that exist in the world today. We need more writers, artists, sociologists, musicians and historians. Only then, will we be able to completely engage with the community. That is not to say that we should abandon our scientific heritage – quite the opposite, most of the problems that the world faces today have enormous technological challenges. But these solutions will not be found in science and technology alone – they will require the engagement of non-scientists in terms they can understand.


1241st OGM and public lecture

"How to win an IgNobel Prize and other adventures in communicating science"

Dr Len Fisher

Visiting Fellow in Physics, University of Bristol

Len Fisher OGM 1241 small

Date: Wednesday 2 March 2016

Union, University and Schools Club, 25 Bent Street Sydney

This talk in a fun and interesting way was about how scientists go about their work. In 1999, Dr Len Fisher was awarded an IgNobel Prize for using physics to work out the best way to dunk a biscuit. As he explained in a subsequent article in Nature (Physics take the biscuit), his intentions were honourable - he wanted to help make science more accessible to non-scientists, and showing how a scientist might think about familiar activities and problems seemed to provide an effective avenue. This is just one of a number of approaches that science communicators have developed in recent years in their efforts to help make science more a part of our wider culture. But have any of these approaches really worked? Or does modern science communication mainly consist in preaching to the converted, as some critics are now suggesting? With the anti-science movement gaining ground in many parts of the world, and with scientific advice to politicians often being ignored for the sake of political expediency, perhaps it is time for a rethink. In this talk Len will discuss the problems that he and other science communicators face, and with the help of the audience will explore the directions that such a rethink might take.

Len Fisher specializes in the science of food, biophysics, and nano-engineering and was, for many years a senior scientist at CSIRO. He now splits his time between Australia and the UK. While he is still involved in fundamental research, he is primarily a writer, speaker and broadcaster, working to make science accessible by showing how scientists think about the problems of everyday. He has made many radio and television appearances and published feature articles, including three series for BBC Radio 4 (The Science of DIY, The Sweet Spot and Redesigning the Body), appearances on the ABC's Lateline, The Science Show and Ockham's Razor.

Annual Meeting of the Four Societies 2016

Australian Energy Policy


Four Societies 2016

Professor Robert Clark AO FAA Dist FRSN, 
Chair of Energy Strategy and Policy, University of New South Wales 

Date: Thursday February 25

Venue: Hamilton and Parkes Rooms, Level 47, MLC Centre, King and Castlereagh St.

Professor Robert Clark is the Chair of Energy Strategy and Policy at the UNSW Australia. He has a distinguished career, having headed a research group in experimental quantum physics at Oxford's Clarendon Laboratory and was the Chair of Experimental Physics at UNSW. He has been head of the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computer Technology at UNSW and has been Australia's Chief Defence Scientist (CDS) and CEO of the Defence Science and Technology Organisation.

Professor Robert Clark presented the Four Societies Lecture 2016 on the subject of energy policy. The Four Societies Lecture is presented annually by the Royal Society of NSW, the Australian Institute of Energy, the Nuclear Panel of Engineers Australia (Sydney Division) and the Australian Nuclear Association.

The agreement resulting from the Paris climate change conference held in December 2015 is one of the most important initiatives to address climate change so far. Some key points that came from a conference that will affect Australia other massive investment in solar energy technology (India and China have committed US$1 trillion to the development of solar energy technology over the next decade or two. Australia has committed to emissions targets of a 5% reduction (compared to 2000 levels) by 2020 and, by 2030, a 26-28% reduction compared to 2005 levels. In addition, Australia has committed to a target of 24% of Australia's generation capacity to be renewable by 2020. Nonetheless, German modelling shows that very large amounts of coal, oil and gas will be required to meet global energy demand at least until 2050 and probably well beyond then. Over the next 20 years, the urbanisation of India's population and the investment in base-load, coal-fired power generation capacity, even taking into account substantial expansion of nuclear capacity will result in a very substantial increase in coal-based CO2 emissions. Australia's energy requirements are characterised by having very large amounts of LNG, coal, coal-seam gas and shale gas but a deficiency in liquid fuels – most of Australia's liquid fuels are imported.

