Royal Society of NSW News & Events

Royal Society of NSW News & Events

2010 Liversidge Lecture in Chemistry

Belief in Science

Professor John White CMG FAA FRS Australian National University

Date: Friday, 26th November 2010 at 5:30 pm Venue: Merewether Lecture Theatre 1, Merewether Building University of Sydney


The achievements of science in the last 400 years have been of great benefit to humanity and are appreciated widely. Less well understood is how personal attributes of awareness, excitement, frustration and recognition of beauty are central to successful science. These very human qualities play a role in making discoveries. Scientists' optimism, "suspended disbelief" and a reliance on empiricism are as much part of the "scientific method" as clear logic. Science requires absolute honesty and care about conclusions to be believable. Science is not autonomous and the sometimes necessarily tentative opinions are often incomprehensible and even unacceptable to the public – we must do better in explaining! Professor White's lecture will also examine some of his recent work on the structure and function of industrially valuable explosive emulsions – understood by the novel neutron scattering methods of "contrast variation" pioneered in his research.

Biographical notes

John White is currently Professor of Physical and Theoretical Chemistry at the Research School of Chemistry at the Australian National University. Graduating from Sydney University, he went to Oxford University on an 1851 scholarship in 1959. He became a Research Fellow of Lincoln College before finishing his DPhil and an official Fellow of St John's College Oxford in 1963. He is one of the discoverers of isotopic contrast variation in neutron scattering – which is currently used worldwide for understanding the structure of "soft matter".

1186th General Meeting

Powering the US grid from Solar and Wind

Dr David Mills (Co-founder of Ausra, Inc.)

Date: Wednesday, 3rd November, 2010 at 7:00 pm Venue: Conference Room 1, Darlington Centre, City Road, Darlington


Solar and Wind are our two largest energy resources and are well distributed globally. In these respects, they are ideal to repower humanity with little climate or political impact. Some say that such a strategy is not practical because the solar resource disappears at night and each wind generator can be highly variable in output. However, the impact of already commercially available solar thermal storage technology, together with the overlap effects of wind energy from many sites may prove otherwise.

The first example used is the USA 2006 electrical load calculated on an hourly basis from government data and the second is a total energy supply scenario. A high voltage DC grid backbone (commercially available today) is assumed to allow full access of delivered power to all parts of the country. National wind and solar output are calculated hourly using government resource data. The initial results of the analysis are presented together with a discussion of the roles of solar and wind in such a new system, in comparison to conventional baseload/peaking thinking.

The talk will begin with an update of Dr Mills company's activities in the United States since his leaving Sydney in early 2007, followed by an update of today's solar technology. The main part of the talk describes private work in progress by the author and his colleagues in the United States to take a first look at the feasibility of powering the United States energy system entirely from wind and sun by mid-century.

Biographical notes

Dr Mills is the former Head of the Solar Energy Group at the University of Sydney and past President of the International Solar Energy Society. He is the co-founder and former Chairman of the SHP and Ausra companies.

1185th General Meeting

Is the Climate Right for Nuclear Power?

Dr Ziggy Switkowski Chair of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization

Date: Wednesday, 6th October, 2010 at7:00 pm Venue: Conference Room 1, Darlington Centre, City Road, Darlington


The world is experiencing a strong warming trend believed to be driven by greenhouse gas emissions associated with the burning of fossil fuels for energy production. Australia's demand for electricity, and energy in general, is expected to double by 2050. The challenge is to moderate and meet this growing demand in an environmentally responsible way. Nuclear power is already widely used around the world and the debate for its deployment in Australia is well underway.

This presentation will review the nuclear fuel cycle in the context of low emission energy technology and point to the potential role of nuclear power in Australia's energy and climate change strategy.

Biographical notes

Dr Ziggy Switkowski is the Chair of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization. He is also a non-executive director of Suncorp, Tabcorp and Healthscope, and Chair of Opera Australia. He is a former chief executive of Telstra, Optus and Kodak (Australia).

In 2006 he chaired the Prime Minister's Review of Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy which returned nuclear power to the country's strategic debate. He has a PhD in nuclear physics from the University of Melbourne and is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.

1184th General Meeting

Long-term Changes in Solar Activity – Including the Current "Grand Minimum"

Ken McCracken, Jellore Technologies and Senior Research Associate, University of Maryland

Date: Wednesday, 1st September, 2010 at 7:00 pm Venue: Conference Room 1, Darlington Centre, City Road, Darlington


The sunspot record since Galileo's time, and the cosmogenic nuclides 10Be (in ice cores) and 14C (in tree rings) show that the degree of activity of the Sun has varied greatly over time. The solar activity, manifested by the occurrence of sunspots, solar flares, and coronal mass ejections may be quite high, as it has been since 1946; and was during Roman times, or very small as during the Maunder Minimum (1645-1715); the Dalton Minimum (1810-20) or the Gleissberg Minimum of 1900-10. In the first part of the lecture, the speaker will discuss his recent studies with Swiss colleagues of the last 10,000 years of 10Be data from the Arctic and Antarctic that shows that the Sun has exhibited a number of persistent periodicities in solar activity, the most important being of duration 2300yr, 210yr, ~85yr, and the well known 11/22 year solar cycle. He will also outline the last 30 years of satellite data that show that the solar irradiance varies by ~0.1% over the 11 year solar cycle.

Against that background, he will then describe the substantial reduction in solar activity that commenced in 2006. Since then, the sunspot behaviour has been similar to that during the Dalton minimum (1810-20). The interplanetary magnetic fields have been lower than at any time during the space age, and the cosmic radiation intensities are well above those at any time during the past 60 years. The solar irradiance has decreased well below that observed in the previous 30 years. The evidence indicates that the magnetic properties of the Sun are now very different from those at any time in the "Space Age". Based on the 10,000 year 10Be record, he will speculate that the Sun will remain relatively inactive (and cool) for the next 20 years, and it will then resume a steadily increasing state of activity until it reaches a peak of the Hallstatt (2300 year) cycle ~200 years in the future.

Biographical notes

Ken McCracken has had a long and varied life as a scientist, technologist, and contrarian. Starting his research career in Tasmania and New Guinea in the 1950s, he was then deeply involved in the early days of the US space program for seven years while at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Texas. He designed and built scientific instruments that were flown on seven spacecraft that went to the orbits of Mars and Venus in the 1960s to provide the information needed to protect the US astronauts from being killed, or loosing their virility en route to the Moon. Following a professorship at the University of Adelaide, CSIRO appointed him to inaugurate a new research laboratory to improve geophysical exploration for minerals in the harsh Australian environment. Moving to the Southern Highlands in 1989, he operated a consultancy providing scientific advice to the mining industry. Over the past decade he and his Swiss, US, and Australian colleagues have used results from ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica to understand how the Sun has waxed and waned in activity over the past 10,000 years, and how this has paralleled the twenty two little ice ages, and many warming periods in the Earth's climate over the past 10,000 years. With his wife Gillian, he owns and operates the 850 acre beef breeding property "Jellore" in High Range.

1183rd General Meeting

The Dynamic Brain: Modeling Sleep, Wake, and Activity in the Working Brain

Professor Peter Robinson, University of Sydney

Date: Wednesday, 4th August, 2010 at 7:00 pm Venue: Conference Room 1, Darlington Centre, City Road, Darlington


The brain's activity varies around the clock in response to stimuli, light inputs, and the buildup and clearance of sleep-promoting chemicals - somnogens. Signatures of brain activity have been observed for over a century and are widely used to probe brain function and disorders, often via the electroencephalogram (EEG) recorded by electrodes on the scalp, or through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures a combination of blood volume and deoxygenation. Here, a quantitative physiologically based model of the working brain is described that responds correctly to the day-night cycle, somnogens, caffeine and pharmaceuticals, and generates activity in the cortex consistent with brain imaging measurements. Successful applications to numerous experiments are described, including EEGs, seizures, sleep deprivation and recovery, fatigue, and shift work. Aside from its scientific uses, this working brain model is currently finding clinical and industrial applications to brain function measurement and to prediction and monitoring of alertness.