Professor Clark has devoted several years to looking at the number of specific problems in the energy sector and gave several examples of his work. One major user of liquid fuels is freight forwarding. The movement of freight accounts for 194 billion freight-tonne-kilometres per year. Of this 151 billion is moved by B-double trucks (there are 84,000 of these servicing freight routes in Australia). Converting these trucks from diesel (most of which is imported) to LNG (which could be sourced locally) would result in a substantial improvement in emissions (gas produces a little over 70% of the CO2 that diesel emits, for the same energy output) and would have a noticeable impact on Australia's liquid fuels balance and the current account.

Nuclear energy is an area that has been contentious in Australia. In the last few years, there has been a call to consider installation of substantial base-load nuclear generation capacity. Professor Clark noted that the future total Australian electricity generation requirement at the investment horizon is about 250 TW-hours. If nuclear generation capacity were to provide 15% of this, it would require five 1,000-MW nuclear reactors – one near every major city. The political, planning and capital requirements of such an investment are probably insurmountable. On the other hand, if Australia were to export uranium (on a lease, not sale basis, so that the uranium can be tracked, accounted for and ultimately returned to Australia for reprocessing or final storage), the impact on global CO2 emissions by supplying Australian uranium to existing and proposed nuclear generation plants, particularly in China and India would provide 10 times the impact on CO2 emissions compared to building base-load generation in Australia. This case demonstrates the importance of taking a global perspective on CO2 emissions and climate change, rather than a purely domestic analysis.

Professor Clark concluded by observing that there is still a need for substantive policy development in this area. The recent Energy White Paper 2015 is more of a statement regarding the energy situation, than a policy document. An important point that emerged from Professor Clark's wide-ranging talk is that energy policy ultimately will need to address a complex mix of fossil fuels and renewable energy sources.


1238th OGM, public lecture and Christmas party

"From Quantum Devices to Quantum Machines"

James Colless, University of Sydney

Winner of the Royal Society of New South Wales Jak Kelly Scholarship Award for 2015


Date:December 2 2015:

Venue:University and Schools Club, 25 Bent Street Sydney

The Jak Kelly Award was created in honour of Professor Jak Kelly, who was Professor of Physics and The University of Sydney and UNSW and also President of the Royal Society of NSW; Its purpose is to encourage excellence in postgraduate research in Physics. It is supported by the Royal Society of NSW and the Australian Institute of Physics, NSW Branch. The winner is selected from a short list of candidates who made presentations at a recent meeting of the Australian Institute of Physics, NSW Branch.

Quantum computing, the use of quantum phenomena to process information, has begun the long journey from hypothetical possibility to real-world applications. In the same way that the theoretical development of quantum mechanics fundamentally changed the way in which we understand the universe, quantum computing offers the potential to revolutionize the way in which we are able to interact with it. In particular, this counter-intuitive nanoscale world of superposition and entanglement may allow previously intractable computational problems to be solved efficiently.

The fundamental building blocks of a quantum information processor are isolated quantum mechanical two-level systems known as quantum bits or ‘qubits'. Ideally such systems are easy to manipulate while being decoupled from noise in their local environment - goals that are often contradictory. In order to outperform their classical cousins at meaningful tasks quantum computers will conservatively require the control of thousands to millions of qubits. While this is still orders of magnitude less than the billions of transistors on a modern microprocessor, it is still far beyond what is currently possible.

The talk explored the complexity of scaling quantum processors and discusses new techniques and hardware developed to meet these challenges. In particular new methods of readout are developed that allow the dispersive sensing of single-electrons using integrated sensors and the capability to read out multiple qubits simultaneously. A scalable control scheme is also demonstrated allowing large numbers of qubits to be manipulated with a small number of input signals.

James Colless is a postgraduate research student at the University of Sydney currently undertaking his PhD under the supervision of Professor David Reilly. His research focus is readout and control techniques for GaAs spin qubits. James hopes his research will influence the design and fabrication of reliable multiqubit gates.