Biographical notes

Peter Robinson received his PhD in theoretical physics from the University of Sydney in 1987, then held a postdoc at the University of Colorado at Boulder until 1990. He then returned to Australia, joining the permanent staff of the School of Physics at the University of Sydney in 1994, and obtaining a chair in 2000. He is currently an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow working on topics including sleep, brain dynamics, space physics, plasma theory, and wave dynamics.

1182nd General Meeting

Pluto and the Ueber-nerds

Fred Watson, Anglo-Australian Observatory at Coonabarabran

Date: Wednesday 7 July 2010 at 7:00 pm Venue: Conference Room 1, Darlington Centre, City Road, Darlington


When is a planet not a planet? When it's a dwarf-planet, perhaps? So what's the difference? In 2006, astronomy's governing body, the International Astronomical Union, wrestled with this very question at their General Assembly in Prague. Before we knew it, media all around the world had declared that Pluto had been "dumped" from its status as the ninth planet, hinting that it had been unfairly thrown out of the Solar System. And in 2008 things got worse, with Pluto joining the lowly ranks of a new class of objects with the unflattering name of Plutoids. In this entertaining and fully illustrated journey through Pluto's eventful history, Fred Watson debates whether pragmatism and good science should prevail over sentiment and tradition.

Biographical notes

FRED WATSON says he has spent so many years working in large telescope domes that he has started to look like one. He is Astronomer in Charge of the Anglo-Australian Observatory at Coonabarabran, where his main scientific interest is gathering information on very large numbers of stars and galaxies. He is also an adjunct professor at the Queensland University of Technology, the University of Southern Queensland, and James Cook University. Fred is the author of "Stargazer: The Life and Times of the Telescope", and is a regular broadcaster on ABC radio. His new book "Why is Uranus upside down?" is based on listener questions, and was published in October 2007 and won the 2008 Queensland Premier's Literary Prize for Science Writing. In 2003, Fred received the David Allen Prize for communicating astronomy to the public, and in 2006 was the winner of the Australian Government Eureka Prize for Promoting Understanding of Science. Fred has an asteroid named after him (5691 Fredwatson), but says that if it hits the Earth it won't be his fault ...

1181st General Meeting

Science for Gentlemen - The Royal Society of New South Wales in the Nineteenth Century

Peter J. Tyler, Historian for the Royal Society of New South Wales

Date: Wednesday, 2nd June, 2010 at 7:00 pm Venue: Conference Room 1, Darlington Centre, City Road, Darlington


Scientific activity in New South Wales began when James Cook and Joseph Banks voyaged along the eastern coast in 1770. This was the Age of Reason, when educated men challenged traditional knowledge handed down from antiquity and the Bible. Curiosity about natural history had become a fashionable pursuit when the penal settlement at Sydney Cove was established in 1788. Settlers and colonial officials collected and classified the animal, vegetable and mineral constituents of their unfamiliar environment. Even some of the convicts found a profitable sideline collecting shells, birds, plants, and aboriginal artefacts for sale to visiting ships' captains, who in turn sold them for high prices to wealthy collectors in Britain and the Continent.

In June 1821, towards the end of Lachlan Macquarie's term as Governor, seven men formed the grandly named Philosophical Society of Australasia "with a view to inquiring into the various branches of physical science of this vast continent and its adjacent regions." Although it only survived for a little over a year, this was a predecessor of the present Royal Society of New South Wales.

During the nineteenth century the Royal Society and its three antecedents functioned as an exclusive club for men "of honourable reputations" interested in the natural sciences. Almost without exception the members were pastoralists, merchants, or professionals such as clergymen, lawyers or medical practitioners. They classed themselves as gentlemen, because they were not engaged in physical labour. Only a handful were what we would now call scientists, because separate disciplines were only beginning to emerge, and career opportunities were few.

This does not mean that science was merely a hobby, or a part-time diversion. Members read the latest overseas journals diligently, they collected specimens and published papers - often descriptive rather than analytical - and they engaged in vigorous discourse on many of the contentious issues of the period, including Darwin's theories of species evolution at a time when such views were deeply unpopular in Australia. A few conducted original research in fields such as astronomy, geology and aeronautics.

Members of the Royal Society were part of the colonial conservative establishment. Women were excluded, while rigorous admission procedures ensured that "working men" did not become members. Nevertheless, the Royal Society recognised the need to educate or inform the broader public about the achievements of science, and organised regular gatherings for that purpose. It would be easy to characterise the members as typical class-conscious paternalists of the Victorian era, but there were always a few dissenters who did not fit that model.

In the twentieth century more inclusive attitudes emerged gradually, reflecting the changes in the wider community. Today it is difficult to discern any remnants of the earlier caste system. A question we might ponder is - has the influence and public profile of the Royal Society diminished at the same time?

Biographical notes

Peter J. Tyler is the Historian for the Royal Society of New South Wales. In 2008-2009 he was the inaugural Merewether Research Scholar at the Mitchell Library. Peter has a BA degree in geography and a Master's degree in history from the University of New England. His PhD thesis from that institution examined the role of the Board of Health in public health administration in NSW from 1881-1973. He also holds a Graduate Diploma in Adult Education from UTS. Previously he worked in management positions in the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors, including fifteen years as Secretary and chief executive of the Workers' Educational Association in Sydney. His published books range over such diverse fields as health care, the building industry, and the public service. Peter Tyler has been President of the NSW Branch of the Australian and New Zealand Society of the History of Medicine, and of the Professional Historians Association (NSW).

Science for Gentlemen: the Royal Society of NSW in the 19th Century
Report on the General Meeting
by Donald Hector

The middle of the 19th century was a time of great change in NSW. Responsible government was introduced in 1856 and full manhood suffrage followed two years later. Queensland separated from NSW a year after that. And just 10 years after the introduction of responsible government, Queen Victoria granted Royal Assent to the title of The Royal Society of New South Wales. However, as Dr Peter Tyler, the Society's Historian, explained in his lecture at the 1181st ordinary general meeting on 2 June 2010, The Royal Society of NSW traces its origins back to 1821 when The Philosophical Society of Australasia was formed. There were several early attempts to form such societies with mixed success but this should not understate the commitment of a group of progressives who wanted to see the natural history, agriculture, and culture of the nascent colony flourish.

The Philosophical Society of Australasia was established under patronage of the Governor, Sir Thomas Brisbane and he also became its first President. The founding members included Major Goulburn (the Colonial Secretary) and Edward Wollstonecraft a wealthy merchant and landowner at North Sydney. The purpose was to study the physical sciences and the mineralogy of NSW (which then, of course, included what is now Queensland and Victoria). The early society only lasted a year or so but there were other attempts to stimulate more intellectual activities in the colony in the first part of the 19th century. The first subscription library was started by Wollstonecraft in 1826 and between 1820 and 1850 other societies began, such as the Agricultural Society (which lapsed for some years and then was re-established in the 1850s), The Australian Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Science, Commerce, and Agriculture (more commonly referred to as the Australian Philosophical Society) but, like the early Philosophical Society, these early groups generally did not thrive.

But by the 1860s, with Sydney having been formally declared a city (in 1842), NSW having been granted responsible government, and the buoyant economic growth of the period created an environment where interest in science, art, and literature blossomed. The University of Sydney was founded in 1854 and the time was right for a successful society to be established.