1237th OGM and public lecture

"Big History"

Professor David Christian

Director, The Big History Institute

Macquarie University


Date: Wednesday November 4 2015

Venue: Union, University and Schools Club, 25 Bent Street Sydney

Since the beginnings of human history, taking stories from the past and synthesising them has delivered far more than the sum of the parts – it is an enormously powerful way that humans use to place themselves in context. All human societies use this approach to create origin-stories that define their place in the world. Astronomy, geology, biology, human history, anthropology, taken within the context of prehistory, ancient history and modern history can create an enormously rich origin-story for modern civilisation. Indeed, when modern science is brought to bear, this becomes even more powerful.

Modern astronomy and theoretical physics suggest that our universe is about 13.8 billion years old. We have been able to observe and to delve into this history, at least in part, to a few hundred thousand years after the Big Bang. It is thought that within seconds of the Big Bang an almost-instantaneous inflation took place, causing the universe to expand, a phenomenon that continues and, indeed accelerates, even today. A consequence of this (as described in what is known as the "second law of thermodynamics”) is that complexity continues to increase. Stars formed, some exploded causing formation of the elements, these gradually came together to form new stars and planets and, at least on one planet in the universe, life evolved. To put this in context, the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old, life began about 1 billion years later, with more sophisticated lifeforms not appearing until about 500 million years ago. It is hard to think in billions of years so to give some sense of scale, if rather than 13.8 billion years, the age of the universe was 13.4 years, the Earth formed about five years ago, the more sophisticated forms of life such as insects, plants and other animals started to form 3–5 months ago, the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs hit 2½ weeks ago and humans have only been around a day or two.

Professor Christian describes human history as a sequence of "thresholds” – the big bang, the influence of gravity, the formation of chemicals and so on. The fifth of these thresholds was the formation of life. Lifeforms that we know a distinctive because they are complex adaptive systems – they behave in unpredictable ways. The only way in which life can be successful is if it develops the capacity to store and manage information so that it can respond to unpredictable changes in its environment. The second law of thermodynamics says that energy is required to overcome the natural tendency to disorder so all life on earth is reliant on energy to overcome complexity and on DNA to store and pass information to subsequent generations. Hence, at the heart of life is energy and information.

In the case of humans, we have developed a very sophisticated way (called language) to communicate that allows us to pass information to one another. Virtually all the energy available on Earth originates from the Sun. Human evolution progressed quite quickly when farming and fire allow greater utilisation of energy, so the capacity to control information became substantially greater. This took off exponentially when humans develop ways to utilise fossil fuels, and, later, nuclear power thereby gaining access enormous amounts of energy beyond that which is immediately available from sunlight.

We now have so much energy and so much information that it is potentially enough to destroy the biosphere. The question is do we have the capacity and the wisdom now to control this? That remains to be seen.

1236th OGM and public lecture

"The Revolution in Radio Astronomy"

Professor Elaine Sadler

University of Sydney


Date: Wednesday October 7

Venue: Union, University and Schools Club, 25 Bent Street Sydney

Radio astronomy is currently entering a 'golden age', when new telescopes of unprecedented sensitivity will allow us to explore the Universe in ways that have never been possible before. Australia is at the forefront of these developments, as one of the two countries chosen to host the international Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope. I will show some of the first science results from two new Australian 'SKA precursor' radio telescopes which have recently started operations in a remote area of Western Australia, and describe some of the novel technologies which make these telescopes so powerful. I'll also discuss how the remoteness of the Western Australian site makes it possible for us to search for the faint signature of hydrogen gas in distant galaxies.

Elaine Sadler is Professor of Astrophysics in the School of Physics at The University of Sydney, and Director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO).

Professor Sadler started her career with an undergraduate physics degree at the University of Queensland, followed by a PhD in astronomy at the Australian National University. She held postdoctoral fellowships in Germany and the United States before returning to Australia to take up research positions at the Anglo-Australian Observatory and the University of Sydney.

Elaine's main research interest is galaxy evolution - using large observational data sets to study how galaxies form and change on timescales of billions of years. Much of her research involves the analysis of data from large-area optical and radio surveys of the sky. She has designed and undertaken several major astronomical surveys over the years, and currently leads the ASKAP-FLASH project. This project is using the new Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) telescope in Western Australia to learn more about the amount and distribution of neutral hydrogen gas in very distant galaxies.She was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 2010. She has served as President of Division VIII (Galaxies and the Universe) of the International Astronomical Union (2009-2012) and Chair of the National Committee for Astronomy (2010-2012). As CAASTRO Director, she overseas a 140-strong team of scientists and research students across seven Australian university nodes and 11 partner institutions here and overseas.