Just six years after the granting of Queen Victorias Royal Assent there were 122 members of the Society across a range of occupations - pastoralists, businessman, scientists, artists, lawyers, and the clergy - and by the 1890s there were nearly 500 members. In the latter half of the 19th century a number of eminent scientists (Prof John Smith (physics and medicine), Prof Archibald Liversidge (geology and chemistry), Sir Thomas Anderson Stuart (physiology) were but a few). The Societys transactions were published in a prestigious, peer-reviewed journal (which continues today) and attracted publications from such eminent scientists and engineers as Lawrence Hargrave.

The first 80 years of the society were colourful, strongly influenced by the personalities of the time when NSW was finding its feet as a society. Dr Tyler's work was made possible through his appointment as the inaugural Merewether Scholar of the State Library of NSW.

1180th General Meeting

The Weird World of Nanoscale Gold

Mike Cortie, Director of the Institute for Nanoscale Technology,
University of Technology, Sydney

Date: Wednesday, 5th May, 2010 at 7:00 pm Venue: Conference Room 1, Darlington Centre, City Road, Darlington


The field of `nanotechnology' has captured the imaginations of many. There are many new journals dedicated to the subject and the entertainment media have featured it in several recent movies and books. But what is `nanotechnology', and is it actually a new thing? Some people have described much of current nanotechnology as just old things in new clothes. I will show that while the study and exploitation of matter at the nanoscale is old news, there really is something quite startlingly different about the new field of `nanotechnology'. Real nanotechnology is the most reductionist form of science and technology imaginable. In the real thing, the basic paradigm is to define a desired technological functionality, and then to work backwards atom by atom to design a system to achieve that effect.

Some materials, such as silicon, carbon, DNA, titanium dioxide and gold have become very prominent within the nanotech arena. This has not been the result of some arbitrary choices, rather these particular materials offer uniquely attractive engineering properties that specifically commend their selection for nanoscale systems and devices. Gold is particularly interesting to myself and my colleagues, and much of our research targets or uses this element. The reason gold is popular in nanoscale research and technology is that it offers an unrivalled combination of material properties for applications requiring a conductor. But what can you do with it? In my talk I will show first, how things become a bit weird with gold as the size scale is shrunk to nano-dimensions, and then I will describe some of the many useful devices that can be fabricated by exploiting these properties. Some of the interesting existing and prospective applications for gold at the nanoscale include bio-diagnostics, biosensors, solar filters, optical filters, colorants and pigments, single electron devices, new kinds of digital memory, and plasmonic circuitry. But it is fast moving field and who knows what new ideas will pop up in the next couple of years.

Biographical notes

Mike Cortie is the Director of the Institute for Nanoscale Technology at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), in Australia.

Mike Cortie was born and educated in South Africa. He has a BSc(Eng) degree in Physical Metallurgy, a Masters degree earned from research on the corrosion of zirconium and a PhD degree, which was focused on metal fatigue and awarded in 1987. After a stint at South Africa's Atomic Energy Corporation and at Pylon Engineering, a gear-cutting works, Mike joined Mintek, a minerals and metals research organisation. Mike headed the Physical Metallurgy Division of Mintek between 1997 and 2002. The Division consults widely to South African and international industry and now generates the major portion of its funds from foreign contract research. He relocated to Australia and joined UTS in July 2002.

Mike's current research interest is nanotechnology, and in particular the applications of precious metals in nanotechnology. Previous research activities included research on ferritic and nickel-substituted stainless steels, on intermetallic compounds with the C1 (CF12) and B2/L21 crystal structures, on X-ray diffraction and crystallographic texture of bcc and fcc alloys, on cellular automata and the simulation of metal solidification, cracking and solid state transformations, on explosive interactions between molten metal and water, on displacive transformations in Pt-containing alloys and compounds, on the phase relationships in the Al-Au-Cu ternary system, and on the crystal structures of the martensite phase formed by displacive phase transformation in the b Au-Al-Cu shape memory alloy. He has also been active outside of the materials arena, and has made contributions to the mathematical modelling and graphics rendering of mollusc shells, and the science education of children.

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