Four Academies Forum 2015: the future of work

"The future of work"

Royal Society of NSW and Four Academies Forum


His Excellency General The Honourable David Hurley AC DSC (ret'd), Vice Regal Patron of the RSNSW

Date: Tuesday 15 September 2015

Venue: Government House, Sydney

The Royal Society of NSW and Four Academies Forum was the inaugural collaborative event between the Society and the NSW-chapters of the four national Academies. The Forum was hosted by the vice regal patron of the Society, His Excellency The Hon General David Hurley at Government House on Tuesday, 15 September 2015.

The speakers at the forum were Professor Mary O'Kane, Chief Scientist and Engineer of NSW who provided framing comments about the technological challenges that the working environment would face over the next 20 years or so and the need for NSW and the nation to embrace innovation and change and the introduction of new business models. Professor Andrew Holmes of the Australian Academy of Science, Professor John Fitzgerald, President of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and Dr Alan Finkel, President of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering gave valuable insights from their various perspectives and a panel discussion responding to these issues was led by Professor Glenn Withers President-elect of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. In addition, there were five other speakers drawn from senior Fellows of the four Academies. They were Professor Thomas Maschmeyer, Professor Hugh Durrant Whyte, Professor Amarjit Kaur, Professor Bettina Cass, and Professor Julianne Schultz. The discussion panel, led by Professor Withers consisted of Dr Eric Knight, Professor Vera Mackie, Mr Anthony Roediger and Mr Jeremy Webster.


Professor Alan Finkel

issues covered were far-reaching: "techno-optimism" – humanity has a good track record for solving problems by the application of technology. We should not forget the enormous challenges of the changing environment that will take place over the next couple of decades but we should not forget the capacity of humans to adapt. One of the best ways that this adaptability presents itself is through innovation of entrepreneurship and resort examples of development of start-up technologies that have become very successful businesses. Yet many of the challenges that face the workforce will not be technological in their nature, even though they may have their origins there. The role of social policy, particularly around carers as the population ages and families with both parents participating in the workforce become the norm. Indeed, despite the fact we largely focus on the changes that face the workforce that originate in technology, many of the drivers are not technological in their nature – globalisation, climate change, resource conflicts, population movements and cultural change will be major influences in the coming decades. Although we tend to think of technological change as the driver of change, this is perhaps the wrong way to look at it – it suggests that we have no option. In fact, whether or not we choose to adopt particular technologies is a matter of policy and choice.

Education emerged as a major theme. A society cannot progress unless it educates its people. The challenge is to ensure that education is well directed and that we educate our people the right fields. We heard about the extraordinary advances in computing technology and how this would change the nature of work over the next 20 years – perhaps 40% of today's jobs will disappear. But this need not be a looming social disaster because headlines about such projections tend to overlook the rate of job creation. If job creation is greater than job destruction, the technology will end up providing a net benefit. But such disruption itself causes problems and the workforce and the communities in which they work need to be resilient and to be able to embrace change. Historically, Australia has done well in this as evidenced in places like Newcastle and Wollongong but there are always winners and losers – we need to be sure that communities in individuals are not destroyed in the process. It is also important that as a nation, we do not consider these issues in isolation. Workforces in Asia, for example, have very high migrant workforces – the movement of people and the cultural and social issues and challenges that these introduce will be an important factor as we plan for the future.

The Governor summed up, emphasising that our future might be defined in terms of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Over the next 20 or 30 years, the rate of change will be great and the challenge for the nation is how we engage with these issues. Technology should not be the driver – it should be the tool to help us define what we want to be as a nation.

The Society thanks the speakers and the panellists for their extremely rich and diverse insights and, in particular, thanks the organising committee of the Forum, Dr Donald Hector, Dr David Cook, Professor Ian Dawes, Professor Max Crossley, Professor John Gascoigne, Professor Heather Goodall, Dr Des Griffin, Mr John Hardie, Dr Richard Sheldrake and Professor Ian Wilkinson for putting together such a stimulating programme. We also thank The University of Sydney Business School for their sponsorship of the event

1235th OGM and open lecture

"Trait-based Ecology"

Professor Mark Westoby

Department of Biological Sciences

Macquarie University

NSW Scientist of the Year 2014


Date: September 2 2015

Venue: Union University and Schools Club, 25 Bent St Sydney 

Ecological strategies summarize the variety of styles that different plant species have adopted to sustain their populations in different settings. Beginning in the mid-90s, ecological strategies began to be described on the basis of measurable species traits. This made worldwide comparisons possible. Over the past 20 years collaborative international networks have accumulated large quantitative databases and very much clarified the global picture. More recently, the relationship of traits to plant growth rates has begun to be elucidated. The long-standing problem of how a large number of species are able to coexist at a site is being revisited on the basis of measurable traits.

Mark Westoby has degrees and postdoc experience at University of Edinburgh, Utah State University and Cornell University. He came to Macquarie University as a raw lecturer in 1975. Together with his late wife Barbara Rice he developed a comparative ecology lab that has graduated 50 PhDs and postdocs into continuing research careers. He developed and taught for 10 years a national 1--day postgrad course in current ecology and evolution. Currently his lab is supported by a Laureate Fellowship from ARC. He is chair of the Academy's National Committee on Ecology, Evolution and Conservation, and leader of the Genes to Geoscience Research Centre at Macquarie University.


Dirac Lecture 2015

"Quantum entanglement and superconductivity"

Professor Subir Sachdev

Professor of Physics, Harvard University

Held in conjunction with UNSW and the Australian Institute of Physics


Date: Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Venue: John B Reid Theatre AGSM Building, UNSW

Einstein called it "spooky action at a distance". Entanglement is a counter-intuitive feature of quantum theory by which two particles are deeply correlated even when separated by vast distances, such that a measurement of one particle instantaneously determines the state of the other. Remarkably, quantum entanglement can also happen en masse, determining the macroscopic properties of many electrons in certain crystals. Such states of matter can exhibit superconductivity, the ability to conduct electricity without measurable resistance, at much higher temperatures than was previously possible.

Professor Sachdev also described newly emerging connections between the theory of macroscopic quantum entanglement and Hawking's theory of black holes.

Science Week 2015 lunchtime talk 4

"The Wonders of the Hubble Space Telescope"

Professor Michael Burton

School of Physics 

University of NSW


Date: 21st August 2015

Venue: The University of Sydney Business School CBD Campus, Level 17, 133 Castlereagh St., Sydney

25 years ago, on 24 April 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into Earth orbit. Aside, perhaps, from Galileo’s original telescope of 1609, Hubble has done more than any other telescope to transform our view of the cosmos, certainly from the perspective of the general public. Its contributions to improved understanding of the Universe range from new knowledge of our own Solar System, across our Galaxy and the stars, gas and dust within it, to the galaxies at large and their part in the evolution of the Universe itself. The science case crafted to inspire and then drive the Hubble mission was, of course, cogent. But in fact much of the science that Hubble then performed wasn’t even envisaged when the telescope was launched, testament to the vision that led to the building of a multi-capability observatory rather than one devoted to a single science mission. In particular, the ability to be able to regularly upgrade its instrument suite as the technology for photon detection developed has meant that Hubble has continued to both amaze and do new science a quarter of a century on from its launch.NASA has released a wonderful slide set - 25 years of the Hubble Space Telescope - to mark this notable anniversary, providing a glimpse of many of its science highlights, images that have themselves become iconic over the intervening years. This talk will present this slide set, interspersed with the presenters personal interpretation on their role and significance in the scientific endeavour that is modern astronomy. It will both provide a spectacular picture show of the cosmos, as well as, hopefully, explaining some of the scientific background behind Hubble’s exploration of it.

Michael Burton is an astronomer in the School of Physics at UNSW. His postdoctoral career included a stint with NASA in the late 80’s, in the interregnum between the Challenger disaster of ‘86 and the launch of the Hubble in ‘90. He has been fortunate to have played a small role in some of the ventures undertaken with Hubble, and has had the opportunity to pursue several parallel investigations with ground based telescopes inspired by discoveries made by Hubble, in wavebands that Hubble cannot access; He is also the Editor of the Royal Society's Journal - the second oldest scientific publication in the southern hemisphere.

Science Week 2015 lunchtime talk 3

“Big Science and Big History: From the Big Bang to Us”

Professor David Christian

Director of Big History Institute

Macquarie University

David Christian

Date: 20th August, 12.00 to 1.00pm

Venue: The University of Sydney Business School CBD Campus, Level 17, 133 Castlereagh Street, Sydney

Big History examines our past, explains our present, and imagines our future. It's a story about us. An idea that arose from a desire to go beyond specialized and self-contained fields of study to grasp history as a whole. This growing, multi-disciplinary approach is focused on high school students, yet designed for anyone seeking answers to the big questions about the history of our Universe.

The Big History Project is a joint effort between teachers, scholars, scientists, and their supporters to bring a multi-disciplinary approach to knowledge to lifelong learners around the world. David Christian is by training a historian of Russia and the Soviet Union, but since the 1980s he has become interested in World History on very large scales or Big History. In 1989, he began teaching courses on 'Big History', surveying the past on the largest possible scales, including those of biology and astronomy; and in 2004, he published the first text on ‘Big History; He was founding President of the newly formed International Big History Association, and a co-founder with Bill Gates, of the Big History Project, a project that is building a free on-line high school syllabus in big history released in 2013. David Christian has given numerous talks and lectures on aspects of Russian, Inner Eurasian and world and Big History. In March 2011, he gave a talk on “13.7 billion years of history in 18 minutes” at the TED conference in Long Beach and he has given talks at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Big History. He also appears regularly in the media talking about Big History.

Science Week 2015 lunchtime talk 2

“Aboriginal Astronomy and the Clash of Cultures”

Dr Ragbir Bhathal


Date/Time: 18th August, 12.30 to 1.30pm

Venue: The University of Sydney Business School CBD Campus, Level 17, 133 Castlereagh Street, Sydney

>The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been observing the night sky for thousands of years. In that period of time they named the celestial objects and created fascinating stories about them. Their astronomy was social-cultural astronomy and as such some aspects of it clashed with the dominant culture in Australia with significant consequences for Australian society.

Ragbir Bhathal was awarded the CJ Dennis Award for excellence in natural history writing and the prestigious Nancy Keesing Fellowship by the State Library of NSW.  He has written 15 books including two on Aboriginal Astronomy. His latest book with Professor Harvey Butcher and Dr Ralph Sutherland is Mount Stromlo Observatory: From Bush Observatory to the Nobel Prize. He teaches engineering physics at the University of Western Sydney and is a Visiting Fellow at the Research School for Astronomy & Astrophysics at the Australian National University. He has served as the President of the Royal Society of NSW and was awarded the 1988 Royal Society of NSW Medal.

Science Week 2015 lunchtime talk 1

Professor Michael Jacobson

Professor of Education

The University of Sydney


Time: 12.30 to 13.30pm, August 14th 2015

Venue: The University of Sydney Business School CBD Campus, Level 17, 133 Castlereagh Street, Sydney

We are going through a major transition in our ability to understand the complexity of our world, one that rivals the move from Roman numerals to the Hindu-Arabic system we use today. Before this move multiplication and division and algebra were nearly impossible for mere mortals. Afterwards it became easy – well for most! The move today is from algebra to computer based visualization and experimentation, which enables us to re-see and understand the behaviour of complex systems in new and exciting ways, which is technically called restructuration. It opens up new opportunities to teach and learn science and actually draws on what kids these days naturally do – play computer games. Before only super math geniuses had any chance of understanding them, now we all can. A great example is the publically available NetLogo platform, maintained by Northwestern University in the USA, that was originally designed to teach programming skills to primary school kids – are you smarter than a 5 year old?

Professor Jacobson explained how we can introduce these methods into the classroom, how it will transform the way we teach science and produce future generations that are more scientifically literate and enthused. He illustrated some of the ways he is doing this with high school students. One part of this is what we call Productive Failure, which reverses the normal order of teaching. Instead of teach first and then apply, we apply first, fail and learn better. Students confront challenging problems up front which opens up their minds in new ways that lead to a deeper understanding of the how and why things work. It is also fun for students and teachers and can transform the learning of scientific knowledge and skills in Australian schools.

Michael J. Jacobson is a Professor and Chair of Education at The University of Sydney. He is also the Founder and CEO of Pallas Advanced Learning Systems Pty Ltd, an Australia edtech startup company. His research has focused on the design of learning technologies to foster deep conceptual understanding, conceptual change, and knowledge transfer in challenging conceptual domains. Most recently, his work has explored learning with immersive virtual worlds and agent-based modeling and visualization tools, as well as cognitive and learning issues related to understanding new scientific perspectives emerging from the study of complex systems. Professor Jacobson has published extensively in areas related to the learning sciences and technology, including numerous scientific papers, book chapters, and two books. He chaired the 10th International Conference of the Learning Sciences, on “the future of learning.” And he is a member of the Global Access Partners (GAP) Taskforce on Leadership in Education - public policy think-tank and research house.

2015 Clarke Lecture

"From the Solar Nebula to the Deep Earth – a Geological Journey"

Professor Bill Griffin

Distinguished Professor of Geochemistry, Macquarie University


Date: Thursday 6th August, 5.45pm

Venue: Building Y3A, Theatre 1, Macquarie University

Bill will tell the story of the journey to the surface of the remarkable rocks of Southern Tibet.  These are large fragments of the Earth’s mantle that originate from very great depths (>500 km down) under extreme conditions not ordinarily expected within the mantle and which play an important role in the evolution of igneous systems. To learn the story of these remarkable rocks, we have to understand both the mechanisms that have brought them up to the surface, and the origins of these super-reducing conditions in the mantle. This has involved field studies, geodynamic modeling, a range of techniques for micron-scale chemical, microstructural and isotopic analysis, and a bit of good luck.  One of the keys to the Tibetan riddles lies near the Sea of Galilee in Israel, and involves a remarkable, still poorly-understood type of volcanic activity.  Bill will lead you through this story, which is still evolving by the day; it illustrates the diversity of approaches required in modern geological research, and some of the excitement of that research work.

Bill Griffin is Distinguished Professor of Geochemistry at Macquarie University and Program Director at the RC Centre of Excellence for Core to Crust Fluid Systems. Before that he spent 20 years at the University of Oslo, mainly in the Geological Museum, which is the centre of geochemical research in Scandinavia. He moved to Australia in 1985, to be with his Aussie wife and to help develop geological applications for the CSIRO’s new proton microprobe.  In 2006 he left the CSIRO and moved to Macquarie University.

1234th OGM and public lecture

Cultural Transitions over the last 100,000 years and the Future

Professor Roland Fletcher

Professor of Theoretical and World Archeology

University of Sydney


Date: Wednesday August 5th

Venue: Union, University and Schools Club, 25 Bent Street Sydney

Professor Fletcher described and explained the major cultural transitions that have shaped mankind and discussed what they mean for the future.

Over the past hundred thousand years four major cultural transitions have occurred in human settlement patterns of which the first is only partially known and the other three are the development of sedentary communities, from about 10,000 years ago; the formation agrarian-based urbanism from 5000 years ago;  and the formation of industrial-based urbanism in the past two hundred years.

The pattern of these great transitions has been logically organised by a progressivist Stage Theory model since the 19th century in which each stage is characterised by cultural type fossils eg writing and initial urbanism. This model still dominates the large-scale, long-term perspective we use to comprehend cultural behaviour. But conventional definitions of sedentism and urbanism have become increasingly vague. The cultural type fossils are known from context other than the ones for which they are supposed to be stage diagnostic.

What is required is to replace the progressive model with a model of transitions for which the “type Fossils” are actually antecent prerequisites - operational requirements that must come together to enable major transitions in settlement size to occur. Critically, economic transformations are also required but do not seem to occur just because cultural, material prerequisites come together. The “Industrial Revolution” is a singular case. Crucially, changes in the material assemblage are essential; the characteristic social organisation of each “stage” derives from the material changes and social and material conditions, which can be at odds with each other. The path to these large, long-term emerging patterns is not deterministic and has implication for comprehending the characteristics of future transitions.

Roland Fletcher is Professor of Theoretical and World Archaeology at the University of Sydney. He attended St. John’s College at Cambridge University completing his undergraduate degree in 1970 and his PhD in 1975. He has worked at the University of Sydney since 1976 where he is Director of the University’s Angkor Research Program. By implementing a global, multi-scalar, interdisciplinary approach to Archaeology he has initiated extensive cross disciplinary collaboration within the University and worldwide. The Greater Angkor Project - funded primarily by the Australian Research Council - is an international collaboration with the French agency, EFEO, and with APSARA the Cambodian government agency that manages Angkor. As a result of his international collaborative research he has been an invited speaker and academic guest all over the world. He was a Distinguished Fellow of Durban University’s Institute of Advanced Study in 2007 and invited speaker at the Falling Walls Conference in Berlin in November 2014.

1233rd OGM and public lecture

"Science in literature"

Dr James Ley

Editor, Sydney Review of Books


Date:  Wednesday 1 July 2015

Venue: Union University and Schools Club, 25 Bent St., Sydney CBD

Literature and science have historically been seen as competing and sometimes opposed disciplines, confined to their own discrete modes of comprehension. James Ley will consider some of the ways in which contemporary literature has sought to embrace and naturalise scientific understanding, while grappling with the moral implications of advances in scientific knowledge. It will argue that the language of literature has the potential to humanise complex scientific views and thus render them comprehensible, and in doing so play a role in disseminating scientific truths.

James Ley is the Editor of the Sydney Review of Books and the author of The Critic in the Modern World: Public Criticism from Samuel Johnson to James Wood (2014). In 2014, he was awarded the Geraldine Pascall Prize for Australian Critic of the Year. According to the judges’ report, “He operates at the point where scholarly precision and essayistic liberty intersect. ... In a Ley review, you may be sure that an independent opinion informed by wide reading and sharp thinking is being stated.” See

1232nd OGM and public lecture

“The Science of Spontaneity: Fred Astaire as Consummate Craftsman”

Dr Kathleen Riley


Date: Wednesday 3 June 2015

Venue: Union, University and Schools Club, 25 Bent Street Sydney

This talk focused on the science behind Fred Astaire's apparent effortlessness, his ability to make something that was technically complex and endlessly rehearsed look easy and spontaneous. The lighter-than-air grace, the pluperfect precision and the sheer joyfulness of his dancing were the products of a dogged perfectionism, an astonishing musicianship and an imagination at once whimsical and methodical. Using nuimerous film clips Dr Riley illustrated how, in the more technical aspects of his artistry, Astaire was part of an ancient tradition (that of Roman pantomime) and, at the same time, revolutionary. The first half of the talk concentrated on Astaire the eloquent dance stylist and specifically, the perfect commensurability of all parts of his body to one another and to the whole, and his interpretive games with the shape and logic of music, his inventive use of the off-beat and experiments with broken rhythm, and his syncopated language, which impressed Bertolt Brecht as the sound of the modern environment. The second half considered Astaire the cinematic craftsman, his instinctive understanding of how best to present dance on film, his pioneering use of special effects (e.g. slow motion and split screens), and his role in improving sound synchronization.

Dr Kathleen Riley is a former British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in Classics at Corpus Christi College, Oxford and now a freelance writer, theatre historian and critic. She is the author of Nigel Hawthorne on Stage (University of Hertfordshire Press, 2004); The Reception and Performance of Euripides: Reasoning Madness(Oxford University Press, 2008); and The Astaires: Fred and Adele&nbsp (Oxford University Press, US, 2012). The last was included in the Wall Street Journal's Best Non-Fiction for 2012 and described by legendary singer Tony Bennett as ‘a magnificent book about the trials and tribulations of show business'. In 2008, she convened at Oriel College, Oxford the first international conference on the art and legacy of Fred Astaire. She was Script Consultant on the critically acclaimed stage production My Perfect Mind, which had its London premiere at the Young Vic in 2013. Her current projects include a monograph on the ancient Greek concept of Nostos (homecoming) and an edited volume of essays on Oscar Wilde and Classical Antiquity. She continues to have an association with the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama (APGRD) in Oxford.

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